How to Write a Drum Chart

Posted on April 30, 2024

This is an article I’ve been trying to write for a couple of years now, which has spiraled out of hand each time: a guide on how to write a drum chart, for all the other musicians and composers out there.

Here’s the thing — I’ve seen a lot of talented folks show off their composing and arranging skills with a variety of pieces, but if there’s ever a drum set part included in the score, it’s usually a train wreck. 

I suppose I can’t blame anybody, since drum charts work very differently than charts for other instruments, with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. Most non–drummers might not realize what goes into a good drum chart, probably because many actual drummers don’t know as well… so I’ll invite anyone who might find this helpful to read it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about how drum sheet music works; i.e. a note–for–note drum set part. I’m talking about writing charts for something like a big band arrangement. The thing is, if you ever want to write a part for a drum kit, the big band chart style is almost always the way to go. Unlike other instruments, serious drummers don’t spend time getting good at reading long stretches of note–for–note sheet music written for a five–piece drum set. 

To that end, the biggest issue I always see in amateur drum charts is that the charts are way too detailed. If you were to take away one thing from this big spiel, it would be this: a drum chart’s main job is to tell the drummer what the rest of the band is playing. Avoid writing specific licks for the drummer — rather, always think big picture.

Here’s an idea: let’s start with a great example of how not to write a drum chart:

With all due respect to Mr. Lavender, this chart is a hot mess. Instead of providing a clear guide to the song, it gets too caught up in trying to include a deluge of specifics and subtleties.

Here’s my approach to charting this song:

I would much rather read this, and not just because I wrote it! This approach provides more information about what the rest of the band is playing, and I try to avoid writing in note–for–note details.

So remember, tell the drummer what the rest of the group is doing. It’s the drummer’s job to fill in the blanks.

If you’re up for it, I’ll go ahead and dive into some other topics:

To Groove or Not To Groove

A major part of any drummer’s job is of course playing time. The two ways to do this are either using rhythmic slashes or writing out a specific grove/beat.

Slashes are the least specific but the most versatile, and are the default for music that’s naturally heavy on improvising, such as swing or Latin. It’s always expected that some sort of stylistic descriptor is written above the staff:

Slashes can also be combined with something like a kick drum rhythm, which can mirror the bass part:

For a groove that has solid backbeats (funk, rock, etc.), it may be acceptable to see a beat written out:

Now, writing specific licks for the drummer to play can be a slippery slope — you need to be wary of needlessly detailed information that only takes from the chart instead of adding to it. In my experience, note–for–note patterns typically do more harm than good. So, if you are going to write a groove, I’ll say it again: big picture. Focus on backbeats and the kick rhythm. Forget intricate cymbal stuff and don’t even think about ghost notes.

If you are arranging a song that already has a drum part, capture the spirit of the original drum part. Don’t go for a transcription.

Slashes may be vague, but take advantage of their open–endedness. Writing out what you want the drummer to do with some other details goes a long way. Phrases like “swing on ride”, “easy comping”, “mambo”, or “driving rock” can communicate things that are not simple to notate:

It is also fine to have a chart that features both written grooves for when you want to get particular (a main melody section) and slashes for instances when you don’t want to be specific (a solo section). If you establish a broad groove early on in the chart, the drummer will carry the vibe throughout the tune.

FYI, for older charts, you may see quarter notes written on the kick and snare instead of slashes:

I consider this to be archaic. Unless you specifically want the drummer to play those drums, use slashes.

Figures, Backgrounds, Kicks, Cues, Setups, And The Like

Aside from keeping time, a major part of a drummer’s job is kicking ensemble figures. You have a few ways to do this.

One way is to write rhythms above the staff over a measure of slashes. These are often called backgrounds since they’re… in the background:

Like with my “Soul Vaccination” example, using this notion style is good for big and important head melodies that you want to drummer to play over; here, you can specify these rhythms as “ens.” or “uns.” (ensemble or unison), and tell the drummer what to do:

If there are simultaneous contrasting parts from different elements of the band, you can write some over the staff and some under the staff, with each labeled:

As you can see, backgrounds can be written above slashes or repeat signs. I reckon proper engraving protocol says that they should only written above slashes, but repeats can be a way of saving space.

For short but big ensemble licks that really stand out, rhythms with slash noteheads are the way to go. These tell the drummer to hit these rhythms hard and orchestrate them as they please:

Slashes can also be used for vamps:

Again, an old-fashioned way of doing this involves writing the rhythms with the kick and snare:

This is outdated. Once more: unless you specifically want those drums to be played, use the slash notation.

Slash rhythms should be for brief but big hits that most (if not all) of the band is playing. Use the other styles for melody rhythms/basslines that go past two or three bars — long stretches of dynamic slash rhythms can be disorienting to read.

