Improving your 

ability to play drums

TOM
MENDOLA

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 copied from Arthur Alexander’s recording of “Anna (Go To Him)” which was also a recording on the first Beatle LP “Please Please Me”. 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 by 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.

Thanks Ringo!

31 Responses to Ringo Starr – In Defense Of, A Drummer’s Perspective

  • Fino Roverato says:

    Well said Tom.Ringo always played tastefully and never got in the was of the vocalist.Whats Ringo’s favorite drum track he performed? “Rain”.
    I would also add “I Me Mine” as a track that really grooved. also “Yer Blues”
    check out the The Beatles Washington concert 1964.Ringo is rockin.A real team player.

    • Tom says:

      Fino, agreed, there are many great tracks and analyzing all of them is fun. “Rain” is great to listen to and I know Ringo cites that as his favorite. He was letting loose on it. The tracks I chose highlight specific skills that often go overlooked especially the song “Wait” which is a beautiful completed puzzle of percussion Ringo created.

  • rick says:

    Nice job Tom – a self-taught drummer on a backwards set: some of the most quirky, inventive fills ever! It’s one thing to hear something you CAN’T play — but most of the time it’s way more fun to hear something you WOULD NEVER THINK OF ( that’s Ringo ). Of course, both is best, but….
    I would also add:
    1) those wonderful intro fills to each verse of Day Tripper
    2) the timpanic ( orchestral ) backing in the second verse of A Day in the Life.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Rick. “Day Tripper” is a another great track and one where the group started to change their sound. Ringo was on the money in that track. I thought of including “A Day In The Life” as one of the tracks because of the wonderful, staggered 16th note fills but I could have gone on and on. There are many great tracks to choose from.

  • Sean Swift says:

    Thank you Tom. These are great insights/thought that you share here. I agree with the listening analysis you have made. And I came upon this by way of Ken French (Seattle) via Facebook, btw.

    There is one track that sounds like it could be Purdie to me, if any of that business contains any truth at all. And that tune is “Bang Bang Maxwell”. That’s a pretty tight kick drum part on that, and I have wondered while listening. I’m not saying Ringo isn’t capable of playing it at the same time.

    I mean, it makes sense too that not using Ringo was at least thought about over the 6-7 year run from ’63-’70. Other bands were doing it including the Beach Boys, with whom the Beatles admit they felt a sense of competition.

    I’d love to hear more analysis, and for more facts to arise on the matter. I believe the majority of the tracks are Ringo, and again that your assessment of his “left handed” sticking articulations on a right handed kit are tangible/audible features contained within Ringo’s style. Thank you again.

  • Sean Swift says:

    Correction: The name of the tune is “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, which I just listened to again. If it is Bernard Purdie, he’s doing a good job of following the known studio producers’ request which was “Play like Ringo”. It sounds more like Ringo really if you listen…

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Sean. It certainly is true that ghost players were frequently used on pop recordings to save time in the studio (time = $$$). I read an interview with Kenny Arnoff where he speaks of not playing on the first John Cougar album because the producer replaced him. He agreed that it was the right thing to do at the time. It only made him work harder to get his studio chops down. Regarding Bernard, there is no evidence from anyone that he was in The Beatles sessions. Here an interesting reference: http://www.topix.com/forum/who/the-beatles/TDBAPTS2R7UE8NEUH

    • Orlin says:

      If you ever watch Let It Be film, you will see Maxwell’s Silver Hammer being recorded. With Ringo. By that time George Martin did not have that much control over the Beatles and it was the reason for his non involvement in the Let it be project. There ed no producer credit on that album, the Beatles used sound engineers like Glyn Johns, who certainly didn’t have Any authority to contract outside players without the specific approval by the group.

  • Sean Swift says:

    Another thought if you don’t mind is this: I would describe Purdie as an “on top of the beat” player. Ringo is not. Ringo’s feel is more Gadd like without the exact time precision, but both play with a relaxed feel. I believe that is a fair enough description/comparison.

    If one were to listen to almost anything with Aretha, Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, the Aja tune Home at Last, there is a definite on the top feel to all of it. The point of course being that it is hard to think of a Beatle tune where this (on top) feel exists.

  • Karrie Sawka says:

    This is a fantastic article. I am so tired of getting ridiculed for being a huge fan of both Ringo and George. If I hear one more time that Ringo and George are “the weakest links” I am going to scream. My favorite song from when the group was together is Rain. You can really hear Ringo drumming away in this song and it is amazing!!!

    Peace and love to all!!

    • Tom says:

      Kerrie, I read that music of “Rain” was slowed down which would make Ringo’s drumming on the song even more impressive.

  • Nice article Tom. I feel Ringo was the Beatle’s secret weapon. Every great band has a great drummer. Ringo’s groove and taste is respected by many major artists.

    Rumor I heard in regard to Bernard Purdie was he played on their version of “Ain’t She Sweet.” Could this have been when Ringo was hospitalized?

    • Tom says:

      I read that as well except what I read was that Bernard didn’t play on it. Why take those tapes all the way to NYC and dub another drummer. Brian didn’t have that kind of money to do that then.

