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How to Play Swing Rhythm (Shuffle Rhythm)

This video on how to play swing and shuffle rhythm is going to be short and highly focused. It’ll help you transform your “straight” 8th notes into “swing” 8th notes – and we’ll talk about why you’d want to do something like that in the first place. This is called “shuffle rhythm”, though I’ll be referring to it as “swing” throughout this video. For our purposes today, they’re similar enough.

Some of my students quickly and intuitively grasp swing rhythm – others need to put much more thought and effort into it. If you fall into the latter category, I hope you’ll find this video helpful.

Straight vs. Swing 8th notes

Straight 8th notes

Before we get into swinging 8th notes, you need to first understand how to play and count regular, “straight” 8th notes. Here’s a little excerpt from Minuet in G:

With 8th notes, we count 1+2+3+. Since each 8th note gets half a beat, we need to come up with a metric to measure half-beats (the “+”).

So the first two bars would be counted, “1, 2+3+, 1-2-3”.

The goal with regular 8th notes is to keep them completely even. Just like how every quarter note played should sound steady (like the ticking of a clock), we want our 8th notes to be just as even – like a faster ticking clock.

Swing 8th notes (shuffle rhythm)

But “swing” 8th notes throws that evenness out the window. However, there IS a regularity in swing rhythm.

Swing rhythm follows a “LONG-short” pattern. The first beat has a bit of an accent and is held SLIGHTLY longer than the second beat (which falls on an “+”).

I’ll start by playing this rhythm on the piano so you can get it into your ear before we discuss it in depth.

One way I get my students to practice this is to turn on a metronome or drum beat and start by playing/clapping a steady 8th note rhythm, and then shifting to a swing rhythm. We do this by physically saying “LONG-short, LONG-short”, as we go.

Once you’re hearing the “LONG-short” rhythm, you can stop saying it aloud and simply focus on pressing any note on the keyboard with this rhythm.

Be careful that your “LONG” beat doesn’t get TOO long. One trap adults tend to fall into is to hold that note to the duration of 3 16th notes, and finishing the last “short” beat as a final 16th notes. This is NOT swing rhythm.

Swing rhythm should have an easy, groovy feel. If you enjoy visual representations, it would be more like a pattern of 3 8th note triplets.

One way to get a feel for this is to physically say the word “tri-pl-et” (in three syllables) along with a metronome or drum track. Triplets should be nice and even, as equally-spaced as you can manage (3 notes per bar).

Once you’re able to say “tri-pl-et” along with the beat, start pressing a note on the keyboard when you say “tri” and “et”, skipping over “pl”. This is another helpful way to think about how swing rhythm works.

If you don’t like saying “tri-pl-et”, you could always pick another three-syllable word like “blue-ber-ry”.

When do we use swing rhythm?

Genres that often use swing rhythm are rock, jazz and blues. I’ll pull up an easy example by Christopher Norton:

In this blues piece, you’ll notice that the left hand is based on a rocking octaves pattern. And since it’s blues, we want to play this pattern with shuffle!

Here’s how it’s done.

You’ll notice that the main beat (1, 2, 3, 4) is always long, and the in-between “+” beat is always short. Once you have the hang of the left hand, you can go in and make the right-hand rhythm match what the left hand is doing. It takes some work, and some getting used to, but use the exercises we’ve talked about and you’ll get there.

Swinging with rests

One of the most challenging aspect of playing with swing 8th notes is working in the rests. The main thing to remember is this: If you’re playing a piece in 4/4 time, like the example we’ll look at in a moment, then each of those four beats follows a swing pattern.

That means that the start of beat 1 is “LONG” and the second half of beat 2 is “short”. So our shuffle looks like this:

1              +         2         +          3        +        4         +

(LONG-short LONG-short LONG-short LONG-short)

This is law. So if the first 8th note you see falls on an “+” beat, it is NOT played long! It’s a short beat. The main beat is always long (such as 1, 2, 3, 4) and the “+” beat is always short.

In this example, the rest would be the LONG beat, and the next note would be short. You’ll see this occur in bar 2, 3, 6 and 7 in the example.

Conclusion

And that’s all there is to it! Swing/shuffle rhythm is so common in contemporary music that it’s worth getting familiar with. Even if you have to think pretty hard about it at first, if you keep practicing it’ll eventually become second-nature – the way everything in music does.

It’s like with dance – when you learn a sequence of steps, it’s clumsy and awkward at first. But eventually you do those steps enough that you don’t even have to think about it – you can simply enjoy the experience and the music.

I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but I assume that’s how it works with dancers. 😊

-Allysia

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