The ability to write charts or cheat sheets is a great skill to have as a working drummer. Most up-and-coming artists do not have the budget to pay a band of hired-gun musicians to play the gig and rehearse. So lots of times you are left to your own devices to learn ten to twelve songs overnight, then show up and make it sound like you’ve been playing them your entire life.
My charts are written in my own shorthand that gets to the core of what a song is about, giving me exactly what is needed to make everything sound rehearsed. Using this system, I can pretty much listen to a tune one time and chart it out completely, including nuances such as tempo, crashes, fills, breaks, repeats, and feel changes. Charts save me from a lot of stress and sleep lost from staying up all night.
You will undoubtedly come up with your own succinct system, but hopefully mine will give you a good starting point. To demonstrate, I’ve charted out Cee Lo Green’s song “Cry Baby” from his record Lady Killer.
My abbreviations for the different sections of the tune are as follows:
INTRO is the beginning of the tune.
The word OUT below it means don’t play.
V1 is the first verse.
CHO1 is the first chorus.
I number each verse and chorus so when I look away from the chart to smile and look confidently at the rest of the band, I can look back at the chart and find my place easily.
BRIDGE is self explanatory, sometimes cool people call this the “middle eight.”
OUTRO is the end of the song.
In order to make my performance sound more spot-on and professional, I write in the main groove and the tempo (125 bpm) at the very top. It changes to a disco feel at the bridge, so I wrote it in there. The circled numbers you see are the amount of bars each phrase contains. Notice I wrote in tambourine hits on beat 4 of every intro bar. I’m laying out there so I could potentially play that.
A trick I learned at a Billy Ward clinic is to use check marks for crashes and little squiggly lines for fills when they don’t seem too specific. When my instinct tells me that a fill is really important, I’ll write it out exactly like the recording (see, intro fill & bridge fill). The same fill made famous by Motown drummer Benny Benjamin is used many times in this song so I used his name to remind me to cop that feel. For really important things like breaks, hits, or odd phrasing I will write in little eyeglasses as a reminder to pay special attention to it.
As effective as this system works, I highly recommend spending a little extra time memorizing the songs you’re being asked to play when time permits. I always feel more connected to the music and confident when I’ve done the extra effort required to memorize. Hope this helps you on those last-minute, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants gigs.