Monthly Drum LessonTomás Howie Drumming Web
Page is loading - stand by!

Drum Resources
My Equipment
Liner Drumming
Link To Us
Modern Drummer
Monthly Lesson
Practice Tips
Reading Music
Rhythms of Prog



The Non-Fill

   Let's face it: the Drum Fill can be our best friend, or our worst enemy. It's one of the topics that drummers disagree most on. We tend to treat the fill as a mini-solo, not as part of the song, but we all know a killer fill when we hear it, and some fills have become part of our drummeing culture. You know the ones: Bonham's fill at the end of "Rock and Roll", Phil Collin's gated fill on "In The Air Tonight", and Steve Gadd's superb fills in Steely Dan's "Aja".

   But what is a fill, really? Is it a chance to show off our chops? Or is it our opportunity to claim a piece of the song as our own? Are they necessary? Or a necessary evil?

   We get all sweaty-palmed when we know an important fill is coming up, and many of us - very many - rush our fills. We can be steady as a rock until the fill, then our tempo goes out the window.

   In this lesson I want to explore what I'm calling "The Non-Fill". I want us to think of a fill as something other than a mini-solo - something that fits and flows with the music. For that reason, I'm going to lay down some rules for The Non-Fill.

The Concept

   This lesson is designed to change the way we think about the fill. Here's a typical rock pattern.

Rock Pattern

   There is no repeat bar at the end of this - it's just a section from a song. Pretty typical of a rock rhythm (this rhythm can also double as a country rhythm).

   OK, so it's now time for the fill: we're working towards the chorus, or coming out of the bridge. What do we do? We typically take our hands off the snare/hi-hats and do a ba-da-boom around the drum kit:

Typical Fill

   A nice, simple tom roll. The first note on the measure following the fill will be a kick/crash cymbal hit, right? And if we're lucky (or good), we might not rush this too bad.

   OK. So, here's what I'm proposing for The Non-Fill: our hands never leave the snare/hi-hats. That's it. No rolling around the kit, no flams or 5-stroke rolls on the snare. Lock those hands on the snare/hi-hats like you would during the verse of the song. If you have to put the toms in another room, then do it!

   So, now what do you do? This lesson is designed to start you thinking about how to throw in those little embellishments that really stand out and compliment the song. I'm going to give you some examples of The Non-Fill, then you're on your own. You are expected to take the ball and run with it, and make up your own.


    Exercise #1

   Our first example is a simple snare hit in an odd place. The first measure is the verse pattern, repeated for about seven measures (I won't notate that here in the interest of space). The second measure is the fill. This is from Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu" from KATIE LIED, third verse. Jeff Porcaro is the drummer (this album is a clinic on drum fills - get it).

Non-Fill #1

   In order to cement this little "fill", Jeff lays off the crash on the 1 of the following measure - he just stays on the snare/hi-hats as though nothing happened. But, something did happen: magic!

    Exercise #2

Non-Fill #2

   This fill builds a bit on #1: we add some kick work, which helps to accent the & snare hit at the end of the measure. Again, lay off the crash! Let the thing breathe in the context of the music! You don't always have to hit the crash, you know. One of my favorite things to do is to make some noise in the middle of the eighth measure on the hats or cymbals, then totally lay off a crach/kick hit on the one of the following measure: let the cymbals wash into the one all by themselves. It really creates an interesting texture!

    Exercise #3

Non-Fill #3

   Note what's happening on the 3 of the fill measure: we're opening up the hi-hat for that eighth note (some drummers call this a hi-hat "bark"). The non-fill can be strictly a snare thing, as in Exercise #1, just a kick thing, or even just a hi-hat thing. This exercise uses kick/hi-hat as the fill elements; the snare sticks with the pattern. You can use some "doubles" on the hats (sixteenth notes), open the hats up, or even lay off! Throw in a rest as the fill element! A rest in the hats line, or the snare line, or the kick line, or any combination!

   Remember, no crash on one of the following measure! Don't draw attention to the fill - let it sneak in like a little mouse!

    Exercise #4

Non-Fill #4

   We can stick with the eighth notes, as we do here. We can make the two snare hits on the & of 1 and on 2 be sixteenth notes starting on the & of 1. We can lay off the hats while we're hitting the snare, or while we're hitting the kick. We can make the hats playing triplets while the snare/kick does it's thing.

    Exercise #5

Non-Fill #5

   This fill will have quite a different feel, we're basically playing triplets on the two quarter notes, 1 and 2. I'm not notating it as triplets, though, but that's how it sounds. This really jazzes things up a bit.

   Remember, no crash on the 1 of the next measure!

    Exercise #6

Non-Fill #6

   This is one of my favorite non-fills. It's from Yes, "Hold On" from the 90125 album. Alan White is the drummer. This song is in 6/8, and the fill in the last two measures of this chart makes the song "jump" into an odd 4/4 feel, just for a couple measures! Alan picks up the 6/8 pattern again immediately after this fill. If this doesn't get the good ol' boys you play with to turn around a look at you, then they're deaf!

   You can go the other way with this: taking a 4/4 song and adding a 6/8 feel, or a swing feel. Keeping the hands on snare/hi-hats (or snare/ride cymbal, for that matter!).

    Exercise #7

Non-Fill #7

   Do you remember earlier I talked about doing some things with the cymbals/open hi-hats inthe "middle" of the measure, then coming in on the 1 of the following measure without a crash, just the song pattern? This exercise shows one such fill. Open the hi-hat on the & of 3 for a quarter-note "splash". No crash on the 1 of the following measure!


   This lesson is more of a concept than a technical exercise. We used rock patterns as our examples, but this can be done with any style of music! Jazz drummers almost do this instinctively. We rock drummers have to adjust our thinking a bit to make this happen.

   Don't be satisfied with the "traditional" ways of thinking about our instrument. Strip your technique down; simplify, modify. Open up your phrasing and let the music breathe. This lesson is more about rhythmic breathing than anything else. Come up with your own "Non-Fill" ideas!

   As always, let me know how you've done!

Notation key

bar separator

E-Mail Me!