Excerpts from an Interview with Gregg Bissonette
by Terry Butz
Gregg Bissonette is a world-renowned drummer and avid Beatle fan who has recorded and toured with such diverse acts as David Lee Roth, Carlos Santana, Maynard Ferguson, Bette Midler, Joe Satriani, Enrique Iglesias, and Spinal Tap. When he’s not recording or touring, Gregg conducts drum clinics worldwide, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
Terry Butz: Gregg, you and I met at one of your drum clinics where you discussed and demonstrated the playing styles of everyone from Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich’s big bands to Tony Williams’ Jazz influence and on to today’s styles by Kenny Aronoff and others. So I know you’re not just a drummer, but you’ve really studied the history of your craft.
Gregg Bissonette: Well thanks Terry. I take a lot of lessons, and I really try to listen to new drummers that come out and new bands, and I enjoy watching drum videos of guys that... when we were kids they didn’t have drum videos that you could just pop in and watch somebody play, and “take the needle and scratch it back” and try to figure out what Buddy Rich or Ringo was doing. But nowadays you can just put on the video and hit rewind and slow motion and really use it as an incredible learning tool.
Terry: But then your clinic turned into an education on Ringo Starr for all the younger drummers. And my two boys, Kyle and Connor, were jabbing me in the ribs because you were giving them the same message I’d been preaching for years, about the tremendous contributions to drumming made by Ringo.
Gregg: Yeah, so many people just want to “dog” any pop drummers that don’t do the “tricks”. I mean, when you come to a clinic it’s either drummers that want to hear solos all the time, or people that want to hear a lot of speed, double bass proficiency, and I love all that stuff. But the reason I started playing drums is because of Ringo. You know, I wanted to be in a band because of Ringo and the Beatles. And pop drumming is my favorite thing to do. I love playing jazz, and I love big bands, small groups, Afro-Cuban music, all different types of styles of music... but my favorite kind of music is pop music with the lyrics that you can sing along. And there’s no better band ever than the Beatles, and no better drummer that ever played the parts the way they’re supposed to be played than Ringo. So many drummers these days don’t think about the song, they just think about playing drums only. It’s all about the song, and if you serve the song the way Ringo did, you’ll always be the one that people want to work with.
Terry: In your case that’s entirely true. You’re one of the most versatile players today. So you must be able to relate to what Ringo had to do, in terms of playing to the writing talents of three of the most versatile and talented songwriters in history.
Gregg: It was probably both a blessing and curse for him. Because he had the greatest songs to work with, but he had the pickiest songwriters. And Paul is a good drummer, too. So who knows, on a song like Come Together, just exactly how much direction or input he got or didn’t get from the others? It’s one thing to work with a great songwriter, but it’s another thing to work in a band with three great songwriters, one who plays drums himself (Paul), and another who plays and thinks rhythm guitar in his writing. Just listen to All You Need Is Love where it’s not all in 4/4 time. A lot of those songs had odd time signatures, 5/4 bars, 3/8 bars, 2/4 bars... Ringo had his hands full coming up with parts. Like All You Need Is Love where he was playing the snare drum on all four beats, or sometimes five beats, but it never sounds like an odd time piece, because Ringo smoothed it out and brought the piece together as a song. That’s what’s great about him as a drummer to me. He never made you think about the drums changing time signatures, just make it work for the song and listen to the lyrics. The lyrics always lead the way, and Ringo never covered them up.
Terry: Since you mentioned Paul’s drumming, what did you think of his playing on songs like The Ballad of John and Yoko, Dear Prudence,Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, and his first solo album, McCartney?
Gregg: I loved his drumming. He also plays for the song; he’s a songwriter’s drummer. Didn’t he also play on Birthday?
Gregg: When he was supposed to go to Africa to record Band On The Run, and my friend Denny Seiwell couldn’t make it, so Paul just said OK, I’ll do it myself. And he played on that entire album, and it was one of my all time favorites. Yeah, I think Paul’s an incredible drummer who can fill in whenever he wants to.
