Before dealing with specifics, it is important to have some general ideas about what a fill should be and what a fill should do. The fill must be in time. It should not rush or drag. The fill should maintain the rhythmic interpretation and style of the music, or “chart.” For example, one would probably not use a fill figure consisting of “straight” 8ths and 16ths (as in rock, funk, and Latin) when playing a medium tempo swing built on a rhythmic foundation of “swung” 8ths.
The fill should maintain the dynamic level of the ensemble unless otherwise indicated. Fills must facilitate, not hinder, the entrance of the band. Save the fireworks for your solo. In general, rhythmic simplicity will ensure your accuracy and the band’s confidence in you. Fills are not “short solos.” They should not stand out. They should sound like part of the chart by maintaining the metric, dynamic, rhythmic, and stylistic character of the music.
How, then, does one know what to play in a fill, given these general ideas? First, we must develop a fill vocabulary just as most of us have developed and mastered a verbal vocabulary. We learned to speak by listening and copying what we heard. This same process applies to learning fill figures. Often, fills may be taken from band figures either preceding or following the space to be filled. You create your figures from rhythmic and melodic materials within the music. Two very common examples are:
Thus, we see the importance of being able to read a chart and listen to it simultaneously, just as you “hear” words in your mind while reading this.
Here is a simple system for developing your big band vocabulary. The system works well with the many figures offered in Ron Fink’s excellent book, Drum Set Reading (Alfred Music). The fill figure is:
Use alternate sticking, leading with the left as well as the right hand (LRLR and RLRL). Since the ensemble note is tied and therefore long, play it with a crash cymbal backed with either a bass drum, and/or a rim shot on the snare. If the ensemble note falls on the left hand (as it will if LRLR is used), crash the left cymbal with your left hand. Don’t cross over with the right hand. Play the hi-hat with your foot on “2” and “4” throughout all exercises.
STEP 2. Using the same six quarter notes, play them on the rest of the drums, including the bass. Don’t forget to play the hi-hat on “2” and “4”! Think in terms of high to middle to low sounds, and vice versa. Think middle to high; middle to low. Think single strokes and multiple strokes. For example, one note on the snare (single stroke), two on the rack tom, two on the floor tom, and one on the bass. Then back up to the snare and crash playing the ensemble note. Explore the possibilities. There is no such thing as a “mistake” when practicing, thinking and experimenting in this way.
STEP 3. Add embellishments to the quarter notes: flams, ruffs, and unisons (hands played together). Remember that the quarter and its embellishment may be played on one drum, on two drums (embellishment on one drum, the quarter on another), or between the hands and feet (embellishment on the snare, quarter on the bass, for example).
STEP 4. Substitute 8th-note triplets for the quarters. At first, play them only on the snare using the following stickings: (1) LRL RLR; (2) RLR LRL; (3) LRR; (4) LLR; (5) RLL; (6) RRL; and any others you devise. Add embellishments to the triplets. Try accenting the second or third notes of the triplets as well as the first notes.
STEP 5. Play the triplets on the entire set, following the same guidelines presented for the quarter notes. Substitute the bass drum for the right hand (left if you’re left-handed).
STEP 6. Substitute the third note of the 8th-note triplet for the complete triplet.
Follow the previous applications: played on snare, played on the entire set, with embellishments, etc.
STEP 7. Other substitutions are:
STEP 8. We now have a basic vocabulary of seven figures:
Experiment with putting them together to form your own fill figures. For example:
Explore the possibilities. From now on, the answer to “Can I do it this way?” is “Yes!”
SOME PRACTICE SUGGESTIONS
Always practice your exercises with regard for tempo, dynamics and accents. Avoid tempos, dynamic levels, and accent patterns with which you are already familiar. Practice with and without a metronome. Sing your fill figures before you play them on the set. Play them as loud and soft ensemble figures. Play them as though they were background figures, or riffs, behind a soloist. Practice with open ears and an open mind. Listen and concentrate. Tape record your practice sessions. The first step towards listening and reacting to others is to be aware of what you are playing. Most importantly, listen to the big bands: Count Basie, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Mel Lewis, Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich, and Rob McConnell. LISTEN!