"A drum chart is a tool that allows a drummer to convincingly play a song that he or she may barely know at all."

Beginner's Guide to Drum Charts: Mastering the Basics of Drum Notation

Table of Contents

Welcome to this guide to reading drum charts.

A drum chart is a tool that allows a drummer to convincingly play a song that he or she may barely know at all. Band leaders who hire musicians to play events or to make recordings understand the beauty of this tool and use it to their great advantage.

It’s truly a shortcut that allows music to be made beautifully by a group of people who may never have played together before. It’s also entirely possible that the individual players may never have even played the particular song before.

Imagine for a minute that you are good at reading music and charts for a drum set. Just for the sake of understanding what this skill will do for you, just allow yourself to pretend this is the truth.

OK, now that you can read drum charts (wink wink, nudge nudge); let’s also assume that you are a good player with a good groove and that you are well-versed in multiple styles. In other words, you’re an “employable” drummer.

Now, if all of the above were, in fact true, you would be able to walk into a recording studio, meet a bunch of musicians you’ve never played with, take the drum chart the producer or band leader would give you, and then: you’d play a song that you’d never heard before and play it like you’d been playing it for years

You’d sound like you know where every accent is to be played, where you should stop because the music calls for the whole band to stop together and you’d sound like you know where to bring the volume down or just play only the hi-hat etc.. And so on and so on. 

In short, you would sound like you understood every little detail and nuance of the song that was before you and you’d execute everything. Easy.

And the reason you’d sound like you know these things is that you actually DO know these things, because the chart tells you all of this

When you know how to read charts, and interpret them on the drum set, you have a very valuable skill.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Now if that doesn’t convince you to learn this, I’m not sure what else I can do. 

Well, there is one more thing: 

I can truthfully tell you that there are many gigs that I could never have played successfully if I didn’t understand how to create and read a drum chart.

In order to help you understand how to read drum charts, I’m going to show you the common symbols and other things they frequently contain so you’ll understand the things you’ll see most often.

Then I’ll explain some of the skills that you’ll need to develop in order to effectively read them while performing. 

And I’ll do that by using some real-life examples. I’ll present you with two charts:

  1. One that I made for an AC/DC tribute gig I was asked to do a while back.
  2. Another that I made for a recording session where I had to learn an already recorded song for a new “cover” recording of that song.

I’m not going to give you every single detail of every kind of notation symbol that you could see, there’s just not enough room to give you everything there is to know on this subject.

But by analyzing these two charts, you’ll have a pretty solid start. 

Sound good?  Ok, let’s begin.

Let’s start with the ACDC chart. 

CHART #1: “Hell’s Bells” by AC/DC

The song here is “Hell’s Bells” and as I mentioned, I had to learn it as part of an AC/DC tribute show I did a few years ago.

Allow me to give you a little background. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 11 songs I had to learn. 

AC/DC songs appear easy at first, but they’re not. They require perfection when it comes to song form and execution of the right fills in only the right places. Literally every crash cymbal struck in an AC/DC song has a specific purpose. 

For those reasons, I wanted to play these songs as close to the records as possible. 

But I had a problem. There was no way I could memorize these songs and all of those details in the time that I had to prepare.

I decided to make charts for all of the songs and that strategy worked like a charm. I played the songs perfectly. I didn’t have to memorize anything. All I had to do was read the charts.

Do you see the power in this?  It’s a massive disability if you can not do this. You must be able to read rhythmic notation. And you must understand charts.

Now, I’ll get off of my soapbox and break down the details of the chart and show you some of the meanings of important symbols, etc… After that, I’d like you to listen to the song from AC/DC’s Back in Black album and try to follow along by reading through the chart.

One note before we start. You’ll notice the chart is not hand-written; I “engraved” it using the software Finale. 

I happen to be pretty good with Finale since I’ve used it so much; however, I think I might have been able to get this chart made faster if I had created it by simply using a pencil and a sheet of music paper.

But I digress. Let’s dig into this chart and its details.

The First Page

Here is the first page of the chart, with some notes I’ve added to help guide you through this lesson.

 

Second Page

On to page 2.

There are only a couple of new things here on this page.

First, a few things we’ve already seen on page 1:

At the top of the page, as indicated by the letter “G” we see a guitar solo section. We know from looking at this that there is a specific two-measure drum pattern that we need to repeat three times.

Next, at “H” we just know that we’re in the right place if we hear the chorus when we arrive at that measure.

Finally, at the end of the piece, we see the letter “i” which is where we see the word “ritard,” a word which simply means to slow down. You’ll have to listen to the recording a few times to get the timing on this right, but these are the exact notes you should play here. 

“J” gives you the very last notes you should play to end the song.

Again, listening to the recording of the song will give you all the info you’ll need to get this right.

 

CHART #2 : “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils”

 

I made this chart for a recording session where we covered this song by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.

As you can see, this is a little bit sloppy at least compared to the AC/DC chart I showed you, but in retrospect, this was much more efficient work-wise.

It took much less time to create, and honestly, it worked just as well for me to be able to play the song perfectly.

Let’s start at the beginning: 

First, upper left-hand corner: It just says, “click” and four beats are indicated. That is just telling me that for this recording, I am given four beats of click track before the song begins.

So, I hear those four beats and then I start counting the 12 measures that are indicated in the box to the right of that. 

There it says, “TACET 12 Bars.”  Tacet means do not play. So, I count 12 measures of others in the band playing and on bar 12, I play the very simplefill that is indicated (quarter notes on beats “3” and “4”).

Continuing on the first line moving to the right…I play four bars of time, with a fill at the end of those four bars. And then the Verse begins.

Now, we move to the second line. Notice that symbol which looks like a circle with a cross on top of it. That is called a “coda” symbol. We’re not going to need to do anything with that symbol now, but just take note of it…we’ll have to come back to this section when we see another coda symbol a bit later in the piece.

So here in the verse, we need to play 5 measures and then play the accents indicated (the dotted quarter note and eighth note above the measure), followed by two more measures of the beat and that same accent pattern again. 

Next we play eighth notes for two beats (note the 2/4 time signature) and then we hit the “first ending.”

The first ending is indicated by the bracket and the circled number one. This means to go back to the beginning of the section and play through it again, only this next time, we’re going to play the “second ending” rather than the first. 

And that second ending is just to play the figure  written there on that measure.

Now, we’re on line 4. We play eight bars for the harmonica solo, and another eight bars for the guitar solo. Note the figure that we play in bar eight of the harmonica solo (followed by a fill) and the fill at the eighth bar of the guitar solo.

Now, line 5.

Here’s where that coda sign comes in.  Here we’re told to play the coda and to take the 3rd ending.

So, we hop up to line two again. Play that entire section again. But when we get to line 3 and see that first ending?  That’s when we  jump down to the 5th line and play that figure next to the circled number three.  

We stop (next bar) and we stay out for 18 bars.  Meaning we don’t play for 18 measures. 

We come back in, we play eight measures, play that last figure, and end on beat “1.” 

It’s a sloppy looking chart, but it works!!!

Try it yourself by counting through and air drumming along with the song. Once you get it, you’ll see that charts are a very helpful tool (in fact, indispensable) for the working/gigging drummer.

So, that’s a little introduction to reading (and making) drum charts.

I hope you found this helpful.

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