BY BRAD SCHLUETER
Far too many drummers struggle with getting into and out of their fills while other drummers just seem to do it easily and naturally. You may assume it’s an innate talent some lucky drummers are just born with — but you’d be mistaken. It’s the norm to have to work hard to develop a nice consistent pocket. This is actually good news because it means we can all improve at this essential skill simply by working at it persistently and pragmatically. Since other musicians usually hire us to play songs in a musically appropriate and supportive manner, grooving well is more important for most drummers than improving their blastbeats, soloing, or breaking the land-speed record for double-gridded flam paradiddles. Grooving and getting in and out of your fills smoothly is of the utmost importance to any performing drummer.
Ex. 1 Fill Exercise
Here’s an exercise to help you get better at transitioning back and forth between your grooves and fills. Most great groove drummers eschew complicated fills in favor of simpler, more familiar patterns, so we’ll do the same in this exercise.
This exercise has eight common one-beat fills, seen at the top of the exercise, with each fill’s sticking written underneath. There are six common types of grooves beneath them. You’ll notice that there are only three beats of each groove written out, followed by a slash with the word “fill” written above it. Our goal is to insert each of the fills into the end of each groove where the slash is written.
First, we’ll play the pattern, then add the first fill on the snare drum, then repeat the beat, but this time we’ll play the same fill on the high tom, repeating the groove and moving the fill around the rest of the toms. The next time through the groove we’ll play the second fill on the snare, repeat the groove, and play the second fill on the high tom, etc. I’ve written out the first three fills with the eighth-note rock groove at the bottom of the exercise. Just remember to continue through all eight of the fills. If you do this you’ll have played the beat 32 times and each fill four times.
Your goal is to get through the entire line of fills without a glitch, rushed fill, or any other type of musical hiccup. This can be surprisingly difficult to do. If you’re turning up your nose at this simple exercise, go ahead and try it, but prepare to be humbled. This is why studio drummers get paid so well.
Once you’ve tried this exercise with each of these basic grooves you may notice that the fills feel differently depending on which groove you play them with. The exact same fill can feel very different with a double-time punk groove than with an upbeat disco pattern. The three triplet fills at the end may feel a little strange with the sixteenth-note ballad groove. I’d recommend starting at a comfortable tempo to get familiar with each groove and then working your way out of your comfort zone. You may find slower tempos harder than you expect.
I’m keeping the patterns very short so you work the transitions much more often. This should help you discover your rough spots sooner so you can make any necessary adjustments and ultimately improve more rapidly. Be persistent and don’t expect to perfect this exercise quickly. Once you do, use slightly harder versions of these beats, adding open hi-hat notes, ghosted snare notes, and more bass drum notes. You can also work at longer fills and combine the rhythms at the top of the exercise.
Here are some other ways to improve your groove and fill playing.
On The Record
One of the best and simplest things you can do is record your playing. Whether you’re gigging with a band or just practicing in the basement this can be quite revealing. If you are playing in a band I’d recommend recording your practices and gigs. This is especially revealing since it will quickly let you know your problem spots in a real-world situation when the adrenaline is flowing. Once you identify your problems you can focus on how to fix them.
The Cruel Tool
Are you terrified at the prospect of recording to a click track? Some of you may have begun trembling uncontrollably. Calm down and breathe deeply. Better now? Good. Today meter matters more than ever. Most professional recordings are done to a click and many bands use backing tracks live, so it’s best you begin to acquire this skill now if you haven’t already. If you have a metronome, find it, dust it off, replace the batteries, and start using it. However, when you first begin working on something new, I’d recommend leaving the click off and just counting it. Once you think you have it down, turn on the cruel tool and try to make peace with it.
The Tao Of Drum Fills
Now that you’re working on improving your fill transitions you may be wondering where, how, and why to add your newly improved skill.
Magnify The Mood
Musical drummers enhance the mood of the song, so it’s important to be aware of what the mood is for different parts of the song. Is it happy, energetic and rocking, slow, somber and sad, or something else? This can affect your choices greatly. This can be reflected via the tempo, of course (i.e., fast songs often have energetic fills), but the lyrics can also help cue you into the mood. More introspective songs often require fewer notes from us so knowing when to take the back seat can be important. If the song has a frenetic jam-band vibe playing busier with more frequent fills may be exactly what’s needed.
