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Creating Drum Parts On The Fly

Have you ever been asked to drum on a track that wasn't your own, or from your own band’s material? Maybe someone saw you play at a gig or online, liked what they heard, and decided you were the drummer they wanted on their songs?

This is a very cool opportunity which can create many exciting new professional avenues for you, as well as expand your palette and help keep you feeling fresh musically. It’s a situation I’ve been fortunate to find myself in many times, and it’s why I ended up establishing myself as a freelance session drummer. If you do take on these opportunities, though, you also must be prepared to face challenging musical situations and types of material you may have never played before.

In most situations, the project leader will provide you with the music in advance, so you can take your time getting familiar with it before arriving at the studio. However, there will also be times when you must come up with a drum part on the fly in the studio – and sometimes in a single take. I’ve worked on many sessions here at Island where an artist needs drums and I’ll come in to record after just hearing the song literally for the first time.

So, if you need to deliver drums on the spot, here’s some advice from my own little bag of tricks.

Active Listening

The best thing you can do as a session drummer (or any type of instrumentalist) is to master active listening. This is basically where you are listening to music not passively enjoying it as a consumer, but actively learning its parts and structure as accurately and quickly as you can.

Can you gauge the exact moment that the verse starts, and when the chorus hits? Is there a middle section – and if so, how long does it go for? Can you pick up on little rhythmic hits or runs to help you differentiate between the first and second verses, or the other sections? If there’s a solo section, do you want to build with it, or just create a steady foundation underneath?

By keeping your ears open to listen actively, you’ll find your way through the music more quickly.

Cheat Sheets

There are times when memorising what you’ve learned through active listening is not quite enough. Maybe the music includes some tasty time signature changes or bar amounts that are throwing you off. In this situation, help yourself by writing out a musical ‘cheat sheet’ that tells you how many bars there are in the different sections (e.g. intro, verse, chorus, middle section, solo, outro).

This might look like:

Song in 4/4 time approx 128bpm

Triplet hits to start

Intro 4 bars

Verse 16 bars – last bar 4 e and drum fill

Chorus 8 bars – switch to 6/8 time

Less clutter on the page is better, so make it as simple as you can. But sometimes you may need to break the sections down further – for example to include something like ‘Intro – 4 bars and triplet drum fill to verse’. In cases where I need help remembering exact feels or rhythms going into new sections, I’ll also write out rhythmic figures on the cheat sheet.


Just like driving with Google Maps, it's always much more comforting knowing where you're going with an exact map. So, taking the cheat sheet idea one step further, some drummers and other musicians will write out exact notation for different parts for the music – provided, of course, they have the ability to sight read it while playing. If you can’t already, I recommend learning to write notation, because it gives you a really handy skill that can get you out of sticky situations quickly.

Do I recommend actually writing notation in every situation? No, as it might not be necessary if the music is simple enough and you have the hang of it naturally anyway. But will it give you more confidence to quickly nail the take when you need it? Hopefully yes!

Follow Your Instincts

We are all different people and we all view music in different ways. Sometimes we hear a song and we’re compelled to try playing something a little different to what another musician, producer, or songwriter might envision. This inspiration is always a great thing to explore, and if the artist leading the project is OK with you trying out a different idea, then don’t be afraid to run with it. Be creative and put your own personal stamp on the music that you hear. After all, that’s often why you’ll be hired in the first place!

Right Place, Right Time

While it is great to follow your instincts as I described above, just make sure you always check yourself, and think about whether it’s the right place and time to be doing that big double kick flurry in a jazz rendition of Never Gonna Give You Up. There are some songs that just do not call for overuse of creativity or advanced technical skills. Remember, the music should tell you where to put those tasty fills and licks, or whether the song even needs them at all.

So, if you have another session coming up soon – of if you’re about to make your first foray into the session world – hopefully these are some helpful tips for you to take on board. Happy drumming, happy recording, and happy music making!

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