When musicians talk about the Beatles’ musical influence, few would argue that the drumming of Ringo Starr was one of the most singular aspects to the band’s music. We’re here to make that argument.
When musicians talk about the Beatles’ musical influence, what dominates the conversation might often be the songwriting genius of Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison’s innovative writing and playing, the group’s ear-worm melodies, and their groundbreaking use of the recording studio.
Few musicians would argue that the drumming of Ringo Starr was one of the most singular aspects to the band’s music.
We’re here to make that argument.
While there are flashier drummers, greater technicians, and more bombastic players from the same era (Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham come to mind), Ringo’s inventive playing demonstrates a keen sense of how to create a drum track that fits perfectly with the intent of every song. His role as time keeper was important, but equally important was his artistry. Ringo’s playing added shape and texture to the band’s iconic recordings while carefully creating patterns and dynamics to create and resolve tension within each song.
Beyond keeping time
A great drum part is much more than a steady kick, snare, and hi hat to which the instruments and vocals play along. Popular recordings often blend a variety of rhythmic patterns that, when combined, create the overall sound, tempo, and texture we come to know as the finished backing track. Once the backing track is judged adequate, lead and harmony vocals, solo parts, and any other instrumental “sweetening” such as percussion, strings, and special effects are added to complete the multi-track master recording. Then, after approving the overall sound, the song is mixed, mastered and released.
Many Beatles songs, especially in the early part of their release history, relied on what can be termed standard rock drum beats. Some of the great Ringo performances contrast from a standard rock drum beat as more of a “composed” part; patterns he created specifically for a song that are anything but a standard rock beat.
Let’s dissect two of Ringo’s creative drum performances. “Ticket To Ride” and “In My Life” demonstrate ideas, patterns, and an approach that may help you when you are considering how to make your next song or recording stand out. We recommend you listen to these songs on a good pair of headphones to better appreciate the nuances of his playing.
Ticket to Ride
In 1964 and ’65, Ringo started composing drum parts to keep up with the ever-increasing sophistication of the songs that John, Paul, and George were composing. With their producer George Martin encouraging them, the band set out to explore just how varied they could make their compositions and recordings using the basic instruments that any rock band might use in those days: guitars, drums, bass, keyboard, and hand percussion instruments. While strings or brass were brought in for a few specific songs (“Eleanor Rigby” and “Got to Get You Into My Life,” being two such examples from 1966’s Revolver), by and large, The Beatles wrote and played all the instrumental parts in their backing tracks.
“Ticket to Ride” was released in 1965 as the first single from the soundtrack album for their second movie, Help. It is one of the first Beatles songs to feature a uniquely “Ringo-esque” drum part.
Ringo flipped the standard rock convention of having the snare drum play primarily on beats two and four, instead hitting his snare on beat two, but then displacing it to an offbeat (the “and” of three) and a flam on the toms hitting on the “and” of beat four.
What happens on the backbeat at four? Cue the tambourine, which Ringo overdubbed, to fill the function of what the snare would normally be doing. The result is a catchy drum part that gives the mid-tempo verses and chorus a chugging, forward motion that helped propel the song to the number one spot on the Billboard chart around the world.
For the bridge section, “I don’t know why she’s riding so high . . .” Ringo switches to a straight rock beat on kick and snare but gives it a double time feel by playing eighth notes on the hi-hat and sixteenths on the tambourine.
For the last verse, he mixes it up, going with the snare now playing on both two and four, while retaining the tom flams on the “and” of beat four. Brilliant! This gives the final verse extra oomph and shows us how to subtly vary a drum pattern within a song to keep it evolving.
As icing on the cake, when the band launches into the outro section, Ringo spices it up by playing the tambourine only on the “and” offbeats, a perfect complement for Paul’s rocking-chair bass line and the straight beat on the drums. “Ticket to Ride” shows how Ringo knew just what can be done to build an interesting drum part that doesn’t get in the way of the song’s top line melody, chords or structure – it just makes the track way more memorable.
