Rock ‘N’ Jazz Clinic
Twelve Essential Shuffles
Some of Drumming’s Most Influential Feels
by Rich Scannella
While simple in concept, the shuffle, which features prominently in early jazz, blues, Motown, soul, funk, rock ’n’ roll, and hip-hop, among other styles, can be difficult to execute even for skilled drummers. In this article we’ll cover the essential shuffle variations by examining some of the most influential tracks ever recorded.
On “Green Onions,” from Booker T and the MG’s’ 1962 album of the same name, Al Jackson Jr. utilizes a quarter-note feel while shuffling the bass drum on the “a” of beat 2. The hi-hat foot on beats 2 and 4 continues throughout the song, while the right hand plays quarter notes on the ride and the left hand plays backbeats. It’s a surprisingly economical use of notes and a deceptively brilliant groove.
It’s difficult to choose only one track featuring Bernard Purdie’s patented half-time shuffle; there are many classic examples. In fact, the feel is so closely associated with Bernard, and has inspired so many drummers, it’s been dubbed the “Purdie Shuffle.” “Home at Last” has been a fan favorite since 1977, when it appeared on Steely Dan’s Aja album. Absent in this example is the heavy, driving feel common to shuffles; rather, it features a laid-back, funky feel that’s more reminiscent of an R&B or soul vibe. While Purdie shuffles his right hand on the hi-hat, he plays ghost notes on the snare with a strong backbeat, providing balance on beat 3. Purdie also drops in open hi-hat notes on triplet upbeats, leading smoothly into the pre-chorus of the song.
Richard Allen’s mid-tempo groove carries Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ 1967 hit “Jimmy Mack.” Note the four-on-the-floor feel, which lays the foundation for many of the dance-oriented Motown tracks of this era. Allen’s dotted-8th and 16th-note hi-hat pattern and snare backbeats propel the song beautifully. Also note the familiar Motown quarter-note handclaps and foot stomps, which add to this song’s driving dance feel.
Willie Dixon’s “The Seventh Son” features this classic Chicago shuffle played by Clifton James. James’ hands mirror each other on this dotted-8th and 16th-note feel. Notice how the subtly accented backbeats don’t weigh down the groove.
Motown great Benny Benjamin’s Chicago shuffle is a highlight of the John Lee Hooker track “Boom Boom” off 1962’s Burnin’ album. Each verse’s beginning features quarter-note ensemble hits before Benjamin kicks into a swinging shuffle that relies on more of a traditional jazz cymbal pattern.
When rock ’n’ roll was still in its infancy, many of the early drummers who played the style had a background in jazz. Fred Below was one such player, evident in his wonderfully light touch and flowing brush feel throughout Little Walter’s 1955 track “My Babe.”
John Bonham’stowering take on the Purdie shuffle lies at the heart of the Led Zeppelin hit “Fool in the Rain,” from the 1979 album In Through the Out Door. Note the subtle funk feel, which was prevalent in much of Bonham’s playing. Bonzo beautifully juxtaposes powerful backbeats against ghost notes on this famous track; his hi-hat openings on the third triplet partial of beat 1 offer further movement.
Guyana-born drummer Richard Bailey opens Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam” (from the 1975 album Blow by Blow) with a precise snare lead-in before transitioning to the shuffle that sets the pace for the entire song. Bailey predominantly uses triplet patterns on the bass drum, snare, and hi-hats, as was common in other ’70s-era rock shuffles. Also of note is his use of dynamics between ghost notes and accents.
On Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough,” Simon Kirke plays driving hi-hat quarter notes while anchoring the kick drum groove with shuffled notes on beats 1 and 3. The snare holds down the backbeat on 2 and 4. Note how effortlessly Simon’s triplet fills flow out of the swing-like groove.
Session great Jeff Porcaro wrote his own chapter on the half-time shuffle with his performance on the hit “Rosanna” from Toto’s 1982 album, Toto IV. While Porcaro plays the shuffle throughout the verses, the pre-chorus features a much lower dynamic and a subtle two-beat feel. All of this sets up the dramatic stops that lead into each chorus. Also check out Jeff’s syncopated snare hits behind Steve Lukather’s guitar solo at the song’s fade.
Superstar multi-instrumentalist Stevie Wonder handled the drums on many of his own songs, including “Higher Ground” from 1973’s Innervisions. Stevie’s shuffling hi-hat drives the backbeats on 2 and 4 on this classic track. The groove is a great example of how funky a shuffle can be.
Although many artists have covered Howlin Wolf’s 1962 classic “Spoonful” (composed by Willie Dixon), few drummers have come close to achieving the deep pocket of Fred Below’s original groove. As the bass drum anchors beats 1 and 3, Below’s unvarying closed hi-hat shuffleprovides a constant element that the vocal melody plays off of as the song moves from verse to chorus.
Rich Scannella is the drummer for Jon Bon Jovi and the Kings of Suburbia, has performed with Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Lady Gaga, and is an adjunct professor at Rider University in New Jersey. He can be reached at richscannella.com.