Save the Neil Peart fills and just find the Downbeat

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Save the Neil Peart fills and just find the Downbeat!!!
is an actual experience of mine and I honestly deserved to hear it. That whole experience happened to me over 10 years ago now and is one that I will never forget! I mean who honestly forgets when the artist you’re playing with stops everyone in rehearsal mid song and chastises your fills as being too Neil Peart-ish? It’s like a round about way of saying “Why don’t you just sit in your room with all of your Rush CD’s and play your new set of octobans and rototoms but don’t waste our time with that nonsense here.” And honestly to this day that guy was totally right and I learned a lot from that experience at the young age of 20. And the more that I played with him and other artists I realized that 98% of the artists and bands that I have played with could care less about the new fill you just found in the Dennis Chambers bag of tricks. They just want you to create that feel behind them to give them a comfortable cushion to play within.

Makes sense right?? Of course of course! What am I really talking about?? Well I’m talking about the 1 and the 3. The Downbeats.. but more importantly the 1. That first downbeat at the top of the measure can sure be a tricky one if you’re playing a fill that’s going to rush the downbeat on the one or make you miss it entirely. And I’m not saying that those fills don’t always fit or aren’t always appropriate. But I am saying that more often than not.. they probably aren’t. So you need to seriously ask yourself; Are your fills a little too Neil Peart-ish in the context of your church worship service, top 40 cover band gig, or just a country/western jam down at the local VFW? Does your downbeat fluctuate or not happen at all at the top of each measure? Do you even know what a downbeat or a measure is??

So that’s a good start here. A little bit of realization and enlightenment if you will. But I also must say that even though we’re giving Neil Peart a bad rap on his fills. I can honestly tell you that even with how busy he plays and how many toms he hits in a fill. I’ve never heard Neil Peart not land on the downbeat. So am I contradicting myself by saying that all the fills in your bag of tricks will always push you away or off the down beat of every measure?? Maybe it could appear that way but let me explain myself a little further. Here are some questions that you should ask yourself to help determine if you fit in the “I play a fill too much” and “I’m in love with my toms” “ADHD” Drumming.

  • First of all how many toms do you have? And do you find yourself hitting them more than your snare?
  • Do you understand the term “In the pocket” or the “Groove”
  • Do you play with a click track/metronome or scorn it’s existence? And if you do play with one can you play to it and practice with it?
  • Do you think that drummers who play little or no fills are bad drummers?
  • Are the words “Solid Drummer” offensive to you?
  • And lastly, are you never being called back for the last gig you played?

Ok so we’re whittling away at who the professionals are and who might need to woodshed on some simple and practical basics of musical taste. And I don’t say these things to demean anyone. I say them all to help! I get asked so many times by drummers on how to become a professional drummer. Among a few things that I suggest I always say play solid, simple, and let your artist and whole band know where the down beat is at all times. And if you read below here are some more tips on how to play less fills and find your feel for solid grooves, tasteful fills, and knowing how to accentuate the downbeat for all to hear.

  • Practice by taking one tom away at a time. Or all of them —  I actually played and still play a kit to this day with only a floor tom. Did I just blow your mind?? Maybe some of you.. But it is truly an emancipating feeling to know that you have only a few fills to make work with a floor tom, kick, and snare. And you’ll be amazed at what you come up with! But if you love your toms more than your snare, kick, and hi-hats (Where groove most often happens).. then you should try this approach. It’s a little like going on the patch or chewing nicotine gum for a smoker. Basically you just keep lowering the dosage as needed and you soon become cigarette free. Or is this case “Neil Peart-ish fill free” . Give it a whirl and you’ll be amazed at how many compliments and respect you’ll get by your band by how you focus more on the groove than 100 tom fills.
  • Listen to what professional drummers in Pop, Country, and top 40 music do — I actually heard an interesting stat from a studio engineer friend of mine that the biggest #1 Pop/Rock songs of all time have little or no tom fills at all. And as I listened to a bunch of old #1’s he was totally right! And as I researched further I also found that those drummers are no slouches.. Drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Porcaro, and Steve Gadd. Whom are all technically on another level than a lot of us but still get that playing on a song involves tasteful playing and giving everyone the joy of knowing where the down beat is. One of my favorite songs is a song that Vinnie Colaiuta played on by Sting called “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” It might have one tom hit in it.. maybe?? But the song is all that funk shuffle groove that Vinnie does so well.. and when it’s appropriate to “Go Off” at the end of the video. Then Vinnie does so very tastefully. Here’s a peek