The slashes notehead also works well for big, trashcan endings, often combined with tremolo marks:

Note how it is common to “tie” notes off to make it clear that they are to ring out:

When you write in these rhythms for whichever method, you should copy them almost verbatim from whatever instrument is playing them. Use the exact same combinations of note lengths, rests, and ties, and include articulations. (With the exception of slurs; they’ll look like ties. Write “legato” if you need to.) This is all important information for the drummer to have, and a seasoned drummer will know how to interpret it.

When picking which method to use, try not to combine too many of them at once. Look at measure 101:

I would have just used slashes instead of kick/snare, slash, and cymbal.

Getting Specific — A Fine Line

Sometimes you will feel like you have a particular fill or phrasing in mind for the drummer to play. As far as orchestrating a figure goes, using kick, snare, and/or cymbal is pretty acceptable:

Writing out a specific fill/rhythm to be played on the snare is okay, but when it comes to toms, things get a bit trickier. Oftentimes, I see something like this:

I suppose the idea is the drummer can mold the shape of the fill into whatever setup they have, using the notation to get a general idea of what the contour of a fill should sound be (drummers will always prioritize the rhythms). While this can be helpful, avoid going overboard — writing fills for over five toms can be a bit much.

I’m imploring you to avoid really specific, intricate details. Don’t do this:

As much as you may want to, please don’t do it. Unless you’re doing a song that has a very short, iconic drum solo (such as “Rock and Roll”), this will never go over well.

In lieu of a specific fill/solo to write, it is preferable to just type “fill” over wherever the fill is supposed to be:

As you can see, using lines to delineate the length of the fill is a good idea so the drummer knows when to go back to playing time.

It’s generally not necessary to tell a drummer to crash coming out of a fill or phrase:

Strictly speaking, the repeats after bar 116 would imply to crash at every measure. Now, that wouldn’t be my interpretation, but you can prevent confusion by not adding the cymbal because it isn’t needed.

Once more, if you have specific ideas in mind that are not easy to notate, just type them out. If you want the drummer to fill over a band passage, write the passage as background figures or slashes and then say “fills…”, “fill w/ band”, or “fill w/ hits”:

Other terms and phrases like “swing on toms — Krupa style” can help get your message across:

There are countless terms other terms that can be helpful to write in: “easy”, “laid back”, “wild fills”, “building”, “w/ saxes”, “groove w/ fills“, “to ride” “big fill/big groove”, “busy playing”, “go apeshit”, “continue groove”, “ad–lib cymbals”, etc. 

If you want to make a more gentle suggestion that isn’t set in stone, typing something out with a question mark is one idea:

Being Neat and Being Helpful

The onus is always on you as a composer/arranger to provide a legible score, and while it’s unfortunate for anyone to get lost in your chart, it’s catastrophic if the drummer does — and of course, they’re likely to blame you. It might not be justified, but them’s the breaks. So here are a few tricks. 

Repeat symbols are an essential tool for any drum chart. When you want the drummer to lay down solid time for an extended passage, write out one measure of whatever you need and then cram these bad boys in:

Note that it is common courtesy to number repeats in multiples of 4.

If you’re rocking a two–bar groove, double repeats are your friend:

However, if you’re writing a two–bar groove, I would think long and hard if it’s really necessary. As a drummer, it’s a bit annoying to see an arranger sacrifice repeats because they want to make subtle changes to the groove:

That kind of detail just isn’t helpful, especially if it’s not reflecting what the rest of the band is doing. 

Moving on, I find it helpful to write in when a specific instrument starts playing, or when a solo section starts/ends. Again, this will help the drummer know where they are:

Cues with written pitches can also be helpful but don’t get carried away here. Save them for moments where you suspect a drummer might get lost, which are typically: after long rests; rests involving big style changes/tempo changes; and rests when there’s no strong sense of time/groove. If the cue is from one instrument/section, specify where:

One last thing to mention is the studio chart style of writing measures of time:

In the era of digital engraving and score writing software, it’s a good idea to write out every measure.

Conclusion

Hopefully, these pointers are helpful to you. Once more with me: big picture! Remember to keep in mind general engraving protocols. Jazz charts tend to stuff as much on a single page as possible, so use space efficiently but don’t get too messy. 

Now that you know how to communicate with the drummer, you may still be unsure about what parts of the song you want to inform the drummer about. Well, as a composer/arranger, this is up to you. What kind of licks from the rest of the band do you want the drummer to catch? While it is true that much of what makes a good drum part is the interpretation of the drummer, I say when in doubt, the more of this, info the better. 

Writing a drum chart is really about finding the middle ground. While I hate charts that are overwritten, charts that are too spartan are just as bad when all you get is an unending stream of this:

It’s one thing for a drum chart to give me a headache. It’s another for a chart to put me to sleep.

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