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).

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