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 skilled drum­mers Sina and Bran­don Khoo.

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 Khoo 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 (31)
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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

  • 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:


  • Steven Davenport says:

    Ringo did more for drum­mers he made it cool to be drum­mer one of the best of all time that’s why he was a Beat­tle

  • Topazthecat says:

    I meant McCartney,there real­ly needs to be an edit but­ton on here.

  • Topazthecat says:

    Where are my first posts about Ringo’s great drum­ming being rec­og­nized by Phil Collins,Max Wein­berg etc?

  • Dan Landers says:

    Thank you for men­tion­ing Ed Cas­sidy! Great­ly appre­ci­at­ed from a huge Spir­it fan! I agree with you com­plete­ly! RIP Ed and Randy !!!

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