  • Listen to the artist and bands you’re playing with — Most of the time you’ll know when you’re “going off” a little too much because the other guys around you will probably tell you or just never call you again. So make sure to eat some humble pie if you’re told that you’re being a bit too busy. It’s for your own good!! I promise!
  • If you’re playing a cover song then simply copy the fills that the drummer played on the record — Unless the Artist you’re playing for just simply hates the drum fills on the song you’re playing then do your best to play a variation of them. But you must remember that a lot of songs that you hear on recordings have been scrutinized by a producer, A&R person, manager, engineer, Artist, and full band. So I guess that fill is the fill that they wanted to keep in there.. And let’s hope that if it was too messy then they would’ve have canned it. But whatever the circumstance here… Do your best to just learn the fills where they are placed in the song.
  • Learn to groove, keep your fills from speeding you up or slowing you down into the next measure —  This is an advanced task that will take you locking yourself into a room with a click and hearing how you naturally play your fills into the next measure. Fills are usually 8th or 16th note based and the faster they get, the more apt you’ll be to rush your next downbeat. I know of studio drummers that would practice for days on this very thing. They were tired of having to punch and re-punch fills that were too busy and rushed the next downbeat. Now we have Beat Detective and Flex Time to fix these issues in the digital recording world. But when you’re playing live you don’t have that nice warm blanky called “You’re about to have surgery on your whole drum track”
  • Knowing how to play simple and tasteful is what makes you a professional player — Some of you will disagree but to be honest I have used about 6 or 7 drum fills of the 100 drum fills I’ve learned in in my life just this this year. No one cares that you have the coolest fills ever! No one but a small majority of people in this world will ever hire a drummer based on the amount of fills he or she has up their sleeve. It all will revolve about how confident you are in the pocket and how great you make that Artist’s music feel. If you are playing too much you just simply will not last long. So slowly break down you’re playing and use this word in your brain at all times while playing RESTRAINT
  • Avoid the Clinic Drummer mentality — I think that everyone loves a good drum solo, and so DO I! But it’s a drum solo and I’ve only played a few of them in my 20 yr studio and touring career. I’ve heard a lot of technically off the charts drummers play the socks off a clinic and blow my mind. But when I’ve heard some of them try to groove in a simple worship song at church.. it just felt wrong. You can tell who spends more time “In the pocket” and grooving.. and who spends more time on drum solos. So marry your metronome and spend more time on the thing that will keep getting you work. “The Groove”

There is probably more that I could write.. but I think we get the point and have a pretty good start right here.

Until then feel free to start the dialogue on here and learn from other professionals like myself on how you can better serve the Artist and Band you play for. I hope some of this helped.. Feel free to ask me any questions at all. Have a great week!

Jon Skaggs has been a drummer, producer, and composer for over 20 years and is the author of the The Worship Musician (Basics and Core Essentials). Jon is also a contributing writer, drummer, and songwriter to,, and has a course for the Worship Drums Guide on  You can get weekly articles and daily blogs for Worship Leaders and Church musicians from Jon at and @theworshipblog on Twitter .. Sign up for more articles and information from Jon and at the Email Newsletter Form below.

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Author: jons2970

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  1. Great article Jon. I really try to be simple when I’m playing. I’m reminded of a great tune, of which, for the life of me I can’t remember, that Prairie Prince played on. I was amazed at the deep groove and the only fills he did were 8th notes on the snare. It was amazing.
    I always tell drummers that they need to learn to play “The Money Maker”, (aka Billie Jean). If they can play that for 3-4 minutes w/o a fill and just groove, they’ll always find work.
    Your book sounds great; I’ll have to get a copy. God Bless. Ted

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