Cochlear hair cells form ribbon synapses with terminals of the cochlear nerve. To test the hypothesis that one function of the ribbon is to create synaptic vesicles from the cisternal structures that are abundant at the base of hair cells, we analyzed the distribution of vesicles and cisterns around ribbons from serial sections of inner hair cells in the cat, and compared data from low and high spontaneous rate (SR) synapses. Consistent with the hypothesis, we identified a “sphere of influence” of 350 nm around the ribbon, with fewer cisterns and many more synaptic vesicles. Although high- and low-SR ribbons tended to be longer and thinner than high-SR ribbons, the total volume of the two ribbon types was similar. There were almost as many vesicles docked at the active zone as attached to the ribbon. The major SR-related difference was that low-SR ribbons had more synaptic vesicles intimately associated with them. Our data suggest a trend in which low-SR synapses had more vesicles attached to the ribbon (51.3 vs. 42.8), more docked between the ribbon and the membrane (12 vs. 8.2), more docked at the active zone (56.9 vs. 44.2), and more vesicles within the “sphere of influence” (218 vs. 166). These data suggest that the structural differences between high- and low-SR synapses may be more a consequence, than a determinant, of the physiological differences. J. Comp. Neurol. J. Comp. Neurol. 521:3260–3271, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.