History, Technology, and the Shuffle Beat.

There’s a kind of beat called a “shuf­fle.” You’ve heard it thou­sands of times, maybe with­out know­ing it. It’s an amaz­ing beat when it’s played well, a unique com­bi­na­tion of relaxed and urgent. Wike­pe­dia has a long expla­na­tion which will be hard to make sense of. I think of a shuf­fle as triplets—1,2,3—played against four 1,2,3,4.  So while a steady 1,2,3,4 pulse is going on, there’s a triplet pulse stretched against it.

This web­site offers a really inter­est­ing way to under­stand it. It’s built around a piece of soft­ware called “swing thing.” It takes pop songs and “time stretches” them into a swing feel. Try lis­ten­ing to the ver­sion of Madonna’s Like a Vir­gin or the Police tune Every Breath you Take. Or if you really want a laugh, try Sweet Child of Mine.

If you’ve done any swing danc­ing, you’ll notice right away that you could swing dance to the “Swing thing” ver­sion of the tunes, but not to the original. That because mostly what it’s doing is turn­ing them into a bad shuf­fle. The beat has a lopey feel­ing: ba bum ba BUM ba bum ba BUM. It’s hard to describe, but easy to hear. That’s the shuf­fle beat, and a song based on that beat will often be titled the “X shuf­fle” or musi­cians will just describe it: “it’s a Bb shuffle.”

The shuf­fle is the root beat of a lot of 50s rock and roll (think Chuck Berry) and R+B, and that’s because swing danc­ing was pop­u­lar. It’s com­mon in gospel music—here’s a com­pletely smok­ing shuf­fle played by the Dixie Hum­ming­birds, Stand­ing by the Bed­side of a Neigh­bor. As far as I know, the shuf­fle beat orig­i­nated with swing danc­ing. Here’s a clas­sic swing shuf­fle, Chatanooga Choo Choo.

It’s one of the thou­sands of Amer­i­can songs that ref­er­ence trains. It has train-whistle horns, and imi­ta­tion chuff­ing sounds, and the lyrics com­pare the train to a beat. The sound of trains—the whis­tle, and the reg­u­lar, accented chuff of a steam train—haunts Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music. Lis­ten to this exam­ple of a steam loco­mo­tive to get the rhythm.

Although I can’t prove it, it’s tempt­ing to relate the ori­gins of the shuf­fle to the rail­road. In the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, musi­cians trav­eled over­whelm­ingly by rail, and of course trains were always pass­ing by every­where. In rural Amer­i­can they stood for mobil­ity and pos­si­bil­ity. In urban Amer­i­can they stood for glamor.

There’s a drum­beat known as the “train beat’ or the “train shuf­fle.” If you look at this exam­ple you can hear the triplet against four shuf­fle pat­tern. It’s in a thou­sand coun­try and rock tunes. And it’s equally foun­da­tional to R+B and jazz. Here’s Meade Lux Lewis’ won­der­ful Honky Tonk Train Blues, fiendishly dif­fi­cult, com­plete with a triplet feel and off-time parts aimed to imi­tate the sounds of a train. Here’s the country/bluegrass clas­sic Orange Blos­som Spe­cial, a very fast shuf­fle  played by Buck Owens and the Bucka­roos. Here’s Roy Acuff play­ing Freight Train Blues, com­plete with yodel. It’s all over the blues too–here’s Magic Sam’s Lookin’ Good, and the really fero­cious live ver­sion here, start­ing at about 3:26. Hear it and die, gui­tar play­ers. And here’s a psy­chotic rock­a­billy train shuf­fle, later made famous in a much infe­rior not-really-a-shuffle Aero­smith ver­sion, Train Kept a Rollin. There’s REM’s Car­ni­val of Sorts (Box­cars), a rock shuf­fle with a train theme.

Did the shuf­fle beat orig­i­nate in the sound of steam trains? Maybe, a steam train has a com­bi­na­tion of reg­u­lar time and off accents that trans­lates right into the shuf­fle beat. And you can hear the train sound in all the tunes I listed above. Here’s a video clip of the Elling­ton band play­ing Take the A Train on a train. But while the song is a train shuf­fle the actual A train was an elec­tric subway. And there were steam trains long before there was a shuf­fle beat. And of course there are thou­sands of shuf­fles that don’t ref­er­ence trains. So while I sus­pect there’s a his­tor­i­cal link between the shuf­fle and the steam loco­mo­tive, I can’t prove it.

The Elling­ton band arrives in LA by train

The shuf­fle is one of my favorite beats, but it’s hard to find a drum­mer who can play a shuf­fle right. Drum­mers who start out play­ing rock gen­er­ally can’t get the feel; they rock instead of roll, and instead of mov­ing down the track, the beat plods and spins its wheels. Straight rock, rock after the 60s, kind of killed the shuf­fle and killed the swing feel.

There are great mod­ern shuf­flers. In DC the king of the swing shuf­fle beat has to be Big Joe Maher. Chris Lay­ton, who played with Ste­vie Ray Vaughn was a killer blues rock shuf­fler. There’s the famous “half time shuf­fle,” also known as the “Pur­die Shuf­fle” You’ll love watch­ing Bernard Pur­die explain the Pur­die Shuf­fle. Watch parts 1 and 2. You’ll laugh. But notice the triplets.

The half time shuf­fle has some rock vari­ants: the Led Zep­pelin song Fool in the Rain, almost the same beat, and the famous Rosanna shuf­fle. Lis­ten­ing to Pur­die and then to these two makes clear the dif­fer­ence between a rock feel and a soul /R+B feel.

