If you are a beginner drummer or interested in learning the drums, you will come across the terms "beats" and "fills" all of the time.
A drumbeat is a generic term for the rhythmic pattern being played in a song, and this is a fairly straightforward concept to grasp. But what on earth is a drum fill, where are they used, and how do beginner drummers (and more experienced drummers, for that matter) develop them into a tasteful and musical element of their drumming?
We hear drum fills a lot in music, and probably the most famous is from the song "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins. Check it out at 3:40 - the chances are, you've heard it many times before. Not all drum fills are as dramatic as this, as we will soon talk about. It is, nonetheless, a terrific example.
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In our glossary, we describe drum fills as "Rhythmic patterns that we play mostly on the snare drum and toms. Drum fills usually occur at “transitional points” in music. For example, when we pass from a verse to a chorus, that can be considered a transitional point. When we pass from a chorus back to a verse, the same applies. There are other appropriate places where drum fills can be used musically - and we discuss them in our videos. Drum fills can vary in length and are an important part of drumming and musicality on the drum set." As a preface to this article, it may well be worth checking our free lessons page. You'll see a video on drum fills from Module 2: "The One Beat Drum Fill."
How can drum fills be made better?
When drum students ask this, they have often hit a plateau and find themselves in a comfort zone of playing the same drum fills or minor variations of the same fills routinely. The hidden question is often: How do I make my drum fills more creative? There is no shortcut to being creative on the drum set, which applies to drumbeats and fills alike. The good news is that a basic understanding of the fundamentals is a massive stride in the right direction, and that is what Drum Ambition is all about. We all hear fills in everyday songs that get our attention for sounding cool, original, and musical. We can indeed learn them by ear and perhaps even embellish to make them our own. But without the necessary control to execute them, the exercise is only somewhat complete.
How do we build control?
The first step is to have a good understanding of rhythm in general. We do this by learning to read music, count music, and crucially when it comes to drum fills, understanding the sticking leading to a successful orchestration. When we refer to sticking, we refer to which hand plays which note. While this is a seemingly straightforward concept, learning effective sticking is a culmination of the previously mentioned rhythmic fundamentals: reading and counting. Drum Ambition has a series of music notation videos that teach you everything from basic note values to counting, reading, and sticking more complex rhythmic phrases. The first notation video is free, and you can watch it here.
What does it mean to orchestrate fills?
When we talk about the orchestration of drum fills, we are talking about the order in which we hit the drums to produce our desired fill. But there are other important considerations beyond this. How long is the fill? Is it a rudimental-based fill? How fast is the fill? Are there dynamics within the fill? Let's address these point by point.
How long is the fill?
Drum fills vary in length from one beat, two-beat, three-beat, and full-bar fills, to extended fills that stretch beyond a full bar. If you are not familiar with these musical terms, look at them simply as short, medium, long, and extended fills. All are common, and all have different uses depending on their placement within a song. Drum Ambition members can learn full bar fills in 8th note, 16th note, and triplet combinations in Module 1. In Module 2, you will learn about 1, 2, and 3 beat fills.
Is the fill rudiment-based?
The most common rudiments used in drum fills include single strokes, double strokes, drags, and flams. Understanding how to play these rudiments, and essentially, how to blend them with basic sticking patterns is essential in playing these types of fills. At Drum Ambition, we are all about the fundamentals. Our recommendation is to build competency in non-rudimental fills first; otherwise, you are in danger of putting the cart before the horse. When you are ready, you can learn about rudiment-based drum fills in Module 2.
How fast is the fill?
Speed is a byproduct of control. If you aspire to play fast-tempo drum fills, you need to build control by reading, counting and sticking.
Are there dynamics in the fill?
Drummers can make drumbeats and drum fills musical by adding dynamics. Simply put, dynamics refers to how hard, soft (and anywhere in between) we are playing any given note. We do this by refining our sticking technique in a series of motions, known as down, tap, up, and full strokes. This is covered in great detail on Drum Ambition, and subscribers can see this in practice in Module 1, Lesson 20.
How else can I learn drum fills?
If you have a good knowledge of reading and counting already, many books cover this topic. The one problem with this is that you often have to subscribe to the author's interpretation of how to stick these fills, and their successful execution can depend on it. Often, it can be frustrating learning from such books because you have to navigate somewhat inconsistent sticking patterns. Drum Ambition teaches you a concept we call root-note sticking, which you can apply successfully and universally to most fills, with a few exceptions.
So much depends on understanding drumming fundamentals. Our videos walk you step by step through the important early days of drumming to help start you on the right track and build your skills methodically and consistently. We keep our videos short and concise and always emphasize the importance of having fun along the way. More experienced drummers can also benefit from our platform, particularly if there is a need to learn music notation, sticking, and musicality. You can view our full curriculum here.
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