Chad Smith: To Fill Or Not To Fill

In terms of where the Chili Peppers are right now, the drumming is less about fills and more about just trying to play good straight time. You’re probably saying, “I see you do fills all the time. Don’t give me that.” I do play fills, but when I do I better mean it. Believe me, when I’m playing live I take too many liberties. I get excited and just want to play. But in theory, for a band like the Chili Peppers, it’s important to have the people nodding their heads. I’ve reduced my setup to a four-piece to get away from those big multi-tom fills. It all depends on what kind of music you're playing, though.

For me, the main thing about fills is being relaxed. A lot of kids have trouble with that when they’re learning. They’ll speed up or lose time when they do a fill. Sometimes that happens because they don’t keep their feet going or their body won’t stay in motion. I don’t mean you have to incorporate your feet into a pattern (Ex. 1), but it helps to keep something going steady to keep time (Ex. 2). Plus it just helps to add more noise to the whole thing. I used to approach a fill by taking a big breath and holding it, which is completely wrong. You should keep breathing. Breathing is important. Try to think of fills as part of the groove instead of a separate thing.

Ex. 1

drum notation

Ex. 2

drum notation

It’s also important to think like a musician and not just a drummer when deciding how many fills you play and where you put them. It should do something for the song, take it to another place, make it more exciting. Even on really popular stuff you hear on the radio, you rarely hear the drummer doing many fills. Jeff Porcaro could shuffle his ass off and do one fill on the outro of the song and it’s like “yes!” Just a groove itself can be so mesmerizing and hypnotic that sometimes when you throw a fill in, it will break that up.

If you throw in that bitchin’ fill you were thinking of playing at home, it’s usually not musical. It is tempting and I’m certainly tempted to be selfish and play what I think sounds cool. You might impress some other drummer in the first row, but musically, it’s not a good thing. It’s the nature of our instrument that when working in a band it’s not all that glorious a lot of the time. Just groove and people who know will know you’re doing the right thing.