In 1983, British comedian Jasper Carrott first shared the following joke: “Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world. He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
Rumors about supposed incompetence in Ringo’s drumming had started way earlier and had amplified in 1980 when John Lennon, a little before dying, released an interview with Playboy magazine.
During that interview, John praised Ringo’s talent: “…whatever that spark is in Ringo that we all know but can’t put our finger on… whether it is acting, drumming or singing I don’t know… there is something in him that is projectable and he would have surfaced with or without the Beatles. Ringo is a damn good drummer. He is not technically good, but I think Ringo’s drumming is underrated…“.
However, “not technically good” was highlighted by fans and critics way more than the praises and the myth of “untalented Ringo” spread.
To understand whether or not Ringo Starr was a good drummer, we have to keep in mind what Dave Grohl, frontman of Foo Fighters and former drummer of the legendary grunge band Nirvana, said about him: “Define ‘best drummer in the world’. Is it someone that’s technically proficient? Or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the king of feel.”
The instinctive nature of Ringo’s drumming is indeed a founding element in his style.
As he once explained at the Conan talk show, any time the Beatles sat in the studio for a new record, Ringo would go with the flow and play his rhythms and fills in such a spontaneous way, it was almost impossible for him to repeat the same drumming sequence a second time.
Ringo’s peculiar drumming style can also be attributed to his left-handed nature, suppressed by his mother during his childhood. Despite the fact that he played drums in a right-handed arrangement, his stronger left hand made his style a little different to conventional drummers.
Detractors, however, claim Ringo never had strong drumming chops and that his style was just too plain and simple.
Is that true?
Ringo Starr has never been an intrusive drummer. Quite the opposite, actually.
He is often seen as a positive example by professional drummers for his ability to add just the right amount of drums in a song, without overdoing it.
Going back to the words of David Grohl, Ringo is indeed the king of feel. He has a strong instinct about the songs he plays and instantly knows how to enrich them without exceeding.
During the first phase of the Beatles, in songs such as She Loves You, Ringo’s drumming is uncomplicated but effective. It adds motion and dynamics, even without interfering with the vocals and instruments.
Changing music forever
Around 1965, the Beatles experienced a huge change in their musical approach. Rubber Soul was the first example of this shift, carried on an even deeper level with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In this album, there is a lot of exciting experimentation in terms of music production. With this release, the Beatles started testing sound effects, compressors, limiters, phasing, backward recording, different miking techniques, and new sonic solutions to capture the essence of Ringo’s drums.
The drumming itself changed drastically.
The slightly intrusive hi-hat of Eight Days A Week, for instance, was replaced by the introductory tom-tom of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, followed by a gentler tambourine in With a Little Help from My Friends.
In this album, we can also perceive Ringo’s natural swinging rhythm. In Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is a great example of this.
Ringo changed drumming in many ways.
One of which is the use of peculiar muffling techniques. He would use anything, from tea towels to cigarette packets, to attenuate and obtain a sound that could really fit the song.
He was also one of the first drummers to tune their kits down, in opposition to the jazz standards.
A strong legacy
Ringo’s drums were of inspiration for many artists throughout the last few decades.
For instance, Bestie Boys’ 1989 The Sound Of Science contains a sample of Ringo’s drumming in The End.
In 2004, producer Danger Mouse released a mash-up album that contained samples from The White Album in conjunction with the a cappella version of Jay-Z’s The Black Album. In this fusion experiment, Ringo’s drums emerge as one of the most distinctive elements.
Rock band The Chemical Brothers also took inspiration from Ringo for their songs Setting Sun and Let Forever Be, where the beat is highly influenced by the drumming in Tomorrow Never Knows.
Ringo’s influence, moreover, didn’t stop with the end of the Beatles. Most of his works as a soloist highlight his funky approaches to the drums. To get a few examples, have a listen to Back Off Boogaloo or Oh My My.
Ringo Starr might not be the best drummer of all time, especially from a flashy point of view. However, what Lennon stated in that 1980 interview with Playboy is true: Ringo is a natural talent, who can make perfect use of his “animal instinct”.
His non-intrusive approach to songs and his “going with the flow” should be considered precious teachings by any drummer.
Or any musician alike.