I started using drum charts when I was in college, playing for multiple bands and recording drums in a local studio. I found that by listening to a song and writing out a quick drum chart before I got to rehearsal or before a drum take in the studio, I could almost always nail the song.
In college, I was playing drums in four different bands, and I no longer had the luxury of rehearsing a song for hours until it was perfect. I was expected to come to one rehearsal a week that was an hour BEFORE we played on Sunday (or Tuesday or Wednesday).
I quickly found that if I wanted to play to my best ability with each band I had to be able to learn and play new songs quickly, sometimes within minutes of hearing the song for the first time. (This was before churches used web-based worship planning applications like Planning Center, which now make it easy for worship leaders to upload mp3s for their musicians to learn songs.)
I had been in school band since the fifth grade, so I had some experience writing and reading rhythmic patterns. I knew it wasn’t very efficient to actually write out every single bar of music that I would be playing for a given song, so I created my own method of charting out drum parts for songs, which I have recently used to help me learn and play over 40 songs in my cover band!
This method involves creating a simple road map for the song and a tool that will help you play each song accurately every time, even if it is your first time playing it.
Headphones (or speakers, but I find I focus better with headphones)
When you have multiple gigs a week playing with different bands, you’ll need to be organized. I recommend buying some manila folders. You’ll need one folder for each person you play with. On each folder, write the name of each band or worship leader you play with, and in each band folder, arrange the charts for the tunes in alphabetical order. You’ll put all of your manila folders for each artist in a master folder that you can take to all of your gigs. At the gig, if you know the set list, you can pull out every song you need for that night and arrange the charts in the order of the set list.
Assuming you use a click track, you should create a “Master Click List” with the name of each song and tempo listed in alphabetical order. Put this next to your charts to reference just in case your band leader starts a song that isn’t in the set list. (Or start using Ableton Live for a Master Set List)
Writing the Chart
To write a drum chart you’ll need to be somewhat familiar with how songs are structured. To help you identify song structures, take a look at these common parts of a song:
Intro – Beginning of a song. Most are instrumental.
Verse – Where the writer tells the story. There are usually multiple verses that don’t repeat. Verses are a great place to lay a dynamic foundation for the rest of the song to build on. Verses tend to have a softer dynamic to allow the story to capture the listener’s attention.
Pre-Chorus – Part of the song directly before the chorus. Pre-choruses tend to have a natural build into the chorus.
Chorus – The central idea of the song that is usually repeated several times. Choruses tend to make you want to sing along.
Turn Around – Usually an instrumental part of the song that allows the song to flow into the next verse or section.
Solo – A section of the song where an instrumentalist improvises on their instrument.
Bridge – A part of the song that introduces a new idea and melody that hasn’t been visited yet. Sounds completely different than the verse and the chorus. Bridges may be the high point of the song, or they may be completely broken down.
Tag – A repeated section of the end of a chorus, verse, or bridge. It could be a few words or a whole line.
Outro/Ending – A section that is usually instrumental and can tie back to the intro to make the song a complete thought.
To demonstrate writing a drum chart I’ve chosen a song off of the Austin Stone Live record that I played drums on.
Steps In Writing The Chart
Play the song one time through just listening to it to become familiar with the song (if you have time to do that). While listening, write the name of the song at the top of the chart, determine and write the time signature next to the name, and use your metronome to tap out the tempo and write it at the top of the chart. Also write the feel of the song—straight rock, shuffle, waltz, etc. So far the top of the chart should look something like this:
Hallelujah What A Savior – Time Sig: 4/4 BPM: 73 Feel: Straight Rock
Listen to the song again, and write out the song form. Count the measures for each section and write them below the form. It should look something like this:
Next, write down what your part does. You may write in lyrical cues to help you remember accents and tags. Basically, this section is the area where you write anything that will help you remember what your drum part is. For example:
Intro – 4 w/drums only TA – 4 w/full band Verse – 8 closed hat TA – 4 Verse 2 – 8 + 1 bar of build Chorus – 8 TA – 4 bars Verse 3 – 8 OUT Verse 4 – 8 swell into, Keep time on ride + 3 bars of building tom beat Chorus – 8 huge Bridge – 8 huge Chorus – 6 bars out, 2 bars build Chorus – 8 bars huge w/pulsing kick Tag – 1 “your love has rescued me” Out on “Me”
You can also write any specific drumbeats that are used in the song. For example:
Listen one last time to the song while checking your chart for errors and making sure that it all makes sense to you.
The finished chart should be able to get you through the song perfectly ever time you play it, but hopefully, after a few times of playing it you can get rid of your chart and play from your heart!