Understanding Blues Rhythms & The Blues Shuffle

If you want to be a proficient blues guitarist, you need to understand the basics of blues rhythms. In some of my previous articles, I have covered the basic form of the blues, and some of the most common variations on this form. If you haven’t yet read those articles, or if you are new to this material, I would recommend starting there first:

Once you are comfortable with those ideas, it’s time to turn your attention to rhythm. My previous articles have focused on the form and content of the 12 bar blues, but so far they have paid little attention to rhythm. This is absolutely crucial in the blues – and of course in almost all forms of music.

So today I will be covering some of the basics of blues rhythm guitar.

In the interest of full disclosure –  this is unlikely to be the most stimulating material that you have ever read. There is some theory to go through, and I know as well as anyone that this can feel a little academic and dry. I was inspired to learn the guitar because I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was never a dream of mine to learn the theory behind what makes them such great players. And I can imagine you feel the same.

But please stick with it. The theory outlined here will help you develop a killer sense of rhythm. And this will help you in all areas of your playing – from blues rhythm guitar, to soloing and improvisation. It will also provide you with the foundation for one of the most common rhythmic feels in the blues – the blues shuffle. I will touch on the blues shuffle in today’s article, but will cover it in much more detail in my next article.

So let’s get into it. Here are the basics of rhythm, common blues rhythms and an introduction to the blues shuffle:

The Basics Of Rhythm & Time Signatures

Before we look at blues rhythms, it is important to first cover the basics of rhythm. This general knowledge is critical to understanding rhythm, how you can play around with it, and how blues rhythms are constructed.

In essence, rhythm consists of two basic parts:

  • The first is the beat. This is the pulse of the music that keeps it driving forward. It is this beat that you feel when you find yourself tapping your foot along to a tune.
  • The second is the tempo. This refers to how quickly the beat moves. The faster the tempo, the quicker the pace of the song, and vice versa.

Written music is broken down into bars or measures. And the rhythm of a piece of music is also determined by the length of the notes used in each measure. If the notes in a measure are short, it will produce a fast rhythm, and vice versa.

The basic note values are as follows:

  • Whole Note = 4 beats
  • Half Note = 2 beats
  • Quarter Note = 1 beat
  • Eighth Note = 1/2 beat
  • Sixteenth Note = 1/4 beat

time signature simply tells you how many notes there are in each measure, and which note counts for one beat. Let’s look at this in 4/4 time (also referred to as ‘common time’):

The 4 at the top tells you that there are 4 beats per measure. The 4 at the bottom tells you that the quarter note counts as 1 beat. So there are 4 quarter notes per measure.

If you switched this to 3/4 timing (another very common time signature), a measure would look like this:

Here the 3 at the top tells you that there are 3 beats per measure. And as above, the 4 at the bottom tells you that the quarter note counts as 1 beat. So there are 3 quarter notes per measure.

Straight Time

Understanding these basics of rhythm and time signatures is very helpful in getting to grips with some of the common rhythms you encounter in blues music. And this is where we need to look at straight time and shuffle time (also commonly referred to as ‘swing time’).

Straight time is nice and easy to understand. Let’s look again at a measure in 4/4 timing:

The measure above shows 4 quarter notes, each of which count for 1 beat. So counting along with the measure is very simple. All you need to do is count 1,2,3,4 for each of the 4 notes. At a tempo of 120 BPM (beats per minute), the above measure sounds like this:

As you might imagine, the music we listen to is rarely constructed in such a simple way. To create different feels and moods, these notes are split into subdivisions. In straight time, these beats are always split into equal subdivisions. So the notes in the example above can be divided into 1/8 beats, 1/16 beats, 1/32 beats and so on.

