Ringo Starr was not a drummer known for being flash in his style. Although his skills behind the drum stool are occasionally a topic of derision, the truth is that Starr is the ultimate song drummer. His goal is to provide the best possible backing for whatever that particular tune requires, with little to no desire to bring attention to the tremendous amount of rhythm and timing it takes to pull these off accurately.
Any number of songs can be used as perfect examples, but some choice cuts include the deceptively tricky alternating pattern on ‘In My Life’, the slight hesitations of hits on ‘Ticket to Ride’, the perfectly creative intro to ‘Come Together’, the manic freight train power of ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, the indelible fills of ‘A Day in the Life’, and the tour de force of ‘Rain’. For every one example of Ringo playing something basic, there are four examples of patterns that sound basic but are actually far more complex and interesting than they might seem.
With all his natural ability and feel, it’s surprising that Ringo only has a single drum solo in his discography. Part of it is a reaction to his contemporaries: Starr came from a background of late 1950s and early ’60s drummers that believed in foundation and timekeeping in rock music above all else — Charlie Watts is another great example of this kind of mindset. While drummers like John Bonham, Ginger Baker, and Keith Moon (who was equally averse to drum solos) became known for their frenetic and creative extended fills and flourishes, Ringo remained rooted in serving the song first and foremost.
“Ringo would never do drum solos,” Paul McCartney remembered in 1988. “He hated drummers who did lengthy drum solos. We all did. And when he joined the Beatles we said, ‘Ah, what about drum solos then?’ and he said, ‘I hate ’em!’ We said, ‘Great! We love you!’ And so he would never do them.”
“I am the foundation, and then I put a bit of glow here and there … If there’s a gap, I want to be good enough to fill it,” Starr explained in the early 2000s. “I’m no good on the technical things. I’m your basic offbeat drummer with funny fills … because I’m really left-handed playing a right-handed kit. I can’t roll around the drums because of that.”
And yet, roll around the drums was exactly what he did when it came time to record the final part of the medley that closed side two of Abbey Road. For ‘The End’, Starr’s bandmates had already planned to trade solos, but it took some prodding from them and producer George Martin to get Ringo to offer up his own solo turn. In the end, Starr wasn’t even playing a solo – Lennon’s heavily distorted guitar was playing notes of encouragement while Ringo was recording, which can be heard on the version that appeared on Anthology 3. Lennon’s part was mixed out, leaving the legendary drum fills as a solo.
When The Beatles first walked into EMI Studio 2 to record Please Please Me seven years prior, the band only had a two track mix to play with. Ringo’s drums were often given only two mics – one on the bass drum and one overhead. By the time they made it to Abbey Road, Ringo had expanded his kit with extra toms and cymbals, and the number of tracks that the band could use expanded to eight. To reflect this, Starr’s drum kit was adorned with as many as 12 microphones to capture every last variation of sound coming out.
Starr didn’t have a strong idea of what he was going to play, so he simply improvised over a number of different takes. He has cited Ron Bushy’s extended solo on ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ from San Diego acid rock pioneers Iron Butterfly as informing his own choices of fills. Listening to alternate takes and tracks reveals Starr’s discomfort with solos and his edginess when it came time for him to let loose. It’s no wonder Lennon played alongside him for the final take: Starr responded with far more creativity and drive when he had something to play off of.
Like any good solo, Ringo’s drum solo on ‘The End’ tells a story. Through the pounding fills, you can take away an insight into how Ringo’s mind reacted to and interpreted rhythm. There’s nothing terribly technically complex in the solo, but the way he arranges and sequences the fills, adding variety and intensity as he goes along, is essential to Ringo’s unique style of drumming. Anyone else could have played those exact hits, but no one else could have played it the way Ringo did. The feel, swing, and style are nearly impossible to replicate, and it’s why Ringo remains one of the most memorable drummers of all time.