Have you ever driven home from a gig or rehearsal and turned the radio off? Sometimes hearing too many notes can cause ear fatigue. It’s easy, then, for us to empathize with our audience, who are often less affected by our incredible chops than the energy, dynamics, feel, and creativity that we bring to the table in the band. Sometimes, the best thing we can do as drummers for a given song is to play fewer notes.

As drummers, we’re constantly bombarded by the notion of playing more and more notes. Thousands of websites, videos, and apps all promise awe-inspiring licks and grooves, advanced independence, gospel chops, polyrhythms, blastbeats — the list goes on. As we assimilate these skills into our playing, it’s easy to lose sight of musicality. Overplaying becomes habit, and our collective reputation as drummers can eventually become tarnished.

Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Neil Peart, Tony Williams, and Thomas Pridgen are all known for playing with a high degree of rhythmic density; however, they get away with extreme note-iness because they know exactly when to dig into their bag of tricks.

On the other hand, drummers like Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, Steve Gadd, Steve Ferrone, and Steve Jordan are all known for pocket playing and leaving space. This approach brings a sense of give and take to your group, and it can have a positive influence on morale and teamwork among bandmembers. Not only does it take focus and discipline to pull off, it also requires its own set of technical skills and conceptual understanding.

The following categories will help lead you down a more understated path, which can’t be a bad thing. So lock yourself into a practice room, open up your metronome app, and get ready to play fewer notes. As Miles Davis once famously said, “I always listen to what I can leave out.”

Song Structure

Some of our most beloved tracks include entire sections where the drums lay out. These arrangements are almost always connected to song structure and the need to build momentum and change texture from one section to the next. When the drums come back in, the music becomes immediately invigorated. One great example of this is “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin. Though John Bonham does tap overdubbed consecutive sixteenths on a guitar case in the verse and pre-chorus, our ears perk up when the drum set enters with a short snare fill into the chorus (Ex. 1). If you’ve ever played this tune live, you realize firsthand how effectively this builds tension and unleashes the power of the song.

Room For Fills

Fills connect and help to lift up one phrase (or song section) to the next. Though fills often sound fine when played over harmony and melody, you can reduce muddiness by having your bandmates give you space. You can also work out or improvise fills with your bass player (Keith Moon and John Entwistle come to mind). However, it takes the most self-control to leave a blank spot or room for other musicians in the band — the bassist, for instance — to do a fill. In Exs. 2-3, your job is to remain silent at the end of each four-bar phrase. A half-measure pause is used in Ex. 2, while Ex. 3 calls for you to pause for an entire measure. The key to this, especially when playing without a metronome, is to find a way to subdivide in open space so that you come back in right on the money. Counting quietly, clicking your heel, moving your arms, or grinding your teeth in time (don’t tell your dentist) are all ways to accomplish this.


A few years ago, I subbed for a popular Top 40 cover band in the Phoenix area. Even though the songs were fairly simple, I was forced to construct chart after chart because of the large number of arranged pauses. Influenced by the success of hip-hop, songwriters and producers have flocked to incorporate pauses in the music to emulate the powerful pauses common throughout that genre. Most of these stops happen on 1 or 3, but they can happen anywhere. Exs. 4–7 introduce stopping and starting in a variety of ways. As in the previous section, make sure to subdivide in the open space.

Rhythmic Flow

Whether playing grooves, fills, or solo material, you can break up the rhythmic flow by using stops. For Exs. 8–15, the first measure shows the complete phrase, and the second measure includes the break. When executing the stop measure, make sure to follow the prescribed sticking, which is based on the original measure.


choke occurs when you strike a cymbal with the shoulder of your stick and one hand mutes the vibrations right after contact. Played along with the bass drum or snare, this technique produces an extremely effective musical punctuation mark. In Ex. 16, assuming that the right hand (or lead hand) plays time on the hi-hat, you only have a sixteenth-note to respond with the same hand. Unless the tempo is slow, it’s easier to reach around with your off hand — which, in this case, just played the snare on beat 2 — to grab the cymbal. In Ex. 17, there is time to clutch the cymbal with the other hand.


bark is produced when an open hi-hat sound is followed immediately by a closing hi-hat (a sixteenth-note later in Ex. 18). When accompanied by a bass drum, it sounds like a dog barking, hence the name.

