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What is a drum fill?

Drum fills are rhythmic patterns that either elaborate on or break from the main groove of a song. They’re typically used as a transition between song sections, and often come after two, four or eight measures. Fill lengths vary and depend on the musical context. They sometimes last just one or two beats, or as long as one or two measures – and sometimes even longer.

Drum fills can be thought of as not just rhythmic, but melodic as well. A drummer can create a fill “theme” in a song; for example, every fill consists of 8th notes and starts on the 3 in a measure. In this way, a fill can be the drummer’s equivalent of a melodic hook – a “memorable musical idea” that catches the listener’s ear and comes up a few times throughout a song.

What are fills used for?

Fills create interest, excitement, and even tension/release when transitioning between parts of a song, such as from a verse to a chorus. They’re deviations from the main groove that introduce a new texture in order to “fill the gap” between melodic phrases and mark that something’s happening musically.

You could think of hitting a crash cymbal as the simplest drum fill: it takes up the space of just one beat but is still a break from the primary rhythm, usually emphasizes a musical transition, and signifies the end of a group of two, four or eight measures.

Here are some of the most widely used drum fills – from beginner to advanced – that every drummer should have in their rhythmic toolbox. These popular and familiar fills have stood the test of time because of how well they work in a wide variety of songs.

Beginner Drum Fills

The Traditional 8th Note Fill

This 8th note fill is usually one of the first fills a drummer learns. It can be any length, but often is a full measure starting on the 1.

In this free beginner lesson on rock drum fills, it’s the first example:

The 8th Note Build

Another basic drum fill used in many styles of music is the 8th note build: a crescendo fill that’s usually orchestrated between the snare and floor tom (and sometimes includes the kick drum as well). It’s generally used to build tension into either a higher energy section of a song, or sometimes into a complete stop. It’s example #2 in this lesson on rock drum fills for beginners:

7 Rock Drum Fills For Beginners

The “Splat-Boom”

This simple drum fill, used mainly in rock music, is an alternating pattern between the snare and kick drum (with a flam on the snare), and can consist of either 8th or 16th notes.

For a 16th note version that finishes with another classic fill – a simple 16th note flourish on the snare starting on the 4 – see example #3 in this video on how to incorporate the bass drum into fills:

To see how it’s used by Dave Grohl in the intro to the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, check out this guide to iconic drum fills:

How To Play 17 Iconic Drum Fills

The Traditional 16th Note Fill

Versatile and adaptable to all styles of music, the traditional 16th note fill forms the basis of many of the drum fills we know and love. It’s example #3 in this video on common rock fills:

“Pat Boone Debby Boone”

This is a classic fill that works across many styles. The mnemonic known among drummers comes from the rhythm made by the syllables: pat-boone-de-bby-boone (or ‘3 AND 4-E-AND’ when counted).

The Motown Fill

A fill used in countless blues and R&B songs, sometimes even as an intro before any other instrumentation, it’s usually orchestrated between the rack tom, snare drum and floor tom.

“Bucket Of Fish”

Used mostly in rock music, the name is another mnemonic formed by the rhythm of the syllables. The pattern is played as a 16th note triplet followed by an accent on the next 8th note.

Stephen Taylor demonstrates all three of these fills in this video:

Intermediate Drum Fills

Here are some ideas and techniques you can use to create more complex drum fills.

Odd Groupings

Consisting of three, five or seven 16th notes, accents and/or various orchestrations can form the groupings. Check out example #2 in this video:

A grouping of three 16ths forms the basis of possibly the most famous drum fill of all time: Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”. Naturally, it’s the first example here:

If you’re new to odd groupings, this video will give you a quick but solid introduction:

Linear Fills

Linear” in drumming means no two limbs fall together. Linear fills can be incredibly cool and textured sounding. The fill above comes from this Carmine Appice lesson on linear playing:

Typically they’re played with a 16th note subdivision, but if you’re a beginner who decided to take a peek at this section for fun, you can play linear fills too. Here’s an 8th note version:

Six Stroke Roll

This rudiment sounds great when you apply it around the kit. Steve Gadd uses it all the time, and you can too.

Watch this video to get some ideas for how you can use the six stroke roll as a fill:

Neil Peart Solo Fill

If you’re looking for a specific fill created by one of the legends, try this one by Neil Peart (“Natural Science” from Permanent Waves):

Advanced Drum Fills

What makes a drum fill ‘advanced’? Many drummers consider playing with time and limb independence some of the tougher skills to develop. If you learn a concept as a groove or solo, you can still pull sections to use for fills and transitions.

Combination Fill

This Marco Minnemann lick is great for challenging your four-way independence, as well as your speed and fluidity.

Herta Fill

Adam Tuminaro incorporates hertas to give fills more drive:

Quintuplets

Turn this Anika Niles quintuplet groove into an interesting backbeat fill. Quintuplets are less common in popular music, which can make it difficult to find songs to reference:

Left Foot Ostinato

Here’s an example of a Thomas Lang pattern with left hand accents. It may look like an intermediate lick:

…until you add in the left foot ostinato to test your independence:

Use this list as a jumping off point to building your own skills. Your fills can become your signature “voice” as a drummer – so improvise, experiment, and trust your creativity.


JJ Jones

JJ Jones is an internationally-touring drummer, educator and writer currently based in Boulder, CO. She's played with folk-pop darlings Girlyman, comedian Margaret Cho, Egyptian revolutionary Ramy Essam, and alt-pop sensation Heather Mae, among many others. JJ is the Tech and Gear Editor of Tom Tom Magazine, and the founder of EmpowerDrumming.com, a drumming education company for women.

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