Ex. 2 Section Transitions
Fills are frequently used at song transitions leading from verse to chorus, chorus to verse, chorus to bridge, into solos, etc. Where the fill occurs within the song and how it functions at that point should influence your choice of what type of fill to play. For example, fills that lead into a chorus or ripping guitar solo are often longer and more energetic and driving to suit where the song is going. Those that lead back into the verse are often shorter and sparser to help bring the energy back down.
Ex. 3 Mile Markers
In some songs, fills are used to delineate the space. Often drummers may play a fill every four, eight, or sixteen bars to identify the midpoint of a verse or chorus. These fills tend to be short and to the point. These fills can also help a band stay together and often function like a GPS unit for everyone, especially in very repetitive sections of a tune.
Ex. 4 Groove Fills
By groove fill, I’m simply referring to a variation on a beat that functions as a fill. It really isn’t a fill; it’s just another beat, but it functions just like a fill. Groove fills also work great as mile markers. Groove fills are often busier than the rest of the groove.
Ex. 5 Hits
Certain fills are used to outline “hits” in the music. If you’re a big-band drummer, by hits I’m referring to the ensemble figures seen in a stage band chart. In rock, certain figures come up again and again primarily because guitarists don’t know that many rhythms … That was a joke (or was it?). Learning a few different ways to play those common figures can make your job more enjoyable and interesting. These figures are usually played loudly.
Ex. 6 Dynamic Transitions
A dynamic transition is one that takes you from one dynamic level to another. If the music in the verse is soft and the chorus is loud your fill should set up the change. Choosing a busy, energetic fill is one way to do that. Sometimes the change is sudden. While it’s easy to get loud quickly, how can you bring everything back down to a quiet level rapidly? Try playing a fill that dramatically ends with a loud open hi-hat accent at the end of one measure and then close the hi-hat on the downbeat and continue playing softly. For heavier styles of music, dig out your Nirvana CDs since Dave Grohl used that musical device often.
Ex. 7 Builds
Builds are an example of one type of dynamic transition that every drummer needs to know. They are those unison bass, tom, and snare crescendos that work in many, many songs. Simply loosening your hi-hat can function like a build. Try loosening your hi-hat pressure for one or two bars as you enter a chorus and those crescendoing cymbals will set up the change nicely. Sometimes adding an accent to the beginning of a build can have a sforzando effect (sudden, strong emphasis).
Ex. 8 Build With Fill
These are builds that end with a fill layered on top of the bass drum part and add more drive to a standard build.
Ex. 9 Feel Transitions
A feel transition occurs when a song goes from, say, half time to double time, or an eighth-note feel to an eighth-note-triplet feel. These can be tricky to navigate and certain fills work better than others. Triplets work well when going into or out of double time because they lie right in the middle of the two speeds. Another simple way to go into double time is to play the new tempo as the basis of the fill. So, if the feel goes from backbeats on the quarter-notes to snare notes on the upbeats (double-time), try playing a simple eighth-note snare fill. One way to help slow down the feel is to play a sparse fill with the notes spread across the bar, often outlining every third eighth-note.
The Dig Me Fill
The “dig me” fill is usually a technical, fast, or complicated fill that is often meant to impress and excite the listener. You may be thinking I’m going to tell you never ever to play them, but the purpose of this article isn’t to make your playing bland and predictable. I confess I actually love dig me fills. They can add a lot of excitement to the music if used with discretion and at the right moment. They do, however, expose you to the potential of catastrophic embarrassment or worse — a sudden lack of musical employment. If you’re going to do one make sure you can get out of it cleanly and nail the 1. Remember, if you can’t nail it ten times in a row, don’t try it at a show!
The Sounds Of Silence
The composer John Cage has a composition named 4’33” in which no notes are played and listeners are meant to listen to the sounds around them while it is “performed.” There is a musical lesson to be learned here. Sometimes the most dramatic thing you can do is not to do what’s expected. Sometimes just grooving can build tension and anticipation for a fill, which you can prolong by not playing one. Not playing a fill into a chorus can make its entrance more surprising and effective. Many high-profile groove drummers play fills only when absolutely necessary. Exercising a little self-control and restraint in your playing can help you develop your groove more and remember that ultimately it’s much more about the groove than the fill.