Oh NO, not the same fill again!! **On the snare 3 e & ah 4 e & ah GO!!** Or the infamous “Pat Boone, Debbie Boone fill” – 3 & 4 e &. Yes, we’ve all played these and other classic fills a thousand times. I actually like them a lot. And so do artists and the listeners as well. Simple drum fills launch the band into new sections of a song with boldness and confidence. But how do we keep expanding our drum fill library and not just rely on the same old ideas? There has to be a way to use new and innovative concepts, and yet maintain that same “launching” effect that the standard fills create. Well, take heart my drumming comrades, there is a way; and I’m going to show you. Come follow me into the world of drum fill metamorphosis.
Keep in mind that the goal of our musical lives is to make the leaders happy. So I’ll always play whatever inspires them with as much passion as I can; even if I have played it a thousand times before. But I also strive to expand my arsenal of drumming ideas so that when the time is right I can also deliver something fresh and unexpected.
I always recommend building upon what you already play. I would not just try to pull something out of thin air. There should always be a foundation to build on. Of course, this is my method right now, and I’m always trying out new ideas. But over all it seems this approach works well.
Take a typical idea you already play a lot. Something like the first thing I mentioned – the snare fill on 3 e & ah 4 e & ah. Try playing 4 bar grooves playing this fill every 4th bar and see how many different things you can do with it. Start on the snare… then on the toms… then any combination of those. Also try starting a fill on the kick or hi-hat. Maybe even start on a crash and then move around the snare to the toms. Etc. Etc. You are only limited by your imagination AND your ability to coordinate a certain move. Don’t feel limited to just a single stroke roll or hand-to-hand pattern. Mix it up with doubles and paradiddles too. That’s when you discover how comfortable you are with your drum kit. Also, doing this exercise forces you to arrange your ideas because you don’t have to create new rhythms. This is the classic approach of “variations on a theme.”
As you work on new ideas be sure to also try dynamic changes in your fills as well as shifting the placement of accents. Start a fill as softly as you can and then build it to your loudest volume; or try going from loud to soft. Try also playing at all the same level.
Doing accents also gives you a huge amount of options to the sound of a drum fill. Start with the typical accent on every quarter note, and then try accenting all the “&’s” of the count. Then shift it to any of the notes within the phrase of the fill. Be sure to try double accents as well. That would be the “1 e” of the phrase, or the “ah 2”, or any combination you’d like. Again, the whole idea here is to create new ideas you have not tried before. Another option for using accents is to continually play a pattern on one drum, like the snare, and then hitting the accents on other drums or cymbals. Even adding kick drum hits with the accents as well. Practicing old fills in this sort of mechanical way will open new ways of thinking about playing these classic fills. You can apply these techniques to any pattern you can think of. Accents change everything! It’s like spice in your soup.
Accents change everything! It’s like spice in your soup.
Another great exercise for creating new drum ideas is to start a fill on different counts of a measure. You don’t have to play the same rhythm when you do this, but you can if you’d like. Start by playing a four bar groove and then in the last bar start a fill on the third count… or the two, or the four, or even the one. Whatever feels natural. The next time you come around start the fill on the “&” of that count… next time on the “e”, and so on. You’ll be surprised with how starting fills in different places in the bar forces you to play a fill differently. It may even reveal to you that you are not comfortable with certain starting points in a bar because it throws off your coordination. This is an awesome exercise for creating fills you never thought of before. Using the four bar phrase allows you to lock into a groove feel first. Remember, all drum fills have to fit musically within a certain feel. Just practicing patterns without a groove reference is only half of the job of learning new fills. The goal is to make them musically applicable. If something doesn’t work with the music don’t just throw it in there because you’ve been working on it.
One of my favorite drum fill ideas is to play them “over the bar line.” This means that as you finish the phrase you don’t hit the downbeat or the “1” of the next bar, but you crash or complete the fill anywhere after that. It could be hitting the “&” of 1, or the 2nd count, or any part of the bar you want. Just don’t hit the downbeat. The trick with this kind of fill, or any of them for that matter, is to maintain the feel of the groove. If you listen to the song “Hosanna” by Paul Baloche you’ll notice I did this kind of thing several times throughout the song.
As a final exercise in drum fill development try to play fills that you create by copying melodic phrases that you hear. It could be a melody of a song, or a guitar line that you hear. It might be a line that you hear a bass player do. For instance, the bass line from “Trading My Sorrows” is a great hook to copy. It really could be anything you hear within a song that inspires you to try to emulate it on the kit. Be aware of the low to high phrasing of the notes, and then try to make the drums copy the tonal range of the melody. Obviously you may not be able to do the melody note for note. But what you are trying to do is imitate the movement from high to low tones of your drum kit. This is a situation where I really enjoy playing a large drum kit in order to do this. But even on a scaled down “Ringo” kit (4 pieces + hi-hat, Ride, & 2 crashes) you should be able to respond melodically to whatever you hear. If you’d like to hear some drum ideas like this check out Paul Baloche’s “Our God Saves” project. On the songs “The Kingdom of God” and “Your Love Came Down” play close attention to melodic lines being sung and played on other instruments and how I reacted to them on the drums.
These methods of creating new fills can be done without getting into the method books. Although I recommend becoming a good reader, learning to create new ideas can happen just as easily by using your ear and these techniques. As you expand your “tool box” of drumming ideas be sure to remember to always honor the music and the people you play for. Sometimes the best drum groove or fill idea is still the simplest thing you can think of. But don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and see what happens. There are times it’s a good thing to venture into new territory. You might just “stumble into greatness.”