The Role Of Rolls

If you think about it, most of what a trap-set drummer does fits into one of two general categories. Beats or rolls (fills).

Beats (see Fundamental Beat Building) serve to establish fundamental rhythmic feel, while rolls are used to perform a variety of functions:

  1. Add variation / prevent monotony
  2. Fill in gaps, much as lead licks, keyboard or bass fills do
  3. Indicate (announce) a coming change, such as the start of a vocal sequence, change from verse to chorus or a shift in dynamics from quite to loud or visa-versa
  4. Make the process of playing more interesting & challenging for the drummer
  5. Give the drummer an opportunity to show off a little. You know, impress the babes, or guys as the case may be (no offense intended ladies!)
  6. They help to define a drummer's individual style. Each drummer is different, therefore unique, in how they choose to employ rolls in their play. Little personal preferences about how frequently they choose to insert rolls, which ones they prefer in a given situation, durations and exact placement within a musical passage all contribute to that uniqueness that we refer to as style.


A Fundamental Question

An important question to ask yourself when deciding which roll to use in a specific spot is....... how much space do you want to fill? In other words, how many counts do you have to work with?

For the purpose of this tutorial, I'm using the term count to refer to a quarter note in 4/4 time. Iin other words 1,2,3 or 4. Once you've determined the amount of space available, the next question would be, how many rolls do you know that would work well in that amount of space? Obviously, the more you know, the more you'll have to choose from. Hence the advantage of developing a large roll vocabulary.

Let's look at a pretty basic example. Say you have 1 count to work with. Some of the more common options for a 1 count space would be:

  1. A flam is typically placed on a count, often at the end of a measure on the 4 count. When utilized in this way, it serves as an announcement, creating in the listener, the expectation of a coming change.
  2. A four stroke ruff (now referred to as a single stroke 4) typically begins in the middle of a count space (on the 1/8 note or &) and ends on the following count.
  3. A five stroke roll consumes the entire count space. Beginning on the first count and ending on the next. Both the single & double stroke versions of this roll are common-place. Each produce a slightly different effect, but both are very useful.

Developing Your Roll Vocabulary


Rudiments are the fundamental building blocks of rolls and therefore the logical topic to begin this section. Back in the day (LOL), when I was learning, there were a total of 26 internationally recognized snare drum rudiments. If you do a little research on-line today, you'll find that many sites list a total of 40. If you're looking for advice on which list is better. More is always better, right? Seriously though, learn the 40! My personal experience is that, like most of what you learn in life. You probably won't end up using everything, but, all 40 are very useful in developing dexterity, hand strength, speed & timing control. It's really worth your time & effort to become comfortable with all of them.

You just knew I was going to say that. Right?

Believe it or not, the recommended method for practicing rudiments hasn't changed one bit since I was a drum student. You still begin very slowly, gradually building the speed. Continue to speed the exercise up, until you reach the point at which you begin to lose smoothness & accuracy. Then gradually slow it down again the same way you began, only in reverse. Also, when you practice these, alternate your starting hand. In other words, do the rudiment once beginning with the right hand and then the second time beginning with the left, then back to the right... and so on.

Trust me when I tell you that it's still done this way for one very important reason. Because it works!

By the way, all 3 of the basic rolls I covered in the earlier section of this tutorial, are part of that list 40. One last tidbit of info for you before I move on. From what I can tell, all of the original 26 are contained within the newer list of 40. I did notice that several of them are now called by different names, but hey.... I guess that's progress. What can ya' do?


Compound Rolls/Combining Hands & Feet

Let's talk about compound rolls first. All I really mean by the term is that many players build rolls by combining several elements. This goes back to my earlier comment about developing an individual style. A great number of the rolls you hear used, consist of more than just a single rudiment. Experiment with different combinations, keep the ones you like and make them your own. Also, I strongly suggest taking full advantage of the work that other skilled players have already done. When you hear another drummer do something that you like, take advantage of that. Learn it & use it. I guarantee you that they do the same.