Terry: One of the things you talk about in your drum clinics around the world are the musical innovations and technical skills Ringo gave us. Like the match strokes (playing two drums with two hands at the same time with identical strokes). He used it on songs like I Want To Hold Your Hand, Not A Second Time, and the matched strokes in the song Tell Me Why were played at an incredibly 380 beats per minute.
Gregg: A lot of drummers are really into technique, and they’re not really aware that Ringo has a lot of technical skills. He didn’t use them all the time because he plays for the song and doesn’t let the “chops” get in the way. But it’s really hard to pull those double stops off and he does it with ease, just up there bobbing his head and doing it like he’s not even thinking about it.
Terry: Let’s cover some of the other innovations Ringo gave us. How about Tomorrow Never Knows?
Gregg: One of the great things about Tomorrow Never Knows is that there are no drum fills on the whole song. It’s just a groove. And nowadays drummers are called on to record loops and not worry about fills, but here was Ringo playing loops back in the 60’s.
Terry: Come Together?
Gregg: That drum part is an integral part of the song, and that song would still be a great song with just a straight drum part. But instead, he has a drum beat that was rhythmically melodic with the entire song. And it’s a part that, when people hear that drum part they instantly know what song it is. One of my goals is to play beats that people can recognize, just by hearing the drums. There are only a handful of them out there and Come Together is one of them.
Terry: Ticket to Ride?
Gregg: That’s another one that really rhythmically and melodically parrels George’s guitar part. In the 60’s you didn’t hear a lot of drummers playing that kind of beat with what George Martin called “big drums”. Ringo really had that snare/tom/bass thing going with no hi-hat. He did the same thing on Come Together, leaving the hi-hat out on the chorus. And again, the double-stop fill is in there right after “She’s got a ticket to ri-hi-hi...” he plays that fast, difficult, technical fill part. He’s got it all to me. He’s got “chops”, but doesn’t always use them. He’s so musical.
Terry: In My Life?
Gregg: It’s a great example of leaving things out. Miles Davis used to say that “less is more”. And minimalism is something that Ringo demonstrated a lot. In My Life has one hi-hat beat per bar, and that takes a lot of restraint and discipline for a drummer. Stan Lynch, the great drummer from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers told me their song Breakdown used the inspiration from In My Life. It’s the same beat, just put through a shuffle. So he’s inspired so many drummers with his taste and his musicality that it’s incredible.
Terry: She Loves You?
Gregg: Yeah, not a lot of drummers back then were using a floor tom as a ride cymbal, but he was playing eight notes on the floor tom at the open and close of the song. And we sure know how much we heard that later on in surf, punk, and hard rock music. We hear it a lot these days, but Ringo was one of the first people I ever knew about that did that.
Terry: How about when he used tea towels on the drums in Revolution?
Gregg: I got to work last year with Jeff Lynn, who produced the Beatles Anthology, the Traveling Wilburys, and for both Paul and George. He’s a real Beatle nut, and he had Ringo play on an Electric Light Orchestra tune called Alright, where he used the dead tom sound fromRevolution. And Geoff Emmerick came to one of the gigs and we sat down to talk for two hours about Ringo’s sound. He mentioned the tea towels and said they even lightly taped parts of cigarette packs to the heads, and Fairchild compressors to get the cymbals to jump out more. He was great to talk to, and every time he talked about it his eyes go all bright, big around, and excited.
Terry: What about the Latin rhythms Ringo added to Beatle tracks?
Gregg: Oh yeah, No Reply, I Feel Fine, and The Night Before... you know Ringo loved a lot of different styles of music. He put a lot of Latin influence in, he put a lot of early Gospel styles, and Country Western influences. He was really into DJ Fontanna and the drummers of Elvis. He played what he listened to, skiffle stuff and Latin was just one of them.
Terry: If Paul called tomorrow and asked you to join his next tour, would you be up for it?
Gregg: That would be my dream gig. I would love to play with Paul. I would drop anything I was doing to do that gig!
Terry: What did you think of the experience of playing with Ringo recently and what's new and coming up for Gregg?
