How to write efficient drum charts

How to write efficient drum charts that will make your drummer happy and produce great results fast.

When it comes to writing a drum chart, there often seems to be uncertainty as to what to notate and how to do it. In this article I will give you some feedback from a drummer's perspective and provide guidelines to creating drum charts that will result in successful performances.

Over the years as a professional session drummer, I've come across just about every kind of drum chart out there. Some were beautifully written and easy to execute despite being musically challenging, while others were nearly impossible to read even though they only contained several measures and were easy to play. There is a fine balance of useful info and cluttered writing that needs to be taken into consideration when writing drum charts. Simply converting your programmed midi drum part into a drum chart is just not going to cut it!

So, why is it that drummers need special attention when it comes to drum charts?

It is because we play with all four limbs simultaneously and while that is second nature, having to read a chart notating all four would be tedious, pointless and counter-productive. Our brain power is best utilized in doing what we are there for: playing music.

Simplicity is king.

Think of sight-reading music as driving down the highway at 60mph. Road signs come up and and swoosh by you quickly and there is only a little bit of time to intake the necessary information. Signs that are simple, clear and contain only the most relevant information are absorbed in time. Ever notice how those long alerts with lots of information fly over you before you manage to read the entire text? Or if you are so eager to read the entire message of the billboard, you may cause an accident. The same goes with sight-reading a drum chart.

Things to keep in mind: a drummer's main focus needs to be on time-keeping, playing a solid groove that feels good and flowing with the music with all the dynamics and finesse. A drum chart is there to help get him from point A to B smoothly without distracting him with unnecessary ink. So, only the crucial information should be included in a drum chart.

There is a big difference in, say, writing a drum chart and writing a classical piano piece. While in a classical piano piece it is necessary to notate every single note and articulation, that is very much not the case when charting for drum set music. Proficient drummers have been trained to interpret simple writing on a drum chart into a full musical drum orchestration. Drummers that do not know how to interpret simple drum charts will most likely have a hard time reading any chart and will not make music, so you should be writing for those that can and avoid hiring those that can't.

So, here are the best practices to creating great drum charts.

  • Don't write out every bar (measure) of the song with full drum parts (ie. Copying and pasting a drum groove through out the entire song).
  • Write out a basic drum pattern at the beginning of the score (1-bar or 2-bar pattern) and write “sim.” on the following bar indicating that the drummer should continue to play a similar groove.

Example of drum groove notation at the beginning of a drum chart

  • Only write a basic groove focusing on main accents of the kick and snare (eg. kick on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4). Avoid complicating the groove with ghost notes and broken hi-hat patterns, unless it is a very particular and musical drum groove that is the signature for the song and must be played exactly as written. The more complicated it is to read, the more it will distract the drummer from playing music.

Instead, give a simple verbal instruction to the drummer as to how to interpret the chart: eg. “Broken 16ths hats” or “8ths hats” etc.

  • Remember to specify the feel: straight 8's or 16's vs. swung 8's or 16's.
  • Use only a single-stave system for notating a drum chart.
  • Make sure to space the staves properly, so that they are not too crowded or too far apart. The page should look clean and easy to follow, while not being too spacious and extending over too many pages.

Here is an example of a well written drum chart.

  • Try to keep your score to up to 3 pages if possible (so that it can fit on a single stand without having to turn pages).
  • Avoid using unnecessary words in your verbal instructions: instead of “play a 16th note groove on hats”, write “16th's hats”.
  • Indicate a time signature and tempo only at the beginning of the chart and whenever there are time signature or tempo changes.
  • Specify at the top of the chart what type of groove, feel or music it is. Eg. Shuffle funk, Latin, Brazilian Samba, straight eight Rock etc. Most of the time that alone is enough for a versatile drummer to know what kind of groove, feel and fills to play.
  • Group bars into 4-bar or 8-bar staves and always start a new musical section on a new stave. If a section of your song contains an odd number of bars (like 5 or 7), write the odd number of bars on a single stave and start a new section on the new stave. This way of writing will give the drummer an easy overview of the length of sections and avoid him having to count the bars. Never start a new section half-way through or in the last bar of the stave.
  • After you notate a drum groove, use an appropriate symbol on each bar to specify that the content is repeated. Don't just put rests, as that will cause a confusion as to whether to play or not.

Notation on a drum chart indicating that content of 2-bar drum pattern should be repeated.

  • Don't notate drum fills, unless they are an integral part of the song and must be played exactly as written. Rather, write “fill” and mark how long the fill should go for using -------------- across the beats where the fill should be taking place.
  • If there are figures/hits to play with the rest of band, notate them. Just notate the rhythm of the hits on the snare space if you want the drummer to orchestrate, but do not write out the full drum orchestration. Make sure to include articulations as to whether those figures should be played short of long.

Notation of band figures that the drummer should play.

Write “hits” or “with the band” or “set up” above the notated rhythm.

  • If you want the drummer to accent the figures while still keeping the groove, notate the figures above the stave in smaller size.
  • If there are figures that you want the drummer to be aware of, but not play them, you would notate them in smaller size above the stave and put them in parenthesis ().

Band figures that the drummer should be aware of, but not play them.

  • Notate any anticipations.
  • Notate any breaks.
  • If you want the drummer to change to a cymbal in the chorus, for example, write “ride c.” or “ride bell” above the stave.

Example of simple groove with verbal instructions for the drummer.

  • Use double lines at the endings of sections, as you would with any other instrument.
  • You can use repeat signs, first endings, second endings, coda etc. but it is preferred that you avoid them to keep the reading in one direction only and down the page. It can be quite difficult for eye to jump across the pages to locate the signs in the spur of the moment. Charts that flow one way are much easier to follow and produce better playing results.

Remember, the less confusion, the better.

  • If you have a bass line that changes and that you want a kick drum to follow, you would write out the bass line on the kick drum line and indicate that the drummer should follow the bass while keeping the groove: “w/ bass”. You would notate the bass line in parts where it deviates from the basic groove.
  • If your song contains dynamics, remember to include them. That can make a BIG difference to the overall sound of the music. Whenever there is a dynamic change, notate it.

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Have fun scoring music!