After 60 years in the minds and hearts of music fans everywhere, it is not at all controversial to call Ringo Starr one of the best-loved drummers of all time. Through a potent mix of hard-hitting rhythm, goofy affability, well-timed quips, occasionally lead vocal performances, and appearances across film and television, Ringo Starr is more than a drummer – he’s a pop culture icon.
Born Richard Starkey in one of the poorest sections of Liverpool, England, Starr was beset by health problems that forced him to stay out of school until he ultimately left formal education at the age of 15. Without much desire to begin a lifetime of menial jobs, Starr found an escape through music, which had kept his spirits up during his long stays in hospital. It came at a potent time as the mid-1950s began to explode with a new form of music that would change Starr’s life: rock and roll.
Constructing his first kit out of garbage lids and broken pieces of wood, Starr worked his way up through local skiffle groups before landing with a singer named Al Caldwell in 1959. Not long after he joined, Caldwell changed his stage name to Rory Storm, and Starr became the drummer of the Hurricanes. Inspired by Caldwell’s new christening, Starr officially adopted his stage name, inspired by old-west cowboy culture and the multitude of rings that adorned his fingers.
As Rory Storm and the Hurricanes began playing residencies at clubs in Hamburg, Germany, Starr would befriend another group of Liverpudlians who were making the jump to rock and roll: The Beatles. By this point, Starr had mastered a number of genres and styles, including driving rock, R&B, samba, swing, and country, far outpacing the skills of The Beatles’ then-current drummer Pete Best. The remaining Beatles took note, and a friendly rivalry soon turned into an official invitation for Starr to join the band in 1962.
Starr’s style of playing was atypical from the start: with no formal training, all he could do was learn by ear. He was left-handed but adapted to play on a right-handed kit. He preferred match grip instead of traditional grip. There wasn’t anyone who played like Starr, and he himself demurred on direct influences, stating that Cozy Cole was the only drum record he ever bought. Ringo Starr had no other option than to sound like Ringo Starr.
Througout almost the entirety of The Beatles’ career, Starr remained loyal to the Ludwig drum company. In 1963, Starr bought an oyster pearl Ludwig kit that would become iconic, complete with a 14-inch snare, 12-inch rack tom, 14-inch floor tom, and 20-inch bass drum. This setup would only vary slightly towards the end of The Beatles’ career. Starr also used Zildjian cymbals primarily in the band, with sizes ranging from 14-inch hi-hats to 20-inch ride cymbals.
The only time Starr truly revamped his drum kit was for the recording of the band’s final two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be. Starr hopped over to a maple kit that included an additional 13-inch rack tom and an additional crash cymbal. Despite having mostly the same setup his entire career with The Beatles, Starr managed to coax extremely different sounds out of his kit through different tunings, swapped snares, cymbal changes, and a healthy amount of studio experimentation.
Starr would do anything to get the right sound – tea towels were used to muffle the drums on ‘Come Together’. Bongos were employed to give ‘You’re Going to Lose That Girl’ some additional drive. Timpani were brought in to give ‘Every Little Thing’ its unique thump. Just as his bandmates were experimenting with new sounds, so too was Ringo.
After that, it all came down to the variety of techniques that Starr would employ. Starr would use a hi-hat style that often gets compared to washing windows – a sort of half-straight, half-swung feel that you can hear best on early songs like ‘All My Loving and ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, but also on later tracks like ‘Fixing a Hole’ and ‘Your Mother Should Know’. Also essential to Ringo’s style is his use of flams, hitting a drum with both hands at the same time. To get your fill of flams, check out ‘She Loves You’, ‘Ticket to Ride’, ‘Eight Days a Week’, and ‘Drive My Car’.
Starr’s adaptability became a major necessity for The Beatles to explore different genres. Starr was using samba and rhumba-inspired beats as early as ‘Till There Was You’, but Starr really kicked it into high gear on ‘I Feel Fine’, utilizing quick cymbal hits to keep the song’s momentum moving. If he got stuck, Starr wasn’t above simply hitting a single drum over and over to keep the songs in time, including on ‘Good Day Sunshine’, ‘Good Morning Good Morning’, and ‘Come Together’.
Starr also wasn’t afraid to use the kit for all it was worth. Strange patterns can be heard in songs like ‘Anna (Go To Him)’ and ‘In My Life’, where a straightforward backbeat simply wouldn’t do. This would begin to grow into one of Starr’s most iconic drumming habits: fills.
The tom fills that Starr has employed throughout The Beatles’ catalogue are some of his most iconic contributions to all of music. His habit to jump around the kit, again thanks to his left-handedness, makes his fills odd and slightly wonky. In other words: they have personality. Just listen to some of his greatest hits: ‘Rain’, ‘She Said She Said’, ‘A Day in the Life’, and ‘The End’.
As the Beatles’ music changed, so too did Starr’s approach to playing the drums. The hard-driving rock and roll style soon gave way to more psychedelic sounds, with Starr adopting more frenetic fills to add to the mania. With Indian music came backwards cymbals. With slow dirges came blues shuffles. With music hall murder songs came anvils. The limitations of just playing “the drums” never seemed to hold Starr back, even if he seemed to be making it look incredibly easy.
That ease also gave rise to a grave misconception: that Starr wasn’t a very accomplished drummer. His humble attitude, goofy demeanour, and admitted lack of songwriting prowess likely added to this notion, but make no mistake – Ringo Starr is highly skilled and, perhaps more importantly, almost impossible to replicate. Without fail, most listeners could just hear Starr’s drum pattern and identify which Beatles song it was. In some cases, Starr’s playing would be the most interesting aspect of the track.
To play like Ringo Starr is to play along to the music as an equal collaborator. “There’s a tempo to life. There’s a tempo to every song. You can lift the band and the band can lift you,” as Starr explained in his recent MasterClass covering Drumming and Creative Collaboration. More than any other drummer in history, Starr worked hard to serve whatever the song was that he was playing. Starr’s playing comes with very little ego, which can be the biggest hurdle when trying to replicate his style.
Ultimately, in order to play the drums like Ringo Starr, you just have to listen, let go, have fun, and throw in a few fills along the way.