How To Master The Blues Shuffle Rhythm

The blues shuffle rhythm is one of the most common rhythms you will encounter in the blues. It is present in a whole range of different styles – from Delta blues, to Chicago blues, to Texas blues. It is instantly recognisable, sounds amazing and features in many of the most famous blues songs of all time. Learning the shuffle, its nuances and its different forms will unlock the blues for you. It will help you learn a greater variety of songs, jam more confidently with other musicians, and develop a better sense of timing.

In my last article, I introduced blues rhythms and the blues shuffle. If you are new to this material and unfamiliar with terms like key signature, beat and measure, I would start there. It will provide you with a great foundation and help you get to grips with the blues shuffle much more quickly.

Once you have that nailed, we can jump straight in. And there is a lot to talk about when it comes to the blues shuffle. There are a various different styles and innumerable different ways it can be played. Today I will run through different types of shuffle, rhythmical nuances of the shuffle, and how you can improve your sense of timing.

Here is everything you need to master the blues shuffle rhythm:

The Blues Shuffle Rhythm

The first step to mastering the blues shuffle, is to understand the rhythms commonly used in the shuffle.

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

And at 120 beats per minute (BPM), this is what the measure above sounds like:

The numbers and letters above each note indicate the way that you should count each beat, which should be as follows:

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

Here through, 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.

Variations On The Blues Shuffle

In theory, the rhythm illustrated above is the rhythm used in the shuffle. But in practice it isn’t normally quite so clear cut. The rhythm above is quite rigid and has a fairly mechanical feel to it, especially when it is repeated in a 12 bar blues progression.

There are also practical limitations to this kind of rhythm. In very high tempo songs, it is difficult to play the upbeat in one triplet group and move immediately to the downbeat in the next whilst sticking rigidly to the rhythm. As a result, blues musicians are constantly playing with and tweaking this rhythm.

Broadly speaking though, there are two main variations of the triple shuffle feel that you need to be aware of. These are as follows:

The ‘Tight’ Blues Shuffle

The Blues Shuffle Rhythm with a tight feelThe first common variation, is the ‘tight’ blues shuffle. In slow or mid-tempo songs, it is easy to stick to a tight, mechanical style rhythm. And in this context it is common for musicians to move the upbeat (the ‘a’ note, or the second note that you actually play in each triplet group) away from the rest. So you play it later in the bar. 

This means that you end up playing the upbeat from one triplet group and the downbeat of the next triplet group very close together. Although this sounds tricky, this style of shuffle is one of the easier styles to play. Because the groove is tightly defined, it is less challenging to lock into the rhythm. This kind of shuffle has a very insistent beat to it and creates a real sense of forward motion in the song.

The ‘Loose’ Blues Shuffle

The Blues Shuffle Rhythm with a loose feelThe second, and more complex variation on the shuffle is known as the ‘loose’ blues shuffle. Typically this is used in more up tempo songs. As mentioned above, when the tempo of a song increases, it can be difficult to play the upbeat from one triplet group and move to the downbeat on the next triplet group, while keeping strict time. The notes are very close together and in a strict triplet feel,  you have to play these notes one after another without any rest.

One way to deal with this, is to move the upbeat (the ‘a’ note, or the second note that you actually play in each triplet) towards the rest. So you play it earlier in the bar. 

This ‘straightens’ out the shuffle. And in fact by playing the upbeat earlier in the bar, the rhythm of this shuffle is closer to straight time. So rhythmically it is somewhere between pure shuffle time and pure straight time.

Of the two variations here, the loose blues shuffle is more difficult to play. Because the groove is loosely defined, it is more challenging to lock into the rhythm. But it is worth learning. This type of shuffle is more common in heavier styles of blues. It is used a lot in Texas blues, and is the shuffle rhythm used in ‘Pride and Joy‘ by Stevie Ray Vaughan.

How To ‘Play In The Pocket’

When you are playing blues rhythm guitar,  the challenge lies in navigating these nuances. And the reality is that there is no easy path here. You can’t just learn one rhythm or feel.

The specific feel of a track is always determined by the rhythm section of the band. You could play the same song on different nights, with a completely different feel. It just depends on the groove that the drummer sets. This might sound daunting at first, but it is actually a lot of fun.  You can totally change the feel of a song by slightly adjusting the groove. And this is the way that a lot of blues music works. There are famous blues songs that are played using very similar chord progressions, yet they sound totally different because of the rhythm with which they are played.

