One of the most frequent goals I have observed in drum students over the past 5 years is playing more creative drum fills. There is a lot to take into account here but the aim should be to make this second nature, so it’s best to consider this process in phases:
1. Understand how to read music: This is one of the most common things drummers have to revisit if it was something they bypassed in the early stage. No matter what you are playing, your understanding of music notation is invaluable to actually functioning as a musician. While we use our ears to take music in, the visual connection will help you identify the look of a note with the sound it creates or more importantly, the look of a collection of notes with the rhythms they create when played together. I believe this is the first step towards ANYTHING that involves learning an instrument. If you have not yet learned how to read music, please do so. Then proceed to point 2. If you have, let’s move on…
2. Focus on coordination: Assuming we already have good technique and understand note values, it is important to develop exercises to improve hand-hand and hand-foot coordination. 2 good resources for this are George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control and Marvin Dahlgren’s 4 Way Coordination. In other words, the focus should not immediately be on drum fills. Your body needs to start functioning in a way that will allow you to execute more intricate patterns on the drums. The hand exercises can be done on a drum pad but I would recommend also incorporating them on the drum set so you can practice moving around it, as you would be doing with many fills. The hand-foot patterns should always be done on a drum set but if the specified exercise only consists of a snare and bass part, consider trying the snare part on other drums to practice these combinations around the set in ways that could potentially even become their own drum fills.
3. Work with a metronome: Whether it’s the coordination exercises we discussed above, drum beats, or any other exercise, it is extremely important to work with a metronome on a daily basis. Not only will this improve your ability to play on tempo but it will help you navigate between each section of the songs you play with confidence that you will always land on the 1. When it comes to drum fills specifically, the fill itself is much less important than whether you come out of it still on tempo. I often say that groove is much more important than notes, so if there is any risk that you are not going to land on the 1 following a fill, it is better to not play one at all. Here is a good exercise for this purpose:
- Plug headphones into a metronome so you can play your drums and clearly hear each metronome click.
- Set the metronome to a tempo that is comfortable enough for you to play a basic drum beat and the drum fills you will attempt without.
- Focusing on 2 measure increments in 4/4 time (8 beats total), play 1 1/2 measures of a drum beat and a 1/2 measure fill (6 beats of a drum beat / 2 beat drum fill) – Start with basic beats and basic fills with the primary focus being TEMPO. Hit the crash cymbal on every 1 beat after your drum fill and make sure it lines up with the 1 beat on your metronome. Repeat this process several times, then try another fill and possibly even another beat. If your beats or fills are not staying on tempo, dedicate time to this exercise.
- You could also modify the increments to play longer or shorter drum fills. Additionally, you could try this at different tempos and playing different fills.
4. Practice rudiments: Those 40 drum rudiments you learned at your first drum lesson were not just something your drum teacher was giving you to avoid having to actually teach. I always say, there are 2 elements involved with playing the drums: 1) The theoretical – Theories, patterns, exercises, and other things that are more relevant for practice purposes. 2) The applied – Taking the theoretical and applying them to your playing. A paradiddle for example (RLRR LRLL) would be considered part of the theoretical side but as you take that sticking combination and apply it towards your playing, you will find some very cool possibilities and sounds. I would make it a goal to play through the 40 rudiments and try implementing them with other patterns on the drum set to create drum fills.
5. Play drum fills from your favorite recordings: Whether you find videos on the internet, buy sheet music, or ask your drum teacher to write them out, imitating drum fills in the styles you seek to learn is a great idea. This way you are putting already established ideas into your knowledge base to either use in your playing or adapt to create your own ideas. Think what might happen if you took a John Bonham drum fill and chopped it up a little – Displace a few notes, slow it down, and incorporate the same rhythms using different drums OR added a few accents and buzz strokes OR ___(Fill in the blank)___. Any way you slice it, taking inspiration from the ideas professionals have already put out into the world is a very effective way to grow in any trade.
6. Play drum fills others have written out: Joel Rothman has a very cool book titled Rock with Hand-Foot Drum Breaks. Going back to point 1, it will require an understanding of music notation. This book contains a HUGE collection of drum fills. I have several students working out of this book with notable improvements observed and highly recommend it for any drummer seeking advice on drum fills.
7. Experiment: A lot of aspiring drummers don’t have enough faith in their own creativity. Put it to use. It is the only way you will find out what you are innately capable of. You might surprise yourself and come up with some cool ideas. Or, you might find that you need a drum teacher to help you out. Wherever you land, now you know. I have stumbled upon many cool ideas by experimenting and playing things by accident. The worst thing that could happen is that you will learn what the next step should be.
Hopefully this was helpful. Please drop me a line if I can assist you further or clarify any points in this article. Good luck, and stay resilient!