Lesson Plans

Lesson Plans – Charting!

Charting is an extremely important tool for all drummers. The real life situation that I always pitch to my students is this: It’s Wednesday and the phone rings. A friend of a guy you once played a gig with is on the other end of the line and they’re looking for a drummer for THIS WEEKEND! You of course take the gig and they email you the setlist. You look at the list of 60 songs and realize you know 30 of them, kind of know 20 of them, and there are 10 of which you haven’t even heard the name. The only way you’re going to get through the gig is if instead of trying to play through all the tunes, you start listening and charting them.

There are many approaches to charting tunes. The first one I usually use with my students is mostly designed to get the student used to song parts and song form. This first time ties very heavily into what the student is already doing in lessons and uses some of their other lesson materials to aid them in learning the concept. The first song I usually use is Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.”  The reason I use this song is because it uses three different beats that show up within a page of each other in the method book I use for drumset. When the student gets to the second page I tell them to learn beats #8, #13, and #18 first. Once they can play those beats, we chart “Say It Ain’t So”

"Say It Ain't So" - Simple Chart

This form of charting takes on an ‘Outline’ or ‘Bulletpoint’ style. The song starts and I ask the student what section of the song to which we are listening. Sometimes students automatically call this the ‘introduction’ or ‘intro.’ If the student is not sure then ask then let them know what the section is called. Most students will have heard this term and will just need this cue to understand what you meant by ‘section of the song.’ Quite often this is something they have used in their music class at school but have never used in a popular song setting, and it is the teacher’s job to connect that gap for them. It is also completely possible that the student does not know any of these terms or only a few and the teacher has to define these parts of a song to the student. My favorite for Verse/Chorus is that the ‘Chorus’ is the big idea for the song that we keep coming back to, and the Verse is the details, the story part of the song.

On the left side of the chart is a large label “Intro.” Underneath it says Guitar Only, and under that it says quarter notes (the symbol with an x notehead to indicate cymbal) on Ride. Notice that we aren’t counting out measures. This indicates that we are familiar enough with the song that all we need to know is the order of operations, not the length of operations. While limited, this is a viable and quick charting method for those songs that fall into the ‘kind of know it’ category.

The next heading is for the verse with the lyric cue “oh yeah” next to it and the first indication of how we are intertwining this with the use of the book. It says “#8 on Ride.” At this time there is no need for the student to actually write the beat. You can see in my chart that I did write it out next to the verse. I do this while telling the student the most important thing about charting. I don’t need to be able to read or interpret their chart. They do, and unless they need to share it with someone else, only they do. I would not expect anyone to know what ‘#8’ is without a reference, but the student knows exactly what it means. I write a chart at the same time they do and usually will write this beat out just to show them they can. At the same time I let them know that I use this book so often that sometimes it is quicker and easier for me to write “#3a” as opposed to writing out a beat.


A variant on this chart is to write out and label the beats needed for the song and then simply chart the form of the song.

"Purple Haze" - Simple Chart


In The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Purple Haze” there are essentially three beats, the intro, the verse, and the chorus/turnaround. Due to it’s looseness and openness to improvisation, knowing what the beats are and the order is the most useful as the song will rarely be performed exactly as it is on record. Sometimes very little information is needed to perform a song well. I’m sure that many of us have been in the situation where a song that wasn’t on the setlist is called and the bass player turns to you and says “Don’t worry, it’s a 12 bar shuffle, watch me for the stops.”


Another way to do it is to add notes to a lyric sheet or chord chart. A few years ago a friend of mine was asked to put together a band for a wedding. When we got together to rehearse my friend handed me a binder full of lyric sheets and chord charts. Instead of writing my own I decided to modify these. Sometimes this works great, sometimes it does not.

"Kiss Me" - Lyric Chart

This was my chart for Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me.” I’m sure I had familiarized myself with the chart well enough to get through the song at the time, but in doing research for this article I tried to play to the song and missed all my stops. This song is particularly hard to perform off the cuff simply because it’s the same generic 90’s beat the entire way through and the changes are mostly odd stops and minor form tweaks. It is a predecessor to what I refer to as the ‘quirky drumbeat phenomenon’ of the late 2000’s wherein the hook of every pop/emo song was a weird stop with an specific fill at an awkward time. What I should have done for “Kiss Me” was come up with a full chart like this:


My approach to full charting produces a chart less complicated than a big band chart, but with a bit more detail than the Nashville number system. When an idea is new on the page I write it out as complete as possible. When that idea repeats itself I give a heading wherever possible. Stops, fills, and changes are notated whenever necessary. “Kiss Me” needs a full chart because of how simple but quirky of a song it is. How about a song that is complicated in terms of its form and its parts?

“No One Knows” by Queens Of The Stone Age is a song that does not strike the listener as being overly complicated in terms of form, yet we’re looking at a chart that fills two pages with lots of repeats, two sections of which end in 3rd endings, multiple multiple measure rests, and a D.S. al Coda. A full chart on this song would be absolutely necessary for someone unfamiliar with it.

There you have it, multiple ways to chart a song. However, there are plenty more ways to do it as well. The most important thing to remember when charting or having a student chart is that the only person that needs to be able to read the chart is the person performing the song. As long as that criteria is met, nothing else matters.

Before I wrap this article up I want to take a moment and announce the launch of my personal website ottopercussion.com. Often I have things I would like to share and discuss with the community of drummers that do not necessarily fit the format of Musician’s Notepad. From now on I will be able to share them there. Wait! Why announce that now, in this article? Ottopercussion.com is not just a blog and an advertisement for my own playing and writing. No! I also wanted to create a place to hold any amount of materials I may need to get through gigs and teaching situations, so in that vein I am launching a library of charts. Need a chart quick? Just head over to (one more time) Ottopercussion.com and click “Charts” on the left side of the screen. There aren’t many there now, but the plan is to add and handful every week until there are so many we’ll have to come up with a better solution. Thanks in advance for checking it out.

Do you teach charting? Do you do it the same or different? What’s your favorite method? Let us know in the comments below, on Facebook, or send us a tweet @musiciansnotes. If you liked the full form chart I used, don’t forget we published a blank one last week. Please download and use it! Oh, and uh, ottopercussion.com


avatar Otto (122 Posts)

Jeremy Otto wears many hats. He is a music educator, composer, performer, recording engineer, and hack writer. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. When he's not teaching you can find him doing any of the other aforementioned activities.