Although the blues is considered an American art form, it’s a genre of music that resonates around the world. With that in mind, if you’re a drummer trying to connect with new musicians, there’s no better opportunity to do so than at a local blues jam.
The style is so accessible because most blues tunes follow a specific chord structure known as a “12-bar blues.” The following illustrates a condensed chart of a typical 12-bar blues form. Each number represents a chord that’s played for one measure. In the key of C major, for instance, “1” would represent a C chord (CEG), “4” would represent an F chord (FAC), and “5” would represent a G chord (GBD). You can check out a clear example of this form while listening to Muddy Waters’ recording of “Kansas City” from Live in Chicago, 1979 and following along with the chart.
1 – 1 – 1 – 1
4 – 4 – 1 – 1
5 – 4 – 1 – 5
Although there are many feels associated with blues music, the shuffle is certainly one of the most important. This groove is based on a triplet subdivision, which in a measure of 4/4 can be counted as “1-&-a, 2-&-a, 3-&-a,” and “4-&-a.” In the patterns we’re focusing on in this lesson, each note will fall on the first and/or third partial of each triplet. We can verbalize these partials as “1-a, 2-a, 3-a, 4-a” while leaving a rest on the “&,” or the second triplet partial, of each beat.
Let’s begin with a shuffle ride-cymbal pattern. Try counting triplets while playing the following example.
Now let’s add the snare. Initially we’ll practice a shuffle variation called the “double shuffle.” In this groove, the snare plays the same rhythm that the ride or hi-hat plays. Drummer Clifton James can be heard playing an excellent version of this pattern on “The Seventh Son” from Willie Dixon’s album I Am the Blues.
Next, add the bass drum. In this lesson we’re going to be playing what’s generally referred to as a “four-on-the-floor shuffle.” That simply means that the bass drum will play all four quarter notes in a measure of 4/4 underneath our hand pattern.
Accents give this groove some additional sonic depth. Let’s add accents to both the ride and snare on beats 2 and 4.
For a variation, drop the snare on beats 1 and 3. Make sure to play the accents on beats 2 and 4 with both hands.
If you’re having a hard time with Exercise 5, try playing quarter notes on the ride. You can drop the accents on the ride, but keep the snare accents to maintain a great shuffle feel.
The next pattern varies Exercise 6 slightly by adding a drag on the last triplet partial of beats 2 and 4. The drag should flow smoothly into the quarter-note kick. To practice this, let’s break it down by playing only the snare and bass drum.
The Blues Shuffle: Essential Listening
Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on Muddy Waters’ rendition of “Kansas City” (Muddy “Mississippi” Waters—Live)
Clifton James on Willie Dixon’s “The Seventh Son” (I Am the Blues)
Chris “Whipper” Layton on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s rendition of “Cold Shot” (Couldn’t Stand the Weather)
Al Jackson Jr. on Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ “Green Onions” (Green Onions)
Fred Below on Little Walter’s “My Babe” (My Babe)
Now let’s add the quarter-note ride pattern. This can also serve as a useful groove variation on its own.
This final shuffle variation is by far my favorite. I learned this groove while listening to the great Chris “Whipper” Layton playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan. Layton plays this pattern on “Cold Shot” from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s album Couldn’t Stand the Weather. It’s a great-sounding recording that gives you a clear picture of Layton’s drumming.
Layton employs the drag with a shuffled ride pattern. This could create a challenge for the hands. Let’s work on the hand coordination slowly before working it up to speed.
While Layton’s pattern on “Cold Shot” has slight variations, here’s the main groove between the kick, hi-hat, and snare. You can also move the right hand from the hi-hat to the ride.
By employing the multiple variations in this lesson, you can give each section of a song its own character. Head over to moderndrummer.com to check out the blues shuffle and demonstrations of the previous examples. See you next time!
Jim Riley is the drummer and bandleader for Rascal Flatts. His book Survival Guide for the Modern Drummer is available from Alfred Music. For more information, visit jimrileymusic.com.