There are two varieties of eighth note rhythms musicians use: straight eighth notes and what are called shuffle eighth notes or swing eighth notes. It’s essential to know the difference and be comfortable playing either type of eighth note.
What are Straight Eighth Notes?
If you’ve studied the eighth note subdivision lesson, you’ve already learned to play straight 8th notes. Straight eighth notes are 8th notes which evenly divide each beat in half. Since they’re an even division, we call them “straight”.
Unless you’re told to do otherwise, in most styles you are expected to play 8th notes straight.
What is Shuffle Rhythm?
Shuffle rhythm is a specific 8th note rhythmic feel. It is based on triplet subdivisions of the beat rather than on dividing each beat perfectly in half (a.k.a. straight 8th notes). It’s easiest to understand it by hearing it. It is a very familiar rhythmic feel that’s heard in rock, blues, and jazz. Listen to the examples on the exercises page for this lesson.
Shuffle eighth notes alternate a long note and a short note. The long note falls on the beat and the short one in-between on the off-beat.
You are essentially playing the eighth note triplet, but not playing the middle note of the triplet. You may think of the first two notes of the triplet as being tied together or, just missing the middle note of the triplet.
What is Swing Rhythm?
People will say swing rhythm is pretty much the same as shuffle rhythm. This is more or less true. And, in the beginning you may as well think that way. To me, I think of shuffle as rigidly based on the underlying triplet rhythm. Swing is similar, but open to more interpretation. If you listen to different jazz musicians, they all swing rhythms slightly differently. There's a lot of room for subtle variation. Most people will tell you swing cannot be accurately notated, only felt.
In jazz you're always expected to swing 8th notes unless it is a Latin tune (i.e. Bossa Nova, Samba) where you use straight 8th notes. The swing rhythm is a defining element of jazz.
Shuffle Rhythm Notation
Most of the time if a song uses the shuffle feel it does it all throughout the song. To make it easier to read the notation the notes are written just like straight eighth notes appear. But, at the beginning of the music it will tell you to interpret the 8th notes as shuffle eighth notes.
A common marking for shuffle 8th notes is a little equation written at the beginning expressing 2 eighth notes are to be played like a triplet with the first two notes tied. Or, the first two 8th notes of the triplet are written as a quarter note. (See Shuffle Markings diagram.)
I'm sure you'll see why it is common practice to notate shuffle rhythms this way. In the Equivalent Shuffle Notation diagram the two rhythms are identical. By adding the shuffle marking at the beginning of the music we can avoid a busy mess of notes and end up with an easier-to-read line of music. It's also an easier way to think of these rhythms in your head.
Another very common way of indicating shuffle or swing in music is by just writing "shuffle" or "swing" at the beginning of the music. It might say something like “Medium-Tempo Shuffle”, “Fast Rock Shuffle”, or "Up-Tempo Swing". How easy is that?
Be sure to go over the exercises to get a good grasp of the sound of shuffle 8th note rhythms.