In drumming, a fill is a short break in the groove that helps to connect one phrase to the other. Contrary to drum solos, drum fills usually only last one bar or one measure. Sometimes, the goal of a drum fill is to capture the listener’s attention by making sudden changes to a repetitive pattern.
Drum fills are an important part of pop/rock music, and they’re also used in other genres such as jazz and electronic music. Without a drum fill, some songs would sound boring and excessively repetitive.
For a better notion of what a drum fill sounds like, let’s take a look at some of the most famous drum fills of all time.
Examples of famous drum fills
The Who – “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
The drum fill in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” lasts for a whole measure and is one of the most identifiable in rock music. Because this drum fill is used at the beginning of the song, its goal is not to break a repetitive groove, but rather to create enough tension so that the introduction of the vocals (and the other instruments) can be more impactful.
Ram Jam – “Black Betty”
For the most part, the hit song “Black Betty” by Ram Jam features a straight 8th note pattern in the kick drum and hi-hat. The drummer, however, gets to show all of his skills during a short drum fill preceding the bridge. Before the guitar makes its introduction, the drums go solo for two bars. This drum fill aims to signal a change in a song that was mostly played on top of a very simple and straight groove.
Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight”
The breakthrough song “In the Air Tonight,” by Phil Collins, features one of the most recognizable drum fills in popular music. This fill is comprised of toms and is used to bring in some energy in a song that was missing a climactic moment. It’s a moment of rupture that allows for the introduction of a new, high-intensity drum pattern that sticks until the end.
Billy Joel – “Only the Good Die Young”
The Billy Joel classic “Only the Good Die Young” is a masterful example of how to start a song. The tune begins with a solo piano playing the main chords and is followed by a one-bar drum fill that kicks in the rhythm. Without the drum fill, the introduction of the rhythm guitar (and the other elements) would feel forced. For that reason, this is an example of how a drum fill can be used to glue a composition together.
How to identify a drum fill in a song?
In most cases, drum fills present themselves—the hardest part is not to identify them, but to miss to realize they’re there! Still, here are a few tips on how to identify a drum fill in a song:
- The drums take center stage for a moment despite being relatively discreet for the better part of the song.
- There’s a sudden break in the groove of the drums.
- A short drum riff is used in-between key moments of the song (such as the intro or the transitions between verses, choruses, and bridges).
Many popular drum fills have:
- Just the drums playing in solo;
- Prominent toms;
- Double or even quadruple tempo (according to the rest of the song);
- A noticeable feeling of urgency or tension.
What’s the difference between a drum fill and a drum solo?
It’s no coincidence that some people have described drum fills as “mini drum solos.” After all, the most striking difference between drum fills and drum solos is their length. Whereas drum fills usually last for just one bar or measure, drum solos can last for minutes—just like Led Zeppelin’s epic “Moby Dick” drum solo:
Length, however, is not the only thing separating drum fills from drum solos. A drum fill’s job is to create a short break in the song, introducing either tension or a high-energy beat that connects to another section of the tune. Drum solos, on the other hand, are a whole section of the song themselves; they’re not used in service of the music, but they are an actual part of the tune.
Tips for playing drum fills
Having a good drum-fill game is essential for any aspiring drummer. The better you perform as a drummer overall, the better your drum fills will sound. Drumeo has some excellent tips on how to improve as a drummer (including some very specific drum fill advice) and is worth visiting.
If you’re already a good drummer but you’re struggling to play and create drum fills, here are some tips that should help you improve:
Sing the drum fill
Basic drum grooves kind of come as they are. You start by learning a basic groove and then add new elements and more complex variations as you get more and more familiar with the groove. But each drum fill is unique, and this can sometimes get in a drummer’s head.
So, why not sing the drum fill first and only then try to play it? Drum fills tend to be catchy, so it’s good to come up with a “singable” drum fill in your head before sitting in front of the drums. This way, you’ll know that you’re playing the drum fill that best fits the song.
Use the entire kit
Using way too many toms, crash cymbals, and percussive elements in drum grooves is sometimes a sign of a beginner drummer. Naively, some aspiring drummers believe that their grooves will sound better if they feature more drum sounds—in most cases, the opposite happens.
But while drum grooves should be kept simple and clear, drum fills are a great opportunity for exploring the entire kit and finally making something out of that rusty China cymbal you bought five years ago! Adding toms is also a quick way of providing your drum fills with that classic rock drum fill sound.
Understand the song’s needs
Unlike drum solos, which should be spectacular in their own right, drum fills are song-dependant. This means that your drum fills will only be good if they serve the song the right way.
By understanding a song’s dynamics, you’ll find it easier to know when, how, and for how long a drum fill should be played. Once you get good at it, you’ll know instantly when a drum fill is needed, which should help you during the composition process.
Things to improve to create better drum fills
While playing a basic groove is a lot about knowing how to keep a steady beat, play to the metronome, and perform as clearly and simply as possible, drum fills aim to be memorable. To improve your drum-fill game, you should focus on improving your fluidity and speed as a drummer.
This Drumeo video has some great drum-fill tips on how to make a more fluid approach to the drum kit:
For a complete guide on how to improve speed, check out these 10 Tips to Increase Your Speed and Endurance.
Now that you understand what a drum fill sounds like, as well as what it’s used for, you can finally start improving your drum-fill skills and creating better transitions for your grooves and songs. While drum fills can be described as mini drum solos and often apply the same kind of techniques, they must be composed and played according to the needs of a specific song.
To learn directly from one of the best drum-fillers of all time, check out these 10 tips on how to drum like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.