Gregg: I hope to work with Ringo again someday soon...It was an incredibly great experience...He is not only my favorite drummer...but one of my favorite human beings!!! What a cool guy... My brother Matt (bass) and I had the time of our lives working with him for a month!!!! As for now ... I am off to Japan for a month on a tour with Larry Carlton...then back home for more recording work in the Los Angeles studio scene.
You can learn more about Gregg Bissonette by visiting www.spectrasonics.net/artists/gbissonette.html
Terry Butz is a frequent contributor to Modern Drummer Magazine and Not So Modern Drummer Magazine, and resides in Wisconsin, U.S.A.
by Robyn Flans
This interview was excerpted from the July 1997 issue of Modern Drummer.
Last year, twenty-six years after their break-up, The Beatles had one of their best years. Three double set anthologies were released, giving the public the closest glimpse yet into the creative process of the group. Recordings of songs in various stages allowed us to peek inside the studio--an incredible honor. Also, now that Beatles albums have been released on CD, the drum parts are so much more audible than on their vinyl counterparts. The time was definitely right to get back in touch with Ringo with whom I had had the thrill of interviewing sixteen years ago.
We were to meet at a hotel suite and the photographers and I set up with the help of Todd Trent from Ludwig, who delivered a full kit to the hotel room. As the anticipation of his arrival increased, the quiet resounded in the room. The silence was broken by the suite's doorbell, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong--who else would be so cheeky? As I opened the door with a, "Okay already," there was Ringo, looking much the star (Starr) with his finger on the doorbell, and he made a sweeping entrance with his lovely wife of sixteen years, Barbara Bach.
RF: In The Beatles Recording Sessions, (by Mark Lewisohn), George Martin is quoted as saying you made very few mistakes.
RS: Very few break-downs were because of me when we were making the track. The break-down would happen either when they sang the wrong words, John got his fingers stuck in the strings or something like that. Very seldom it was me. They found that out when they played all the tapes (to prepare the anthologies). I had been willing to take some of the blame. [laughs]
RF: You have said that you black out when you do fills.
RS: I absolutely do. I've always said that. We know how to play "boom chick," 4/4, the rhythm patterns. For me, the drummer, as an artist, becomes himself in the fills. I always found it very difficult and usually couldn't double track a fill because it just came whenever it came and that's the only time you'll get it.
RF: What about when you played live?
RS: We played the songs. The drum parts in those early Beatles records had a specific rhythm pattern all the way through. They weren't complicated and there wasn't a lot of jamming. The song was only two minutes ten and we did half an hour show. All those singles had their definite patterns. There are not a lot of fills, if you listen to the early records. The fills came later when we started doing Rubber Soul, that's when it started loosening up.
RF: The Recording Sessions book said you had the toughest role in the band.
RS: It's the drummer's joke that I was surrounded by three other drummers, pretending to be bass player and guitarists. [laughs] Everyone knows what the drummer should play and if anything goes wrong on stage, the front line looks at the drummer, automatically. I found it was really helpful that John, Paul, and George would say, "Do this, do that, what about that?" But the classic one was John brought some Motown classic and said, "I want you to play like that." And I said, "Well, there are two drummers on that." "Yeah, but just play like that." So I played the best way I could like that and that's how we got a lot of the things. It's not like I invented everything. I was being forced by the writers to do other stuff, too--not forced, but they had these crazy ideas.
One of the fun stories is when we first went to London to show George Martin "Please Please Me," I was playing the bass drum with my foot with a maraca in one hand, a tambourine in the other, and I was crashing the cymbals on the accents. I think that's what made him bring in Andy White. [laughs] It was, "Oh well, better get a real one." I was trying to get all the accents and all the sounds, so I was hitting the snare with the tambourine and shaking the maraca.
RF: The recording book makes the point that you had the hardest job; that you had to play the song over and over again....
RS: ...while they broke down. I have one rule. While we're playing, I don't stop. Whatever happens, I don't stop because that can turn into part of the song. Unless it's an absolute screw up. If John stopped, the three of us might have kept going. We couldn't do that in the early days because we were all on the two mic's, but later on, we would carry on even if someone broke down, to see if it was worth it. And sometimes it was.
RF: Can you describe the roles each one of you played within the musical context?
