If you're anything like me, you probably know a thousand fills and you probably use about 2 of them live. Maybe the rest don't cross your stream of consciousness while you're playing, or maybe they're too fast or too busy. More than likely though, you don't know quite how to use them and it's a matter of confidence that you can pull them off outside of the song you learned them in.
For the past several years I've been studying with groove master Zoro here in Nashville. Earlier this week he showed me a new lick that I dug and he made this suggestion: Now you have a new word, so take that word and learn how to use it in different contexts. Wow! What a simple but beautiful idea, and it triggered me to realize how much time I put into learning and writing new licks and how infrequently I use them in live situations. I can't count how many times I've stepped off a stage thinking "I didn't use anything I've spent the last month working on". So what's the problem? I work on them in the context of a specific song and I never stretch to learn to use them anywhere else. Maybe the song is fast and the fill starts from a ride cymbal groove. So what happens when I'm in a slow song and I'm on the hats? Probably nothing good.
Here's my idea to tackle this problem. I've picked 5 fills that are challenging but achievable, and tasteful enough to be used in most situations. For me it made sense to pick 3 that I learned and 2 that I created myself. Then I created a playlist on my ipod with different grooves that I use frequently - a fast and a slow song in 4:4, a fast and a slow song in 6:8, a swing tune, a shuffle, a 16th note groove, a couple songs where the groove is on the ride, something funky, and something rockin'. My list is tailored to the type of music I'm most likely to be asked to play. From there I'm taking the framework of my 5 fills and stretching them over each of these feels. I'm learning a lot and asking myself questions as I go: What happens when I try to play this one slow...what do I have to add to make this one fit in 6:8...Can I play this one at double speed at this tempo...does this sound musical in this context, etc etc.
The result is that I have a set of 5 fills that I'm proud of and at any given time when I hear them in my head, I can play them with confidence. I know where they need to start to land on 1, and I know what they're going to sound like before I attempt to play them. Once that set of 5 is slammin', I'll pick 5 more. I spent an hour and a half last night picking fills, making a playlist, and practicing and I walked away feeling like a better drummer. I still have work to do to fully master those 5, but I already understand them better and I got a chance to be really creative on my instrument. Try it out - I think you'll be glad you did.