How to Make Your Drum-fills Achieve Legendary Status
Mastering drum fills can be a complex task for beginners and may remain challenging even at intermediate levels. However, the journey to proficiency is a rewarding one.
While the range of potential drum fills may seem overwhelming, applying foundational techniques can pave the way to greatness.
Below are the incremental steps I employ when teaching drum fills, designed to offer both immediate impact and lifelong learning.
Stay committed and patient—the results will follow.
1. Strong Rhythmic Foundation
Understanding music notation and rhythm counting is crucial for drumming precision. It not only helps you keep track of your position within a measure but also informs the timing of your drum fills. Beneath every intricate rhythm lies a simple rhythmic concept.
A solid foundation in rhythm is non-negotiable; without it, your drumming will lack depth and resonance, no matter how complex your patterns may be.
For new rhythmic ideas I highly recommend two books:
Incorporating accents into your drum fills adds a dynamic layer that can really make your playing stand out.
A solid starting point for mastering accents is the dedicated sections in the classic text, "Syncopation." Begin by playing the written accents on the snare while maintaining a quarter note pulse on the bass drum. Once you're comfortable with that, let your creativity soar—move those accents to the toms, cymbals, or even rims. The options are endless, so explore to find your unique sound.
Check out my YouTube videos demonstrating playing accents on the toms:
3. Relate to the Music
Listen closely enough to the music and you will be able to grab onto a rhythm that was played by another musician to use as a launchpad for your drum fill. This can be a difficult concept to define, but if you are being an active and sensitive listener then you shouldn’t have a problem hearing melodic and rhythmic content to draw from.
4. Ghost Notes
Ghost notes are necessary for having a strong dynamic concept, which is absolutely necessary for developing incredible drum fills. Use stick heights to create different dynamic levels within a fill. Decide which notes & rhythms are the important on and play those louder; play the non-accented notes as quietly as possible.
You will need to practice ghost notes with a metronome to make sure that you don’t deviate from the tempo while working on these exaggerated stick heights and arms motions.
5. Mixed Sticking Patterns
Practice mixing combinations of singles and doubles to get new ideas for your fills. Take the patterns from stick control and play them around the drums.
Practicing mixed sticking patterns is one of the most important things that we can work on as drummers. There are endless combinations of the two, and what I highly recommend doing is checking out the book Stick Control as it is the best resource on mixed sticking patterns.
Play the same pattern and either systematically or randomly move the pattern around the drums. This will give you new ideas for your fills and will give you a larger vocabulary to draw from.
Try doing things like playing drum-fills going the opposite direction of how you would usually play it. Try starting on the floor tom and going the reverse direction up to the snare drum. Make sure to pay attention to which hand you will lead with as to not come out of the fill in an awkward way.
Check out this YouTube video of me using simple orchestration ideas to practice a rudiment:
7. Slowly with a Metronome
To achieve legendary status, slow practice is your best friend.
Focus on the precision of each note's placement, dynamics, and attack.
Ensure every stroke is accurately positioned on the drum; aim for the center to produce a clean and powerful sound.
Utilize a metronome set to a faster subdivision, like eighth or sixteenth notes, to correct any timing inconsistencies.
Start at a manageable tempo, perhaps around 100bpm, and experiment with various combinations. The goal is to sound fluid and to synchronize your rhythms tightly with the metronome's click.
8. 32nd Notes!
Practice 32nd notes to add some flare to your fills. Begin by practicing 16th note patterns at double speed, singles, doubles, paradiddles, hand-foot patterns. But eventually you should understand that 32nd notes have a different character than 16th notes, and that they aren’t just double the speed. Use your ear and your instinct to find the right way to execute your 32nd patterns.
Practice these ideas with a metronome as a tendency of most drummers is to rush when playing busier patterns.
Don’t overdo 32nd notes! Remember space is important if you want your fill to breathe.
For the best examples of 32nd note patterns, check out The Gospel Chops Shedz Sessions on YouTube:
Exercise discretion when incorporating drum fills; let your artistic integrity guide you so your fills truly stand out. Listen to your drumming idols not just for their technique, but also for their timing—knowing when to fill and when to hold back is crucial. Overdoing it can make you famous for all the wrong reasons.
This step is all about musical taste and integrity. Be mindful of the music; your role is to enhance it, not overshadow it with ego-driven flourishes. Understand that great drummers earn their status not just through virtuosity but also through judicious choices about when and where to insert their fills.
For an insightful take on this subject, consider reading Victor Wooten's "The Music Lesson." It discusses a drummer whose entire solo is defined by a few carefully chosen cymbal crashes. Who could that be?