RS: For me, the roles weren't like everyone thinks--"You do this, you do that." The role was that we supported each other. No matter who was on, the others were supportive, the best that they could. We wanted to be really well known. We wanted to make records. We were musicians, playing to more and more people and it was this gradual roll that went on and on and, of course, got out of hand.
RF: As I watched the video anthology and saw my life flash before me, I wondered what it must be like to be you, watching all of that?
RS: It was really eye opening. George, Paul, and I did watch every damn frame of it. There's so much stuff that we hadn't really forgotten, but it wasn't something we had just thought about, so it was, "You said that," and "Oh yeah, and you did that. Remember this? Remember that?"
RF: Is it almost like watching a separate person?
RS: Not really.
RF: While you're watching it you can actually feel...?
RS: Oh yeah, I'm there. I never felt like it was someone else. For me, what I got out of going through all that footage was hanging out with George and Paul. And we made some music together and it was still the best. "Free As A Bird" was the most incredible musical experience I had in the past ten years. John was there, because coming out of the speakers, he was there. The whole thing was a very moving experience for me. And like a lot of experiences, it was very moving, and it moved out.
Excerpts of Ringo Starr on NPR Radio
WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News - Liane Hansen.
Copyright © 2010 National Public Radio®.
January 17, 2010 –
LIANE HANSEN, host: Sir George Martin once told me that producing sometimes is as much the art of subtraction as it is the art of addition. You're nodding. You agree with him.
STARR: I agree completely with him because I've always felt a space is as good as a fill, you know what I mean? Gaps can be very emotional. I mean, that's in my drumming. When I drum, you know, I don't need to drum all over the track. I play with the singer and I can back off.
HANSEN: You leave space.
STARR: I do, yeah. For a note to breathe, for a crash to linger, you know?
HANSEN: One of the things you have always said in documentaries I've seen is you love to be in a band.
STARR: I love being in a band. I've never had any big ideas about being the solo, you know, playing this, playing that. I love playing with other human beings. I've never practiced drums unless there was another human being in the room.
STARR: I've never gone to the bedroom and, you know, when I was starting out and practiced away. You know, if you could play, I'll play with you all night. But if I'm just playing by myself it gets boring pretty quick.
HANSEN: Was the drum your first instrument of choice?
STARR: The drum was the first and only instrument.
STARR: Yeah. I was 13 and I played drums. I was in hospital and they had a, you know, this lady would come around with percussive instruments to keep us busy. I also learned to knit in hospital. But anyway, that's another story. And I played the drums and then I wouldn't be in the band unless she gave me a drum. And I only wanted to be a drummer. That's where my soul is.
HANSEN: You have to tell us your side of the Pete Best story. How did you get the gig - your side of the story - as the drummer?
STARR: Well, my side of the story is still the same, is when it happened was that I was in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in Liverpool. And Brian Epstein knocked on the door and he said: Pete can't make the gig, could you play with the Beatles? I said, sure.
HANSEN: Brian Epstein, have to ask, because you were one of the first groups -and I remember this 'cause I was your target audience, you know, a 'tween girl - dressed you in suits and ties.
STARR: No, Brian was great because he used to come up with these great ideas. And he says, you know, I think it'd be a great idea if you don't drink and smoke and swear at the audience while you're onstage.
HANSEN: What do you think you learned from George Martin as a producer, Sir George?
STARR: Sir George Martin learns a lot more from me.
HANSEN: He did. Tell us what he learned from you.
STARR: He learned to keep the damn tape rolling 'cause we'd do, like, we'd do a great take and he didn't have the tape on, you know. And we'd say, George, turn the - and he'd - oh, did you want to record that, boys? But he was great. No, George was incredibly helpful to us. And, you know, we're buskers. The four of us are buskers - none of us can read music, we don't know anything about music. We only know how to play it. And George could write it down and he would say, you know, maybe if we just do this, lads, or that. But, you know, he was - George was the only person who took a chance on us to make a record 'cause every other label turned us down.
HANSEN: But he heard something. He heard something there.
