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.