By John M. Borack
When it comes to discussing the instrumental prowess of The Beatles, Ringo Starr’s drumming contributions have often gotten short shrift over the years. For some reason, Starr was seen by many as simply being in the right place at the right time or considered “lucky” to have achieved fame and fortune. There’s even been a quote floating around attributed to John Lennon where he reportedly said something to the effect of, “Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world; he isn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles.” Not only is the statement a complete falsehood, but Lennon never said it; it was actually an obscure British comedian who delivered the line in 1983.
Ringo Starr is, of course, nothing less than one of the premier rock drummers ever to sit behind a kit. Perhaps he wasn’t technically proficient (John Lennon did mention this in an interview shortly before his death), but he brought something intangible to The Beatles’ songs. As Beatles producer George Martin explained to author Mark Lewisohn in 1988, “Ringo has a tremendous feel for a song and he always helped us hit the right tempo the first time. He was rock solid.” Starr was also never showy and always played to serve the song. In the process, he was responsible for some of the most creative, memorable drumming of the rock era. Here are 10 examples:
1. “Rain” – Generally acknowledged as one of the percussive highlights of Starr’s Beatles career — by critics, fans, and Ringo himself — the 1966 B-side found Ringo moving all around the kit with precision while still remaining firmly in the pocket. “It was the first time and last time I ever played that busy,” Starr has said, although he actually had played in a not dissimilar fashion a few months earlier when he recorded the almost-as-wonderful drums for “She Said She Said” on “Revolver.”
2. “Tell Me Why” – This 1964 cut has some of Starr’s most thrilling, energy-packed fills, particularly the ones that begin and end the tune. The snare/tom-tom interplay is fantastic, and when he leads the band out of the bridge and into the final verse with a simple-yet-powerful drum break, it helps push the song into the stratosphere.
3. “Act Naturally” – An excellent example of the “Ringo shuffle” (also heard on “What Goes On”) where he’s got his right hand going a million miles an hour on the hi-hat, never letting up or missing a beat for two-and-a-half minutes. Discussing Ringo’s drumming with Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ drummer Pete Thomas in 2015, he marveled to me how “Ringo could play that fast shuffle at 96 beats per minute and never let up.”
4. “A Day in the Life” – Ringo’s subtle-yet-powerfully-creative tom-tom fills help drive the song. Sometimes a tad predictable and other times completely out of left field, he tastefully combines them with snare and cymbals as the song winds to a close.
5 “Hello Goodbye” – Starr’s drumming is on point throughout, but listen closely to how it builds as the track progresses. The tasty fills during the viola break in particular are the stuff of which legends are made.
6. “Something” – Ringo once described his drumming on “Abbey Road” as “tom-tom madness” — due to the fact that he had just obtained a marvelous-sounding new kit with calf skin drum heads — and that madness is in full effect on this song. At first blush the drums might sound simple, but once the bridge kicks in, Starr elevates the track to another level by upping the dynamics considerably. There’s a version of the song on YouTube that has the drums isolated — hearing that bridge section is absolutely mind blowing.
7. “I Feel Fine” – Paul McCartney: “The drumming is what we used to think of as ‘What’d I Say’ drumming…sort of a Latin R&B that Ray Charles’ drummer played on the original record, and we used to love it. One of the big clinching factors about Ringo as the drummer in the band was that he could really play that so well.”
8. “Ticket to Ride” – McCartney apparently had the idea for the inventive drum pattern, but the slightly behind the beat tom hits and the way that pattern subtly shifts midway through the song is pure Ringo.
9. “Here Comes the Sun” – Featuring passages played in 11/8, 4/4, and 7/8 time, along with a superb bridge packed with “funny fills” (as Starr calls them) apparently worked out on the spur of the moment in the studio. Ringo: “I don’t say, ‘Oh, 16 bars in I’ll do that.’ I have no idea at all what I’m going to do. It just happens.”
10. “She Loves You” – Beginning with rolling toms followed by a staccato beat during the chorus and the open hi-hat that became a Starr trademark in the early years, the drive, passion and pure energy here is undeniable.