Combining hands & feet is really just another way of building compound rolls. It's not uncommon at all to combine bass drum strokes with hand-played elements, including cymbal crashes. I do it all the time! The bass drum can be used to reinforce accented hand strokes, it can alternate with the hands.I've even used it to back-up hand rolls. Fast moving triplet hand rolls take on a whole different texture when they're backed up with a steady 1/8 note bass drum rhythm. It adds a really solid, thick feel to the roll. Once again, in the end, it comes down to personal preference & style. It's not rocket science. Experiment & keep what you like.

More Forgiving-Less Forgiving Rolls

No, I haven't lost my mind, this really is a subject that deserves at least a little discussion. What I mean by this section title is, that some rolls by design, leave a little more room for error than others. Honestly, it's in your best interest to understand the difference and to have rolls of both types in your active vocabulary. After all, in the real world we all have an occasional off-day. It's helpful to know some rolls that don't require flawless execution to sound decent. One of the simplest ways I know of to build in a little room for error, is to leave some unoccupied space at the end of the roll, some breathing room. It's probably easier to show you what I mean, so that's what I'll do. This next clip will take a random roll, show a more demanding version of it, followed by a more forgiving version, the difference being how the end portion is handled.

Typical Pitfalls

Tempo Inconsistency

If you were to take a survey of a random sampling of band members, who aren't drummers, and ask them what their most common complaint is about drummers, my bet is that one answer would dominate... "they speed up rolls"!

Even though, I'm pretty sure that this is caused by a world-wide conspiracy against drummers, I guess it wouldn't hurt for us to do something about the problem. Even if it's just to humor all the conspirators-LOL. Anyway, the only cure I know of is to discipline yourself to consistently practice with some kind of regulated tempo, either a metronome or along with a CD. As far as I'm concerned, either will serve nicely. A mixture of the two is probably best, because playing with just the metronome get's a little mind-numbing after a while. Some years back, I took a little 18 year break from drumming. When I decided to teach myself to play again, I sat down & made a list of things that I wished I'd done differently the first time. Always practicing to a fixed tempo was the first item on that list. I'm here to tell you, it helps!



In short, just because you can, doesn't mean you should! There's a natural tendency in human beings, that once we learn something, we want to show it to everybody, and often. Personally, I try to temper that urge with a little judgement. Some styles of music will accommodate a really intense playing style, but many will not. My advice is to try & learn the difference and focus on making your playing a good fit for the music, not visa-versa.

Learn everything you can, but try to use only what feels most appropriate.

Once again, thanks for your interest and until next time............... happy drumming!

Tom Hoffman

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About Tom Hoffman

tom_hoffman_300Tom Hoffman currently lives in the Midwestern section of the USA. He started playing drums at the age of 13. That began the first phase of his musical journey. Seven months later he joined his first band. From that moment on, he was hooked! By age 15, he was functioning as both a drummer & a singer. At 16, like many other aspiring musicians, he began teaching in conjunction with local drum shop programs. From age 20 to age 23, he was one of the founding members of a band called "Nickels". During that period, Nickels was a common fixture throughout the local club circuit. The band was also given the opportunity to serve as opening act for a number of national groups appearing at local concert venues. At age 23, for various reasons, he decided to end the first part of his musical journey. He left Nickels, sold all his equipment and stopped playing altogether.

.....anyway, onward & upward into Phase #2. Apparently, Tom never lost the itch to play an active part in music. At age 40, he was looking to scratch that itch. He had something different in mind this time though......not performance.....writing. He'd always wanted to become more involved in the creative end of things, so that was the goal this time. One small problem though.....he lacked all of the skills, knowledge and equipment necessary to make it happen. That didn't turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle though. Over the next 2 years, he went about the task of addressing his musical shortcomings. By age 42 he had achieved a reasonable level of competency as a drummer, guitarist and bass player. He had also managed to acquire a fundamental knowledge of both music theory & home recording.

Tom is now 56. For the past 14 years he's been primarily an amateur singer-songwriter, but has never lost the passion for his first love....drums. He's still an active drummer and intends to continue in that capacity. In recent years, many of his songs have achieved various levels of recognition in international writing contests. He's been a finalist, a 6-time semi-finalist and a runner-up. He has also received a number of honorable mentions, but has yet to win. "Winning" is still a work-in-progress. For anyone interested, the following link contains a detailed breakdown of the award results. Tunesmith Awards.


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