Ride Bell

When the ride bell is played with the tip of the stick at the end of a phrase, you get an interestingly mysterious effect. (Ex. 19)

Power Flam

power flam (also called a reverse flam) happens when both sticks rise high off the snare drum but the lead hand comes up higher than the other hand. As the sticks hurtle toward the drumhead, the lead hand then accelerates past the offhand, making first contact with the head (followed by the offhand). This produces a thick, explosive pop that is perfect for stops, especially when preceded by a bass drum, which provides the necessary amount of low-end support (Exs. 20–21).


Leaving notes out isn’t the only way to leave space. From an audience’s point of view, lower dynamics serve the same function. In Nirvana’s “Lithium,” performed by Dave Grohl (Ex. 22), the verse beat (the first three measures are shown here) is sparse and subdued as closed hi-hat and rim-clicks provide subtle timekeeping in the background. A powerful fill in measure 4 sends us into a more active, powerful chorus groove.

Voice Reduction 

When one or more of your ensemble members play busy parts, it may seem like a no-brainer to follow suit. However, you can often add more to the group sound by playing sparsely instead. One way of doing this is to eliminate parts of the kit that make up your beats. When you add more space, it tends to spotlight a part played or sung by another musician. Ex. 23a is a typical rock/funk beat that combines three voices (hi-hat, snare,  and bass drum), which are then separated out in Exs. 23b–d and reassembled as two voices in Exs. 23e–g.

Leave Out Backbeats

Stewart Copeland has said that backbeats make everyone feel comfortable. But when we take them away, it creates a lot of rhythmic freedom and serves up valuable space. A great example of this is the intro to “Driven To Tears” by The Police (Ex. 24).

Sparse Bass Drum

The bass drum can be considered the foundational element in many grooves. When you lessen the number of bass drum notes in a phrase, it opens up space for other instruments, both rhythmically and sonically. In Ex. 25, the sparseness in the middle of the groove creates a call-and-response vibe between the beginning and end of the phrase. Taking away bass notes found in a typical samba produces a feeling of openness and multi-dimensionality (Ex. 26).

Lead Hand

Pop grooves often involve the lead hand playing eighths or sixteenths on the hi-hat, ride cymbal, or floor tom. This serves to fill up the overall sound and help the groove by providing the necessary subdivision to the band. However, when you go in the other direction and play fewer notes with the lead hand, it generates a great deal of room and can be a balance against busy parts played by other instruments. Ex. 27a uses quarter-notes on the hi-hat, while Ex. 27b is the same kick-snare pattern but with half-notes on the hi-hat.

Sustained Cymbals

Long-sustaining drums or cymbals are a double-edged sword. These sounds not only take up a lot of space, but, depending on your perspective, can also appear to provide space. In Ex. 28, three hi-hat
openings provide room in a funk context. The crash/snare hit on the & of 4 in measure 2 of Ex. 29 (a reggae pattern) rings out over one measure of space before the beat picks up again in measure 4.

Sustained Toms

Flat flams between the floor and high tom are given ample room to resonate in the following tribal pattern (Ex. 30).

Call And Response

Playing a rhythmic figure at the beginning of a phrase and then allowing for some room to breathe opens up the possibility of responding at the end of the phrase (Exs. 31–32).

Space At The Beginning

A simple but artful programmed drum part by Charlie Puth from his hit “Attention” uses quarter-notes on the bass drum in the first chorus (Ex. 33). The rest of the “band” (all instruments performed by Puth) comes in on the very next downbeat (beginning of the second verse), but the drums lay out until beat 4. This staggered approach surprises the ears of the listener and helps push the song forward.

Partial Rudiments

If you leave space while applying rudiments to the drum kit, you’ll sound more like Steve Gadd. The exercises here use paradiddles (Ex. 34), double paradiddles (Ex. 35), and displaced doubles (Ex. 36). Notice how the sticking involved with each rudiment picks right back up after each pause.


Instead of playing hi-hat sixteenths all the way through the intro groove to “Shine” by Collective Soul, Shane Evans instead picks and chooses his spots, highlighting the syncopation found in the bass drum part (Ex. 37). The result is so magnificent you wonder why this isn’t done more often.

Lyrical Spotlight

Stops can serve to spotlight certain lyrical elements. Melvin Parker plays a stop on beat 1 of measure 2, and James Brown immediately calls out “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” (Ex 38). When I recorded the Jed’s A Millionaire song “You Are Not Alone” (Ex. 39) I broke up a driving eighth-note rock groove with a stop on the & of 3 in measure 2, framing the vocal line, “You might feel like you’re drowning.”