It makes sense that the age of the shuf­fle should be the golden age of steam, and that as that sound, the sound of steam engines, van­ished from the Amer­i­can land­scape, so did the drum beat it inspired.

Am I right about this? Is it plau­si­ble? Mean­while, drum­mers, give your bassist a break. Go lis­ten to some steam trains.



  • Zelig on Z Bajo Grande' wrote:

    Good one today Mike..I’d like to add..the won­der­ful push pull of straight eights from..usually the gui­tar player..played against a shuf­fle. Chuck Berry, and there­fore keith richards are the best eas­i­est to find exam­ples. This is where (i think) the drummers/bassists/kazooists etc got to think­ing that the drum­mer should play straight, because they were lis­ten­ing to the gui­tar player, not the drum­mer. Why would a drum­mer do this? (insert drum­mer joke here). This rid­dim sets up a floaty feel­ing, when you lis­ten to what the gui­tar player is play­ing, in straight time, you “know” what the deal is (make keef noise ..a whucka whucka whucka whucka)..but then shift and con­cen­trate on what the drum­mer is play­ing and..whadda ya mean it’s in triplets/swing? (Char­lie Watts is a good swing­ster) I love this whole mess..and it’s a lit­mus test I use when play­ing with “unknowns”..let’s just see how the drum­mer plays a Chuck Berry tune. As you point out..95/100 FAIL. You lose the beauty of the melody..until it sounds just like.. On that note though..the 1st time I played with Chuck Berry (no rehearsal, no phone call, no How de do, no set list, no keys, no clues, just..GO) he came over after about a minute while we were play­ing Johnny B Good and yelled over the din of his Dual Show­man “it’s just 3 notes baby”..so much for analysis.

  • preach it brother. How many times have I heard peo­ple call Chuck Berry tunes and just kind of cringed, no, please don’t, oh no here we go now I’m stuck try­ing to play swing against a straight rock feel, it’s a like a night­mare for the bass player. There’s no way to make it work, just hope every­body in the audi­ence just lis­tens to the gui­tar riff and acts like they feel what they feel what they’re sup­posed to feel. Then you play it with a drum­mer who under­stands it and every­body smiles and feels great. And yes, Char­lie Watts truly understands

  • Zelig on the Bajo Mucho Grande Decaf wrote:

    I love ok hate watch­ing blabby boomers try­ing to dance to a “clas­sic rawk” band doing Chuck at Taste of Fore­closed Vil­lage fest..the tribal stomp thing, the flain­ing arms akimbo as they try to fig­ger out ..swing..hmm..straight..arghh..uhhh..it is NOT pretty.

  • charle wrote:

    Mike good post — every­one has favorite shuf­fles; I’ll post/attach two

    Of course its train related as you say: the piano pro­fes­sors whether Meade Lux Lewis or JImmy Yancey, or later ones like Bill Davis and Lit­tle Brother Mont­gomery, all made the RR con­nec­tion, 8 to the bar, into the 9/8 to the bar if you will. ALthough I dis­agree with my friend and col­league Scott Nel­son that every­thing starts with John Henry, the RR’s pres­ence is key (see Albert Murray,train whis­tle gui­tar for the fic­tion ver­sion). I’ll also tes­tify to the sub­way — i used to lis­ten when i took the irt every day in high school and when the train would get a clear shot and could get up speed it often set­tled into a shuf­fle rhythm: (I used to hum old R&R songs to the beat).

    Do think though that the coun­try ver­sions of the shuf­fle were often so much more timid because the rhyth­mic empha­sis was 2.4 and there was/is a fear of rhythm in loads of coun­try. Only when the honky tonk style really took over was there much of a move­ment, and even then the gods of the nashville sound were lying in wait to destroy it (Id guess the coun­try shuf­fle had maybe a run of 10 years, from Crazy Arms to Tiger by the Tail)
    BUT it was the same rhythm, which is why both Lionel Hamp­ton and Bob Wills could claim in the mid 50s that rock and roll was the same stuff theyd been play­ing for decades.
    so why did it orig­i­nate when it did=- there were trains before the beat, as you say, but there wer­ent really drum kits, which is why you might imag­ine that it was only in later years that the piano and drums could “invent” it.

    I agree that clas­sic rock was its death knell — the bea­t­les and stones kept the flame going,but the kinks and byrds less so (try to imag­ine Eight Miles High as a shuf­fle? with Mel Torme singing) and by the time we get to 1970 fewer and fewer groups are com­pelled to use it exce[t retor ones like Cree­dence and All­mans, and the Dead (as in “truckin,” but not “Dark star”) and the vel­vets or Big star or all the other critic’s favorites from the early 70s? not a shuf­fle to be found — talk about the anx­i­ety of influence.

    So is this just a reflec­tion of the fact that white and black kids lis­tened less to one another in the 70s (for­mat­ting and sub­urbs the vil­lains here). IM not sure i buy this with all its neo con nos­tal­gia attached (see Martha Bayles, for Exhibit A). black music changed — James Brown,
    Motown gives up the shuf­fle around 1967,
    Funk and disco all push dif­fer­ent grooves to the fore — It would be tempt­ing to trace the decline of the RR in inner city amer­ica (when all the sta­tions down­town close) to this phe­nom­e­non, but Im not sure a direct corol­lary is either pos­si­ble or nec­es­sary. Just the fact that 4/4 remains shows that peo­ple havent dis­carded the walk of life, but rather they’ve adopted dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties (accents) — so then the ques­tion becomes, what is the rhythm of neolib­er­al­ism? One answer if the sam­pled beat of hip hop, but another might be all that clas­sic rock embraced by those boomers who want the gov­ern­ment out of their medicare.

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