Language of the Blues: SHUFFLE

This is the latest installment of our weekly series The Language of the Blues, in which author and rock musician Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues.

Grab a signed copy of Devi’s entertaining & award-winning glossary The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Also available as an eBook.

Drummer Sam Lay
Drummer Sam Lay

The blues shuffle is a beat based on swinging eighth-note triplets. It should sound like four sets of train wheels bumping along the rails. To play a shuffle, give the triplets a swing feel: ONE two-three, TWO two-three, THREE two-three, FOUR two-three.

The shuffle stems from early slave dances. Because African slaves were barred in the American colonies from drumming and dancing after the South Carolina slave rebellion of 1739, they began shuffling or dragging the feet in rhythmic “non-dances,” such as the ring shout, the calenda, the chica, and the juba. These dances were the forerunners of juke joint dances like the slow drag, in which dancers beat out a rhythm by shuffling their feet along the floorboards.

The two most common forms are the Chicago shuffle, which emphasizes the second and fourth beat and the Texas shuffle, which emphasizes the first and third beat. For the Chicago shuffle, listen to Freddie King’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” For the Texas Shuffle, check out tunes by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.

Other types of shuffles include the swing shuffle of “Kansas City” and the driving shuffle of B.B. King’s version of “Everyday I Have The Blues.”

Paul Butterfield, Sam Lay, Bob Dylan (Newport Folk Festival 1968)
Paul Butterfield, Sam Lay, Bob Dylan (Newport Folk Festival 1968)

The greatest Chicago shuffle player is Sam Lay, whom Bob Dylan praised as “flawless musicianship and unsurpassed timing, maestro with the sticks and brushes.” Listen to “Got My Mojo Working” to hear Lay driving the Muddy Waters Blues Band with his fast and furious double-shuffle. Lay began his career in 1957 with The Original Thunderbirds, and soon became the beat behind harmonica genius Little Walter. Lay played with Howlin’ Wolf for six years and said, “I owe Wolf so much. That man taught me how to keep from starving to death.”

Building on Wolf’s lessons, Lay toured and recorded with the Paul Butterfield Band until Butterfield accidentally shot himself, and backed up Dylan when he introduced electric-folk-rock to the shocked crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and on Highway 61 Revisited. Lay was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

Pick up a signed copy of The Language of the Blues today!

“Macon Cut-Out”- Bobby Lecann
“Guitar Shuffle”- Big Bill Broonzy (Willie Lee Conley Broonzy)
“Shuffle”- Earl Hooker

Sam Lay Live (Drums & Vocals) – “Got My Mojo Working”


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