He Played For the Song – What Makes Ringo Starr So Great

We’re all familiar with The Beatles. The four cheeky scousers with mop-top haircuts defined what it means to make popular music in the modern age. Their songs rank among the greatest ever written, while their individual contributions remain a hot topic. John was a genius. Paul sang his heart out. George added mystical intrigue. And then there was Ringo. To this day, people often sneer at Ringo for his simple drumming and soppy expression. So the famous joke goes, he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles. But retired music tutor and professional drummer, John Shepard, thinks we should listen again to one of pop culture’s favourite whipping boys. 

The Beatles collection vinyl, amongst other records laid out in a store.
The Beatles collection vinyl.

Ringo’s drumming was hugely influential

Many famous drummers count the Beatle among their biggest inspirations, and John agrees. “When I was a teenager, the Beatles were on TV a lot. I remember the camera going behind Ringo Starr at one point, and I could see what he was doing with his right foot. I thought, right then, I want to be a drummer.”

In a career spanning several decades, John has toured the world, recorded albums, and even earned a Grammy nomination. And he still believes there’s no better role model than Ringo. When I started teaching, I thought the best way to do it would be to teach the way I learned – and that’s through Ringo Starr. Kids would come to me and say, my dad says Ringo Starr’s no good at playing drums. And I would say, well, let’s put that right.” 

John insists that plenty of other professional drummers feel same way. He mentions a video on YouTube, in which Paul McCartney’s drummer, Abe Laborial Jr, hails Ringo’s “sloppy, swampy, falling down the stairs kind of sound.” The video also features contributions from Chad Smith and Dave Grohl, among others, all paying tribute to Ringo. 

Read our article about the benefits of learning music here.

He played for the song

It’s often said in defence of Ringo that he “played for the song”. While his peers were often keen to show off their extravagant chops, Ringo was more sensitive to the patterns and melodies of his bandmates, as John explains. “His fills on Strawberry Fields Forever make it swing, even though the song is a straight eight. It’s not about him. It’s not about anything other than contributing to make that song sound great.” 

On Helter Skelter, a song about the rise and fall of civilisations, Ringo’s crash cymbals explode like shells. On Tomorrow Never Knows, the drums stumble forward into the inescapable future. John lifts the lid on where these unique patterns came from. “They would listen to each other. He would listen to the vocals, and he would play to the vocals. That’s what made him a melodic drummer.” 

Therefore, as far as John is concerned, Ringo was just as creative as the other three. “The drum pattern he came up with on Ticket Ride for example. Who else would have thought of playing that pattern? Listen to In My Life. He plays one hi-hat beat on every measure. Everybody plays eights when there are four beats in a bar. He plays one. It was the beginning of linear drumming if you like. Fabulous!”

Vintage posters from The Beatles' shows
Vintage posters, including one from The Beatles’ shows.

He did it all on a four-piece drum-kit

While other drummers build sprawling empires of cowbells, bongos, and gongs, John believes Ringo’s minimal approach speaks volumes. “It was always a four piece. That’s kick, snare, rack-tom and floor-tom. Kits got huge in the 80s, and people started playing electronic drums in the 90s. But if you can’t do it on two toms, a bass drum and a snare drum, then you can’t do it.” 

The Beatles were the best band ever

In a world of throwaway opinions, John feels that Ringo has been unfairly singled out. “You don’t hear people say that Paul McCartney wasn’t a very good bassist. They pick on Ringo, and I don’t know why.”

Certainly, The Beatles were more than the sum of their parts. Their success stands unparalleled. Their songs are loved to this day. And John, for one, believes that Ringo Starr deserves his place in the spotlight every bit as much Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. “He was a quarter of the best band ever, and that makes him quite something.”

The Beatles Pier Head statue in Liverpool, brass representation of Ringo, John, Paul and George.
The Beatles Pier Head, Liverpool.

A bit about John

A lifelong Beatles fan and ex Leeds United youth team player, John’s influences and heroes are still Ringo Starr and Jimmy Greaves. Since the 60’s he has provided the back beats, up-beats and down-beats for countless bands, playing styles from Psychedelia to pop, country to blues, folk to rock, and low-fi to jazz. John continues to write, record and play music. Recent projects include recording with Dakota Suite, Magna Carta and Sentimentalists. Listen to his latest single here.

John Shepard plays drums in his home studio.

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