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SHUFFLE AND SWING RHYTHMS

by Andrew Pouska

There are two varieties of eighth note rhythms musicians use: straight eighth
notes and what are called shuffle eighth notes or swing eighth notes. Its
essential to know the difference and be comfortable playing either type of
eighth note.

What are Straight Eighth Notes?

If youve studied the eighth note subdivision lesson, youve already learned to
play straight 8th notes. Straight eighth notes are 8th notes which evenly
divide each beat in half. Since theyre an even division, we call them straight.

Unless youre told to do otherwise, in most styles you are expected to play 8th
notes straight.

What is Shuffle Rhythm?

Shuffle rhythm is a specific 8th note rhythmic feel. It is based on triplet


subdivisions of the beat rather than on dividing each beat perfectly in half
(a.k.a. straight 8th notes). Its easiest to understand it by hearing it. It is a very
familiar rhythmic feel thats heard in rock, blues, and jazz. Listen to the
examples on the exercises page for this lesson.

Shuffle eighth notes alternate a long note and a short note. The long note falls
on the beat and the short one in-between on the upbeat.

You are essentially playing the eighth note triplet, but not playing the middle
note of the triplet. You may think of the first two notes of the triplet as being
tied together or, just missing the middle note of the triplet.

What is Swing Rhythm?

People will say swing rhythm is pretty much the same as shuffle rhythm. This
is more or less true. And, in the beginning you may as well think that way. To
me, I think of shuffle as rigidly based on the underlying triplet rhythm. Swing
is similar, but open to more interpretation. If you listen to different jazz
musicians, they all swing rhythms slightly differently. There's a lot of room for
subtle variation. Most people will tell you swing cannot be accurately notated,
only felt.

In jazz you're always expected to swing 8th notes unless it is a Latin tune (i.e.
Bossa Nova, Samba) where you use straight 8th notes. The swing rhythm is a
defining element of jazz.

Shuffle Rhythm Notation

Most of the time if a song uses the shuffle


feel it does it all throughout the song. To
make it easier to read the notation the
notes are written just like straight eighth
notes appear. But, at the beginning of the
music it will tell you to interpret the 8th
notes as shuffle eighth notes.

A common marking for shuffle 8th notes is a little equation written at the
beginning expressing 2 eighth notes are to be played like a triplet with the
first two notes tied. Or, the first two 8th notes of the triplet are written as a
quarter note. (See Shuffle Markings
diagram.)

I'm sure you'll see why it is common


practice to notate shuffle rhythms this
way. In the Equivalent Shuffle Notation
diagram the two rhythms are identical. By
adding the shuffle marking at the
beginning of the music we can avoid a
busy mess of notes and end up with an
easier-to-read line of music. It's also an
easier way to think of these rhythms in your head.

Another very common way of indicating shuffle or swing in music is by just


writing "shuffle" or "swing" at the beginning of the music. It might say
something like Medium-Tempo Shuffle, Fast Rock Shuffle, or "Up-Tempo
Swing". How easy is that?

Be sure to go over the exercises to get a good grasp of the sound of shuffle 8th
note rhythms.