Whether supporting superstar German pop artist Jan Delay, conducting a clinic, or recording one of the dozens of albums he’s cut since the early ’90s, Jost Nickel plays with delicacy, subtlety, and skill. He also exhibits great invention, incorporating techniques like dead-sticking and grabbing/muting of cymbals, seamless 16th-note snare and bass drum rolls, complex full-set figures, and a panoply of flam-infused ideas.

Nickel has worked and recorded with a diverse array of European artists including Dacia & the WMD, Ostkreutz, Nils Gessinger Band, Zascha Moktan, Trinity Xperiment, Johannes Oerding, and Matalex, with whom he’s recorded five albums. As a performer he’s still relatively under the radar in the U.S.—though Nickel’s drumming on MSM Schmidt’s Life, which also features long-established fusion icons Dave Weckl and Virgil Donati, may change that. And the hardcore drumming community in the States has been hip to the forty-eight year old as a performer/educator for a while now. The drummer’s most recent release is Jost Nickel’s Fill Book: A Systematic & Fun Approach to Fills. The release, published by Alfred Music, brings the subject of drum fills into the 21st century, incorporating the bass drum into exercises that will challenge your chops and stretch your imagination.

Like with his previous GrooveBook, Nickel doesn’t take it easy on prospective students in FillBook. From page 1, Nickel asks students to incorporate the bass drum within 16th-note patterns. He adds to that chapters on 8th- and 16th-note triplets (within three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine-note groupings), counting and “clicking,” leading figures with the hi-hat, and such topics as path orchestration, diddle kicks, clockwise and counterclockwise playing, hand and foot rolls, stick shots, flam fills, and cymbal chokes. An appendix is devoted to snare drum studies.

FillBook includes an MP3 CD of recorded fills in different tempos and a twelve-page insert of reading texts to aid the student in combining the exercises smoothly and efficiently. Furthermore, videos are available online at jostnickel.com, demonstrating the concepts in FillBook. Modern Drummer recently spoke to Nickel to get to the history and philosophies behind his performance and instruction methods.

Photo by Gerhard Kuehne

MD: What’s the benefit of a physical book over an online video?

Jost: The book is offline. You can really focus and you won’t get distracted by things that can happen if you’re using a computer. And you can carry it around. You can take notes. A book is the nicest, most old-school, most old-fashioned thing there is. I love drum books and books [in general]. I prefer having a book in my hands to reading [instruction] on a screen. When you learn a musical instrument, you have to dig deep on your own and focus on a subject. I stay away from YouTube videos unless I feel like I need some inspiration. Otherwise it’s too distracting. I’d rather go to a concert and see a great band play.

MD: FillBook is designed for beginners.

Jost: True, but if you play the exercises slowly, you can play the patterns. I did that when teaching seven and eight year olds. I practiced the first pages with them. It’s challenging, but doable. What I wanted to show is that by using simple combinations of [notes played with the] hands and feet, you can make the exercises sound different through dynamics and orchestrations. These are very powerful tools. And the first chapter is fun, which is true in all my books.

MD: In Chapter 1 you use a static or repetitive right-hand rhythm as a basis for some complex exercises.

Jost: That makes sense if you’re playing a fill that’s not based on quarter notes, that in some way it will be circling around the quarter note. It might be groups of three or five or something else. It’s very important that you know the underlying rhythm so that you can really hear what you’re doing. The exercises are meant to help you realize what lies underneath the figure that you’re playing. It’s not so easy to understand if you only listen to the actual figure; you might lose sight of the phrasing of the fill. When I was learning and was unsure of the placement of the notes, I always went back to the rhythmical foundation of what I was doing. If you know the underlying rhythm and can hear it clearly, it’s so much easier to have a fluid fill with good phrasing.

MD: Chapter 8 covers starting a phrase with your foot on the hi-hat instead of a stick on a drum or bass drum. That’s unique.

