The key to being a successful drum set player is the ability to keep solid time using an appropriate groove for the style of the tune. That being said, if you don’t step outside of that groove to aid in transitions and delineate formal elements of the chart, you aren’t fully contributing. There are lots of great drum set books with sample fills and things to consider when constructing a fill, but allow me to give you two ideas to help quickly craft effective fills in a variety of settings and build your fill vocabulary. The first approach is based on a single rhythm with a variety of voicings; the second is based on a single surface with a variety of rhythmic and articulation elements.
ONE RHYTHM, MANY VOICINGS
Start with a single rhythm. For use with a rock beat, this may be four eighth notes (3 & 4 &); for a swing beat, perhaps you might use a triplet followed by swung eighth notes (3 trip let 4 – let). Start playing time on the kit and after three-and-a-half bars, play the rhythm selected on the snare drum, then return to the groove. Loop this same four-bar phrase over and over, each time playing the same rhythmic fill, but orchestrating it differently. Instead of 3 & 4 & on the snare, perhaps it is 3 on the floor tom, the & of 3 on the high tom, beat 4 on the snare drum, and the & of 4 on a half-open hi-hat. The next time you might play 3 and 4 on the snare drum with the &s on the bass drum. The key is to keep the same fill rhythm each time, focusing your attention on the creativity of where you place those notes on the kit. After a few minutes, start the process over with a new rhythm.
SAME SUFACE, BUT MUCH VARIETY
Pick a drum. Perhaps to keep it simple, start with the snare drum that is right in front of you. Pick a style and start playing time on the kit. After three bars or so, play a short fill on the drum you chose and return to the groove. Loop this same four-bar phrase over and over, but each time, do something different with your fill without changing drums. Play the same rhythm but add flams, rolls, or accents. Take the rhythm you played but start one eighth note earlier in the measure. Perhaps you could add a crescendo or decrescendo to the fill or play the right hand significantly louder than the left and see how it sounds. Play the fill on the rim instead of the drum or maybe just one hand near the edge and one in the center. The key in this exercise is to take away the distractions of all the many surfaces available to use, allowing you to simply focus on the creativity of rhythm and articulation. Once you’ve run out of ideas on one surface, choose a different drum or cymbal, or perhaps give yourself two options instead of just one and see where that leads.