Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Function of Fills

Ah yes, the drum fill. It's what makes music exciting. And it's what we all want to do … a lot. But there are right ways and wrong ways to do fills. There are even rules (unwritten and usually unspoken). So keep the following in mind while you're getting ready to blow everyone away with your stellar chops and creativity.

The main function of a drum fill is to escort the music from one bit to the next. This derives from the concept of a turn-around, where something interesting is added at the end of a phrase. For example, many drummers will play straight time for the first 6 or 7 bars of an 8-bar phrase, and then vary the pattern for the last bar or two to wrap things up. This provides a resolution to the current phrase and sets up the next one. A fill is just an extension of this technique.

Mark a section/Keep things on track
Fills often serve as punctuation and sign posts. A drummer who consistently puts something at the end of each phrase is signaling and illustrating the song structure and moving things along.

Set up
Another important function of the drum fill is to dramatize. One of the best at this was Buddy Rich. Listen to any Buddy Rich Big Band tune and you'll hear Buddy setting up and punctuating horn lines. That is, he'll deviate from the time to draw attention to the upcoming figure, then he'll nail the figure along with the horn players. Now he’s got your attention!

Fill up space
Space is a great thing, but sometimes it helps to plug some of the holes. Listen to the Jimmie Hendrix Experience. Mitch Mitchell was a very busy drummer, and with Jimmie's spare style and only Noel Redding’s bass in his corner, Mitch almost needed to fill things out, which he did.

One of my favourites is Peggy Lee’s performance of “Fever” with Stan Levy on drums. Stan’s punctuation between and within phrases is about as dramatic as it gets.

Show off
Hey, we all do it. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. All musicians show off. It’s part of the game and it can be an important addition to your entertainment factor. So go ahead and drop in an attention-getting fill once in a while. Some drummers have embraced showing off as part of their personal style, and that's OK when it suits the music.

Should enhance, not detract
It's not a good idea to add fills too often. In the early days of rock, many young drummers (and some seasoned ones as well) would add a fill every two bars! This busy style is now mostly a relic of the ‘60s, but it still appears to be a rite of passage in the early stages of the drum learning curve. The musical context will determine whether your can be free-wheeling with fills or if you should play it straight. And always watch your time (a lot of drummers speed up when playing a fill).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sitting In

It was pretty much the shock of my professional life. We had a months-long house gig, and my drums were centre stage all the time. One evening I showed up, relaxed a bit from the drive in to the city, and got caught up with my band mates. Then it was time go on. I stepped onto the stage, sat behind my drums and promptly said, "What the ...?" Someone had been playing my drums. And not just playing them. The creep had not only moved everything, he had retuned my drums completely ...  even removed the front bass drum head which, I later noticed, had been put back on crooked.

This was the guest drummer from hell. Their band had auditioned in the afternoon, and rather than respecting our instruments, they'd just mashed things up the way they wanted. So what is the correct protocol for sitting in on someone else’s gear? That depends on the situation and extent of involvement, ranging from one or two numbers to filling in for the night. Let’s look at a few typical scenarios.

Impromptu Guest
If you've been invited on-stage for a few songs because you are something of a celebrity and/or a friend of the band, my recommendation is to change nothing. Play a couple of numbers and then bow out gracefully.

Open Stage/Jam 
Typically the drum set belongs to someone else who is generously providing it. Respect that. I only move things that I simply cannot work with or something I know will be a health hazard. For example, I sometimes sit in with certain house band. Their drummer has a cowbell mounted right where I'm inclined to thrust my right hand. So to avoid injury, I move it. Otherwise, I try to leave things alone.

Guest Set
In a situation with multiple bands sharing the same equipment, you're still expected to do your best work and you can't do that if you're uncomfortable. But you don't want to disrupt things too much. Do your best to get the drums useable as quickly as you can. I'd take along a stool and bass pedal, as these are what cause the most problems. If there's a special prop you need (e.g. a gong perhaps) take it and a stand with you.

At the other extreme is when you're filling in for the night on a provided set. Consider carrying a survival kit consisting of: stool, bass pedal, cymbals, snare drum, and of course sticks etc. Many drummers take their snares and cymbals home, so it's good policy to take your own. Better to not adjust the tuning, and if you can't abide the snare, just use your own.

House (Backline) Kit
As with the showcase, you're expected to do your best work and since the drums are there for your convenience, do whatever you need to do to get them where you want. In this case I'd definitely take along my survival kit. Cymbals and pedals are rarely up to snuff on a house kit.

The ideal situation is the drummer with great equipment -- well set up and well-maintained -- who says, "Go ahead … adjust whatever you need to." Even so, I'd make the bare minimum of changes. And I don’t put things back. The set’s owner can do a better job more quickly than I can.

And if you’re auditioning on someone else’s set, remember the Golden Rule.