As such, if you want to be a great blues guitarist, you need to have brilliant timing. You need to lock into the groove, maintain consistent timing and ‘play in the pocket’. And the good news is that there is one very easy exercise that will help you develop your feel for the blues shuffle rhythm.

In short, all you have to do is play over a 12 bar blues shuffle, by just playing the root notes of the chords in the progression. So instead of playing chords or riffs, you just need to follow along to the bass line of the progression. When you remove all focus from your fretting hand, it frees you up to just focus on the groove and feel of the shuffle. This will help you get to grips with the blues shuffle rhythm and develop a great sense of timing. You can then apply this to more complex blues shuffle chord progressions and riffs.

In practice, this is what this exercise looks like in the key of A:

During the first 4 bars you need to follow along to the blues shuffle rhythm by playing the following (I have just shown 1 bar below, because all 4 bars are the same):

At 120 BPM (beats per minute), these opening 4 bars sound like this:

During the second 4 bars, you need to follow the chord progression as it moves from the I chord to the IV chord, by playing the following:

At 120 BPM, these middle 4 bars sound like this:

Then in the final 4 bars of the progression,  you need to move to the V chord and play the turnaround, bringing the progression back to its starting point:

At 120 BPM, these final 4 bars sound like this:

When you put these three sections of the 12 bar blues progression together and play just the root notes of the chords, the 12 bars in the key of A should sound like this:

This exercise might look easy, but it is in fact deceptively hard. This is particularly the case if you execute it with real rhythmic precision. So be strict with yourself. Find a shuffle backing track (there are lots of great free ones on Youtube), and then film yourself going through the exercise. Watch the recordings back and observe your timing. Are you sticking with the bass and drums? Is your timing consistent? Or are you speeding up and slowing down irregularly?

Once you have really locked into the groove on the first shuffle, you can then move on. Practice the same exercise over a different shuffle until you are locked into the groove again. Include this exercise regularly, until you feel totally comfortable playing through a 12 bar blues shuffle in a variety of different tempos and grooves.

The Next Steps

Rhythmic exercises like this can feel quite repetitive and boring. But they are essential if you want to become a brilliant guitarist.

So don’t worry if it feels like this exercise is too basic.  Or that you’re making slow progress. It is much better to start slow, and increase the difficulty of an exercise, than it is to jump in at the deep end.

The first shuffle I tried to learn was ‘Pride and Joy‘ by Stevie Ray Vaughan, which was a real mistake. Pride and Joy is a very fast shuffle, and there is a lot of movement in the fretting hand. I struggled both with my rhythmic accuracy and with fretting the notes. I became frustrated and soon gave up.

What I later realised, is that you need to get comfortable with the blues shuffle rhythm to establish the same precision as players like Vaughan.

So keep focused, and it will pay off.

Once you’ve nailed the blues shuffle rhythm, you can start to play more complex riffs with your fretting hand. I will be covering some of the most common of these riffs in much more detail in my next article. So keep an eye out for that. This is where the fun really begins!

In the meantime, if you have any questions about the material outlined here, just pop a comment in the box below, or send me an email on [email protected] I’d love to help! 🙂

Images

Unsplash

References

Best Blues Guitar Lessons Online, Justin Guitar, Take Lessons, Andy Guitar,  American Blues Scene, Sweet Water

Comments

  • Hello, this is very helpful. However, my question is, how is this rhythm different than playing dotted notes, such as written in Battle Hymn of the Republic? It sounds the same to me . . .Thank you!

    • Hi Micki, thanks very much for the comment and the kind words! Regarding your question – I’m not very familiar with the different instrumental parts in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but I would say two things, which I hope help answer your question:

      1.) One of the key parts of the shuffle rhythm is the rest or break in the middle of the triplet. This changes the feel of the rhythm from one that is very driving and insistent, to one that has a bit more of a loping and slightly more laid-back feel. I’m not sure if you have read it, but I covered some of the differences between the shuffle rhythm and other rhythms in this article here: ‘Understanding Blues Rhythms & The Blues Shuffle

      2.) The second point which I think is worth noting, is that the shuffle rhythm is often one that is used throughout a song in its entirety. In other words, the rhythm section will be playing the shuffle rhythm through the whole song. This gives the song the specific shuffle feel that you hear in blues and jazz music. From what I can hear in ‘The Battle Hymn Of The Republic’ that isn’t the case. Here there is a much more complex shifting and changing of rhythms and feels, and the song is split into distinct sections – each one with different rhythms.

      I hope that helps to answer your question, but if you have any more in depth questions please do send them over. You can reach me on [email protected] and I’m always around and happy to help!

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