Blues Guitar Institute

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Shake up Your Acoustic Blues with Different Rhythm Styles

Lesson ID: TB442

Rhythm is the heartbeat of the blues.

Without it, even the most intricate riffs fall flat. But when you have a command of the groove, you can . In this lesson, you’ll learn how to bend a blues riff’s rhythm to create something entirely different.

Ready to dig in? Let’s get started.

Learn the Riff Before Changing the Rhythm

Changing the rhythm of a riff becomes easier when you already know it well. So, let’s take a look at an example riff as our baseline. Then, we’ll tweak the rhythm.

Here’s the riff:

Watch the video lesson above for a detailed breakdown of this riff.

The Techniques Behind the Riff

Depending on where you are on your guitar journey, you might find this riff a bit complex. That might be because it uses a few rhythm techniques can be challenging. But that’s good news! When you hit a challenge, that’s an opportunity to level up.

As demonstrated in the video lesson, this riff combines these three techniques:

  • Offbeat bass notes
  • Scratching strums
  • Airy brush-ups

Not only will working on these techniques help you nail this riff, they will transfer to others too.


And to see how well you know these moves, test your new skills out by creating your own variations of the riff.

Transforming the Feel: Straight Eighths vs. Shuffles

So far, the examples have a straight eight rhythmic feel – straight time.

In straight time, each note is evenly spaced.

Nice and even. When we play this hard driving riff in straight time, its a hard groove with forward momentum.

But what happens if we take the same riff and make it swing? What if we push those 8th notes closer to the next main beat.

This push is done often in the blues with the shuffle based rhythm.

Understanding the Shuffle Rhythm

The shuffle subdivides the 4/4 beat into triplets and omitting the middle triplet.

This results in a laid-back, “flat tire” sound. Shifting the eighth notes based on the triplet count is what…well, counts.

Let’s see how we get there. First, remember that straight eights are counted like this:

Now let’s replace each pair of eighth notes with a triplet and count it like this:

Finally, we can get the shuffle feel by omitting the “trip” like this:

Count this out loud and you’ll feel the swing of the shuffle count compared to straight time. Usually, when the shuffle is counted out loud, you replace the “let” with the usual “&” of an eighth note count. But, the 1 let 2…, way of counting can help you feel the count initially.

QuickNote: Anytime you see the following mark in sheet music or tab, count your eighth notes with the shuffle – triplet based – feel.

Counting helps bigtime, but the best way to understand the difference between straight time and the shuffle is to hear it.

In the audio example below, you’ll hear a four count played on the high-hat. Then, a tambourine hit on the 8th notes in straight time. Finally, the tambourine will shift to a shuffle rhythm.

In each case, the tempo – set by the high-hat, is constant.

Notice how the shuffle has a lazier groove while the straight riff has a more direct feel. It’s important to note that the tempo remains the same in both cases.

The only difference is how the space between the beats is divided.

Converting the Example Riff to a Shuffle

To change the example from straight time to shuffle feel, focus on the placement of the offbeat notes.

As we know, in straight time, the offbeats fall precisely between the main beats. For the shuffle feel, shift those offbeats closer to the main beats using the triplet based count.

Watch the second performance of the riff in the video to hear the difference. It takes on a new life doesn’t it?

As you practice this, slow the tempo down if needed and focus on pushing to the “let” of the 1-trip-let based count. Then, gradually increase the speed as you become more comfortable with the groove.

The Rhythm Changes Everything

The difference between straight time and the shuffle can be subtle, especially at fast tempos.

But this change can have a huge impact on the sound. Same notes, different delivery.

I hope this lesson helped you understand and feel the difference between straight time and shuffle feel.

But knowing the difference is only half the battle. My goal is to give you the tools to create riffs, licks and tunes of your own. And one of these rhythms might just be the proper stage for your creation.

Learn both. Use both.

Play On!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

Become a myBGI Member: Membership comes with access to Back Porch Blues plus over 70 step-by-step courses.  Get proven results with one of myBGI’s structured Roadmaps.

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