It is difficult for me not to be nostalgic about The Beatles and Ringo Starr. I grew up listening to the band and learned my early drumming skills cheerfully playing along to their recordings. Since Ringo came on the drumming scene with a very loud rim shot in 1963, I have had many conversations with fellow drummers about Ringo’s skills or lack of such.
To those who have mocked Ringo my retort has been, “how many hit records have you played on?” This has usually quieted most who for some reason feel they have to malign him. Faced with the counter of “anybody could play those tunes and sound good”, my last retort is, “how many times have you recorded in the studio?” If the mocking continues after that I know I am dealing with a fool.
Any drummer who has studio experience knows it is not easy to come up with a unique but simple drum part, lock it in and make it groove. That is the stuff of which hit records are made.
Buddy Rich was once asked his opinion of Ringo’s playing to which he replied, “Ringo was adequate, no more than that”. Coming from Buddy I would consider this a compliment. Buddy was known to pull no punches concerning his opinions on music, musicians, and other drummers especially those that copied him. Buddy could be brutally honest. Objectively, I would agree with Buddy. Ringo was adequate for the music he was playing. And the music he was playing was GREAT pop music!
Early on in my rhythmic life, I found it difficult to figure out Ringo’s style when it came to his fills and how he returned to the groove. If you didn’t catch Ringo on a live TV show there was no way to replay what he did to visually analyze what was going on. There were no VCR’s, DVD’s, YouTube, etc., just records to wear out.
To me, the sticking of his fills didn’t logically flow around the drum set as I perceived they should. Something was off, illogical. It wasn’t until much later I realized that Ringo was left-handed and was playing on a right-handed set up. There was just something off about his style but it all seemed to fit the music. I left it at that and didn’t think any more about Ringo’s style till years later when I heard talk that Ringo has not played on any of the recordings of The Beatles.
It is a known fact that Ringo did not play on the recordings of “P.S. I Love You” and “Love Me Do” that were released in the United States. Andy White recorded those tracks. Ringo added percussion.
The decision to use Andy White was made by George Martin. George Martin was not familiar with Ringo and based on previous experience with Pete Best, Martin did not want to chance using a drummer he didn’t trust to deliver solid tracks for the band’s debut album.
After giving in to Martin this one time, the band insisted on using Ringo. Ringo was their man and they saw no reason to replace him. To their eyes, Ringo was just as good or better than Andy White. The band prevailed. This is probably where the rumors started about Ringo not playing on the band’s sessions.
Ringo concedes that Paul played drums on a total of five recordings. There are: “Back In The USSR”, “Dear Prudence”, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”, “Wild Honey Pie” and “The Ballad Of John and Yoko” The four from the White Album were done when Ringo quit the band for a few days. “The Ballad Of John and Yoko” was a quick take John and Paul did when Ringo was not available.
Several years ago great session drummer Bernard Purdie made some bizarre claims taking credit for playing on many of The Beatles’ recordings. To me this seemed ridiculous. Now, with much more drumming experience under my belt, I felt compelled to verify this.
The claims that Ringo did not record with The Beatles led me back to those recordings I had trouble figuring out in my youth. Once again, the fills hold the key.
One just needs to listen to “Please, Please Me” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and compare these to the live versions on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Washington Concerts. The drum sound is the same especially the crack of his snare on the backbeats and the quirky fills are evident. Those nuances are not copied from another drummer. It is Ringo.
Only a drummer who is self taught, playing backwards on a right-handed set while leading with the left hand can get those small nuances where the left hand is leading rudiments and fills around a right handed drum set up. These sticking nuances appear over and over again in the tracks of the band’s discography. Also, Ringo’s snare sound is always pronounced and distinctive in the recordings and live shows.
When asked about the ridiculous claims that he wasn’t playing on the Beatle’s tracks Ringo simply states “well, who was in the recording studio if it wasn’t me?” Indeed!
In defense of Ringo’s playing I have listed several tracks below that show the economy, taste, and excellence of Ringo’s drumming. Other tracks can be quoted as well but I see no need to over do it.
1. In My Life – on this track Ringo borrowed a groove he previously played on “Anna”. He uses this groove on the verses and it works beautifully at the slower tempo. His transition onto the Bridge/Chorus alternates between quarter notes on the ride cymbal’s bell then to a full groove. The change is seamless and tasteful. The drum part as a whole is beautifully crafted. Ballads are harder to play simply because any flaw or mistake is magnified buy unfilled space in the music. There is not one flaw in his track.
2. Please Please Me – it is no surprise that this song was The Beatles first #1 hit in Europe. Part of its success has directly to with the energy of Ringo’s performance and Paul’s bass line. Together they drive the band. Ringo’s fills are clean, strong and on the money.
3. Wait – here the interplay of Ringo’s drums and his dubbed over percussion tracks form a tight cohesive drum part. The tracks are logically and artistically thought out between drums, maracas, and tambourine. All together the drum/percussion track is killer.
4. Tell Me Why – here Ringo’s drum part is swinging on every beat of the song. His fills are clean and powerful and his merciless swing on the verses moves the song forward every beat. The fast triplet fill he plays with both hands separately and simultaneously on the toms and snare at the end of the bridge is very difficult to pull off at that tempo. Yet he does is flawlessly.
5. Lady Madonna – Ringo plays two separate drum tracks here. One track is using brushes while the other track is a heavier drum part with a pronounced backbeat. This adds a lot of push to the whole song and the two drum tracks work great together.
6. Happiness Is A Warm Gun – Ringo navigates the odd time signatures between 3/4, 5/4, and 6/4 effortlessly. Other examples of Ringo’s ability with changing time signatures can also be found on “Here Comes The Sun”, “All You Need Is Love”, “We Can Work It Out” to name a few.
7. Come Together – this slow rocker had Ringo leading his way counter clockwise around kit in the musical interlude starting at the top of the tune. Ringo starts the pattern with two eight notes on the bass drum, then fills on the high hat with 16th note triplets which then lead into the large tom then small tom with more 16th note triplets. An interesting sticking pattern conceived by a left-handed drummer leading with his left hand counterclockwise around the set. The rest of the drum track is solid and strong.
8. No Reply – Ringo had a grasp of Latin rhythms. On various tracks you can find overdubbed clave, bongos, maracas, cowbell, etc. He freely used bolero grooves (“And I Love Her”, “Till There Was You”, etc.) and Cha Cha grooves (“I Will”, “Please Please Me”, etc.). On “I Feel Fine” one can easily hear the echo of Ray Charles’ “What I Say” in the drum part, which is a fast conga tumbao pattern adapted to the drum set. On “No Reply”, Ringo lays down a smooth Brazilian Bossa Nova groove on the verses. He deftly changes between the Bossa groove on the verses to an 8th note groove on the chorus throughout the song. It is one of his most overlooked tracks.
While Ringo may not be the “greatest” drummer who drew breath, he certainly could lay down solid creative tracks that propelled The Beatles and helped them sell lots and lots of records. Even now, when you hear Ringo on a recording, his distinctive style is easily recognizable.
I recently saw a performance of “Love” by Cirque du Soleil. The remix of the tracks tell a story unto themselves. The Beatles original mixes had the guitars and vocals hot and upfront while the bass and drums were pushed back. The tracks from “Love” brought out the interplay between Paul and Ringo and the grooves they created were relentless.
Listening to the “Love” sound track over a huge state of the art sound system where I could hear everything clearly fully erased any doubt in my mind about Ringo’s raw yet tasteful drumming. He and The Beatles as a whole are responsible for inspiring many young people to become musicians. They made it look easy because they were so good at what they did.