I play the drums in a band, and the song has already been written and everything that the vocalist, guitarist and bassist will play. The drums were left out and I have to write them to fit the song.

The song is written quite systematically in that they follow the notes for chord progressions and movement, but the drums have an indefinite pitch. So should I neglect all the effort that went in for the rest of the performers to write notes that fit into grounded musical theory and play what just sounds good and just stick to a rhythm that respects the song's timing only? Or can I consider the 'notes' that the drums play as well?

I am in a position where all the other instruments appear almost scientific and the percussion much less so. To what extent is this true?

referring to the comment of neilfein below: what kind of strategies are there to approach these kinds of situations? (which actually summarizes what I would like to learn from experienced drummers)

  • 1
    Drums are mostly unpitched. I'd say focus on the rhythms - if you want a "scientific" song, make the rhythms progress through the song in the same patterns as the rest of the band.
    – Michael
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 14:37
  • 4
    Difficult to say without hearing the song, or seeing the music. You're essentially asking us for tips on how to write a part for song we've never heard. Perhaps you might ask about strategies to approach this kind of situation; that's a more complex question, but it's answerable and could be valuable. Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 4:21

5 Answers 5


I would consider above all the rhythm and timing, how it "feels" with the rest of the instruments. As a drummer, I find it very difficult to take a recording away and attempt to come up with a specific rhythm. I find it much easier to play along with the band and see where I can fit in and add to the overall feeling of the song.

I think playing what sounds good would not be considered neglecting the songwriting, but given that you're responsible for adding to their creative work be sure to respect their opinions and criticisms on whatever you come up with.

In most bands I have played with the songwriting was mostly done by the guitarist / bassist with the drums coming in later. Songwriting takes place individually on some levels (like with guitarists writing a riff) and also collaboratively with the whole group (practicing the song, shaping the overall structure and feel of the song). In my experience the drumming is more important during the collaboration with the whole group and the performance of the song.


In addition to good advice already given, if you want to plan your drum part and be very rigorous about it:

  1. drums can be used for emphasis, introduction, warning. Just before the melody and the lyrics are played and singed louder, or accelerating, etc. the percussion can prepare the listener and warn him something is going to happen.

  2. drums can be used as a punctuation, framing between verse and parts of the song. It is a lighter case of 1.

  3. drums should not mask lyrics or guitar riffs, especially in slow and quiet parts. Use less devices in this case. If the other players like to improvise, design clear signs between you so that you can know when they're done.

  4. Of course, there is the basic and sometimes remedial rythmic support part. If you feel certain parts of the song are likely to drift or if you here in rehearsals that the group is disbanding rythmically, plan to have light beat cues for them to rely on in these parts.

Armed with this, look at the music and the lyrics, highlight parts needing emphasing, loud or quite drum participation, extract a few characteristic rythms from the melody for you to repeat/copy/quote between refrains so that you can give unity to your part and the others.

You will have a good sketch to follow and to enhance further when meeting other members of your group.

  • +1 for "drums should not mask lyrics or guitar riffs." That's how Ravel butchered Pictures at an Exhibition. <rant>Specifically, that glorious scale at the end of Gnomus. It's a dastardly powerful moment on the piano, dark and sorcerous. But orchestrated, it's just a blurred accellerando because of that damned snare drum!</rant> Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 10:12

Sometimes I have the same feeling as you, due to the difficulty of expressing the details or the usual improvisation on sheet.

I think the best way to solve this is by doing a simple recording of each instrument separately. Each player would pick again that song in the future very easy. Think of you listening to a drum track cleanly recorded by someone with skills comparable with yours. It's easy to reproduce, isn't it?


Drums (as in the traditional trap set) are not melodic or harmonic instruments but rhythmic instruments. As such, the notes in the song are not as important as the rhythms. Try to play drum parts that fit in well with the rhythms of other parts and the song as a whole. Listen to similar music and try to pick out what the drummer is doing in parts you enjoy.

Above all else, don't write out your drum part first unless you have a lot of experience doing so. Play along with your other bandmates (or with a recording, but this is suboptimal), record yourself, try a lot of things, and go back and transcribe the things that work.


The only limit is your skill.

You could even play in different tempo than rest of a band (provided it will still "stick" together - great example here - drummer plays at 5/8, rest of a band 6/8) or use other "anomalies".

But sometimes it's better to play way below your skill than to overuse for example fills, irregular tempo etc. The rule of thumb (imho ofc) is:
1. Play simple beat (4/4, 6/8 etc)
2. Try something more complex (fills, breaks, changing from 4/4 to 3/4)
3. Listen if it still fits.
4. If yes try something even more complex if you feel song needs it (and if you can play it)
5. If no, try to remove some parts that sound too complex.

The great idea you can use is called "comping" (not sure). It's sometimes better to skip fill to enhance other instrument or vocals by using kick drum/cymbals/snare/whatever. Great example is shown here. I'm sure that after watching those few seconds you'll know what I mean.

Just remember -> drums don't have to be complex/simple. They have to fit the song, give the song right direction and right feel. You are the one who defines the feel, tempo, emotions, etc, of the song.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.