It was 60 years ago today when “Love Me Do” introduced the Beatles to the United Kingdom. A few months later, came their first album with a different version of “Love Me Do,” one featuring John, Paul, George, and … Andy.
During recording, producer George Martin had decided to pass by new drummer Ringo Starr in one session, in favor of veteran session drummer Andy White. (That version was later released in America.) Starr was relegated to the tambourine; on the single’s B side, “P.S. I Love You,” he’d been limited to the maracas.
So began Starr’s reputation for being famous by virtue of something other than virtuosity. It was reinforced when Paul McCartney capably filled in on songs like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence” after Starr briefly quit the band because of McCartney’s criticisms. Later, a story surfaced that when John Lennon was asked, “Do you think Ringo Starr is the best drummer in the world?,” he quipped, “He’s probably not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
That anecdote was demonstrably false; it was a joke made by a British comedian in the 1980s. But it’s also wrong: Ask a drummer — or for this story, a half-dozen — and you’ll find them singing Starr’s praises.
“Ringo didn’t just pave the road so we could play the way we play today, he went in with a tractor, knocked down the trees, dug up the dirt, laid the foundation, and then paved the road,” says Liberty DeVitto, who was Billy Joel’s longtime drummer.
Rock fans often gravitate toward the flashier poundings of Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, or later, Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, and Dave Grohl, but Starr’s subtler performances were vital to the Beatles’ greatness.
“There’s not a Beatles song where you say, ‘Great song but the drums could have done this or that,’ ” says Guster’s Brian Rosenworcel. “The drums always feel like they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing — in ‘Hey Jude,’ he hits the bell but doesn’t just leave it ringing, he holds it for the perfect length.”
Rosenworcel says Starr’s beats and fills were a major influence on him. “They affected what I’d considered a worthy idea,” Rosenworcel says. “On ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ the second time he hits the snare, it jumps the beat, and I put that idea in our song, ‘X-Ray Eyes.’ ”
Del Amitri drummer Ash Soan calls Starr “underappreciated” by fans. “People say, ‘I can play those parts,’ but don’t realize how inventive he was and how difficult it is to get Ringo’s swing and touch.”
Starr fit his drumming to the songwriter’s vision, says Tom Hambridge, who plays drums for, and produces, blues icon Buddy Guy. (Hambridge does note that the other Beatles were quite opinionated and often told Starr what they did or did not want.)
“He’s a songwriter’s drummer,” DeVitto adds. “Everyone thinks a great drummer is fast and can whip around like crazy. I think a great drummer hears a song and says, ‘I don’t think there should be drums there.’ Ringo listened to what the song was about and played only where it was time to play.”
Joey Peebles, who drums for Trombone Shorty, adds that Starr proves that technical virtuosity matters less than feel and taste. “I had a teacher who quoted Einstein — ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ — and that fits with Ringo’s contributions,” Peebles says, adding that being a team player was essential to Starr’s legacy. “Drummers like Baker and Peart seem like central figures in their bands, but Ringo’s approach is the most impactful because he’s supporting the songs. I’m in a big band with great players, so I borrow from that.”
But don’t discount Starr’s skills. He was so spot-on as a timekeeper, DeVitto says, that the band’s engineers could splice together multiple takes of a song without worry. “There was no metronome or click tracks at ‘Abbey Road’ — he was the metronome,” adds Gregg Bissonette, who now drums for Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.
Even on early Beatles songs, Starr was breaking new ground. “No one did the driving backbeat like that before Ringo,” Soan says. “Now every drummer on earth does it.”
As the Beatles’ music grew more adventurous songs, Starr began to shine. “He played straight in the groove, but his fills really swung,” Soan says. “That’s the distinctive Ringo sound.”
Every drummer uses the word “swing” in describing Starr’s playing. Starr’s signature sound is built on his tom tom fills, but DeVitto also cites the way he swished the hi-hat back and forth (influenced, he notes, by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who used musicians with jazz backgrounds).
“He played so musically,” says Bissonette, who then sings the drum parts for “Come Together,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” adding, “If you just do that, people know what song it is.”
Indeed, while Peebles admires Starr for fitting in, he also stands out. “There aren’t a lot of drummers where you know it’s them immediately, and he’s one of the kings,” Peebles says,
Peebles adds that people often overlook how Starr’s personality influenced his drumming. “Ringo brought an emotional warmth to his playing,” he says.
Being a lefty playing on a kit set up for righties also gave Starr a more distinctive sound, Hambridge adds. “He comes off the snare drum differently and he leads into fills with his left hand, which makes it sound swingier.”
Starr’s underplaying allowed his bandmates to shine. “He’d leave space for everyone else in the band,” Bissonnette says. Hambridge agrees, adding that “Paul McCartney is the greatest bass player — he’s so creative and melodic — but some of that is because Ringo left holes for him to play in.”
Sixty years on, Hambridge says, it’s clear Starr has earned his place in the pantheon of drummers. “Every time I’m in a recording session, either I’m the producer talking to a drummer or the drummer having a producer say it to me, but you inevitably hear the words, ‘Can you give me a Ringo fill here?’ Or ‘Can you play it more like Ringo?’ ”