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Watch the Shuffle Power online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp

The shuffle is like a human heartheat. Wether played on a drum or string, those two swinging eighth-notes duplicate the time keeper of life. A great shuffle is so fundamentally stimulating that foot tapping becomes an unconscious response. Listeners who wouldn’t know a blue note from a blue heron will still groove to shuffle-based tunes like “Kansas City” and “Everyday I Have The Blues.”

Shuffle rhythms go back at least as far as the music of early 20th century Delta blues pioneer Charley Patton. In the ‘30% Robert Johnson mesmerized juke joint crowds with shuffles such as "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Dust My Broom," in the process drafting the rhythmic blueprint for postwar Chicago blues. Swinging Kanas City bands such as Count Basie's added jazz improvisation to their sophisticated 12-bar arrangements during the big -band heyday of the '30s and early '40s. And '50s R&B singer Big Joe Turner hit the pop charts with songs like “Shake Rattle And Roll,” thinly disguised shuffles masquerading as rock and roll.

But for most blues guitarists, the shuffle age begins around 1940 with the mighty T-Bone Walker. The first in a long line of swinging Texas electric guitarists, T-Bone passed the torch to such Lone Star legends as Gatemouth Brown, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Meanwhile, Chicago and New Orleans players developed their own idiosyncratic shuffle styles.

Blues Credentials
In this lesson we’ll look at six examples of shuffle rhythms that can help you authenticate your blues comping credentials. Some are notated in 4/4 with directions to play the eighth-notes in swing rhythm; others are notated in 12/8 with three eighth-notes per beat. In either case, you should feel the examples as having four beats per measure and play them at a comfortable medium tempo.

Ex. 1, “Texas Shuffle,” is your basic garden-variety 12-bar pattern. Notice, however, that the chord forms add distinction with their bright, brassy voicings. The D9 with C in the lowest voice, in particular, bleats like an R&B horn section. The transition to the G9 in bar 5 is smoothed by the common D note, and bars 9 and 10 cop a jazz guitar trick: As the A9 moves to G7, the common G and B notes are retained, but the fourth-string C# moves up to D, the first-string E to E The voicing ascends, even though you’d tend to think of theV chord as moving down to Iv

In fact, many shuffle voicings are derived from horn parts. Ex. 2, “Billy Butler Blues,” is based on the sort of horn charts that T-Bone, Gatemouth, and B.B. King liked to blow over. (Butler is the great blues/jazz guitarist who contributed those three perfect choruses to organist Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” in 1956; I once heard him use these types of added 6th and 9th voicings to camp behind Big Joe Turner.) In a hornless rhythm section, this type of progression provides a smooth pad for singers or soloists. Think of horns gliding effortlessly between chords as you gliss into each change, applying steady left-hand pressure to achieve the desired legato effect. The 6th chord leading to an inverted 9th (bars 1,2,3,7,9, 10, 11, and 12) are blues-hip and a cool addition to your chord arsenal. You can also omit the first-string root, especially if the root is supplied by a bass player. And dig the slick trick at the end of bar 3, where A6 becomes 89 in bar by simply moving your 1st finger from first-string A to fifth-string D#. This 89 is a passing chord that resolves through B/,9 to A9.

Narlins and Chess The unique syncopations in New Orleans blues come from the city’s Caribbean and Latin influences. Ex. 3, “The 14-Bar Crescent City Blues,” pairs a rumba-type rhythm with a swinging shuffle beat; similar patterns occur in the piano playing of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, James Booker, and Allen Toussaint. The example gains its extra two bars by extending the V and N chords in measures 9 and 10 of a normal 12-bar blues. The Mixolydian double-stops are a bitch to play at anything above a relaxed medium tempo. I suggest all downstrokes with strong staccato accents (and a bowl of gumbo for the right attitude). And if that l-3-5 lick in the last two bars sounds familiar, you probably heard it in the New Orleans rock and roll of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Huey “Piano” Smith.

The next two examples are based on the most popular shuffle rhythm pattern: “four on the floor,” or four quarter-notes per bar.

Ex. 4, “Jimmy Rogers Shuffle,” is based on the kind of rhythm guitar accompaniment Rogers contributed to many classic Chess recordings of Muddy Waters and Little Walter.

