A dynamic transition is one that takes you from one dynamic level to another. If the music in the verse is soft and the chorus is loud your fill should set up the change. Choosing a busy, energetic fill is one way to do that. Sometimes the change is sudden. While it’s easy to get loud quickly, how can you bring everything back down to a quiet level rapidly? Try playing a fill that dramatically ends with a loud open hi-hat accent at the end of one measure and then close the hi-hat on the downbeat and continue playing softly. For heavier styles of music, dig out your Nirvana CDs since Dave Grohl used that musical device often.
Builds are an example of one type of dynamic transition that every drummer needs to know. They are those unison bass, tom, and snare crescendos that work in many, many songs. Simply loosening your hi-hat can function like a build. Try loosening your hi-hat pressure for one or two bars as you enter a chorus and those crescendoing cymbals will set up the change nicely. Sometimes adding an accent to the beginning of a build can have a sforzando effect (sudden, strong emphasis).
These are builds that end with a fill layered on top of the bass drum part and add more drive to a standard build.
A feel transition occurs when a song goes from, say, half time to double time, or an eighth-note feel to an eighth-note-triplet feel. These can be tricky to navigate and certain fills work better than others. Triplets work well when going into or out of double time because they lie right in the middle of the two speeds. Another simple way to go into double time is to play the new tempo as the basis of the fill. So, if the feel goes from backbeats on the quarter-notes to snare notes on the upbeats (double-time), try playing a simple eighth-note snare fill. One way to help slow down the feel is to play a sparse fill with the notes spread across the bar, often outlining every third eighth-note.
The “dig me” fill is usually a technical, fast, or complicated fill that is often meant to impress and excite the listener. You may be thinking I’m going to tell you never ever to play them, but the purpose of this article isn’t to make your playing bland and predictable. I confess I actually love dig me fills. They can add a lot of excitement to the music if used with discretion and at the right moment. They do, however, expose you to the potential of catastrophic embarrassment or worse — a sudden lack of musical employment. If you’re going to do one make sure you can get out of it cleanly and nail the 1. Remember, if you can’t nail it ten times in a row, don’t try it at a show!
The composer John Cage has a composition named 4'33" in which no notes are played and listeners are meant to listen to the sounds around them while it is “performed.” There is a musical lesson to be learned here. Sometimes the most dramatic thing you can do is not to do what’s expected. Sometimes just grooving can build tension and anticipation for a fill, which you can prolong by not playing one. Not playing a fill into a chorus can make its entrance more surprising and effective. Many high-profile groove drummers play fills only when absolutely necessary. Exercising a little self-control and restraint in your playing can help you develop your groove more and remember that ultimately it’s much more about the groove than the fill.