Far too many drummers struggle with getting into and out of their fills while other drummers just seem to do it easily and naturally. You may assume it’s an innate talent some lucky drummers are just born with — but you’d be mistaken. It’s the norm to have to work hard to develop a nice consistent pocket. This is actually good news because it means we can all improve at this essential skill simply by working at it persistently and pragmatically. Since other musicians usually hire us to play songs in a musically appropriate and supportive manner, grooving well is more important for most drummers than improving their blastbeats, soloing, or breaking the land-speed record for double-gridded flam paradiddles. Grooving and getting in and out of your fills smoothly is of the utmost importance to any performing drummer.
Here’s an exercise to help you get better at transitioning back and forth between your grooves and fills. Most great groove drummers eschew complicated fills in favor of simpler, more familiar patterns, so we’ll do the same in this exercise.
This exercise has eight common one-beat fills, seen at the top of the exercise, with each fill’s sticking written underneath. There are six common types of grooves beneath them. You’ll notice that there are only three beats of each groove written out, followed by a slash with the word “fill” written above it. Our goal is to insert each of the fills into the end of each groove where the slash is written.
First, we’ll play the pattern, then add the first fill on the snare drum, then repeat the beat, but this time we’ll play the same fill on the high tom, repeating the groove and moving the fill around the rest of the toms. The next time through the groove we’ll play the second fill on the snare, repeat the groove, and play the second fill on the high tom, etc. I’ve written out the first three fills with the eighth-note rock groove at the bottom of the exercise. Just remember to continue through all eight of the fills. If you do this you’ll have played the beat 32 times and each fill four times.
Your goal is to get through the entire line of fills without a glitch, rushed fill, or any other type of musical hiccup. This can be surprisingly difficult to do. If you’re turning up your nose at this simple exercise, go ahead and try it, but prepare to be humbled. This is why studio drummers get paid so well.
Once you’ve tried this exercise with each of these basic grooves you may notice that the fills feel differently depending on which groove you play them with. The exact same fill can feel very different with a double-time punk groove than with an upbeat disco pattern. The three triplet fills at the end may feel a little strange with the sixteenth-note ballad groove. I’d recommend starting at a comfortable tempo to get familiar with each groove and then working your way out of your comfort zone. You may find slower tempos harder than you expect.
I’m keeping the patterns very short so you work the transitions much more often. This should help you discover your rough spots sooner so you can make any necessary adjustments and ultimately improve more rapidly. Be persistent and don’t expect to perfect this exercise quickly. Once you do, use slightly harder versions of these beats, adding open hi-hat notes, ghosted snare notes, and more bass drum notes. You can also work at longer fills and combine the rhythms at the top of the exercise.
Here are some other ways to improve your groove and fill playing.
One of the best and simplest things you can do is record your playing. Whether you’re gigging with a band or just practicing in the basement this can be quite revealing. If you are playing in a band I’d recommend recording your practices and gigs. This is especially revealing since it will quickly let you know your problem spots in a real-world situation when the adrenaline is flowing. Once you identify your problems you can focus on how to fix them.