WHILE BLUES MUSIC ENCOMPASSES many forms and feels, nothing brings it home quite like the mighty shuffle rhythm. Rooted in the 6/8 pulse of West African music, this broken triplet rhythm is the cornerstone of traditional blues, but it’s also prevalent in rock, pop, hip-hop, country, and jazz, among other styles. To really nail the shuffle feel, you must first understand that you are dealing with triplets. To get into the groove, start with clapping your hands at a steady medium tempo while counting out loud: “one-two-three, one-two-three,” making sure that one is on the clap, and that two and three are all evenly spaced between the claps.
Once you feel comfortable counting the triplet rhythm, play it on your bass, as shown in Ex. 1. Work this rhythm slowly at first, and make sure the notes are evenly spaced—a well-played triplet has a round, flowing feel to it. When you’re ready for a reality check, play the triplet rhythm with a metronome to see how steady, and relaxed, you can be.
To turn this into a shuffle rhythm, simply leave out the second beat of the triplet. The key to a killer shuffle lies in the space between the first and third beats of the triplet. Any veteran blues, jazz, or R&B player will tell you—some shuffles are wider than others. When the bass player starts shufflin’ with the drummer, they’d better be locked in. One proven method for internalizing rhythm is singing, so let’s give the shuffle pattern some “lyrics.” The word “Dutch” has two sounds: “duh” and “tch.” They will be the first two beats of the triplet. For the third beat, use the sound “da.” Put it all together and you get “Dutch, Da Dutch, Da Dutch,” (Ex. 2). The “ch” fills the space of the missing second beat of the triplet and gives the rhythm structural integrity. First, sing the shuffle while clapping quarter-notes. When you feel comfortable with that, use a metronome for the quarter-note pulse. Although you won’t necessarily want to do this while performing, see if you can play the shuffle rhythm on the bass and sing the rhythm at the same time—with the final step of adding the metronome. For extra fun, place the metronome clicks on beats two and four. It will take practice, but when you get it, your shuffle will be unstoppable.
Two common interpretations of the shuffle rhythm on bass (a.k.a. the “double stroke”) are staccato or legato. The shorter version leaves a gap on the second beat of the triplet (Ex. 2), while the first beat sustains through the second beat as in Ex. 3. The staccato shuffle fits well when the drummer uses a tightly closed hi-hat. When the drummer switches to the ride cymbal, a legato shuffle in the bass supports the groove nicely. Example 4 is a boogie-line variation played with a staccato shuffle feel. Use this pattern over the entire 12-bar form, and then play the legato articulation of the line as shown in Ex. 5. Next time you play with a band, pay attention to where the drummer places the rhythm. Try the suggested short and long articulations—I think you’ll be amazed at how much it adds to the groove.
The shuffle a huge part of blues music. But remember: It is not always necessary for the bass player to shuffle. Sometimes a good, solid quarter-note will ground the feel better. As the song tempo approaches the 140 BPM mark, the double-stroke starts to sound rushed, and over 150 BPM it’s just stupid. Practice these rhythms clapping your hands and singing, on the bass, and with the metronome. That way, when you hook up with a great shuffle drummer, you’ll keep that train a-rollin’—all night long.