Why Only Practicing Lead Playing Harms Your General Guitar Level: Thoughts on Mastering the Blues Shuffle Rhythm

Guitar players' excessive dedication to practicing solos causes them to neglect the most crucial part of blues guitar, i.e. rhythm playing.

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We all want to be good at playing great blues lead guitar. However, if you will find yourself in a situation where you will be making music with others, you will notice your general guitar playing is not at the level it is supposed to be. It is no rocket science to find the root of this problem. Guitar players' excessive dedication to practicing solos causes them to neglect the most crucial part of blues guitar, i.e. rhythm playing.

The Ability to Play Great Shuffles Will Improve Your Entire Blues Playing

Rhythm Playing is an undervalued aspect of blues guitar, nevertheless it is incredibly important. There is nothing groovier than drums and a bass guitar accompanied by solid rhythm blues guitar parts. If the rhythm guitarist is not adequately in synchronization with the rest of the instruments, the song loses its groove. This means that all guitarists should be able to play a solid and adequately synchronized shuffle.

Furthermore, it must be quite awkward to sit in at a jam, play with a band or maybe record yourself and notice that your rhythm playing is not sufficiently developed.

Guitar Tabs Don't Give You All the Information

After years of training guitar students I have noticed that the majority that contact me for lessons admit they find themselves unable to improve their playing. There is a good possibility that you feel the same way.

I know that this feeling causes a lot of frustration. Nevertheless, maybe this is caused by the fact that your approach of self-education contains some restrictions. It is possible that the materials you use to teach yourself show some limitations.

Transforming music into tabs does not allow for the song's rhythmic feel to be laid down. This is definitely the case with blues shuffles. We can conclude that tablatures neglect a great deal of essential information. The coming illustrations will indicate that shuffles can be played in a wide range of varieties concerning timing. In fact, the exact feeling to play the shuffle are not shown in tablatures.

Everyone has surfed the internet for tablatures and it is certainly something amazing. However, you should realize that they only contain a certain type and amount of information, which means a lot of essential information is not shown in the tablatures.

The legends of the blues never had the opportunity to rely on tabs when they were learning to play. What they did do, was use their ears.

For the illustration below, you can see tabs and I have given them in order to make it more clear what I am teaching you. Additionally, you will be more sure what to play when you want to try it out for yourself. Nevertheless, always keep in mind that tabs are a tool to clarify what is played and that it is a lot better to rely on your ears. Hence the reason I inserted some sound extracts too.

Two Types of Rhythm: Shuffle and Swing

Shuffle rhythm consists of a very particular 8th note rhythm. It's rooted in triplets and not a half beat division in a pure 8th note rhythm. The 1st two notes are attached together, because the note in the center of the triplet is actually not being played, resulting in that particular shuffle rhythm.

Check out the shuffle feel

Let me explain what swing rhythm means. Have you ever heard how jazz drummers play that typical swing rhythm throughout a jazz tune. Very distinct from a shuffle rhythm, isn't it? Now you know how important it is to use your ear and listen to the type of rhythm you want to learn. So never use tabs blindly, but attention to the rhythmic feel.

Check out the swing feel

Accentuation Has an Enormous Influence on a Blues Shuffle

The 1st and 3rd note of the triplet ring out when you play a shuffle. However, the way you lay your accents have an enormous influence. You can play the notes shortly, causing the more space between the individual notes. This is known as "staccato." In order to get a clear image of a staccato shuffle, I have integrated tabs and a sound extract.

Staccato Blues Shuffle

Check out the Staccato Blues Shuffle

Yet another option is to play a blues shuffle in legato style. What this means, is that you let the notes ring out more, so the notes actually give a feeling of flowing into each other.

Legato Blues Shuffle

Listen to a Legato Blues Shuffle

What else can you do to give a different feel to your shuffle? Try to incorporate some palm muting, which allows you to bring the rhythmic section away from the center and allow for the lead guitar player or singer to step to the front.

Palm Muted Blues Shuffle

Listen to a Palm Muted Blues Shuffle

You may have noticed that the shuffles illustrated above are in G. Now it is your turn to experiment and listen to the staccato and legato style and keep in mind that even tiny varieties can make a great difference!

The Texas Blues Shuffle

The Texas Blues shuffle is yet another great variation to play your shuffles that became known by a couple of amazing guitarists such as Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you want to learn about a tune where you can really hear this type of shuffle, I recommend you to check out SRV's "Pride and Joy." This sort of shuffle is characterized by the fact that the 3rd triplet defines a clear passage to the next beat.

