Understanding Shuffle Beats Part 1

Drum setFor whatever reason, shuffle-style rhythm patterns present a problem for some drummers. It’s not because shuffle rhythms are difficult. They’re not! They’re simply different. This tutorial will explain, then demonstrate that difference. It will also show you several common ways in which a drummer can generate that unique shuffle feel.

To begin with, let’s clarify what we mean by the term “shuffle”. Basic shuffle beats are constructed by utilizing bits & pieces of triplet patterns. Hence, triplets & shuffles exist within the same structural framework and are counted in the same manner. You’ll see many examples of that throughout the 3 installments of this tutorial.

Despite their general similarities, triplets & shuffles produce different overall effects. Typical triplets produce a smoother, steadier, more flowing effect. While shuffles, due to their sporadic nature, tend to generate a stiffer, choppier, more intermittent feel. When combined, the 2 blend extremely well & provide tasteful variety.

There are countless variations of basic shuffle rhythms in use today. Many more than there were back in the 60’s & 70’s. For whatever reason, the basic forms aren’t as prevalent in popular music these days. BUT…as is the case with all fundamentals, it’s vital to have a grasp of the basics first. This initial installment of our 3-part series is designed to give you that grasp. Part 2 will move into more complex, contemporary applications of the concept. Part 3 will discuss & demonstrate combining rolls with shuffle patterns.


Example #1

When attempting to understand a new concept, it’s often helpful to have something to compare it to. That’s the purpose of this first example. Provided below are chart and video examples of a basic, straight-1/8 note beat pattern. This is not a shuffle! It’s a very straight-forward, regular sounding drum beat that’s intended to establish a point of comparison. You can contrast this with examples 2-4, which will be shuffle beats.

BTW- The first 3 video examples utilize the same format…..several run-thrus of the basic charted pattern, followed by variations on that pattern.


Chart #1 (4/4 time)


shuffle ex1 motation and tab


Example #2

This is the first of your actual shuffle examples. It’s a basic pattern & simple to perform. The snare & bass drum sections of this beat are identical to example #1. They do nothing to contribute to the creation of the shuffle feel. In this example, that’s all accomplished by the right hand.


Chart #2 (4/4 time)


Shuffle Beat Example 2

Now that you’ve had the opportunity to view these first 2 examples, it probably wouldn’t hurt to clarify something. Altering the right hand part isn’t the only way in which to create that distinctive shuffle feel. It just happens to be one of the simplest & most obvious ways. That’s why we chose it as a starting point for the tutorial.


Example #3

This 3rd example straightens out the right hand part, instead utilizing the bass drum to generate that distinctive shuffle feel.


Chart #3 (4/4 time)


Shuffle Beat Example 3


Example #4

This final example will change things up a bit.

  1. There isn't a chart
  2. Examples #2 & #3 created that shuffle feel by altering a single set element (right-hand or bass drum). Here…it’s created in a variety of ways.
  3. To some degree, the feel will be achieved by placing voids (rests) in the patterns. Sometimes, choosing not-to-play on specific counts can accomplish more than playing.

In viewing these last 3 videos, you may have noticed a subtle similarity. All 3 of the shuffle demonstrations utilized what are commonly referred to as ghost notes. For those of you not familiar with the term, a ghost note is any note which is deliberately played at a lesser volume. In other words, they’re the quieter notes within each example. Those quieter notes (strokes) play a big role in the creation of the shuffle feel. Although there is no universal rule governing the placement of ghost notes, these last 3 examples did apply them in a similar fashion. Most of the time, when notes were grouped into pairs, the first note of each pair functioned as the ghost note. The 2nd note was almost always the louder of the two. That is something for you to remain conscious of as you continue developing your overall understanding of shuffle rhythms.

Please check back again soon for part 2 of this series….addressing some of the more complex & contemporary applications of shuffles.

You can view a full video version of the first part of the article on the Songstuff Channel on YouTube:

Understanding Shuffle Beats Part 1 Full Video

Series co-authors,

Donna Dahl & Tom Hoffman

Discuss this article in our Music Forum.

About Tom Hoffman

tom_hoffman_300Tom Hoffman currently lives in the Midwestern section of the USA. He started playing drums at the age of 13. That began the first phase of his musical journey. Seven months later he joined his first band. From that moment on, he was hooked! By age 15, he was functioning as both a drummer & a singer. At 16, like many other aspiring musicians, he began teaching in conjunction with local drum shop programs. From age 20 to age 23, he was one of the founding members of a band called "Nickels". During that period, Nickels was a common fixture throughout the local club circuit. The band was also given the opportunity to serve as opening act for a number of national groups appearing at local concert venues. At age 23, for various reasons, he decided to end the first part of his musical journey. He left Nickels, sold all his equipment and stopped playing altogether.

.....anyway, onward & upward into Phase #2. Apparently, Tom never lost the itch to play an active part in music. At age 40, he was looking to scratch that itch. He had something different in mind this time though......not performance.....writing. He'd always wanted to become more involved in the creative end of things, so that was the goal this time. One small problem though.....he lacked all of the skills, knowledge and equipment necessary to make it happen. That didn't turn out to be an insurmountable obstacle though. Over the next 2 years, he went about the task of addressing his musical shortcomings. By age 42 he had achieved a reasonable level of competency as a drummer, guitarist and bass player. He had also managed to acquire a fundamental knowledge of both music theory & home recording.

Tom is now 56. For the past 14 years he's been primarily an amateur singer-songwriter, but has never lost the passion for his first love....drums. He's still an active drummer and intends to continue in that capacity. In recent years, many of his songs have achieved various levels of recognition in international writing contests. He's been a finalist, a 6-time semi-finalist and a runner-up. He has also received a number of honorable mentions, but has yet to win. "Winning" is still a work-in-progress. For anyone interested, the following link contains a detailed breakdown of the award results. Tunesmith Awards.


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About Donna Dahl

donna_dahl_300Donna Dahl is a drummer who became a singer / songwriter. In recent times she has returned to the study of her first love, drums. Dahl is currently involved in teaching drums, recording and composing, appearing live most often as a singing drummer and singer/songwriter with Thorny Swale, a blend of Twin Cities and Wisconsin players.

Dahl sings regularly with the St. Augustine Latin Mass Choir of South St. Paul, Mn and is a member of MAS (Mn Association of Songwriters).

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