“I needs more fills!” said every drum student ever. We’ve all had the desire for more fills, but before you can discover the Lick Of Destiny or Chop Of Doom, you should understand the purpose of a fill.

Fills help to sonically lead or project an upcoming musical passage. For example, at the end of a first verse that is repeating back to another verse without substantial compositional development, a small, understated fill works best. Perhaps a little rhythm on beat 4, or just an open hi-hat on the & of beat without a crash afterward; or maybe a big, dramatic fill leading into that huge halftime feel at the bridge of the tune works best.

Fills also allow a drummer to interact or respond to another instrumentalist or to support a lyric. Many country pop songs have drum fills that rhythmically match the lyric. In improvisational music, each fill should be in response to something another musician played in order to keep the conversation progressing forward. Yes, fills can also be used for a drummer to throw down the chops when needed, but that must be done with tact.

This month we take a look at a few legendary drummers: Al Jackson Jr., Mick Fleetwood, and the drummers of Motown. Al had the incredibility to see the big picture when developing a drum part for a hit record—he knew when to save the big fill and when to keep it simple and effective. Mick always plays for the song and creates fills that are integral to the tunes. The Motown drummers always added a signature fill to the tunes they played on but were unfortunately not properly credited, thus leaving us to wonder if it was Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen, Uriel Jones, or perhaps Larrie Londin on those grooving tracks.

‘Boot Leg,’ Booker T. & The MGs (Al Jackson. Jr., drums)

On this Booker T. & The MGs tune Jackson plays very similar fills throughout the tune, until the break near the end where he plays an entirely different type of fill that stands out and acts as a highlight in the song.


Ex. 1 is the main groove.

Ex. 1

Ex. 2 is the fill coming out of intro leading to the A section.

Ex. 2

Ex. 3 is the fill leading into horns taking the riff over (second A section).

Ex. 3

Ex. 4 is the fill leading into to the V chord.

Ex. 4

At the end of the A section there is a break where he chooses to play no fill at all and allows the bass guitar to set up the bridge. A longer (entire measure) fill comes out of the bridge back to the A section (Ex. 5).

Ex. 5

Then he goes back to a simpler (and repeated) fill coming out of the I chord to the V chord (Ex. 6).

Ex. 6

At the end of this A section, he decides to play a bolder fill with double stops and a more syncopated rhythm (Ex. 7).

Ex. 7

And he ends with a repeated fill from earlier for the one audible fill in the outro (Ex. 8).

Ex. 8

As you can see and hear, Jackson plays very consistent fill ideas and saves the big one for the right moment. Think about this the next time you are trying to develop fill ideas for a song.