When he joined the Beatles, he was the man, the one with all the playing experience. He fit like a glove, driving the music with a singular feel while meshing perfectly with the other Mop Tops and their wry sense of humor. As the ’60s progressed and the Beatles’ speedy skiffle gave way to psychedelic flights of fancy, Ringo was there at every step, unfailingly providing vivid drum parts that were elemental yet daring, stripped down yet probingly creative. Each arrow in his giant quiver of beats and fills was aimed right at the bull’s eye of the song he was playing.
Is there another drummer who translates as much sheer exuberance? If there is, that person was surely influenced by Ringo. Take a hard-driving early track like “She Loves You,” with its big snare flams, sloshing hi-hat, and propulsive bass drum double strokes. The drumming shouts with glee, underscored by mid-’60s images of a head-bobbing, armswinging young Ringo perched high above his Ludwigs. The interaction between the hi-hat and bass drum is particularly instructive in understanding the Starr magic; examples abound where Ringo kicks doubles beneath the steady chatter of open hats.
“Ringo was able to mesh with the guys and support those records in such a way that made you feel glad to be alive,” says Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken, who uncannily summons the Starr spirit on the Beatles tribute Meet the Smithereens! Like thousands of others, Diken had his interest in drumming spurred by the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964. That few minutes showed an ultra-tight band, confident yet playful, and the indelible shots of Ringo in control— launching into “She Loves You” with a killer floor tom roll, lifting George Harrison’s “Saw Her Standing There” guitar solo with tasty bass drum/crash accents—sold a lot of drumsets. Because the Beatles stopped touring in 1966 and released so much great music afterward, they’re often considered a studio band, but let’s not forget how sensational they were live…when they could be heard over the high wall of crowd screaming.
The Beatles canon—thirteen albums and two Past Masters collections—is often divided into two parts, early and later. But it’s tempting to point to a middle period starting around Help!, comprising Rubber Soul and Revolver, and ending before the Technicolor dream that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is when the songwriting was expanding, at first influenced greatly by the deeply personal and political songs of Bob Dylan, and it’s one of Ringo’s most fertile times.
“Ticket to Ride,” from Help!, is among the drummer’s many masterpieces. On the verses Starr plays an airy triplet-based bass/snare/ tom pattern, with a bit of extra pop in his rimshots. He fires off little rolls on the rack tom or snare between sections and finally brings in some hi-hat locomotion for the “I don’t know why she’s riding so high” part. Rubber Soul kicks off with “Drive My Car,” which features one of Ringo’s most wonderful intro licks, a quick back-and-forth snare/tom figure. At the end of the verses Ringo plays around with syncopated bass/snare fills, each one sweeter than the next. The drummer’s unique feel jumps right out on “What Goes On,” his right stick rocking on the hi-hat in that utterly human zone between straight and swung time, which he favored. Starr sings lead here, with his deep, chummy voice showing yet another side of the band and setting the stage for his solo success in the wake of the Beatles’ 1970 breakup.
Revolver, a perennial fan favorite, has way more Ringo awesomeness than we could ever detail here. So let’s focus on two of John Lennon’s psychedelic classics, which display opposite sides of the former Richard Starkey. “She Said She Said” shows the active Ringo, hitting huge, washy crashes and filling constantly through the verses. These kinds of highly nuanced, dynamically varied fills would become a trademark, and no other drummer has captured their quirky feel. The figures are likely influenced by the fact that Ringo is a lefty playing on a righty kit, a fact the man himself has used to try to explain the largely unexplainable wonder of his drumming. And on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Ringo switches gears and plays it straight, his pounding syncopated ostinato anchoring the chaos that swirls around it.
As the Beatles’ scope widened, Ringo maintained his cozy, buoyant time feel, which remains as important as his innate creativity and expanding vocabulary on the drums. Examples of pocket playing include songs like “The Word” (Rubber Soul), “Getting Better” (Sgt. Pepper’s), “Glass Onion” (White Album), “I’ve Got a Feeling” (Let It Be), and [insert your own choices here].
It helps to remind ourselves that Ringo was part of a rhythm section, with an ultrainspiring partner in bassist Paul McCartney. “People don’t talk about Ringo and Paul, how they played together,” Diken says. “It wasn’t that he was a simple drummer. I think he knew, intuitively, that he needed to leave the space for a player like Paul, to have all the other rhythm carry the song and support the singer.” The 1966 A-side/B-side combo of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” is a fun illustration of the Ringo-Paul connection, but, again, examples abound.
The last few years of the band weren’t easy on the members, who were being pulled apart by various forces, yet somehow the music didn’t suffer. “As the Beatles evolved, they were one living, breathing organism, and they lived and breathed and changed together,” Diken says. “They all adapted to the music, and it all succeeded.” The scattered sonic experimentation of the White Album gave way to the live, rocking-the-rooftop vibe of Let It Be and, finally, the mature but emotional, fully realized opus that is Abbey Road. (Abbey Road was recorded last but was released before Let It Be.) Just to compare the opening tracks of the final two albums, you’ve got the imaginative echoing full-kit groove of Abbey Road’s “Come Together,” in which the entrance of Ringo’s snare at 1:10 is a major happening, versus the unlabored old-school train beat of Let It Be’s “Get Back.” It all shows how the band, and its drummer, covered an absurd amount of ground in less than a decade.
In detailing the influence of Ringo Starr, of course, the Beatles are the first and foremost place to look. No band in history has matched their impact, and with the group Ringo helped us see that every song warrants its own special drum parts—sounds, patterns, or embellishments that are unique to that individual piece. In the ’70s, after the Beatles’ breakup, Ringo applied this aesthetic to a string of solo hits, and since that time he’s kept spreading peace and love, on more recent solo releases and on frequent summer tours with various incarnations of his All-Starr Band. The man who helped bring the drummer to the rock ’n’ roll forefront might not spend a whole evening on the throne anymore, but he’ll always be the king of creative, feel-good pop timekeeping.
“With the Beatles is my favorite period of Ringo’s playing,” Dennis Diken of the Smithereens says. “His groove had this floating quality. It’s like ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ appeared from heaven. It gets especially cool after the intro, where he changes from the surf beat to the straight 2-4 backbeat. It’s so tight, like a fist, and it’s just joyous.”