The Case for Why Ringo Starr Is One of Rock’s Greatest Drummers

As far as I’m concerned, debate over whether or not Ringo Starr is a good drummer is over, done with, settled. How is it possible that some of the greatest recorded music of the 20th century, with some of the most distinctive rhythms, fills, and drum breaks in pop music, could have come from a mediocre musician? The standard response has been to allege that Starr’s best parts were played by someone else. In a handful of recordings—though I won’t argue over which ones—it seems he might have been replaced, for whatever reason. But Ringo could do more than hold his own. He was something rarer and more valuable than any studio musician. He remains one of the most distinctively musical drummers on record.

What does that mean? It means he intuited exactly what a song needed, and what it didn’t. He used what Buddy Rich called his “adequate” abilities (a compliment, I’d say, coming from Buddy Rich) to serve the songs best, finding ways to enhance the structures and arrangements with drum parts that are as uniquely memorable as the melodies and harmonies.




His humility and sense of humor come through in his tasteful, yet dynamic playing. I say this as a serious Ringo fan, but if you, or someone you know, needs convincing, don’t take my word for it. Take it from George Harrison, above, and from skilled drummers Sina and Brandon Koo.

What are Sina’s credentials for making a pro-Ringo case? Well, for one thing, her father played in Germany’s biggest Beatles tribute band, the Silver Beatles. Also, she’s a very good musician who has memorized Ringo's repertoire and can explain it well. Above, she demonstrates how his uncomplicated grooves complement the songs, so much so they have become iconic in their own right. (To skirt copyright issues, Sina plays along to convincing covers by her dad’s band.)

Ringo’s drum pattern for “In My Life,” for example, she says “is absolutely unique, nobody ever played this before. It’s truly original and the song won’t work with any other drum part.” If you were to write a new song around the drums alone, it would probably come out sounding just like "In My Life." As Harrison remarks at the top, “he’s very good because he’ll listen to the song once, and he knows exactly what to play.”

Virtuoso drummer Brandon Koo makes the case for Ringo as a good drummer, above, after a brief defense of much-maligned White Stripes drummer Meg White. He, too, chooses “In My Life” to show how “Ringo lays it down” with maximum feel and efficiency, deftly but subtly changing things up in nearly every phrase of the song. Conversely—in an exaggerated counterexample—Koo shows what a technically-skilled, but unmusical, drummer might do, namely trample over the delicate guitars and vocals with an aggressive attack and distracting, unnecessary fills and cymbal crashes. “A good drummer is a drummer who knows how to play, number one, for the music.”

If these clear demonstrations fail to sway, maybe some celebrity endorsements will do. Just above, in a video made by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to celebrate an exhibit of Ringo’s famous drum kit, see Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Stewart Copeland, Questlove, Tre Cool, Max Weinberg, Chad Smith, and more pay tribute. Grohl describes him as the “king of feel,” Smith talks about his “knack for coming up with really interesting musical parts that became rhythmic hooks.” In the span of just three minutes, we get a sense of exactly why the most famous drummers in rock and roll admire Ringo.

Millions of drummers have come and gone since The Beatles’ day, most of them influenced by Ringo, as Weinberg says. And not one of them has ever played like Ringo Starr. “You hear his drumming,” says Grohl, “and you know exactly who it is.” Hear how his style evolved right along with the band's songwriting in Kye Smith's chronological drum medley of Beatles hits below.

Related Content:

Musician Plays Signature Drum Parts of 71 Beatles Songs in 5 Minutes: A Whirlwind Tribute to Ringo Starr

How Can You Tell a Good Drummer from a Bad Drummer?: Ringo Starr as Case Study

Isolated Drum Tracks From Six of Rock’s Greatest: Bonham, Moon, Peart, Copeland, Grohl & Starr

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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Comments (27)
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  • Bill W. says:

    Once again, the REAL best drummer in Rock history, Karen Carpenter, is forgotten. People forget she beat John Bohnam in a ‘Playboy’ article similar to the one above about Ringo!

  • Butch Turner says:

    Ringo Starr was my influence good timming and in the pocket great.

  • Dan McCurdy says:

    Ringo is an excellent drummer no doubt and so was Karen Carpenter but when I reflect on it all. No one comes close to John Densmore of the Doors. Just my opinion.

  • MYCROFT says:

    Simon Philip’s enough said.

  • John Pat Fitzpatrick says:

    Ronnie Tutt.

  • Jim says:

    Oh, brother. Ringo is not only NOT an excellent drummer, but you can find better drummers in most high schools.

    Greatest ever?! Lay off the weed.

  • Jim says:

    Please tell me you’re kidding.

  • Deanna says:

    The bit about Ringo’s drumming being replaced by others is a myth. True, Paul filled in on the drums on three Beatles songs when Ringo was unavailable, but further “replacements” have been debunked.

    Peter Brown claimed in his book that Paul was coming in afterwards and replacing Ringo’s drumming with his own, but Beatles historians have combed over the recording logs, etc., as well as comparing styles, and have judged the claim impossible. Brown printed lots of random gossip as fact, and says that he personally witnessed events when he wasn’t even in the country at the time.

    I think it was Bernard Purdie who said he was brought in by the label to re-record Ringo’s drumming, but those who looked into the claim found that he was instead replacing Pete Best on extremely early Beatles recordings, when they were mostly backing up Tony Sheridan. He apparently mis-remembered, or only knew that he was replacing *a* Beatles drummer and assumed it was Ringo. It was Pete.

  • Butch Turner says:

    Ringo played with the song arrangements with felling

  • Edward says:

    Ringo killed it on the Beatles best song “A day in the life” nobody could have done better even Keith Moon.