Jost: Beginning a figure with your right foot doesn’t always sound good, but most of the time it does. Vinnie Colaiuta does this on Sting’s TenSummoner’sTales. Roy Haynes also does this on various recordings. But Vinnie will play 16th notes on the hi-hat with the sticks, and play the final 16th before the backbeat with his hi-hat foot. That’s a good general orchestration idea. You can do that with any figure, any fill, any groove where your bass drum typically plays a single stroke. You can use this concept to create your own ideas. The rhythmical concepts will never change, because in a bar of 4/4 time there will always be sixteen 16th notes. What changes is how you apply these rhythms, the dynamics, and how you combine the ideas.

MD: How do you suggest students approach Fill Book?

Jost: Don’t learn these [exercises] to play on the gig. Play them in an improvisational manner. The book shows you how to get there. I made the ideas expressed in the book as similar as possible to avoid technical difficulty. The 16th notes begin with RLLF [where “F” represents the bass drum foot], and with 16th-note triplets it’s two notes in advance of RLLF, so we have RLRLLF, so the group of four is in there as well. I wanted to make it accessible.

MD: How do you apply the exercises within a group format?

Jost: That’s when your musicality kicks in. It totally depends on the band, the style of music, your tastes, their tastes…. But it definitely gives you material; if you want to play a fill and the opportunity is right, the song is right, the tempo is fine, and you need a very good fill in 16th-note triplets, then you have something you can use. But it still depends on so many musical questions that you need to answer first. The book gives you tools you can use when you feel like it’s the right moment.

Photo by Marco Hammer

MD: You really stress counting out loud in FillBook.

Jost: The value of counting aloud is twofold. The main thing is it strengthens your sense of the quarter-note pulse or the pulse of music in general. You don’t want to count when you play. That’s why you count when you practice. Even when working on the more challenging material in my book or elsewhere, you’re always counting. One way is to count the quarter notes—“1, 2, 3, 4”. The other way is just to say “click.” That way you have to be more precise, because you’re being more percussive. And if you say “click” rather than counting, then you have to feel where the 1 is. That really shortens the time you need in which you are able to feel all these things.

When I play, I never think of numbers or phrasing. When playing music that is not in 4/4, I can count if need be. But counting is really for practicing. When practicing, I’m a lot more analytic than I am when I’m playing. It’s like two different personalities. The idea for counting aloud and saying “click” came from Gary Chester’s book, The New Breed. It’s the idea of using your voice to sing a rhythm and the quarter-note pulse.

MD: Beat displacement is also part of your skill set—any tips for that?

Jost: You can displace anything, but you need one idea that you don’t change. You keep it the same, and then you start it at a different point in time—that’s what displacement is. Hearing it correctly is the ultimate goal. That’s why you count it. Do it on your leg—you can even do it in your head and just hear a phrase that sounds like it should start on 1. The accent of the figure is always the quarter note. Then practice to place it somewhere other than on the quarter note. Maybe it’s the 8th-note offbeat—or any other position in the bar. It’s just a matter of hearing it, and counting makes that easier.

MD: What’s the most challenging part of the Fill Book, and how should students approach that material?

Jost: Technically, the material at the end of the book is the most challenging: the flam fills. It depends on the player. I think the book really guides you. Once you approach the flam chapter, you’ve hopefully internalized the rhythmic foundation of that chapter, because it’s really a different application of the same rhythmic idea that has been introduced earlier in the book.

MD: What inspired you to include dead-sticking on cymbals and cymbal-grab mutes into your trick bag?

Jost: I’d heard a programmed beat that had cut-off cymbal sounds in it. At first I just wanted to copy that. I really like that characteristic sound in grooves and fills, and every time there’s a sound I really dig, I’ll try to use that in many different ways, like varying subdivisions and different groupings.

MD: How did you get up to speed with that technique?

Jost: I’ll practice any new idea at medium tempos for a few weeks, until I really feel comfortable with the sound or with the flow or groove of the [concept]. When it finally feels great, I’ve played the specific idea for quite a long time, and then it’s quite easy to speed it up because the phrasing of the idea is crystal clear. A lot of times the problem you have with playing something fast is that you can’t hear the idea correctly at higher tempos.

MD: How do you teach the dead-sticking/cymbal-grab concept?

