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.