Blues You Can Use: Rhythmic Fun with the Shuffle

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THIS MONTH, I’M GOING TO PRESENT SOMETHING very different. The examples shown here are not something I recommend you try to play on a blues gig—unless you want to get fired real quick! Instead, look at them as rhythmic training tools—the more control you have over the shuffle rhythm, the better you can do your job when it comes to playing it straight. These patterns came about from a hang session with a drummer friend of mine here in Austin, Herb Belofsky. Herb and I play mostly Texas country/honkytonk gigs together, and he’s a highly skilled and inventive player. We were messing around with a standard shuffle blues pattern, but for fun, we started shifting the accent to different parts of the eighth-note triplet. For us bassists, naturally, the normal approach would be to play on each quarter-note’s downbeat, as in Ex. 1. Nothing new there; this is how you’re supposed to play.

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Maybe it was too many Lone Star beers, but suddenly I shifted the bass note from the downbeat to the second beat of the triplet, while Herb kept a steady shuffle pattern on the drums. This is whack, to say the least—don’t try this on the gig, or they’ll put your ass on the last train to Clarksville. But, try Ex. 2 at home and see how stable you can get with this very unorthodox approach. The key is being able to feel the missing downbeat in relation to your upbeat. It’s unsettling at first—this is not what you are used to doing, but with a strong internal reference to the downbeat, you can learn to settle in this very odd place and get comfortable— the musical equivalent of the early-20th-century fad of flagpole sitting, perhaps.

Example 3 takes this concept one step further and displaces the bass note to the 3rd beat of the eighth-note triplet. You might think putting the bass note that much further from the downbeat would make it even trickier to settle in to this pattern, but it’s actually easier. The third beat of the triplet is familiar to us as the upbeat played by the guitar in a “flat tire” or “backwards” shuffle. Try this: First sing the triplet rhythm as “chick-a-da, chick-a-da,” etc. Now, leave “chick-a” blank, and put your bass note on “da.” Singing rhythms can be very helpful with internalizing the feel. Do this for a while, and when you feel comfortable, play Ex. 3 to the end of the 12-bar pattern.

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So, what is the point of learning how to do something as impractical as this? The point is rhythmic mastery. While not something you’ll play on the gig (have you noticed how many times I’ve said this? If you get fired, it’s not my fault!), we are examining the areas of the shuffle rhythm that bassists rarely visit. If you can learn to live in these zones, away from the comforting thud of the downbeat, just think how much more that downbeat will mean when you do play it. Give these examples a good shot; most likely you won’t be able to nail them on the first try, but don’t give up—it’s fun!



From his bass base in Austin, Texas, Ed Friedland keeps his chops up by writing instructional books and playing in a number of blues, country, and jazz groups. Find more at