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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Taming the Shuffle

The shuffle is one of the more intriguing rhythms found in contemporary music. And, despite its apparent simplicity, it can be tricky to play. Plus there are many distinct genres of shuffle, and lots of ways to interpret them.

I’ve played in situations where a lot of the tunes were shuffles, so I've had a lot of practice at it. I've also received some verbal abuse -- and even a symbolic foot up the rear -- when I didn't get it right.

There's no special trick or mystery to playing a shuffle. The sticking is simple enough, although putting together some interesting patterns will take a bit of work. But in the final analysis, it's the feel that matters, and that's where the fun begins.

As with swing, a shuffle is usually based on a triplet feel. To get the gist of it, play the following pattern, focusing on your dominant hand while counting triplets throughout:

      RLR  RLR  RLR  RLR  (Reverse for left-handed sticking)
Once you have the sticking and feel established, put some emphasis on the basic beats, so:  ONE-trip-let / TWO-trip-let / THREE-trip-let / FOUR-trip-let. Keep the beats as even as possible. And don't slip into accenting 1 & 3 or 2 & 4. Now, move your leading hand to a cymbal or hi-hat. That’s the feel you’re looking for. Add some bass drum and a back beat on the snare when you’re ready -- always counting in triplets -- until the feel is mastered. The back beat should really 'pop'.

OK, that's how you play the majority of shuffles. Again like swing, the placement of the 'skip' beat (the ‘let’) can dramatically affect things. Moving the skip beat closer to or further from the beats will take you from a “stickshift shuffle" to a loping country blues shuffle. That said, a shuffle never opens up to the point of resembling eighth notes as swing sometimes does (although listen to Elvis’s version Jail House Rock -- and for fun, compare that to the Blues Brothers version). The key is to listen: The music will tell you whether to relax or tighten it up.

Some shuffle tunes you may know:

Michelle (Lennon & McCartney). A lovely slow, ’loping’ style shuffle. No one’s in a hurry here.

California Girls (The Beach Boys), Stagger Lee (unknown). Medium tempo in the traditional style.

Flip, Flop Fly (Big Joe Turner), Tutti Frutti (Little Richard). Rockin’ boogie-woogie style with lots of forward impetus.

Can’t Buy Me Love
(The Beatles). An implied ‘two-beat’ feel commonly used at fast tempos, yet it still is played as triplets.

Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (Jim Croce). Here the skip beat has been moved very close to the next beat. It’s very near a dotted eight and sixteenth. Notice also the intense forward motion that this style -- the stickshift shuffle -- creates.

Bo Diddly (Ronnie Hawkins). This is as close to eighths as it gets, but if you tried to play eighths here, it would sound wrong and it would lose that solid, comfortable feel.

For a more intensive study of the shuffle, listen to traditional blues and country & western music, where you’ll find lots of shuffles to choose from.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Book Review: The Big Gig

These days most drummers know who Zoro the Drummer is. If not, the preliminaries of his book, The Big Gig, will give you an idea of the circles he moves in. Inside the front of the book there are fully seven pages of supportive quotes from people as diverse as Quincy Jones and Sinbad.

As it is a book written by a drummer one would assume for other drummers, you might expect it to be rather drumistic. It is not. It’s a how-to manual for ‘making it’ as a freelance musician. And it's not really that either. It's a prescription, a philosophy and a summary of the habits and attitudes that allowed Zoro to live his dream. No secret: He's a very talented and accomplished guy. But it doesn’t take a lot of talent to assume command of your life and craft it into something rewarding, and perhaps even enviable. In The Big Gig, Zoro tells all.

There's not much here that's actually new. The message is mostly about goal setting and self marketing, with a review of time management principles and an overview of this complex industry. What is different is the passion that Zoro brings to this simple message. I particularly like his personal mission statement. While it may seem overly detailed at first glance, it may just illustrate why so many mission statements fail to deliver: long on rhetoric but short on specifics and deliverables. Zoro's mission statement tells us exactly what he stands for -- what he values. He includes an exercise to help you write your own mission statement and poses a number of poignant questions including, 'What are your key values' and 'What do you want your life to stand for'. What a great place to start!

The text is sprinkled with lots of well-chosen motivational quotes. (There are also a lot of references to God and religion, which may not be to everyone's taste, but I applaud Zoro's choice to 'sell' his readers on the value of spirituality.) Once the basics are out of the way, Zoro then gives a good accounting of how to survive and even thrive in this very tough business. Again, he gives details and realistic goals and lots of strategies for coping.

In all, it's an excellent collection of practical wisdom and lots of workable advice. (I especially like his ‘point system’ for assessing your progress.) This is one book that really should be on every musician's reading list, not just drummers.

The Big Gig: Big-Picture Thinking for SuccessAlfred Music Publishing
ISBN-10: 0739082434 | ISBN-13: 978-0739082430
Also available as an ebook.