The Blues Shuffle: It’s All About the Feel
Aside from knowing the 12 bar blues progression, familiarization with different bass patterns and feels becomes crucial. Since many songs have the same progression, the pattern and/or feel is the main characteristic that differentiates one blues from another. This column will focus specifically on the feel, how to differentiate one kind of shuffle from another by changing your articulation or note duration and common lingo for certain shuffle patterns.
Before discussing the different kinds of shuffles, I’d like to make a distinction between a “swing” and a “shuffle.” Both patterns have a triplet feel; however, a swing has a jazzier edge to it and a shuffle is usually more rocking. If you think about it in relation to what a drummer would be doing, think of a jazz drummer establishing time by “swinging” on the ride cymbal versus a blues shuffle that drives on the hi-hat.
The shuffle accentuates the first and third note of a triplet grouping and the articulation of these notes will dramatically impact the feel. If you play the notes in a staccato manner, thereby adding some definition and space between the notes, it tends to “push” a little bit more. Or, if you continue to hold down the note and not include any rest between the beats, it will give a “smoother” feel to your bass line. Some players also refer to a “Texas” shuffle (think “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan). This has a grittier “rock” groove to it and the third beat of the triplet acts as a strong pick up to the following beat. When it comes to deciding between the different feels, think about what would be best given the context of the song and what the other players are doing.
Now we’ll examine three different kinds of shuffles: the “up-town” box pattern, “down-town” box pattern, and walking shuffle. Please note that these names may not be universal and people may refer to the patterns in different ways. When people call tunes they may just say “Shuffle in G” without distinguishing a specific pattern. Additionally, the box pattern shuffles are typically medium tempo shuffles. With faster shuffles, stick to the walking pattern and only play one attack per note.
“Up-town” box pattern
This pattern (as well as the “down-town”) can be played in the “box,” meaning a span of 3 frets that is consistent across the strings (ex: frets 3, 4, and 5 for the key of G). The “up-town” box is played in an ascending manner with two attacks (the first and third of a triplet) on each note. Play the same pattern of notes (the root, 5th, flat 7th, and octave) but change the notes according to the chord in the progression.
“Down-town” box pattern
This pattern is similar to the “up-town” box, but it is played in a descending manner. Begin on the root, jump up to the octave, then play the rest of the pattern descending.
The cool thing about a box pattern is that the guitarist will often outline the pattern as well (it’s up to you to hear if it’s up-town or down-town). If you hear them doing this, play the pattern along with them. If the bandleader shouts, “Shuffle in G” and they are playing chords, soloing, or simply not outlining a pattern, try playing a walking shuffle.
Here’s where you get to have some creative leeway with a shuffle pattern. Unlike the box patterns, you can add variety when it comes to shifting from chord to chord. You can also make stylistic choices regarding the order of the notes in the walking pattern.
To start off, stick to the major arpeggio and add the sixth scale degree. Play the pattern ascending, hit the octave, then play it descending. This pattern will last for 2 bars, so if you’re playing a standard progression, play the whole pattern twice on the I chord (4 bars), once on the IV chord (2 bars), once on the I, and then only play the first half of the pattern (1 – 3 – 5 – 6) on both the V and IV chords for the turn around.
Once you get familiar with going 1 – 3 – 5 – 6 – 8, try switching the pattern around by playing 1 – 6 – 5 – 3. Another variation involves adding the ?7th scale degree, usually by substituting it for the octave. Remember to listen to what the guitar player is doing because they may play a variation of the pattern and the groove will be tighter if you’re playing the same line.
In addition to pattern flexibility, playing a “walking” shuffle gives you greater freedom in terms of dictating the movement of the song. Use the concept of tension and resolution when shifting from one chord to another. Think about the notes that create tension and can act as leading tones, such as the half step movement from the 3rd of the I chord to the root of the IV chord and use that to influence your pattern decisions.
Now that we’ve gone over different kinds of shuffles, experiment with playing the patterns and try to identify them if you find yourself listening to some blues. If you’re practicing this on your own, think about the way you’re playing the notes in addition to which notes you’re playing. Try to establish a good shuffle feel by focusing on the articulation of the double attack or by grooving longer, single notes. Remember, it’s all about the feel!
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!