Drum Fills in 4 Steps
In this lesson you’ll learn our 4-step method for making better drum fills. We invite you to work along with us through these steps, so by the end of this lesson, you’ll also have a super tasty drum fill.
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In another lesson, we covered the 3 Types of Drum Fills: variation, tension, and notification. And, we also showed you where (and how) to use them in your music. Now in this lesson, we’ll share our 4-step method for actually writing those drum fills. And yes, this method works for all three types of fills!
STEP 1. ENDING
The first thing you need to do is the last thing! It sounds counterintuitive, but drum fills take your listeners through a percussive journey that has a beginning and an ending. Once you’ve decided on these two points in your music, then you write a drum fill that connects them. It’s sad how many producers don’t think about these beginning and ending points, and merely start and stop their fills at the predictable places. But that won’t be you!
So, how do you choose where to end your fill, and why do you have to choose the ending first? Well, the place where you end your fill will have an accent as a result, so you want to make sure that it’s a point in your music that you intentionally want to emphasize. Most producers end all their fills on beat 1, and while that’s a super strong place for an ending, when every fill ends on beat 1, it’s also super boring!
Listen to your music, it will tell you where it wants you to end each fill. And remember, you can end your fills before beat 1 or after beat 1. A drum fill should only end on beat 1 if that’s exactly what your music wants at that specific point.
In our example, we’re transitioning from the chorus to the bridge, so we need a notification fill to alert the listener to this upcoming change. The bridge has a natural accent on beat 2, so that’s definitely the best place to end our fill.
STEP 2. BEGINNING
Right, now that you know where your fill is ending, you can work backwards and figure out how long it needs to be and where it should begin. The way you choose a beginning point for your fill is different to how you just chose the ending. In this step, the first and most important thing to decide is how long your fill needs to be. There will be numerous naturally-occurring accents in your music where you could start a fill from, so trying to decide that way will only confuse you. Instead, loop up a few bars on either side of where your fill is going to be, then listen. The music will tell you how long the fill needs to be, which in turn tells you where to begin it.
And keep in mind, the length that your drum fill needs to be depends on which type of fill it is: variation, tension, or notification. Check out the 3 Types of Drum Fills lesson to learn all about that. Our fill is a notification fill, so it needs to be long enough to prepare the listener for the upcoming change, but not too long, otherwise it will build too much intensity. This led us to the perfect place to begin our fill: beat 2+ (in the last bar of our chorus). So, that makes our fill just less than one bar long.
STEP 3. SKETCH
Okay, so you know where your fill is ending, and where it’s beginning. Now it’s time to connect the dots! In this step, the first and most important thing to decide is the energy contour of your fill. Once again, this depends on which one of the three types of fills it is. But generally speaking, with your drum fills you’ll either want to increase the energy level, decrease it, or keep it more-or-less the same.
As we’re using a notification fill and going into a section with a higher intensity level, we need to increase the energy with our fill. To decide what your drum fill should do, loop up the same bars as you did before, close your eyes, and listen deeply. The energy contour will paint itself in your mind.
Once you know what the energy needs to do, you can start sketching the fill. Tasty fills tend to have a variety of note values, so have fun experimenting with that. But, because a drum kit has so many drums and cymbals, it’s easy to get distracted by all the possible combinations. So to stay focused, we recommend sketching out your fill using only the snare drum.
STEP 4 SPREAD
Right, so now that you’ve sketched out your fill on the snare drum, it’s time to finish things up by spreading out your fill over the whole drum kit. Remember though, a hit on the snare drum is far more intense than a tom or a kick, so be very very careful in this step not to mess up your energy contour.
We used the whole kit in our fill: snare, kick, toms, and cymbals. But, we kept coming back to the snare in order to sustain that momentum. As you can see, towards the end of our fill in the first bar of the bridge, we played the snare on beat 1. Without this vital snare hit, our fill would lose momentum over the bar line. If you feel that your fill is lacking momentum, it probably needs more snare hits. If, on the other hand, you feel it’s too intense, then it probably needs fewer snare hits.
After you’ve finished this step, double check that your final drum fill is still delivering the energy contour that you designed in step 3. If it is, then you’re done!
If you need help making original beats, then check out our Hack Drum Beats PDF. It contains everything you need to know in one PDF. And, it's currently half price, as our biggest sale of the year is on right now (ends 12 December 2021). Enjoy! Thanks so much for being here in the Hack Music Theory community, you are truly valued, and we’re excited to hang out with you again soon!
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