STARR: He did hear something. And he wanted us to record other people's songs. And we said no. And every song he picked for us to record - that we didn't record - he gave to Jerry and the Pacemakers, or they're Brian Epstein acts usually. And they all had hits with it. You know, so it wasn't like he was picking bad stuff, but we were determined only to do our music. You know, Lennon and McCartney.
So, everyone was inventing because we were new at this and suddenly, can we do this, can we do that? And with George's help - well, I don't know why not, boys, and you know. We went and we did the first album in 12 hours and then we started to bring in more music. It changed on "Rubber Soul." It went, you know, and then it ended up for me "The White Album." We can't dismiss "Sgt. Pepper," but I loved "The White Album" and "Abbey Road," you know what I mean? You can feel we know what we're doing more.
Web Exclusive Interview with Ringo (Excerpts)
By Billy Amendola
MD: Do you ever record with a click-track?
Ringo: Never do. Click tracks make me too tense. I'm useless with a click track. I'm just not from the click track school.
MD: How did you develop the two-handed snare/floor-tom rolls, like on "Tell Me Why" and "Help"?
Ringo: Well, it's the only way I can do it, I suppose. That's just how it worked out. I didn't develop anything really; I just did it that way.
Is it time to re-evaluate Ringo Starr?
December 12, 2013 - Greg Kot - Chicago Tribune
One problem with being as big as the Beatles is that myths get ingrained and are repeated so often that they after a few decades they’re treated as fact. Ringo Starr may be one of the four most famous people ever to play in a rock ‘n’ roll band, but he’s also popularly perceived as one of the luckiest, his contributions to a legendary legacy dwarfed by those of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
If anyone’s due for a re-evaluation in the most famous rock band of all time, it’s Richy Starkey, born 73 years ago in Liverpool. The publication a few weeks ago of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In − The Beatles: All These Years, Vol 1, the first of a what is likely to be a definitive three-volume biography, goes a long way toward giving Ringo his due. It’s one of the things I like best about a book that doesn’t just rehash the same old Beatles stories, but deconstructs, revises and sometimes rebuts them.
Starkey was a sickly child and a ‘no hoper’ student, in Lewisohn’s telling, but he grew into an accomplished girl magnet and one of the best dancers in Liverpool – a guy who could flip, flop and fly the girls on the dancefloor. He ran with a rough crowd − a gang of Teddy boys – and he could play the drums. At one point, he was playing with as many as three bands a night, so in demand were his skills as a musician who helped bridge the gap between the short-lived skiffle era and rock ‘n’ roll. In 1960, with Ringo Starr on drums, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were the city’s biggest band. The Beatles coveted Starr’s skills but were somewhat intimidated by him; “he looked the nasty one,” Harrison once said.
He was slightly older than the rest of the Beatles, and even the never-easily-impressed Lennon embraced him as a peer. So did McCartney, saying: “He’s a grown-up, Ringo – always is, always has been. I suspect when he was about three he was a grown-up.”
League of his own
When the Beatles finally sacked Pete Best and invited Starr to join in 1962, he set up his kit at the first show with his name on the kick drum, not the band’s. That would soon change, but the implication was that Starr didn’t feel at all out of his league in Liverpool’s fastest-rising rock band. They needed him perhaps more than he needed them, given the deficiencies of Best, who was essentially a one-trick basher and was holding them back.
Harrison rhapsodised about Starr’s debut on 18 August 1962: “From that moment on, it gelled – the Beatles just went on to a different level.”
“He was the guy the Beatles always wanted,” Lewisohn told me in a recent interview. “He was everything Pete Best wasn’t … He was rock steady, he could play all the styles…. [His style] was sympathetic to everything they did … It brought an extra element to their songs that was in complete tune with what they were thinking.”
He was the missing piece, even if Beatles producer George Martin didn’t immediately recognizs it. Martin brought in a session drummer to help the Beatles record their first single for EMI, a slight that tainted Ringo’s relationship with the producer for years (though it’s Ringo’s version of Love Me Do that was eventually released as the single’s A-side; Andy White played drums on the B-side, PS I Love You).
