THE SHUFFLE - Swung time vs. Straight time - Let's SWING!

Developing a good sense of time, and learning the vocabulary needed to talk about rhythm with other musicians, are great skills for someone who wants to be able to play music well, and essential skills for someone who wants to be able to play music well WITH OTHER musicians.

More than knowing scales, or being able to play fast, or being able to play overblows, having a killer sense of time will make your playing impactful to the listener. A couple of the most important elements to master in this regard are:

*Learning how to play “in the pocket” (which mostly means not rushing, but instead playing in very relaxed way or “hanging back on the beat”.)

*Learning to feel 4-bar and 8-bar phrases.

** Another CRUCIAL issue to get clear on and be able to feel is SWUNG TIME versus STRAIGHT TIME.**

Tthe most common feel, especially in blues, is the SWUNG 8TH note feel, so that is what we’re gonna focus on in this post. (Note: a swung 16th note feel is common in Funk and Fusion genres.)

The most common time signature in music is 4/4, which simply means 4 beats per bar. So a 4 bar phrase is counted counted like this:

1,2,3,4
1,2,3,4
1,2,3,4
1,2,3,4

Each of those numbers that we’re counting are called QUARTER NOTES. In our common time signature, there are 4 QUARTER NOTES in a bar. Makes sense, right?

8TH NOTES are simply twice as fast as quarter notes, there are 8 in each bar, and so a GREAT way to count them is like this:
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and
We say the numbers at exactly the same speed that we did when we were counting quarter notes, and now we simply insert the word “and” EXACTLY HALF WAY in between each one of those numbers.

"DOWNBEATS" are the beats where we say a number
“UPBEATS”, or specifically UPBEAT 8TH NOTES, are the beats where we are saying the word "and."

By the way - each upbeat has a name.
The one that comes after beat 1 is called: the “and” of 1
The one that comes after beat 2 is called: the “and” of 2
The one that comes after beat 3 is called: the “and” of 3
The one that comes after beat 4 is called: the “and” of 4

What I’ve described so far, with the upbeats being EXACTLY HALF WAY between each downbeat, is called STRAIGHT TIME.

By contrast, when we play SWUNG TIME, or a SWUNG 8TH feel, or a SHUFFLE feel, we delay those upbeats past the half-way mark between the downbeats. So the “and” of 1 is closer to beat 2 than it is to beat 1.

While there can be some variation in how far that distance is, the best place to start is moving from ½ way in between, to 2/3rds of the way toward the new down beat. In order to do that, let’s first learn how to count 8TH NOTE TRIPLETS:

Whereas with 8th notes we dived each of our 4 quarter notes into 2 parts (ending up with 8 notes per bar) with 8TH NOTE TRIPLETS we will divide each of our 4 quarter notes into 3 parts (ending up with 12 notes per bar) and so a GREAT way to count these is:

1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let

If you’re alone, and you’re reading this, and you REALLY want to understand this and get it right, and if you have a metronome, put it on 50 Beats Per Minute. Count once per click, “1,2,3,4.” Then, making sure your still saying the numbers at the same time as the click, count eighth notes, “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.” A now for the tricky part! Keeping the numbers with the click count “1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let.” It’s surprisingly difficult to switch back and forth between 8th notes and 8th note triplets. They’re like two disparate universes!

Now, counting those 8th note triplet’s CLAP on all of them (a total of twelve per bar:)
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let

Now DON’T CLAP when you are saying "TRIP"

ONLY CLAP when you are saying a NUMBER and when you are saying “LET.” Like this:

1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let
1-trip-let 2-trip-let 3-trip-let 4-trip-let

YOU ARE NOW CLAPPING SWUNG 8THS!

That is the shuffle feel that is at the heart of much of jazz and blues repertoire. It has a feel similar to the lope of a horse. It makes you wanna bob your head. It feels good!

When I’m counting SWUNG 8THS, I like to like to replace the word “and” with the word “ah” (I’m pronouncing it “uh.”) The reason I do this is the word “and” ends with 2 consonants and therefore is too difficult to say so close to the next downbeat. So I like to count:
1 ah 2 ah 3 ah 4 ah

In my Beginner to Boss course and in my free Harmonica Blues for Beginners lessons I teach a simple rhythm to play chords behind a singer or soloist, called “The Charleston”, in which you play the chord on BEAT 1 and on the AND OF 1.

1 2 AND 3 4
1 2 AND 3 4
1 2 AND 3 4
1 2 AND 3 4

If you wanted to play this rhythm with a swung feel, as I do in the video right here you might find it easier to count “1, 2, AH 3, 4.”

I am saying “and” in this video because I didn’t want viewers to become confused, but you can hear how it sounds a bit awkward, and would feel better if I were saying “ah.” As I mentioned, in my Beginner to Boss course, when I’m counting swung 8ths, I say “ah” on the upbeats.

And I think that’s a great introduction to the subject of STRAIGHT versus SWUNG 8THS. Please leave me your questions and comments. And as you’re listening to music, consider quizzing yourself, “is this straight or swung?” Try counting along and seeing if you can figure it out!

Rock on harmonica fam!

Aloha,
Luke

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Thanks so much Luke ! Very helpful. I’ve been going through your Beginner to Boss course and also learning some piano . It’s interesting how clapping and counting rhythm while challenge helps me internalize the beat faster. Although my learning process is to grind through the beat learning process by clapping and counting - I typically end up playing by feel once I internalize…Is that typical?

Also thanks for the very detailed description of the swung 8th. I’ve had this question burning as to whether the “delayed and” of a swung 8th is really in time with a “triplet” beat. Based on your summary it is …Correct?

Thanks so much,

Tim

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Hey Tim - welcome to the forum! So glad to see you here. Glad you are enjoying the course.

YESS!! This yes exactly how to do it!

1.) Count/Clap slowly to make sure you are playing the rhythm ACCURATELY. Do it as many times as needed until you can FEEL IT.
2.) Once you’ve internalized the rhythm, play it on the harmonica!

I’ve had this question burning as to whether the “delayed and” of a swung 8th is really in time with a “triplet” beat. Based on your summary it is …Correct?

YES!! Also, correct here. The triplet is the way to “calibrate” your swung 8ths. In practice some people may anticipate or delay a few milliseconds earlier or later than the “let” of the triplet according to their “Feel”, but the triplet is way to practice it.

If you play the triplet exactly, everybody you play with will be happy.

Rock on,
Luke

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