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Take tour of Ringo’s drums, attire

New book offers details about instruments, artist

By Adam Bell, The Charlotte Observer
Published: March 16, 2024, 5:16am

Sixty years ago, a boy named Gary Astridge knew nothing about The Beatles.

The 7-year-old was celebrating his grandmom’s birthday with his family in Buffalo, N.Y., when someone realized it was almost 8 o’clock. They dutifully crammed into the family room, turned on the TV to CBS and waited for “The Ed Sullivan Show” to begin. The Beatles had arrived.

Some 73 million of their fellow citizens joined them that night watching The Beatles’ debut in America on Feb. 9, 1964.

Astridge slowly got into the music as the camera zoomed in on the drummer. There was Ringo Starr, wailing away on his Ludwig Downbeat oyster black pearl drum kit. “It changed me,” Astridge recalled. “He was my guy. That moment in time made me a Beatles fan and I wanted to be a drummer.”

What Astridge became was an historian on all things related to Starr’s Beatles drum kits, launching a website devoted to them and collaborating with Starr on various drum projects.

Their latest effort is a new, 312-page limited-edition book called “Beats & Threads.” It combines essays and close-up photos of the five main drum kits Starr used during his Beatles career for his beats.

As for his threads? Well, they’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile. And while his clothes bore many different labels, the only name on Starr’s drums — then and now — is Ludwig.

The venerable company was founded in Chicago in 1909. Forty years ago in 1984, Ludwig relocated to Monroe, N.C., where east of Charlotte it continues to manufacture its iconic drums for Starr, other pro drummers and drum enthusiasts around the world.

While Starr was unavailable for comment, The Charlotte Observer spoke with Astridge about the book, his decades of research and Starr’s time-tested affinity for Ludwig Drums.

Astridge had long mulled a book project about the history of Starr’s drums, but didn’t want to appear like he was taking advantage of their friendship. Then Starr’s personal assistant came up with the idea to combine Starr’s drums and fashion sense into one book project. Comments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you talk about the significance of the Ludwig drums to the overall Beatles sound?

Ringo has told me many times he just loves Ludwig drums. He loves the fact that they’re made in America. He loves the sound — and he’s still playing them. I think he has a 1940 Ludwig drum set in his home studio (in LA). He wanted one from the same year of his birth.

How many of his drum kits from The Beatles era still survive?

He had five (main ones) that he actually played. One was auctioned off (in 2015, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay paid $2.2 million for Starr’s 1963 Ludwig oyster pearl drum kit) and he still has four.

In the book, you noted there was some storage problem with the kits in England, in a building with faulty climate control.

Yes, it was an unfortunate situation and the maple kit (used from 1968-70) suffered a lot of damage from the weather. If the timing wasn’t what it was to retrieve and restore it, the kit would have been beyond repair. We’re talking about historical artifacts that were poorly kept. But everything’s in the States now, in a highly secure location and well-protected.

When you said Ringo used the hi hat (a pair of foot-operated cymbals forming part of a drum kit) for a “wash sound” that was important for The Beatles’ early sound, what did you mean by that?

When closed, hi hats create a sound that is short and crisp. The way Ringo played his hi hat early on created something unique and distinctive. When he used them partially open, his hats were loud and bright. They cut through the music. Great examples are: “All My Loving,” “She Loves You,” “Tell Me Why” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”

He’s a minimalist. That’s his comfort zone. He says, “This is all I need: a snare, floor tom, bass drum, cymbals, hi hats.” And when you listen to The Beatles’ catalog, he was able to get a number of different sounds from the sets he had.

So how did you all narrow down the fashion to include in the book?

Ringo has a massive collection of his original clothes, and everything was archived. It reached the point of, how much do we want to put in here? But they all had a story to tell. Then (he took) the Sgt. Pepper jacket out, and put it on, and it still fit him. It was amazing.

I loved some of those pictures where you see Ringo wearing his vintage clothes with those old drum kits.

He was like a little kid, just putting it on and cracking jokes. One of the people in the video lighting crew, when they were finished shooting (the book-related video), said, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I got to see Ringo playing drums.” I said, “You saw more than that. You saw him playing his Beatles kits, and probably for the last time.” And that went through my head that night. God am I blessed, you know, to experience that.

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