Let’s look at an example using 1/8 notes. These are the note divisions that we end up with when we divide the quarter notes in the bar above by 1/2.  In straight time, a single bar of 1/8 notes looks like this:

And at a tempo of 120 BPM, it sounds like this:

You can see that above each note, there is either a number, or an ‘&’. These symbols indicate how you should count the subdivisions within the measure. The notes are divided equally – so hypothetically you could just count in numbers from 1 to 8. But within each measure there are downbeats, which are more heavily accented and upbeats, which are less heavily accented. So the numbers and ‘&s’ are used to distinguish between the two. In this example, the numbers represent the downbeats. But this can and does change depending on the type of rhythm you are playing. I will cover this in more detail in my article on the blues shuffle.

Shuffle Time

Whilst it is very useful to understand how straight time feels, there is little need to practice the 12 bar blues in straight time. If you try and play a 12 bar blues progression in straight time, you will immediately notice that it doesn’t sound right. It just doesn’t sound particularly bluesy. As a result it is very rarely used in the blues, and this is where shuffle time comes in. This is a very common blues rhythm, which is constructed by taking a beat and dividing it into three, creating triplets. This is what a bar of 8th note triplets looks like:

Triplets are often used in blues rhythms

And at a tempo of 120 BPM, this is what the above measure sounds like:

Here you can see that above each note the numbers and letters have changed. This is because you count triplets as follows:

One & a, Two & a, Three & a, Four & a.

Again though, you may have noticed that this rhythm doesn’t quite capture the essence of the blues. If you were to play the above rhythm in a 12 bar blues, it still wouldn’t sound right. This is because there are no spaces between any of the notes. And so instead of creating the bounding, driving sound of a shuffle, you end up with a rhythm section that sounds busy and insistent.

Howlin’ Wolf’s, ‘Killing Floor‘ is one famous exception, where the above rhythm is used to great effect. But generally speaking, it is unusual to play every single note of this rhythm in a 12 bar blues. Instead, you play an adapted version of this rhythm. And this is what you find in the blues shuffle.

The Blues Shuffle

The blues shuffle is constructed using triplets as above. Typically though, the middle note of the triplet is omitted and replaced with a rest. So its rhythm is as follows:

The blues shuffle is one of the most commonly occurring blues rhythms

At a tempo of 120 BPM, this rhythm sounds like this:

Hopefully, you can hear how different this sounds to the previous examples. When you break the triplet groups up in this way, the rhythm sounds much bluesier. Obviously the single notes played in the above clip don’t fully capture the proper feel of a shuffle, but they do get a lot closer.

As you can see, here you still need to follow the ‘One & a, Two & a’ rhythm. It is just that now the ‘&’ represents a pause between the first and third note in each triplet grouping. So you play the first note of the triplet, miss the second, play the third and then go on to play the first beat of the next triplet.

The first and last note of each triplet is a downbeat, and the last note in each triplet is an upbeat.  So when you group the triplets together, you move quickly from the upbeat of one triplet group to the downbeat of the next triplet group.

The Next Steps

Understanding the basics of these rhythms, how the most common blues rhythms are constructed and the rhythm used in the blues shuffle will help to set you on your way to become a killer blues rhythm guitarist.

The next step is to understand how these rhythms are manipulated and how you can actually play them in a 12 bar blues. For although the blues shuffle is one of the most commonly occurring rhythms in the blues, every shuffle is different. To talk – as I have done here – about ‘blues rhythms’, as if only one kind of rhythm is used in the blues and that every blues shuffle is the same, is overly simplistic.

In blues, as in all kinds of music, every song has a different rhythm and ‘feel’ to it. Just look at three of the most famous blues shuffles of all time – Robert Johnson’s ‘I’ll Believe I’ll Dust By Broom‘, Bo Diddley’s ‘Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look At Yourself)’ and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Pride and Joy‘. Each of these songs is built around a blues shuffle, but all three songs sound totally different from one another.

And this is what I will be covering in my next article. I will build upon the basic rhythmic concepts laid out here and cover the blues shuffle in much more depth. I will run through different types of shuffle, rhythmical nuances of the shuffle, and ways that the blues shuffle is commonly played.

So I’ll see you then 🙂 But if you have any questions or comments in the meantime, just pop them in the box below or send an email to [email protected] and I’d love to help!

P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share the love 😁 Thank you!

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