  • Elad Lending says:

    Clearly the drummer of one of the greatest bands ever could not be bad, but that doesn’t mean he’s not vastly overrated. Ringo was an adequate drummer in great band. My favorite drummer (certainly not the flashiest) is the late great Ed Cassidy of Spirit. Now there was a drummer who played exactly what was needed, and did it with panache! He was equally at home with rock or jazz, and brought his eclectic style with him on stage. By contrast, thousands of drummers, or even a drum machine, could have done what Ringo did for the Beatles. He kept the beat, nothing more.

  • todd gillings says:

    Some Of Richard Starkeys Greatest Fills Were Almost Accidental.He RINGO ,Is Left Handed,Playing A Drumkit that Was Setip For A Righthanded Player…So Some Of His FILLS Are Very Interesting As There Were Played With A Dotted Eighth Note Kinda Idea In His Phrasing, Due To The Fact That He, RINGO , Couldn’t Get Around The Kit Fast Enuff Because Of Its Righthanded Orientation…This Has Been Explained many Different Times , In Interviews With MR.STARKEY…..CHEERS…

  • Karl Reitman says:

    Putting an apostrophe into a name, that ratchets up illiteracy a few levels.

  • Chuck says:

    Ringo was left handed and played on a right hand kit insisted on by his grandmother which kept him from doing a traditional roll in sequence on the tom toms. This is what he credits for his distinct sound in what he dies.

  • Stephen Carter says:

    Finally, someone has put together (come together) a great summary of what I’ve been trying to tell folks,especially drummers and other musicians for years: Ringo is a great drummer! Not because he’s the fastest,or has the most jaw-dropping solos; but because he is the most ” musical” drummer I’ve ever heard. I know why people think he was adequate, or average, or could have been replaced by a drum machine, etc. But they’re not hearing how wonderfully he was able to hear and uniquely, creatively blend his instrument to fit the song.
    He is understated, and listens to the songs. He puts in the most creative and memorable/instantly-recognizable fills and motifs I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t hurt that he played with the best rock/pop band in history. But his unique musical drumming is part of what made them famous.
    He was “simply” great.

  • JV says:

    I’m a semi-pro drummer. People who are saying a high school drummer or a drum machine or what have you could play Ringo’s drum parts are the same people who look at a Jackson Pollock and say, “My kid could do that.” The only and absolutely accurate response to such drivel is, “But they didn’t.” Ringo’s drum parts, and they are mostly parts, as opposed to just a beat, are not technically difficult to play in hindsight, but the guy had to come up with them in the first place. The part for “In My Life” is a perfect example. It’s simple yet utterly distinct and recognizable. He did that on almost every Beatles song.

    In addition, he’s got amazing feel, a kind of loping, laid-back swing that’s especially apparent on a lot of his fills.

    Ringo’s not my favorite drummer and he’s certainly not the most talented or technical drummer, but he’s WAY up there in terms of coming up with drum parts that are distinct and, more importantly, serve the song. I mean he’s probably #1 in the category.

  • 3manfan says:

    Saying Ringo is one of the best drummers of all time…..is like saying Andy Summers is one of the best guitarists of all time.
    Just because some folks think it, doesn’t make it true. Being able to keep time & being in a famous band doesn’t make anyone one of ‘the best’.

  • JV says:

    Depends on how you define “best,” which is ridiculous to think about in terms of art anyway, but since we’re here. Do you define drumming quality only in terms of technical prowess? If so, then you’re right, Ringo is nowhere near the top. But how about in terms of contributing to a band? Or more granularly, a song? For pop music, isn’t that the whole point? The song? In those terms, Ringo is absolutely one of the best drummers. Do you disagree? Do you think the Beatles songs would have been better served by someone like Ginger Baker, a vastly more technical and busy drummer than Ringo?

  • JV says:

    And by the way, Andy Summers is an incredible guitarist. Again, not the most technical, but the parts he wrote for the Police are utterly singular. Can you imagine a more technical guitarist wanking around on, say, Message In A Bottle? Christ, the song would be ruined. Or actually, it just wouldn’t be that song anymore.

  • Bill says:

    2 drummers in my book Ringo and Charlie Watts the best

  • CJ says:

    Ringo IS ONE of the best ROCK drummers…….as the header for this article states. I won’t explain my position, I really don’t think that’s important. Now, go cry over Karen Carpenter….really?🤣🤣🤣🤣

  • JHB says:

    He was the drummer for the Beatles! It doesn’t get any better than that. The top of the pops!! What more do you want? Besides, comparing drummers is like compairing songs. It’s all in the ear of …

  • John Bryant says:

    Sina does a nice job of playing Ringo’s beats, but in regards to the beat on In My Life, I’m afraid she is mistaken about it being unique and never been played before. Ringo has admitted he took it from the drummer on the 1962 recording of Anna by Arthur Alexander.

  • John Bryant says:

    Here is a story I wrote in 1997, published by Modern Drummer, about Ringo’s significance as a drummer. Ringo signed a copy of the story for me.

    13 Reasons to Give Ringo Some Respect
    by John Bryant

    http://web2.airmail.net/gshultz/bryant.html

  • Will says:

    The point is not that he is a great technical drummer but a great musical drummer. His drumming did not compete or overshadow the music it complimented it.

  • Jon says:

    Case closed. His drumming on “A Day In The Life” demonstrates his feel for the song. He creates a separate melody that esnhances Joh’s strong vocal. Perfect!

  • Jon says:

    …enhances……John’s…..

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