The “shuffle” feel is the heart of the blues. If you can’t play this rhythm, you may be playing “bluesy” notes, but you’re not actually playing the blues. The term “shuffle” was applied to a musical rhythm in the early 20th century and includes dixieland, ragtime, and blues music. If you would like to read an in-depth history of shuffle, I highly recommend the introduction in Dave Rubin’s book, Art of the Shuffle.
When someone asks a guitarist to play a blues shuffle, they are usually referring to a particular accompaniment style. There are a few examples of a typical shuffle (audio coming soon) below. First, an explanation of the notation. The shuffle has a triplet feel. Basically, if you have a set of 3 triplets, you get the shuffle feel by leaving the middle triplet out. There are three basic ways that shuffle can be written out. The first is in 4/4 time with the word shuffle at the beginning of the tune. It looks like this…
The second way to write a shuffle (and the way it will be written on this blog) is in 12/8. I prefer this way, because the rhythm is crystal clear.
The third way involves actually writing in the triplets for every beat. It is an accurate representation of the rhythm, but extremely tedious to read and write out.
All of the reading aside, blues is an aural tradition. It does not matter how it is written out, what matters is that it sounds correct. You have to listen to the music and play along with tunes to truly learn how to play it.
Time to start playing! Here’s your first example, a shuffle in E. You know this is in E because the open E string is the lowest note. Play this over and over until the feel and sound are correct. You should be able to play this correctly without thinking about where your fingers are or when to strum the strings.
Next, you will do the exact same thing in A. This is in A because the open A string is the lowest note.
And finally, the same thing in D.
Once you’re comfortable with each one by itself, put it into a 12 bar blues in A (with the V chord at the end). The 12 bar blues in A uses all three of the examples above.
Give it a listen below.
Occasionally, you’re going to have to play these without an open string. Make sure you’re warmed up, because this will stretch your left hand! Here is an example of how to play this with G on the 6th string as your bass note.
A few tunes that have a shuffle feel:
Sweet Home Chicago by Robert Johnson
Baby What You Want Me To Do by Jimmy Reed
Dust My Broom by Elmore James
Junior Shuffle by Muddy Waters
Joe is the guitarist and vocalist of The Jakobins, based in Kansas City.