This stressed beat is very frequently played by performing a rake with an upward movement. It should be said that this kind of shuffle requires more left hand skill than right hand skill, since the challenge here is to mute the strings you don't want to be ringing out. So practice to mute those strings properly with the hand you use to fret the strings. By muting you are able to be free with your picking hand and focus on properly getting down the feeling. Nevertheless, make sure you do not have any unwanted string noise.

'Texas' Shuffle

Listen to a Texas Blues Shuffle

In order to become more acquainted with the several kinds of shuffle, I suggest you play them over a backing track and check out for yourself which ones and when they sound best. In addition, play around with the timing, because not all shuffles are proper triplets. In fact, some are even played more shortly to get a fast shuffle and so get across a whole different feeling.

Listen to a Variation on the Texas Blues Shuffle (this illustrates the way Stevie Ray Vaughan would be playing a shuffle.)

Make Your Rhythm Playing Sound More Impressive

After a certain amount of time, these same old blues shuffles will probably sound quite boring to you. Nevertheless, a bit of inventiveness can turn your shuffles in very interesting rhythm sections.

To keep having a solid rhythmic feel, it might help to play a couple of bluesy bass loop sections. Some of these are very familiar and they create a very solid groove. Beneath you will see an illustration of such a blues bass section. Also attempt to experiment with the options provided in the section "Accentuation Has an Enormous Influence on a Blues Shuffle" of this article, which will help you to play them with a great amount of varieties.

Listen to this Shuffle Bass Loop

Listen to this Shuffle Bass Loop

You can use these bass loops throughout an entire twelve bar blues progression. When the progression moves to the IV chord, you only have to play it starting from the A string. For the V chord, just move it up two frets on the A string. Below you will find an audio example of how it should sound when you play an entire twelve bar blues in this way.

Listen to a Full 12 Bar Shuffle

Don't forget to be creative with these ideas and come up with your own bass loops. Never forget that the rhythmic part is the most important, more important than the lead guitar part. In addition, realize that tablature is a tool that is helpful, but that it is quite restrictive. Tabs do not tell you about the small details that are so essential in blues playing.

About the Author:
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitar instructor offering blues guitar lessons online as well as in his country of residence Belgium.

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I know some guys that are incredible on a technical level, and can do some really flashy tricks, but when it comes to playing with someone else and trying to play any kind of support role ever, they get entirely lost, and many of them don't know how to approach playing rhythm guitar. Learning rhythm is crucial to understanding the roles a guitar plays in music, and to advancing your playing. Hell, it'll even make your lead playing better, and open up new possibilities.
    "but when it comes to playing with someone else and trying to play any kind of support role ever, they get entirely lost" For a moment there I thought you were talking about Dota.
    the guitar in the example is a bit sharp. it says that the shuffles and swings are in G, but that '3' in the tab examples is clearly a G sharp
    Should be in Eb standard (down 1/2-step) actually, playing in A major shapes (alternating x02xxx - x04xxx). It becomes pretty apparent when the open G-string sounds a Gb. The main thing is the concept; the key is less important.
    Rhythm is crucial in the early learning stages. I do, however, regret that I didn't put more emphasis on learning lead scales.
    So many fun things to do with the shuffle system. Fleetwood Mac's "Shake Your Moneymaker" for example
    Transforming music into tabs does not allow for the song's rhythmic feel to be laid down. That's not true, you can include as many rythmic notations in tab as in classic music sheet.
    Nice article- with some good examples - the difference between swing and triplet shuffles is well illustrated I agree with GameSkate about tabs being able to show timings - however for text file tabs putting in timings (Q, E etc above the tab ) is against UG standards. Shame!.
    Good lesson. Jazz swing is also pretty much based on triplet feel, same as you're describing shuffle ... it moves towards straight 8's as the tempo grows. I agree that the nuances of the shuffle (swing) can't be accurately captured on tab, as the generic tab involves evenly spaced triplets, whereas the actual feel pushes those spaces around, and tha t's not something usually notated (nor well supported in tab software). I also think that concentrating on minor blues scales, and minor pentatonics,leads to a lot of problems improvising around tunes based on major harmony ... the major scale feels very twee and hard to use (whereas in reality, it's great for melody). That leads to poor melodic creation in any setting outside the blues. Rhythm is also massively important, not just for rhythm guitar, but for phrasing, and again, this gets hugely overlooked.
    Well done good sir. I appreciate the effort to have each version with an MP3 file to hear. I love the blues and love rhythm, and always enjoy the chance to learn more about each. Thank you again, exceptional simple yet effective lesson.