Jost: I only teach these ideas when people ask me, because it’s so special that the student really needs to want to play it. I would just teach it like I show [it] in my book. Apply the idea to different groupings and then combine them.

Photo by Ingo Baron

MD: Your playing is extremely clean, but you never sound sterile. Can you offer any tips for arriving at that state of play?

Jost: Thanks. It all starts with having a rhythmical vision of how certain phrases sound. Every day I try to challenge myself rhythmically—even without a drumset. For example, you might not be able the hear the polyrhythm three over four properly, or not know the difference between three over four and four over three. That’s something you can work on every day for ten minutes by tapping these rhythms on your lap. Since I’ve been doing that for a long time, I’m doing more advanced stuff just to challenge my ear. So especially in my FillBook there are many exercises that will challenge your ear. You just have to accept that challenge!

The other thing I do is, when I sit down at the kit, I always make sure that I’m in control. We all know the difference between guessing and being sure. When a groove in a certain tempo doesn’t feel right, I’ll play that tempo until I feel good with it. It might take minutes, days, or weeks. And when I practice, I choose tempos that are harder to play than others. You know, these in-between tempos that every drummer finds awkward.

MD: What snare studies did you shed? Did you focus on being clean? Even your fast singles between floor tom and bass drum are spotless.

Jost: My first teacher, Peter Weise, from Kiel, Germany, made me play Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos, and I enjoyed it.

MD: You play with tremendous delicacy and subtlety. At first it doesn’t knock you over with its complexity, but then the cumulative effect of the many complex figures and grooves you play with such clarity becomes awe-inspiring. How did you develop delicacy and subtlety, both as physical “things” and mental concepts?

Jost: Thanks again! First, I never try to impress anybody. I myself am most impressed or touched by musicality, not by chops. I know that there are readers, especially the younger ones, that are really into fast and loud, and I’m perfectly fine with that. We all love different things about drums and music in general. I’m into certain sounds that might be more on the subtle side of drumming that I then take through different subdivisions and orchestrations. That’s just my thing. And I think eventually we all end up doing what we like. One person wants to play metal, the next person is into Brazilian music, and so on. I strongly believe that you just cannot practice stuff that you don’t really like.

MD: And the fluidity?

Jost: I think the fluidity comes from clarity. You have to hear it right, or you can’t play it. I actually never spent a lot of time thinking about the physical side of drumming; I wanted to make it sound good. Too much thinking about your movements can really spoil your playing, because you start to think too much about moving in a certain way. To me it’s more about trying to bring ideas across, and my main focus is the sound, not how I move.

MD: Do you come from a musical family?

Jost: My parents both play classical instruments. My mother had people coming to our house to play classical pieces together. At one point she suggested that I take piano lessons, which was my start with music. Then I did a ten-week intensive course at Drummer’s Collective in New York, and the rest is history!

Nickel’s Setup

Drums: Sonor ProLite, SQ2, Vintage series, and SQ1
A. 6×14 ProLite brass snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 17×22 bass drum
Not shown: 5×12 AS 07 1205 AD Art Design aux snare

Percussion: Meinl STB80S-CH 8″ cowbell

Hardware: Sonor 600 series

Heads: Remo, including Ambassador Coated snare batters and Ambassador snare sides, Emperor Coated tom batters and Diplomat Coated resonants, Powerstroke P3 Clear bass drum batter

Cymbals: Meinl
1. 14″ Byzance Extra Dry Medium hi-hats
2. 10″ Generation X Electro Stack GX-08/10ES
3. 18″ Byzance Traditional Extra Thin Hammered crash
4. 8″ Byzance Traditional splash
5. 22″ Byzance Dark Spectrum ride
6. 12″ Generation X Electro Stack GX-10/12ES
7. 18″ Byzance Extra Dry Thin crash
8. 6″ Byzance Traditional splash
9. 22″ Byzance Vintage crash

Miscellaneous: Meinl TMPTS percussion table stand, Meinl drum rug, Ahead Armor cases, Beyerdynamic mics, Tune-Bot drum tuner

Sticks: Vic Firth 5B wood tip