The Shuffle (aka The Boogie) is the most important rhythm in blues. Every note, every chord, every everything should be played with the shuffle at its base.
Tap three times. One Two Three That’s one beat. Now tap out four beats.
One Two Three One Two Three One Two Three One Two Three That’s a bar.
Take out the middle tap in each beat. One – three Change the three to an ‘and’. One – and
Now tap a whole bar without the middle tap of each beat, and count the beats.
One – and Two – and Three – and Four – and
That’s the Shuffle.
It is built solely on the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of a scale. It doesn’t matter if it’s minor or major – the 1st 4th and 5th are the same. A quick bit of theory. There are 12 notes in music that are repeated in higher or lower pitches. A scale is a sequence of some of these 12 notes that harmonise. When writing a scale you usually start on one note and end on the same note a pitch high (or lower). So the last note in one scale is the first note in the same scale an octave higher. Major and minor scales are said to have 8 notes, but the 8th is just the higher version of the 1st note.
There are ‘formulas’ to show these scales. The formula for a major scale is tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone. A tone is two notes (or frets on a guitar) and a semi tone is one note or fret. These tones and semi tones measure the distance between each note in a scale.
So for E major we start with E, then go up a tone to F# then up another tone to G# etc. Each of these notes gets a number based on the order. E is 1 (also called the root note), F# is two, G# is three etc. Written out it looks like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 E F# G# A B C# D# E
So F# is the 2nd of an E major scale.
For a twelve bar, we play the 1st, 4th and 5th in a pattern: 4 bars of the 1st, 2 bars of the 4th, 2 bars of the 1st, one bar of the 5th, one bar of the 4th, then two bars of the 1st. These last two bars are called the ‘turnaround’ – they lead into the next cycle of 12 bars so you usually do something special to spice it up, but more on that in a minute.
So a 12 bar in E looks like:
It’s the harmonisation between notes, certain scales make us feel certain ways. Minor is sad, major is happy (or as I’ve heard it said: minor is interesting, major isn’t! That’s not really fair – major is a strong sound.)
What makes the blues?
It’s the interplay between major and minor. It uses the basis of the strong sounding major tones, and adds ambiguity through the use of minor notes along the way. This creates an emotional, lonesome feeling in the music – things don’t get resolved like we think they will, there’s tension and release.
The most common example of this is through the use of the “natural” 7th note. There are 3 common minor scales, which is where I stopped paying attention to music theory! In our major scale above, we see that the 7th note should be only one note or semitone below the 8th (1st) note. In blues, we use a flattened seventh, a note music theorists call a natural minor 7th, but what we call the seventh. It’s a whole tone down from the 8th note – two frets on a guitar.
It adds the blues feeling to chords, and is used a lot with the 4th and 5th notes in the 12 bar. It is also very useful in the turnaround, played in the 11th and 12th bars of each repetition:
The major 6th is also a really common note – especially in the most commonly heard 12 bar riffs. This was the basis for the Chicago scene in the 40s and 50s when electric guitars first appeared. It is played only using two notes for each chord on the bass strings. You play the root note on one string, and the 5th , 6th and sometimes the 7th on the other string. Here’s how it sounds:
Here’s two bars of it in E.
For A, simply drop down a string
But for B you need to use a barre type chord. I find playing it on the 7th fret on the low E string easiest,then sliding down to the 5th fret for the A:
All these notes, you’d think someone would have made a scale for it! Well they have. Actually, there’s a few. But I’m only going to talk about one. It’s called the blues scale. Here it is in E, at 3 different places on the guitar.
The first notes to get accustomed with are the 3rd 4th and 5th notes – A, A flat and B when in E. Play these as triplets (all in a row, ignore the shuffle for a beat) as a lead in for when you are about to play a B chord. Instant turnaround that sounds awesome! Play this in the last bar of a 12 bar to lead into the B7 (in E). Here’s how it sounds in our “Chicago” style 12 bar, followed by the tab of just the last 2 bars:
One last thing I want to cover – the second note of the scale. 3 frets up from the root note. That’s called a minor third – there’s that minor/major interplay again – and it gets even more pronounced. The major third is just one fret higher. So by going from one to the other we really focus on the minor/major interplay and make the bluesiest of sounds. Either as part of a melody riff, or part of the rhythm, this little minor to major third trick is in just about every blues and rock song ever. Don’t forget about the major 6th – while not part of the ‘official’ blues scale, it is such a sweet note to add in there. Try these, both featuring the minor/major third trick and the major 6th. One is a Chicago rhythm, the other a finger picked melody line and the bluesiest thing I know.
The plug in I use to show the tabs doesn’t allow me to show bends, but if you bend the minor third up a note, it becomes a major third. Play the 3rd fret low E string, bend it hard and release to the open E. You’ve heard that sound a million times.
So, with that blues scale, playing around with the minor to major third trick, and adding in the major 6th every now and then, you’ve got the basics covered, and a whole lot more. The shuffle rhythm, the 12 bar and the blues scale (with those 2 extras) is everything you need to play the blues. There’s a million other little tricks – there are a thousand variations of the turnaround – but hopefully you’ll try to learn a few of these songs and see how different artists use these basic techniques to speak their version of the blues.