The “dead string” F7, F13, and Bb7 chords (bars 1,3,5,7, and 11) should be played with the left-hand thumb holding down the sixth-string bass note. This places your fretting hand in an excellent position to embellish the chord forms. It also leaves your 2nd finger free to hammer the q3rd on the G string and your 3rd finger free to play grace notes and double-stops. The technique is blues-approved and looks cool as hell.

Bars 7 and 8 feature a slick substitution copped from jazz. Instead of a straight I (F) chord, bar 8 uses the IIIm chord and then slides through bIIIm, which leads nicely to the V chord in bar 9. T-Bone’s “Stormy Monday” employs a similar substitution, as do some of the blues numbers on Robert Lockwood Jr.& Steady Rollin Man. Also note the moody Bbm6 subbing for the Bb7 in bar 6, and the extremely gnarly chromatically sliding dominant-9th chords in bars 9 and 10.

Texas Highways
Ex. 5, “Roy Gaines Blues,” is a jazzier version of Ex. 4. Gaines is an underrated Texas guitarist whose playing reveals the influence of T-Bone, plus Johnny and Oscar Moore of Charles Brown’s and Nat King Cole’s bands. Robben Ford, Duke Robillard, and Larry Carlton sometimes swing in a similar way.

Bar 1 is the only straight measure in the progression. Bar 2 features a chromatically ascending series of minor 7th substitutions. The three-note, dead-string voicings used throughout this progression are common to blues and jazz. Bar 3 really starts to motor as a walking bass line is harmonized with dominant 7th chords. Bar 4 layers on some melody with different F# dominant chords. The IV change in bars 5 and 6 is standard fare, save for the-blurring of the bar line as the B7 is held over from the fourth beat of bar 5 to the first beat of bar 6.

Four dominant voicings hold down bars 7 and 8, the bar line again blurred by the retained F#9 chord. Check out that dandy F#13 inversion with E in the bass; in another situation it could be combined with the B9 voicing in bar 8 of Ex. 2 for a lush I-IV change. Bar 9 has some wild substitutions for theV chord (C#, anchored in turn by the steady C# dominant of bar 10. The turnaround in bars 11 and 12 combines walking bass with circle-of-fourths and tritone substitutions. The I (F#) moves down to bVII (E), but then shifts a fourth to A. Next, a cycle of dominant chords leads us down to C#. The traditional blues practice of applying dominant chords to any and all scale degrees helps highlight the bite of the blue notes (b3, b5, and b7) when improvising.

Ex. 6, “Highway Blues,” is an eight-bar progression. The last and most rhythmically complex of our six shuffles looks back to the earliest known forms of Delta blues guitar accompaniment. Its basic chord pattern can be found in many classic blues tunes, including “Key To The Highway” Here you’ll find double-stops, walklng bass, full and partial chord voicings, and lead fills-all the raw materials for the self-accompanied guitar improviser.

Bar 1 begins with an open fifth double-stop followed by a “hammered 3rd” (b3-q3) fill and an A arpeggio. This sort of bass line/chordal accompaniment occurs everywhere from Robert Johnson to Jimi Hendrix. Bar 2 more or less repeats bar 1 over the chord, the hammered-3rd lick played between the 5th and 7th frets to facilitate the move to 5th~fret D9 in bar 3, which is followed by a walking chromatic bass line in bar 4.

Bar 5 chugs along in the solo blues bag, the open A droning beneath the following arpeggio lick with its harmonized sixths. The Chicago-style shifting S&chord fragments in bar 6 fill out the harmony over the sustaining E bass string. The turnaround in bars 7 and 8 begins with a trilled 3rd (C-C#l followed by a standard Robert Johnson turnaround lick. A final triplet riff emphasizes the blues’ major/minor ambiguity. Freddie King uses similar figures on the heads of killin’ instrumentals like “Wash Out” and “Heads Up.” We could cite many more examples if space permitted, like “The Curly Shuffle,” “The Theme From Roseanne,” and . . . no, just kidding. But do check out the blues stylings of jazz greats Kenny Burrell, Pat Martino, George Benson, and Cal Collins for more ideas.