The following includes excerpts from Andy Ziker’s book Drumscapes: The Essential Guide to Playing Drumset, which is recommended for teachers of beginning to intermediate students.


The 3 + 1 Exercise: A Fun Approach to Teaching Fills and Improvisation

Basic Math

In rock music, most musical phrases are in multiples of four.

A great way to begin feeling this phrasing is to play three measures of a rock beat followed by one measure of what is called a "fill."

A fill is a short phrase with an endless possibility of rhythms and sound sources. During rock songs, fills can be heard connecting one part of a song (for example, the verse) to another part of the song (the chorus). Sometimes, other musicians in a band play along with a drummer’s fill. Therefore, a fill is not necessarily a solo.

The 3 + 1 Structure

Easy Transition

When you first start to play the four-bar phrase (as shown above), use a simple eighth-note rock beat (for three measures), followed by a fill containing one measure of consecutive eighth notes. By focusing on the spacing between hi-hat notes while playing the rock beat, the transition from beat to fill becomes much easier. The fill is therefore more likely to be played at the same tempo as the rock beat.

Here are some eighth-note fills to get you started. Apply these fills to the 3 + 1 Structure shown above.

Eighth-Note Fills


Count and Play

So that you don't lose track of what measure you are in, count and play the four measures like this.

Note: The ending of a fill/the beginning of the rock beat can be tricky.
For now, just go back to the hi-hat and bass drum on beat 1.


Free to Jam

Play each four-bar phrase along with a metronome. At first, set the metronome at a comfortable tempo, gradually increasing it. Don’t be afraid to start at 40 bpm (or 80 bpm if you would rather hear an eighth-note pulse) or slower to get started.

Now combine all of the musical phrases one after another. Repeat this 16-bar phrase over and over again.

You are now free to create your own fills using continuous eighth notes on any sound source. If you write down your own examples, you are composing fills. If you make up the fills as you go along, you are improvising fills. I encourage you to try out both of these methods.


The End is the Beginning

The end of a fill is just as important as the fill itself. Ending a fill weakly is like writing a sentence and leaving off a punctuation mark.

Most rock fills end on beat 1 of the next measure. Drummers tend to hit the crash and the bass drum, the hi-hat and the bass drum, or the ride and the bass drum (you can crash into a ride cymbal by using the shank of the stick and jabbing gently). The decision of where to end a fill can be effected by the location of the previously chosen sound source. For instance, if you play a floor tom located on the right side of the drumset, it will be more efficient to end that fill with a right-side crash (or crash into the ride).

Here is a short exercise to practice ending fills using different sound-source locations.

End-of-a-Fill Exercise

You don't have to stop here. Play different rock beats and different fills, ending the fills in the ways described above.

Note: Liberty Devitto and Travis Barker (and other drummers) are known for ending fills with huge exclamation points. They strike two different cymbals at the same time or one cymbal with two sticks. Try it! It’s a lot of fun.


16th-Note Fills

Because 16th-note fills may be harder to keep steady than eighth-note fills, counting, at least for a while, is a wise thing to do.

Apply the following 16th-note fills to the 3 + 1 Structure.

16th-Note Fills

Make up your own 16th-note fills. As long as you count, your fill will work out fine.


Play with the Pros

Playing along with recorded music really brings the 3 + 1 Exercise to life. The trick is to pick songs with a great groove that are organized in four-bar phrases and that bring forth creative sparks. Your favorite Frank Zappa song may not be appropriate in this case. Many songs by Beck and Red Hot Chili Peppers are perfect because they involve dense, overlapping rhythmic content, giving the fill-maker an array of rhythms to draw from.

The following is a list of songs that I currently use in my teaching practice for this purpose.

Note: Many rock and funk beats can be superimposed over the following songs. For more challenge,learn the actual grooves that the drummers in these bands are playing. Also, some of the listed songs have sections with two-bar phrases, added measures or beats, and breakdown sections. View those moments as creative opportunities.