It also fed into the idea that Starr was somehow not good enough, amplified by Ringo’s own insecurities about joining the inner circle of the tight-knit trio up front. But those doubts evaporated when the band returned to Abbey Road studio two months later to record Please Please Me. There was no studio drummer in place this time, and Ringo’s live-in-the-studio performance with the other three band members exploded out of the speakers. Martin, usually ultra-reserved about such matters, told the band they’d just made a number one record, and he was right.
Starr’s work on the Beatles recordings is astonishing, even if it didn’t jump out in the way the drumming of other ‘60s icons did – the nonstop fury of The Who’s Keith Moon, the African-inspired virtuosity of Cream’s Ginger Baker, the thunderous swing of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. Ringo almost never gets name-checked as an innovator, in part because he didn’t play solos (except for the exquisite drum break on The End from the 1969 Abbey Road album). But consider how he makes the complicated shifts in métier sound effortless on Here Comes the Sun, the rolling, proto-metal tom-tom groove of Rain, the tribal dance thump of Tomorrow Never Knows, the hi-hat work on Come Together, the syncopated propulsion of Ticket to Ride.
Starr gave each song exactly what it needed, but he didn’t call attention to himself while doing it. The only thing flash about Ringo were the rings on his fingers, which inspired his nickname, and the mega-watt grin he wore on stage.
“He is nowhere near as flashy as so many drummers, but that isn’t what the musicians wanted,” Lewisohn told me. “He brought his personality to the kit, but he wasn’t flash. The Beatles recorded 215 tracks (between 1962 and 1970) in all these different styles … and how many tracks have bad drumming? The answer is zero.”
An interview with Jim Keltner
Excerpts From Modern Drummer Magazine:
JK: I never took gear to his (George Harrison's) place because years ago I had DW send him a real nice drum set with all the hardware and everything, and then Paiste sent a bunch of cymbals and stuff. So he pretty much had everything I—or anybody—would need. So when I would go to his studio at Friar Park later on, I would hardly ever take anything with me, maybe just a certain cymbal and a snare…little things. Now, George had this tremendous living room, which was like three stories high, with a balcony overlooking it. My bedroom was on the third floor—"the loft," they used to call it. It was a beautiful place with a kitchen and den and everything. I used to come down in the morning and stand on this part of the balcony that extends out over the room a little bit. A few times over the years I’d snap my fingers to hear the sound, and I’d say to George, "It would be great to have the drums here," and he’d just laugh, because he had a major studio built in another part of the house; why would he want to put drums there? But when I arrived for this recording, I walked in and the drums were set up right in that space. I was so knocked out. He did that for me. I guess he asked the engineer John Etchells whether the sound would be controllable. So he went out and tested a few things and said, "It would be great." I remember they had a whole bunch of 87’s [mic’s] out over the room to get the room sound. And I ended up using George’s drum set. I didn’t even use any of my snares.
MD: How about cymbals?
JK: I might have used one of my cymbals. The hi-hats were a pair of Arbiters that said "602" on them. So they were early Paistes before they put their company name on their cymbals. They were given to Ringo, and he gave them to George. Ringo always played a beautiful Paiste 602 crash-ride, and his hi-hats are 14" Zildjians that are so old you can barely see any logo. He preferred those, so he left the Arbiter Paiste hats with George. George had them in his studio for years. I used those hi-hats on everything I ever played with George—Cloud Nine…everything.
MD: The Traveling Wilburys albums too?
JK: No, both Wilburys recordings were done in California, so it was all my gear. Anyway, on the last day of the sessions for Brainwashed, as I was packing up, I was putting the cymbals back in the box like I’d done for so many years, and I said, "George I’m going to take these hi-hats with me." He said, "Why are you taking me hats?" And I said, "I’ve been coming here for years, and nobody else ever uses them but me. Year after year, I come here to record, I go to the box they’re in, and there they are in the same position I put them in the last time. [laughs] Other people who have recorded here, Ray Cooper or Jim Capaldi, they come by and play, and they never use them. They use the new batch that I had sent, or something else. So it’s a shame to just leave them here un-played. They’re still yours, though, so I’ll bring them back." And he said, "Okay." But I never got a chance to give them back to him. So I’ll probably give them back to Dhani.