How to Get Your Drum Students to Play a Shuffle
By Daniel Glass | July 13, 2021
For music educators, endeavoring to introduce young drummers to the world of jazz can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. These days, most drummers get their earliest musical inspiration from rock and pop, heavier styles based in straight eighth notes that depend on the drive of the bass and snare drums to create a groove. Jazz, on the other hand, is based in the more uneven feel of swung eighths, and mandates that a drummer create a much lighter pulse using the ride cymbal and hi hat. These contradictory demands can make it difficult for jazz educators to convey concepts like pulse and swing, and to help budding drummers find the right amount of forward momentum without totally overpowering the band.
One solution to this conundrum might be to start by introducing drum students to the shuffle, a groove that can serve as a hybrid between the swing of jazz and drive of rock. Playing this consistent and stable groove allows a drummer to focus on the groove, while simultaneously negotiating the difficulties involved with getting it to “swing.”
Here’s a primer on the fundamentals of shuffle playing, accompanied by a quick and easy technique for teaching this very practical groove to your students.
What Is A Shuffle, and Why Does It Swing?
A shuffle is a driving, bouncy groove that has a unique “lope,” one whose character might be describes as that of “an egg rolling down a hill.” Shuffles are based in triplets. If you start with a triplet grouping (counted as “1-Trip-Let”) and remove the middle partial (the “Trip”), you are left with a shuffle (counted as “1-Let, 2-Let, 3-Let, 4-Let,” etc.).
Perhaps a more accurate way to notate the “rolling egg” feel of a shuffle is to write it as a two-note sequence, the first being a long note that incorporates the first two partials of a triplet grouping, followed by a short note that makes up the third. Presenting a shuffle in this manner (“looong-short looong-short looong-short” etc) helps explain why it lopes the way it does.
Playing A Shuffle
While it’s fairly easy for drum students to master the even 8th notes that are at the heart of most rock and pop grooves, producing the uneven “looong-short looong-short” flow of a shuffle can be a lot trickier.
Shuffles must also be endowed with a sense of swing, meaning they must produce forward momentum, but also feel laid back at the same time. Putting both of these seemingly contradictory characteristics into a single groove adds an additional challenge to playing shuffles correctly.
The “Push/Pull” Finger Exercise
One way to capture both the swing and the uneven bounce of a shuffle is to break it down into two motions, a “push” and a “pull.” You can teach your students to create these motions by opening and closing the fingers:
1. Basic Motion: Imagine you are playing a game of dice. Start with a closed fist raised up about chest level.
For the “push” motion, throw the fingers out (think “throw the dice”).
For the pull motion, snatch the fingers back up (think “grab the cash”).
2. Add A Stick: Now, without changing what you did with an empty hand, pick up a stick and repeat the push/pull motion (“throw the dice,” “grab the cash”). Remember, the fingers are actively involved in both these motions. When pushing, the goal is to get the stick to rebound off the hand and push open your fingers.
When pulling, the goal is to snap the stick back up with the fingers, allowing it bounce off the head on the way up.
Notice that whether you are pushing or pulling, each motion ends with the stick facing up at the same angle.Here’s a “time lapse” overview showing both the “push” and “pull” motions:
The Push Sequence:
The Pull Sequence:
3. Play in Time: Once your student can get the stick to rebound in both the push and pull directions, help them start to develop some control over the motion by playing this exercise as even eighth notes (“1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” equals “push-pull-push-pull,” etc).
4. Switch The Emphasis: Now, reverse the direction of the motion so that they are “pulling” on the dominant beats (1,2,3,4) and “pushing” on the offbeats (the “ands”). You’ll see that putting the emphasis on the “ands” will actually give them more power and control over the motion.
5. Start “Swinging”: Now, your student can start “swinging” the straight 8th notes as a shuffle. With each upward pull (on beats 1,2,3 and), they should feel the “long” part of the two-note sequence described above.
The End Result: The “push/pull” technique will allow your students to play a controlled shuffle that drives in the right way while addressing the “long-short” character of the groove. It also allows the player to stay relaxed when playing shuffles at faster tempos. Although this article focuses specifically on the French Grip (because it’s the one typically associated with ride cymbal work), this technique can be used in the other primary grips (German and Traditional) as well.
For more resources on the development of jazz and how it led us to the music we have today, check out Daniel Glass’s projects: The Century Project: 100 Years of American Music from Behind the Drums (1865—1965), Traps: The Incredible Story of Vintage Drums (1865-1965), From Ragtime to Rock: An Introduction to 100 Years of American Popular Music, The Commandments of Early Rhythm and Blues Drumming.
Daniel Glass is an award-winning drummer, author, historian and educator. Daniel has published five books, 3 DVDs and dozens of articles dedicated to sharing the amazing story of our American musical heritage, including From Ragtime to Rock: An Introduction to 100 Years of American Popular Music.View Author Page
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