This workshop explores a voicing idea that I call path orchestration, which is a method that I mainly use to come up with interesting fills.

When you play fills, the subdivision you choose is crucial and is usually the first decision you make, either consciously or not. In addition to a song’s tempo, the subdivision determines whether a fill will sound slow or fast. If you want to play a fast figure at 120 bpm, you might choose a subdivision of 16th-note triplets. Likewise, if you want to play a fast fill at 80 bpm, you might choose 32nd notes instead.

The second thing to consider when playing fills is what you actually play in that subdivision. Are you using a certain figure that results in a repetitive rhythmic phrase? Again, this may or may not be a conscious decision.

This workshop explores an approach to a 16th-note fill. The three-note figure we’ll use is simple, repetitive, and effective, and it consists of a right-hand stroke, a left-hand stroke, and a bass drum stroke. Because the figure is three notes long, there’s an underlying polyrhythmic feel.

Let’s play the figure for one measure with both hands on the snare. Play three bars of groove and then Exercise 1 as a fill.Path Orchestration 1

Next play the three-note phrase as a two-bar fill. This grouping continues throughout both measures. Play two bars of groove followed by Exercise 2 as your fill.

Path Orchestration 2

Once you’re comfortable playing that figure, you can start making the fill more musical by changing its voicing or by adding dynamics.

Let’s focus on orchestration. With path orchestration, you utilize a predetermined path on the drumset, and each hand plays different sets of instruments. For example, the right hand plays a path between four voices: snare, floor tom, ride, and rack tom. The left hand plays a different path between three voices: snare, hi-hat, and rack tom. The three-note grouping (right hand, left hand, and bass drum) remains unchanged.

Let’s start by incorporating path orchestration with the right hand only. The left hand is left out of the following example to provide a clearer view of the right hand’s path throughout the phrase.

Path Orchestration 3

Because the right hand plays four different voices, the orchestration repeats itself after four rounds through the three-note grouping.

Here’s an exercise to get you comfortable with the right hand’s path. We’ll play the repeated right-hand, left-hand, and right-foot phrase, and the right hand will alternate between the snare, floor tom, ride, and rack tom while the left hand stays on the snare.

Path Orchestration 4

Now let’s orchestrate the left hand. This voicing repeats after three cycles as the left hand plays the snare, hi-hat, and rack tom.

Path Orchestration 5

Path Orchestration 6

Here’s a preliminary exercise to get you comfortable with the left hand’s path. Play the three-note grouping over two measures, in which the left hand alternates between snare, hi-hat, and rack tom while the right hand stays on the snare.

Path Orchestration 7

Now play both together in a two-bar fill. Try to memorize the fill and play it by heart. Let the various paths of your hands around the set really sink in. Theoretically, the orchestration repeats
itself after you’ve played the three-note grouping twelve times. However, there’s not enough room for that cycle in a two-bar fill.

Here’s the full phrase.

Path Orchestration 8

Path orchestration can, of course, be transferred to other fills of your choosing. Keep in mind, though, that the concept sounds best when the hands play single strokes exclusively.

To review, remember to consider the following when playing fills:
• What subdivision should I use?
• What rhythmic concepts am I using within that subdivision?
• How can I change the sound of that fill with orchestration?
• How can I change the sound of that fill with dynamics?

Visit for a video demonstration of Exercise 7 at two different tempos. And for more fill concepts and ideas, check out my new book, Jost Nickel’s Fill Book.

Jost Nickel is a top session and touring drummer in Germany, as well as an international clinician and author who endorses Sonor, Meinl, Remo, Vic Firth, and Beyerdynamic products. For more information, visit