      • Mick says:

        “Pretty” Purdie “retired” here to Portland; I interviewed when I was hosting a show on the local jazz station a few years back; asked him specifically – he said, emphatically, “No.”

      • Orlin says:

        Absolutely true. Even the band didn’t make that kind of money, not were they aware of the future influence they would have in order to need this kept a secret by Purdie. Andy White wasn’t kept a secret, there would have been no need for Purdie to be paid for such request. Andy got paid union scale for his contribution.

  • Jimmy says:

    Purdie could not have played Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. His style is so different and so is his fills. Purdie would have used a combination of ghost notes on the snare, combined with sizzle grooves on the high hat. The descending fills within the toms are so unique to Ringo and the whole drum part is conceived in a single track. There was this Anthology take by The Beatles of Maxwell Silver Hammer and its them without the overdubs so Paul fools around on one of the later verses.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnQcCpGS2o0

    The difference of Ringo performance here than the released version was that he made a tom fill intro right at the beginning of the song and did a mini fill when the piano suddenly made a shift.

    There are tons of examples of Ringo’s drumming to show his hidden chops (despite being criticized not to have them), some of which are after the Beatles. I have heard many “lost” Beatles recordings on Youtube and there were these magical things he was coming up with on those sessions particularly, the Get Back sessions.

    The swishing energy of Ringo’s high hat is second to none at his time and he makes very good shuffles with the right hand, ex. What Goes On, Act Naturally, Magical Mystery Tour. Oh! Darling was a monster.

    Some post Beatles tracks featuring Ringo to mention:

    I Found Out (by John Lennon)- here Ringo used a beastly thumping pattern on the bass drum with one foot!

    God (by John Lennon)- some very nice tom fills on this song. Every fill is unique. The timekeeping was a masterful.

    Back Off Boogaloo (by Ringo Starr) a groovy rudimental pattern Ringo only used on two songs (the other being his version of The Little Drummer Boy).

    At My Front Door (by Harry Nillson)- tight monster fills that people often mistaken the drummer being Bonham (who only appeared on the music video of the song)

    To A Flame (by Stephen Stills)- the drumming is entirely tom-tom fills high hat and bass drum. Beautifully crafted. Ringo could play songs by relying on the toms.

    Time (by Ringo Starr)- from one of Ringo’s most recent albums called Y Not. The drumming here is groovy that I hear lots of ghost notes on a nice electronic drum kit and some fantastic signature fills.

    That’s my take on his drumming.

    Self-taught drummers tend to make a unique sound without being technical.

    Skilled players with so many chops, tend to do exhibition rather than music and at some point, they start to sound same to me because of lack of subtlety. They start to lose that unique personal sound as they pound the skins.

    Ringo and Bonzo tend to be my drumming heroes since I’m a new drummer myself.

  • Ace Freeley says:

    I’ve always liked Ringo’s drumming, but I really don’t think that’s him on “I feel fine”. To me it sounds like a jazz session drummer playing a pretty traditional mambo beat and, IMO, Ringo just didn’t play that way. At least that’s what I think.

    • Tom says:

      I have thought about that as well Paul. He played the groove differently live and abbreviated the pattern on the right hand occasionally. I suspected the same for a while. However, the drum sound and the fills match the live sound. Ringo is on record saying that he played differently live because he couldn’t hear anything (no monitors and screaming). In some live footage you can see him struggling to hear by the look on his face. I know the feeling and what that looks like on his face. He said he had to simplify his playing live so he could hear the bass. That is what he used for an anchor. I know technically he could have pulled it off with his right hand. He could play some very fast “rock a billy” shuffles on his right hand so it would not have been a problem for him to play that groove. The groove is basically “1 &a2+3+4+” – “2+” on the small tom – and 4 on the snare. It is lifted from Ray Charles tune “What I Say” which every pop drummer learned at the time as it was a big night dance club/cover tune.

    • Orlin says:

      If you watch the official video promotional clip for I Feel Fine, Ringo is playing Judy like the recorded version, not the way he later did the love one. Watch his cymbal hand

  • Jimmy says:

    Another thing that pisses me off is whenever Ringo gets mentioned on top list of the most influential drummers in rock ‘n roll, there will always be idiots there trying to set him down, like saying he sucks. This has been repeated on and on by these uneducated guys, making Ringo the most insulted drummer.

  • Mick says:

    Tom – Thanks for your defense of Ringo’s skills. I have always felt that he was an under-appreciated drummer as well. Speaking of Buddy Rich, I actually attended a drum clinic taught by him in about 1972; during the question & answer session, somebody asked him, in fact, if there was anybody in the rock genre that he respected as drummers. His response was that most of them were just “making noise” – he used Keith Moon as an example – but he did say that he thought that Ringo, “and that grouchy-looking guy that plays with the Rollingstones” (he pronounced “Rolling Stones” as one word) “could probably make a living in jazz.” High praise, coming from Buddy!

  • Johnk167 says:

    It is really a nice and helpful piece of info. Im glad that you shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing. cedckcdeeeee

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2012 TOM MENDOLA