The two albums the Beatles recorded in 1969, Let It Be and Abbey Road, would become notorious for the strained feelings among the band members, for their out-of-order release dates, and for closing the door on the Fab Four’s working relationship. Despite all of this, the LPs are revered by fans for containing some of the band’s most inventive and enduring performances—and uniquely notable among drummers for featuring Ringo Starr’s first five-piece kit.
Noted Ringo historian Gary Astridge provides the background information and details the gear.
Over the decades, Ringo Starr has had a profound impact on millions of drummers. During his career with the Beatles, he left many of us mesmerized by his creativity, feel, distinctive fills, and percussive sounds. This complete package makes Ringo’s playing unique and elusive for drummers to replicate.
As it turns out, some of Ringo’s quintessential drum gear is as elusive as his drumming, notably his 1963 5.5×14 Ludwig oyster black pearl Jazz Festival snare drum. Just as rare is Ringo’s maple 1967 Ludwig Hollywood drumkit, which featured Ludwig’s keystone badge and Thermogloss finish. Finding a Keystone badge Thermogloss maple kit from the ’60s is close to impossible, and if by chance you own one, consider yourself extremely lucky (and feel free to contact me).
It was May of 1970 when the Beatles released their Let It Be album and movie of the same name, and it was the first time that Ringo’s new kit was seen by the public. Drummers and some Beatles fans were surprised not to see Ringo behind his traditional Beatles drumset, but rather playing a new set, which came to be alternately referred to as the “Hollywood” kit, the “Let It Be” kit, the “Maple” kit, or the “Get Back” kit. Little did anyone know that Ringo took ownership of this kit during the tail end of the White Album recording sessions, in September of 1968. After performing and recording with a succession of four Ludwig oyster black pearl drumkits (two Downbeat and two Super Classic models), why the switch to a wood finish?
In early 1968, the members of the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh, India, to study transcendental meditation. Among those along for the trip was singer, songwriter, and performer Donovan Leitch, well known for such classic songs as “Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow,” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” In talks that he has given over the years, Donovan tells the story of his time in India with the Beatles, specifically John, Paul, and George. He describes how he showed them the claw-hammer guitar picking technique and how he told them to sand the finish off their wooden instruments, saying that a guitar sounds better without a heavy finish.
Upon returning from Rishikesh to London, John removed the finish from his Gibson J-160E acoustic guitar, and both he and George did the same to their Epiphone Casinos. George is reported to have said that once they’d removed the finish, they became much better guitars. “I think that works on a lot of guitars, if you take the paint and varnish off and get the bare wood,” said George. “It seems to sort of breathe.”
During the summer of 1968, Ringo ordered his new Ludwig drumkit, abandoning his trademark oyster black pearl wrap for a natural maple finish. The Ludwig point man for this order was Dick Schory. Dick, who’s now in his eighties, is a wealth of unearthed information, and he and I have become friends. Dick told me that in February of 1964 he was Ludwig’s director of marketing, and he was assigned the task of working directly with the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, and Ludwig’s U.K. distributor, Drum City, to take care of Ringo’s needs.
Ludwig provided Ringo with a Hollywood model maple kit (8×12, 9×13, 16×16, 14×22) with a light Thermogloss finish. It was constructed of 3-ply shells with white interiors, all having March 1967 stamp dates. (It’s interesting that the stamp dates are such a mismatch from the time the drums were ordered—but that’s a topic for another time.) In addition to having calfskin heads, both toms and the floor tom came with chrome-over-brass hoops. A 5×14 Supraphonic snare drum was supplied along with new hardware that included a dual tom mount stand.
“Glass Onion,” from The White Album, was the first song to be recorded using the maple kit, on September 11, 1968, and for this one time there was an unusual twist. Trusted Beatles roadie Mal Evans described in a column from the November 1968 issue of The Beatles Book Monthly that Ringo experimented using “two kits instead of one” for this song. Since June of ’64, Ringo’s go-to kit was his first Ludwig oyster black pearl Super Classic, and on this day, it was set up in combination with his maple kit.
The remaining songs recorded for the White Album after “Glass Onion” were “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Savoy Truffle,” “Long Long Long,” “I’m So Tired,” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” Though the maple kit came with calfskin heads, forensic photo analysis shows that some heads were temporarily replaced with Mylar heads during the Let It Be recording sessions.
The most notable question that people ask about this drumkit is why Ringo opted to use a dual tom mount stand instead of the center post mount on the bass drum. The simple answer, according to Ringo, is that the tom stand came with the kit.
During the Let It Be recording sessions and on the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance seen in the movie, Ringo used the tom stand and positioned his snare drum forward, encroaching over the side of the bass drum to reduce the gap between the snare and 8×12 tom. Some questioned the position of his 9×13 tom, but believe it or not, it’s not a difficult reach. During the recording of Abbey Road (which began less than a month after the Let It Be sessions), Ringo used the bass drum’s center post mount. He retired his Premier drum stool (model 245) and began using a Sonor (model Z-5801), which had a motorcycle-type seat and a back support.
Ringo actively utilized his now-expanded set of toms on Abbey Road, resulting in some of his best recorded work. Isolated drum tracks from this album can be found online, and they allow us to closely dial in on what he’s playing. It’s a bonus to so clearly hear the sounds of his snare and toms, which were partially draped with tea towels to muffle their tone.
In June of 1971, a year after the breakup of the Beatles, Ringo used his maple kit when he played on B.B. King’s In London album. He also used this set in August of the same year when he performed with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh. In 2004 into the early part of 2005, Ringo used this kit in his L.A. home studio when he recorded his Choose Love album.
From June 2013 through April 2014, the kit was on display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles for the Ringo: Peace & Love exhibit. Over the years, the kit has been cataloged, which is the reason for the small numbered labels near the Keystone badges. The Drum City labels were removed from the toms and floor tom, though one was found inside the bass drum. As an iconic piece of rock ’n’ roll history, this kit has since been archived, documented, and refurbished, and it currently resides in custom road cases in a well-secured, climate-controlled environment.
Gary Astridge, hailing from Buffalo, New York, is well known as the preeminent expert on Ringo Starr and his drumkits.