In today's post we are going to discuss how to play one of my favorite grooves of all time, the shuffle! The best thing you can do to start learning how to shuffle is to get acquainted with it's sound. Starting a blog post about the shuffle with anything other than "Moanin'" is borderline heretical, so start listening and playing along here.
This song is basically the definitive recorded shuffle, so listening to and trying to imitate Art Blakey should be your starting point. The other person to listen to to get your bearings is Mel Lewis. Here is his famous shuffle on "The Groove Merchant":
Notice that neither one of these guys is overplaying, one of the many temptations when playing a shuffle. Even though their groove is incredibly driving and strong, they are playing to the ensemble and staying dynamically balanced at all times. Notice how much Mel drops down at :47 for example!
What is a Shuffle?
What is a Shuffle?
There are as many different versions of the shuffle as there are different genre's of music, and everyone has their own personal style. I am not here to start any pedantic debates about what is and is not a shuffle, I will just explain my take on what I hear drummers like Blakey and Mel doing in a jazz context.
Essentially a shuffle is the basic jazz groove embellished with a strong back-beat on the snare drum. The snare drum part is the real key to making the shuffle work. To fit your snare drum part into the ride cymbal groove even more tightly, you can play light/ghosted eighth notes on either side of the back-beat (the "+" of beats 1 and 2), or even continuous eighth notes. The overall effect of the shuffle is a continuous stream of eighth notes with a strong accent on beats 2 and 4.
Building up the dumb cousin
Your non-dominant hand is always going to behave like a dumb cousin of your dominant hand. So playing a groove that is so left hand intensive is a great way to build up your weaker side.
Todd Bishop has a detailed break-down of how to develop your left hand shuffle pattern using accented flamacues over at his outstanding blog Cruise Ship Drummer!. Practice his exercise to develop your left-handed accenting technique so that you can play the shuffle confidently at a range of tempos.
One other great exercise for developing the left hand shuffle part is to work on developing your Moeller stroke. For those of you who are not familiar with the Moeller stroke, here is a video of me playing my Moeller warmup:
The basic idea is that the Moeller stroke is very closely related to the left hand shuffle, particularly in the way you have to prepare the accent with an upstroke and then release it. In the video you will see me playing at a much slower tempo, so I use a much larger motion with a lot more arm. In a shuffle this motion will come down almost entirely into the wrist, and even though the rhythm of the shuffle is slightly different than the Moeller stroke, the feeling is very similar.
How to use the shuffle: the "grease threshold"
One of the biggest misconceptions about the shuffle is that it is an either/or type of groove. Either a song is a shuffle, or it isn't. In my experience, this is not the case.
The shuffle can be an effective technique for building momentum in a song, or a great way to add some variety to different solos. Even if the song doesn't start or end as a shuffle, there is no reason not to use a shuffle at some point in the song as long as it fits. I think of this as a sort of "grease threshold" for every song. When you hear a soloist digging into the groove and playing the most soulful/bluesy/nasty things they can think of, going to a shuffle feels almost inevitable. This is a hard concept to explain, but a relatively easy one to hear. Here is the great Bill Heid breaking through the "grease threshold" starting around :48:
I will try to post some more shuffle exercises in the near future.