The Evolution of The Shuffle: Variations and Innovations
A series of staffs showing the evlution of the shuffle

Welcome to Mixed Bag, a series of musings on drums/rhythm/tech that might not necessarily relate to Sensory Percussion, but we think are worth sharing nonetheless. For our 5th installment of the series, we're looking at how the shuffle has evolved over the years. Using video examples and transcriptions, we'll get into what gives the shuffle its swing, different variations, and go over some of the key innovators in shuffle history.

Make sure you check out the previous installments if you missed them: The Rhythmic Worlds of Bembé, Recreating J Dilla's 'Fall In Love' With Sensory Percussion, A Deep Dive into 5, and Linear Drumming With Sensory Percussion

Origins of the Shuffle

Given that the shuffle beat predates recorded music, its exact origins are somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Some say that it was originally mimicking the driving rhythm of a train going down the tracks. Regardless of how it started, though, at its core, the shuffle is a triplet-based groove that emphasizes the back beats on 2 and 4. Here's the notation for a typical blues shuffle:

A transcription of a classic blues shuffle

The most important aspect of the shuffle is its swung triplet feel. While it's not a technically difficult groove, making it swing hard and feel good can be tricky, and slight variations make a big difference. The two main variations are the Texas shuffle and the Chicago shuffle. The exact notes/orchestration of these two variations are essentially identical, but the difference is that the the former emphasizes the "skip" beat (the third partial of the triplet), while the latter emphasizes the downbeats.

This example from blues guitarist Hound Dog Taylor's track "Wild About You, Lady" features a classic Chicago shuffle groove:

The Purdie Shuffle

Legendary session musician Bernard Purdie played drums on countless classic albums from legendary musicians, including James Brown, Quincy Jones, Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock, and many more. But perhaps his most significant contribution to drumming history came when he put his own spin on the shuffle groove, creating what is now known as the "Purdie Shuffle".

The classic shuffle groove notated above is typically found in more up-tempo blues songs, with the backbeat hitting the 2 and 4. For slower blues tunes, the drummer often switches to a halftime shuffle, where the kick plays only on beat 1 and the snare plays only on beat 3:

A transcription of the halftime blues shuffle

Because this halftime shuffle is more sparse, there is more sonic real estate between each kick and snare. Purdie took this open space and filled it with ghost notes on the snare and a few syncopated kicks:

A transcription of the Purdie shuffle

These small additions completely change the vibe of the groove, making it sound much more hip and modern. There's a series of videos of Bernard Purdie explaining some of his grooves that should be required viewing for all drummers. Not only does he display impeccable timing and feel, but he also exudes an infectious joy for music. In the following video, he starts playing the classic Purdie shuffle around 4:30:

You can hear Purdie play a version of his signature Shuffle on Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters", but perhaps the most famous versions of the Purdie shuffle were not played by Purdie at all. John Bonham on Led Zeppelin's "Fool In The Rain" and Jeff Porcaro on Toto's "Rosanna" both put their own spin on the Purdie shuffle for these classic hits.

The Gadd Shuffle

Steve Gadd is yet another prolific session musician who put his own spin on the shuffle. Unlike Purdie's innovations, Gadd's didn't change the pattern or feel of the original blues shuffle, but rather changed the sound source to add some subtle timbral variety. The essential lilt or swing of the shuffle comes from hitting the 3rd and 1st partial of each triplet (think "UH 1, UH 2, UH 3, UH 4"). Usually, both of these notes are played with the right hand on either the hi-hat or the ride cymbal. In Gadd's version, though, the "skip beat"--or the first of the two notes--is played with the left foot on the hi-hat pedal, like so:

A transcription of the Steve Gadd shuffle

The "chick" sound produced by closing the two hi-hats together with the left foot is distinct from the sound produced by hitting them with a stick, so playing the groove this way makes it a bit more melodic. When the right hand is moved to the ride, the groove becomes even trickier and requires significantly more coordination than the typical shuffle groove.

More Gadd

This next example also comes from Steve Gadd, and it may be a bit controversial to include in a post about shuffles, since it doesn't meet the essential criteria of being triplet-based. We're referring to the legendary Gadd "flutter" groove.

Here is that groove notated out (with the sticking since it's a bit tricky):

A transcription of Steve Gadd's flutter groove

Just listening to this groove, you may be wondering what it has to do with the shuffles we've already discussed. It's played in a straight 8th feel, which runs counter to the whole idea of a swinging shuffle. BUT if you look back at the Purdie shuffle notation, you'll see they look quite similar. In fact, they are exactly the same groove; Gadd simply doubled each ghostnote on the snare. This means there are four notes per beat rather than three, turning the groove from triplet-based to 16th note-based. So Gadd's flutter groove is really just the 16th note version of the Purdie shuffle! And while these 16th notes are technically not swung, Gadd often manages to add his own bounce that makes it land somewhere between swung and straight.

This groove combines rudimental chops with funky orchestration in a very unique way, and there are countless instructional videos breaking down exactly how to play it. But if you want to hear it used in a musical context, check out the fill Gadd plays around the 2:00 mark of Rickie Lee Jones' "Chuck E's In Love".

A Modern Interpretation

For a more contemporary interpretation of the shuffle, check out Terrace Martin's track "Curly Martin". Drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. plays an insanely fast version of the Purdie shuffle (about 212 BPM!). But speed isn't the only thing that makes his version stand out; it's also a 6/8 groove, while Purdie's original is 4/4.

Here's the notation:

A transcription of the groove from Terrace Martin 'Curly Martin'

Rather than playing the Purdie shuffle as a halftime 4/4 groove where the 2 and 4 are accented, Bruner's 6/8 version accents only the 4 of each measure. In a way, this brings the groove full circle: Purdie takes the classic 6/8 blues groove and feels it in 4, then decades later Bruner turns it 6/8 again, keeping the ghost notes and syncopation that Purdie added.

The Sensory Percussion Shuffle

Last but not least, we wanted to highlight an even more modern example: the Sensory Percussion shuffle! After all, this is a Sunhouse blog. In the following video, the groove starting around 00:20 shows how you can play your own version of the Purdie shuffle with Sensory Percussion, playing not only all of the drum sounds, but the chords as well:

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