A Quick Guide to Creating and Using Drum Charts

I have a dirty secret. I’m a drummer who often reads music at gigs.

If you think charts are lame, I get you. Years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamt of reading music at shows. But over time, income and opportunity have changed my attitude.

Unfortunately there isn’t always enough time to memorize songs perfectly, so eventually you may find yourself needing to write a drum chart. Drum charts also can help recording sessions or rehearsals go quicker and keep shows running smoothly. Drum charts can make it easier to find someone willing to sub for you. Better still, they can make you money.

Imagine this scenario. Your phone rings and you’re offered a gig in a couple of days that pays well, but the downside is there’s no rehearsal and you don’t know the songs. Could you memorize 35 songs in that time frame? Would you accept the gig?

Drum charts are a fantastic and frequently shunned gig hack, but the bottom line is they can enable you to accept extra gigs and work with more musicians.

Tabs, Transcriptions and Drum Charts

There are several ways to get charts. You can find them, buy them or write them. I think you’ll ultimately be better off if you write your own for a few reasons. The biggest are that writing charts actually helps you learn the song as you write it and that charting songs enhances your listening and reading skills.

There are drum tabs, transcriptions and charts but each is quite different from one another. Tabs may be wrong or incomplete and are usually confusing to follow onstage. I’ve done it in a pinch a few times, but wouldn’t recommend it if you have any other option.

Most of what you can find online are song transcriptions. A transcription is intended to be an exact copy of what the drummer played on the recording. The problem with transcriptions is they offer too much information, which makes them more difficult to read and also often several pages long. You probably don’t need to recreate every ghost note and bass drum variation for an intoxicated fan to recognize “Jessie’s Girl.”

A good drum chart offers a balance between tabs and transcriptions, offering an overview of a song and enough information for you to play the song well.

Your charts don’t need to be very detailed if you’re vaguely familiar with a song and have good ears. I’ve used all sorts of charts at gigs. Some of the more minimalistic ones include a set list with a beat written next to the song’s title and a tempo hint like “medium, fast or ballad.” Another simple chart could be a lyric sheet with beats written next to sections. I’ve done this when playing in churches or when trying to recreate the stops and starts when playing lyrically dense tunes like “Baby Got Back” at live band Karaoke gigs.

Since I write charts fairly often, I try to keep them simple to save time and so that they’re easy to read at shows. I own Finale music notation software, but I rarely use it for my charts. If you’re writing charts professionally, Finale is fantastic, but for my purposes, a pencil works just as well and saves hours of time at the computer.

The key to saving time while charting is to simplify and abbreviate your notation. For example, I usually omit notating cymbal patterns, but instead write “1/8th HH” or “1/4 Ride” above the kick and snare part. My charts are designed to show the song form, breaks, hits and outline the grooves. Sometimes I’ll write a lyric cue under longer repeated sections to help keep my place.

If I need to notate hits that repeat throughout a song, I’ll write them out the first time with the word “hits” written above them and then just write “hits” the next time they happen.

Break Down of a Drum Chart

Let’s take a detailed look at a sample chart.

Sample Chart

At the top of the chart I’ll write the song title (TITLE) and artist’s name (ARTIST) so I don’t confuse it with some other artist’s version of the song or another song with a similar title. I write important things towards the top left of the chart like the tempo, whether the song is played with a backing track and, if it is, what the count off is. In this sample, the tempo is eighty beats per minute and the song is played to a track (TRACK) and the count-off is 1 - 2 - 1 2 3 4.

The beginning of this song has a keyboard intro for four measures before the drums enter with an eighth-note (1/8) sloshy hi-hat pattern (the o with the / through it). The number 3 tells me to play the previous measure three more times for a total of four bars of drums before the first verse. At the first verse (V.1) close the hi-hats (the + symbol). In bar 16 of the verse play a fill leading into the pre-chorus (PRE). The hits (HITS) are a typical rock accent figure so experience tells me to add crashes to all of the snare notes. At the first chorus (CH. 1) open the hi-hats a bit and play a busier snare and kick pattern as indicated. There’s a fill going into the next verse. There’s another fill leading into the second pre-chorus and a repeat of the figure of hits (HITS) played earlier.

At this point, you probably can figure out most of the rest of this sample chart. At the very end, the circled X is how I notate crash cymbals and the fermata above the note tells me to hold this note by rolling. The R & R means that I should ad lib a rock ’n roll style ending.

By using a combination of standard notation and my own abbreviations, I’ve been able to quickly chart a song in less than a page.

How to Use Charts at the Gig

I’ve used a three-ring binder on a music stand, but I’ve switched to an iPad and the App forScore. I can now keep hundreds of charts together in one place, organize them into sets and find them quickly. Best of all, my charts always remain visible regardless of the stage lighting.

But what should you do if you’re playing a gig where reading charts isn’t so cool?

Some artists can’t afford to travel with a full band. A friend of mine was the local drummer of a one-hit songwriter, and whenever the artist came to the area my buddy would pick up festival gigs with him. His clever solution was to use white coated drumheads and write his notes directly on them. When the run of shows was over he’d remove those heads and set them aside until the next time. Another friend is in the habit of jotting notes on index cards that he keeps hidden from view around his kit.

If stealth is your goal, the iPad is a great option since many musicians use them onstage and it’s not as obvious as flipping pages through a three-ring binder. There are foot-operated Bluetooth page turning pedals like those from Pageflip, AirTurn and IK Multimedia that can flip pages as you play.

Drummers are surrounded by gear at the back of the stage, so it’s not very obvious if you’re using charts. Most music stands are designed to be at least chest high when you’re sitting. I modified mine with a hacksaw so that I could fit it under my hi-hat cymbals, hiding it from view. If you use an iPad, there are many varieties of iPad clips and stands that can go low or that will clip to your existing hardware.

I have two final tips. Keep your charts so you can use them again in other bands and be sure not to stare at them constantly during shows. That’s a dead giveaway!

If you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments below.

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