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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