Workshop: Unleash Your Creative Fill Potential

You’re jamming your groove, and you’re solid. A drum-fill break is coming up, but you’re sweating because you have no idea what to play. Many drummers find themselves in this situation. It can be difficult to improvise drum fills, but improvisational skills can be practiced, developed, and ultimately mastered. This lesson outlines a step-by-step technique to progressively build your drum-fill confidence, allowing you to unleash the drum fills within you.

Part 1: Predetermined Rhythm

A big portion of the problem is the fear of leaving the written page or the fear of stepping outside of what you know. It’s too easy to get locked into one or two “safe” fills. It’s time to break out and start improvising! The easiest place to start is improvising the actual drums you hit, while maintaining a predetermined rhythm.

Play the rhythm below – a full measure of straight sixteenth-notes on the snare.

DRUM! Notation Guide

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Now play the same rhythm, but move the sticks around the kit playing different drums. In other words, you will improvise the drums but not the rhythm. Exs. 2 and 3 show some possibilities you might play.

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Once you become comfortable improvising this rhythm around the drums, it’s time to practice it with a drumbeat. Play a basic beat for three measures. On the fourth measure, play the improvised fill. Be sure to go back into the drumbeat after the fill. Repeat this exercise until you become comfortable with it.

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It’s time for a new rhythm. Play the rhythm below, and then move it around the kit, playing it along with the drumbeat as above. Use this practice technique for the remainder of the fills in this lesson.

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Don’t forget about including the bass drum. Exs. 6 and 7 show some possibilities you might play.

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Here are two more rhythms for you to explore. Be creative with the drums you hit. Try hitting different drums each time through the fill. This will help break you free from getting stuck in patterns and send you on your way to improv independence.

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Oftentimes a partial-measure drum fill is what fits best. You can use the same practice method to develop partial-measure drum fills, starting your drum fill halfway through the drumbeat during measure four.

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Use the following rhythm to play partial-measure drum fills, improvising the drums you hit.

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Examples 12 and 13 show some possibilities you might play. Remember to be creative, and to try hitting different drums each time through the fill.

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Here are two more partial-measure rhythms for you to explore. Predetermine some of your own rhythms as well and use them to practice fills.

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Part 2: Predetermined Drums

Once you become comfortable improvising the drums you hit, it’s time to start improvising the rhythm. Easier said than done, right? To ease your way into it, decide which drums you’re going to hit before attempting the fill. There are many different rhythms that can be used, creating unique sounds while maintaining the same basic drum pattern.

In Ex. 16, all of count 1 is on the snare drum, count 2 is on the high tom, count 3 is on the medium tom, and count 4 is on the low tom. For all of count 1, improvise a rhythm on the snare drum. For all of count 2, improvise a rhythm on the high tom, and so on.*

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*Tip: The counts below the measures indicate which count to switch drums on.

Examples 17 and 18 show some possibilities you might play. Play a different rhythm each time through the fill, as this will force you to be creative and in the moment.

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Play this drum pattern using more advanced rhythms. Try throwing in some rests and flams.

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Exs. 20 and 21 show some possibilities you might play.

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Here are two more patterns for you to explore.

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Expand your drum patterns to take up more or less than one count. In Ex. 4, the snare is played for all of count 1 and half of count 2. The high tom is played for the second half of count 2.

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Examples 25 and 26 show some possibilities you might play. Again, force yourself to play different rhythms each time through the fill pattern. You will notice it gradually becomes easier to improvise rhythms.

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Practice these more advanced patterns incorporating the bass drum. Remember that the counts under the measures indicate when to switch drums. Be creative!

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Part 3: Improvise It All!

Now that you’ve practiced and developed confidence in improvising the drums you hit (part 1) and improvising the rhythm (part 2), it’s time to improvise it all. Improvise both the drums you hit and the rhythms you play. Remember to practice full measure fills and partial-measure fills, playing them along with drumbeats. Try to play a different fill each time, as this will force you to be creative and on-the-spot. In no time, you will have unleashed your drum fill potential.