Throwing in solid drum fills can be pretty difficult for beginners. Some go too fast while others over-complicate things – two habits that are hard to kick without the help of a drum teacher. In addition, not being able to time your fills right can be extremely frustrating, whether you’re rehearsing or just jamming, and not just for you, but for any musicians you’re playing with as well as anyone listening. So, in this blog, I’m going to teach you various simple drum fills and show you some very useful tips!
- What Are Drum Fills?
- When to Play Fills
- Remember: Less is More
- Drum Notation
- Easy Drum Fills
- Fill 1: Quarter Notes
- Fill 2: Eighth Notes
- Fill 3: Sixteenth Notes
- Fill 4: The ‘Pick Up’
- Advancing to Rudiments
- See Also
What Are Drum Fills?
Drum fills are little variations or improvisations that drummers play to literally fill up any musical gaps between phrases and transitions, for example when going from a verse to the chorus. Songs can be broken down into various parts (verse, chorus, bridge), which in turn can be subdivided into bars and measures. In most popular music, each measure is made up of four beats, and depending on the melody and the chords, a musical line usually consists of two or four bars.
When to Play Fills
Ok, let’s get this straight right away: you’re not supposed to throw in a fill every chance you get. Fills are usually only played during transitions, so at the end of a verse instead of halfway through. However, what you can do halfway through is play a tiny variation where you leave the hi-hat half open or add an extra snare strike. Here, you’re saving the real fill for later, which is why it’s important for drummers to know the structure of a song beforehand. If you already have an idea of how the song is structured and how long each part lasts, adding fills is a lot easier. In most cases, you’ll finish your fills by playing your crash and kick at the same time on the first beat of the next measure, signalling its start while putting yourself back on track.
Remember: Less is More
The most important job of a drummer is to indicate the tempo and the groove. So, if you’re ever up on stage with your band and feel like you might mess up the fill that you know is coming up, just keep it simple or skip playing it altogether. Less is definitely more when it comes to fills, and you should only start throwing any in once you’re fully convinced you’re going to nail the timing. That said, the best fills are often the simplest. It’s not about speed or the level of complexity here.
While you don’t necessarily need to, being able to read drum notation can be really helpful. Check out the following blogs for more information:
A Few Easy Drum Fill Examples
Below, I’ve included three measures of the most well-known basic drum rhythm in the world, followed by a fourth measure that includes the fill. In practice, a fill can take up all four beats in a measure but can also be shortened to just two beats or saved for the very last beat. In the examples below, the fills take up the entire measure, except in the last example. There’s no lead-up rhythm since I’ve only written down the fills, so it’s best to practise the fills by playing three measures of the basic rhythm before you play the fill. Here, it’s really important that you immediately pick up the rhythm again after you finish playing the fills. Don’t skip a beat or play one too many – always maintain four beats per measure.
What’s important to know is that in the examples below:
- the half notes (minims; hollow note-heads) represent the toms
- and the quarter notes (crotchets; filled-in note-heads) represent the snare drum.
Fill 1: Quarter Notes (Crotchets)
Let’s start simple and slow with a four-beat measure where you play a single note per beat. Play your snare on the first count, your high tom on the second, your middle tom on the third and your floor tom on the fourth, or pick a different order or just play your snare four times in a row – whatever you prefer. Since this fill is fairly straightforward, beginners have a tendency to pick up the pace, but that’s exactly what you want to avoid. Keep a tight leash on your playing speed and keep the tempo as steady as possible. Pro tip: alternate hands and start with your dominant hand because this will seriously help you and your muscle memory in the long run. So, if you’re right-handed, play right – left – right – left.
In this video, you can hear what fill 1 sounds like:
Fill 2: Eighth Notes (Quavers)
While this fill is similar to the first example, here, you’re playing a pair of eighth notes per count instead of a single quarter note. Again, you’re free to decide on the order of drums, though I recommended sticking to what’s written down below for now. If you’re right-handed, play right – left – right – left and notice that every count lands on a right-handed strike. This will help train your timing.
In this video, you can hear what fill 2 sounds like:
A popular variant of this fill includes playing the eighth notes on your snare and floor tom at the same time (see video below). If you’re right-handed, play the floor tom with your right hand and the snare with your left.
In this video, you can hear what the popular variation of fill 2 sounds like:
Fill 3: Sixteenth Notes (Semiquavers)
Why play eighth when you can cram sixteenth notes in there? This next fill is the same as before except it comes in groups of four sixteenth notes per beat. Again, alternate sticks by going right-left-right-left (vice-versa if you’re left-handed), and note that the right-handed strikes land exactly on every beat and every third sixteenth note.
In this video, you can hear what fill 3 sounds like:
Fill 4: The ‘Pick-Up’
The fourth fill takes up only one count and is played on the fourth and final beat of the measure. For the sake of convenience, I’ve written down the first three beats of the basic rhythm, which can of course be swapped for any other rhythm. The ‘pick-up’ fill can be played at the start of a song or to mark verse-to-chorus transitions and, when used as an intro, make sure that you do a 3-beat count-in before you play the fill on the fourth beat so the whole band knows what’s up in terms of timing. It’s a subtle fill but nonetheless a popular one that even the world’s best drummers like to use or put their own spin on. To pull it off, play two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note and don’t forget to alternate hands, so right-left-right if you’re right-handed.
In this video, you can hear what fill 4 sounds like:
Here’s a popular take on the pick-up fill which includes an extra tom strike on the third count:
In this video, you can hear what the popular variation of fill 4 sounds like:
Advancing to Rudiments
Once you start getting the hang of the fills above and have the timing down, you’re ready to advance to the next step: rudiments. If you’ve been alternating your right hand and left hand to practise the fills, you might’ve noticed they’re actually made up of single stroke rudiments. In reality, fills can also be played using double stroke rudiments or paradiddles. Below, you’ll find a few examples of paradiddle-based fills. Play these like you’d play a paradiddle, so R L R R L R L L R L R R L R L L. Try playing the snare as softly as possible while adding clear accents with the toms.
In this video, you can hear what the rudiments notated above sound like:
Alternatively, you can swap out the floor tom and high tom for crash cymbals in combination with a bass drum. This way, you’re ‘covering’ your entire kit and have the opportunity to lay down accents using different drums. Have a look at the example below and check out the video to hear what it sounds like.
- Start out slow and count along out loud (one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and…).
- Practise with the help of a metronome, click-track or another form of tight backing. Maybe even ask a friend if they’re willing to count along with you and point out any timing mistakes.
- Most importantly: focus on maintaining a steady tempo.
- Finish your fills by playing your crash and kick drum at the same time on the first beat of the next measure. If you’re still struggling to get this down, don’t try this during any gigs just yet.
- The beat goes on without any breaks. Focus on the basic rhythm as well as the back-beat played on the second and fourth counts – you can’t skip these by simply playing a fill to change the order of the first and second beat. In case of doubt, just leave out the fill altogether. It’s better to have no fills at all than to land a bad one.
- Remember to keep it simple. Less is more!