Overcoming The Fear Of Fills!

This is a subject that crops up almost more than any other when asking students new to me what particular problems they want to overcome. To that end, I hope to allay a few fears and point you in the right direction when it comes to playing fills.

As normal with drumming, there is, of course, that ever present ‘mental aspect’. However, it plays a small part compared to the practise techniques we are going to use. So let’s cover it now –

Billy Ward makes a very good point of this in his DVD, Big Time, and although this was something I already taught, I find his explanation ideal to pass on here: much of what we play when drumming we play within our comfort zone. And there is nothing wrong with that. Most times, that comfort zone is achieved as a result of hard practise, so that when we play, these things come to us naturally and without effort – i.e., they are in our comfort zone.

However, there are times that the body position, or hand position, or even the musical genre will throw a drummer outside of his comfort zone – sometimes, and depending upon the skill and experience of that drummer, with detrimental effects.
And with those starting out on the demanding journey toward natural, spontaneous, musically colourful and appropriate fills, the initial hurdle is exactly that – converting their musical ‘discomfort’ zone to their music ‘comfort’ zone.

But what is this comfort zone I keep on about? It’s this; when right handed drummers play a groove, their hands are crossed across their chest, shoulders dropped and a little turned in – a comfortable, familiar position that the drummer spends the majority of his time in. The brain gets quite happy with the body being in this position, the heart, lungs and centre line of the body all pointing in towards the snare, the seat of the kit. A balanced, strong position. Physically, and indeed mentally, he is in his comfort zone.
But what happens the moment we want to play a fill? – we sit up slightly, our hands become uncrossed and arms open up, our chest is exposed, and we are twisting the centre line of our torso slightly towards off centre – and usually towards the ogling audience (a lot of us drummers like to hide behind our kits, so opening up to an audience is not often something we’re happy with). At once, if we are not practised at this, we have catapulted ourselves miles outside our comfort zone.

So, before we look at the construction of fills themselves, we have to practise becoming confident with this open position, and thus allow it to become part of our comfort zone. Once we’ve done this, we have the self-assurance to concentrate on fill structure, fill improvisation and good, clean fill execution.

The way I teach my students to overcome the initial hurdle is to split the idea of fills into two parts. This is the crucial aspect.

a) Learning four ‘sound groups’ to eliminate the task of thinking about ‘what to play’, the minute you come off of the groove and into a fill
b) Once this is mastered, and confidence gained, learning to combine sound groups and using them upon appropriate instruments around the kit, until the idea in the head is played out on the kit without conscious thought.

You must be disciplined enough to ensure you do not move onto to b) without having gained absolute confidence with a). Doing this will cause this method of fill development to fail totally. You need the consummate confidence gained in a) before b) will ever begin to work.

So, here is a):

1. Learn these four sound groups –

 (known as ‘black-cur-rent’ for non-readers)

(known as ‘lem-on-ade’ for non-readers)

1 e (+) a (do not play the ‘+’)

2. Choose one of these to work with.

3. Play a groove.

4. Play the chosen sound group –


The crucial idea here is you rely totally on the sound group. Just let your hands play the sound group, and let them wander – give no attention to what drums you are hitting.

Ensure you practise this for at least two weeks daily. Part a) is designed to get you feeling totally relaxed when you open up your posture and leave the groove in order to fill. It has nothing to do with how the fill sounds. You are concentrating on bringing the act of ‘going into a fill’ into your comfort zone.

The great bonus here, is that 90% of the time, if you rely on the sound group, the fill will take care of itself and sound fine without you ‘choosing’ what to hit. I cannot reiterate enough that you MUST NOT get concerned over what to hit, just put all your faith in playing the sound group.

Play them over and over and over again, using one of the sound groups above until you feel no apprehension when coming off of the groove into a fill.

Then, begin to combine the sound groups – two at a time, then three, then four – play around with as many combinations of the four sound groups as possible, but NEVER thinking about what drums you are hitting – that’s the crucial part!!

Once you’ve mastered this, you can move onto b) which will polish and refine your fills, and have you playing tonally balanced and great sounding fills. We’ll go into this next time, so come back soon for part b). And remember – have faith in those sound groups!

Author: Steve Rigg

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