10. Odd Grouping / Polyrhythms
Using odd-note grouping and polyrhythms will help make your drum fills less square. Start with smaller groupings such as grouping 16th notes into 3’s, or learning how to play 3 against 2. These simple ideas are quite easy to learn and are extremely effective.
From there, expand into other odd-note groupings, such as 5s & 7s, and new polyrhythms such as 3 against 4, or 5 against 4. You’ll get a ton of new ideas and inspiration from these concepts.
Learn to play 3 against 2 here:
A basic understanding of rudiments will help expand your percussive vocabulary and add some spice to your fills. Rudiments also improve hand coordination, smoothness and speed, requirements of a legendary drum fill.
Start the rudiment on the snare drum and then expand it as many different ways as possible. Play simple ¼ note and ⅛ note rhythms and work on embellishing them with doubles, flams, ruffs, etc....
Check out my article on how to use rudiments to their fullest potential. CLICK HERE
12. Combine Patterns
For example, if you really like to play the 6-stroke roll OR a paradiddle as a drum fill then combine them to hear what it would sound like to play a 6-stroke roll AND a paradiddle in sequence. Try playing on of them with 8th notes and then the other one with 16th notes, and then switch them around. Be creative and methodical if you want to find the best drum fill for a particular rudimental combination.
Show your musical maturity by NOT cramming a drum fill with as many notes as possible. A well placed rest can add weight to the drum fill and can take it from a trickle to a roar.
Putting rests into your drum fills lets your ideas breathe and not cluttered. You want your ideas to come across in a clear manner to help the listener understand what you try to portray. Of course there are times when an all-out flurry of notes is needed, but this is should be the exception and not the norm. Practice putting rests into your fills. Write them out if you have to. That’s the easy part, the difficult part is maintaining integrity while you playing in a musical project, and not forget about the tasteful ideas you were practicing.
Put LIFE into your fills by using dynamics. Dynamics are the breathe of music, and as we need to be able to breathe to live, so does the music.
Try adding crescendos or decrescendos to your fill. Crescendos going into a loud part of a song will add a dramatic anticipation to the idea. Once it’s time to go back to a quieter part of the song then try a decrescendo. Play rolls and follow your breathe. Give your fills an organic nature and you will be heading in the right direction.
15. Linear Concepts
Linear means that no limbs hit at the same time. Generally three or four limbs are used in linear patterns, but it’s really anything that’s played by two or more limbs. Linear patterns have a unique flow and have been used in countless ways to create historic patterns. Check out recordings such as Steve Gadd on “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, where Gadd combines various double stroke patterns between his hands and feet.
A professional teacher can help you work through the seemingly endless possibilities to find the combinations that make you tick and that will put you on the path to greatness. The only thing left to do will be for you to put in the hard work.
17. Sing, Sing, Sing!
Practice singing drum fills, this will drastically improve your ability to execute them. Listen to drummers you admire and when you hear a drum fill, pause the song and try to replicate it with your voice.
18. Be Articulate and Purposeful
Think of your drum-fills as part of the overall groove and flow of the song. This will help to ensure that your ‘fills’ have purpose - power and articulation, rather than just being used to ‘fill a gap’. Drum fills have a musical function.
Keeping a powerful sound with the drum fills also helps you keep in time with the song and will make them clear and memorable to the listening audience.
At the beginning stages it's important to copy your favourite drummers. Oh wait? You don't copy? You have your own style? If so then this article is not for you, and maybe you might be better suited a more technically-based concept, such as my permutation article. But if you are into emulating then congratulations, you've reached the first stage in taking it to the next level!
The best way to copy from your choice drummers is to listen to them over and over and over and over and over again. The same 2 seconds if that's what it takes. Learn not only the drums they are hitting for that particular drum-fill, but also try to figure out the exact sticking they use, which part of the drum or cymbal are they striking, and at which dynamic levels.
If your ear is not yet fully developed then you have three options:
#1 - Look online to see if somebody already notated the drum-fill
#2 - Check on YouTube to see if someone has done a lesson on that song. Chances are moderate-to-good, depending on the popularity of that particular song.
#3 - Get a teacher!
Once you've learned a drum fill from another drummer, don't stop there. Use it as a launching pad for your own creative expressions. Simply replicating someone else's work won't serve you when you're on stage, looking to make a memorable impression. Experiment and personalize that fill; make it your own unique statement.
So how do you elevate your drum fills to legendary status? The answer is simple but demanding: PRACTICE. Mindful, focused practice is your ticket to join the ranks of drumming legends. And let's be realistic—six months isn’t going to cut it. You need time to deeply explore and expand your ideas.
If you're content with sounding like everyone else, that's your prerogative. But if you aim to leave an indelible mark on music history, recognize the path you've chosen and commit to the work it requires.