 Show Me How to Live  Audioslave  Audioslave  Brad Wilk
 Like a Stone  Audioslave  Audioslave  Brad Wilk
 Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da  The Beatles  The Beatles  Ringo Starr
 E-Pro  Beck  Guero  Joey Waronker
 Broken Train  Beck  Midnite Vultures  Joey Waronker
 Where It's At  Beck  Odelay  Joey Waronker
 Nausea  Beck  The Information  Joey Waronker
 Miss You  Blink-182  Blink-182  Travis Barker
 Too Much  Dave Matthews Band  Crash  Carter Beauford
 Stay (Wasting Time)  Dave Matthews Band  Before These Crowded Streets  Carter Beauford
 How to Save a Life  The Fray  How to Save a Life  Ben Wysocki
 Feel Good Inc.  Gorillaz  Demon Days  drum programming
 Crazy  Gnarls Barkley  St. Elsewhere  Eric Bobo
 What You Waiting For?  Gwen Stefani  Love, Angel, Music, Baby  unknown
 Chameleon  Herbie Hancock  Head Hunters  Harvey Mason
 I Got the Feeling  James Brown  I Got the Feeling  Clyde Stubblefied
 Always on the Run  Lenny Kravitz  Mama Said  Lenny Kravitz
 Pain Lies on the Riverside  Live  Mental Jewelry  Chad Gracey
 Cissy Strut  The Meters  The Meters  Zigabo Modeliste
 Supermassive Black Hole  Muse  Black Holes and Revelations  Dominic Howard
 The Hand That Feeds  Nine Inch Nails  With Teeth  unknown
 Hella Good  No Doubt  Rock Steady  Adrian Young
 World Wide Suicide  Pearl Jam  Pearl Jam  Matt Cameron
 Renegades of Funk  Rage Against the Machine  Renegades  Brad Wilk
 Funky Monks  Red Hot Chili Peppers  Blood Sugar Sex Magik  Chad Smith
 Give it Away  Red Hot Chili Peppers  Red Hot Chili Peppers  Chad Smith
 Around the World  Red Hot Chili Peppers  Californication  Chad Smith
 Aeroplane  Red Hot Chili Peppers  One Hot Minute  Chad Smith
 Snow (Hey Oh)  Red Hot Chili Peppers  Stadium Arcadium  Chad Smith
 Dani California  Red Hot Chili Peppers  Stadium Arcadium  Chad Smith
 Guns Are Drawn  The Roots  The Tipping Point  ?uestlove
 1979  Smashing Pumpkins  Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness  Jimmy Chamberlin
 Burden in My Hand  Soundgarden  Down on the Upside  Matt Cameron
 Vertigo  U2  How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb  Larry Mullen Jr.
 Perfect Situation  Weezer  Make Believe  Patrick Wilson

The 3 + 1 Game

The 3 + 1 Structure can be used to play a fun and creative game. All that is required is two drumsets (and two players).

While playing along with music or a metronome, both players play three measures of a beat together. Player A then takes a fill during the fourth measure, while Player B either stops playing or continues to play the rock beat. In the next four-bar sequence, Player B takes the fill, while Player A stops or continues the beat.

This game is perfect for the teacher/student relationship. The teacher can model effective fills and good technique, while encouraging the student during their own opportunity to take a fill.


Don’t Stop Here

As you gain experience, you come to realize that most fills are less than one measure long. Experiment with shorter fills. The 3 + 1 Exercise would then become the 3.5 + 0.5 Exercise or the 3.75 + 0.25 Exercise. Fills longer than one measure are rare, but can also be fun to explore.

Try many different kinds of fills.

• Broken or Syncopated Fills–Use rests or accents to accomplish this sound (popularized by Ringo Starr of The Beatles.).

• Use the bass drum or hi-hat (with your foot) as a third and/or fourth hand.

• Rudiments–Learn to apply these to your fills. Try displacing these rudiments.

• Learn fills or parts of fills from your favorite drummers.

If you are still having trouble creating fills, relax and completely empty your mind before you attempt one. Place a stick or one of your feet on a sound source and allow the sound of the drumset to lead you. A low-pitched sound could be followed by a high-pitched sound. A short sound could be followed by a long sound.

Finally, don't be afraid to put in space (rests). Borrow from the Miles Davis’ philosophy: “Less is more."