In My Life
This Lennon and McCartney gem from Rubber Soul features 16-bar verses comprised of an A and B section with these two contrasting sections each having two equal four bar parts: four bars A + four bars A + four bars B + four bars B = 16 bar verse. Ringo uses a different drum part for the A and B sections.
The guitar tone is warm and the guitar part has a light but definitive rhythm against which the drum part nicely sits. For the first eight bars or A part of each verse, Ringo plays a sparse but well executed part featuring hi-hat only on the “and” of beat three of each measure. The kick drum pattern is on the one, the “and” of two and the “and” of four. He plays the snare on the standard backbeat, two and four.
The B section is first heard at the :30 mark at the lyric “All these places have their moments . . .” Ringo switches to straight quarter notes on a cymbal bell with a cymbal flourish after two bars, followed by two bars of a straight rock beat. He then repeats that pattern switching to a snare flourish at the end of the quarter note cymbal part before going to the straight rock beat for the end of verse.
This simple part is a beautiful rhythmic complement to the band’s lovely three-part harmony and the guitar part. The song’s title is always supported by the regular rock beat when it appears at the end of the verse. With its poignant lyrics double tracked by John’s vocals, the nicely arranged three part harmonies, and Ringo’s innovative use of accents and straight time that fit the song to a tee, it’s one of the group’s most memorable recordings.
He’s so heavy
The last area we wanted to touch on is Ringo’s ability to play with a powerful, stripped-down style featuring liberal use of toms and very creative fill patterns. As the Beatles experimented more with studio techniques such as compression and tape saturation, many of the more subtle parts of Ringo’s drumming would not be as easy to hear in the mix. He adapted quickly, and during the recording of the aforementioned “Strawberry Fields Forever,” created the memorable “heavy” drum part featured in the last section of the song.
For inspiration on how to drive a song with a steady groove while again playing with urgency that is in perfect sync with the lead vocal, just listen to Ringo’s playing on “I Am the Walrus.” And for a final lesson in mixing up drum patterns and varying dynamics, dial up “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Abbey Road and check out Ringo’s contrasting, in the pocket beats played for the first few verses, the switch he makes to a quasi-Latin feel with nice tom patterns under the guitar solo, and then his inventive take throughout the long outro section where he continually changes up his fills and accents while staying locked to the dirge-like riff that the band drives all the way home to the song’s abrupt ending. As much as the earlier genius shown on “Ticket to Ride” and “In My Life,” this heavier, powerful side of Ringo’s playing informs the drumming and sounds of many other great rock bands who followed including Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, the Foo Fighters and the Black Keys.
While many people will remember Ringo Starr as the iconic voice of Beatles’ songs such as “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” we argue that a reappraisal of his inventive and rhythmically varied parts – always in service of the song’s message – are worth careful study for any up and coming songwriter or producer that wants to create the best possible recordings. Us insiders know, he blazed a trail for musicians to strive to imagine drum parts that breathe in and out with the singer and the song – doing so much more than just keeping time.
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly credited the excellent drumming on “Dear Prudence” to Ringo Starr, but as tensions were high between the Beatles at the time of the White Album’s recording, Ringo had temporarily left the band. In his stead, Paul played the drums and he and George added the percussions parts (tambourine, cowbell, and handclaps) on “Dear Prudence.”]
More on The Beatles, their recordings and gear:
Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s Instrument from Stage to Studio by Andy Babiuk
The Beatles had a lot of great equipment and most of it is explained here in detail.
Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick with Howard Massey
A great “other side of the glass” narrative of the Beatles at their creative best in the studio, with insights into the sounds and performances captured on tape.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years – 1962-1970 by Mark Lewisohn
In depth notes and chronology of every recording session.
Ringo: With a Little Help by Michael Seth Starr
Recently released bio on Ringo.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.
Peter Hackett is a producer, engineer, drummer and educator, who grew up playing many of the classic rock drum parts from The Beatles, before beginning to play professionally at the age of fourteen in cover and original bands. He works today with a wide variety of songwriters and bands producing all type of popular music.
Special thanks to percussionist Jonathan Latta and Nate Pergamit for the transcriptions included in the article.