Video Lesson: Straight vs. Swing Rhythm


Does this song swing? What are “even-eighth” notes? What is a blues shuffle? Do I even know when I’m strumming with a swing or not? How can I tell?

I imagine these questions don’t keep most folks up at night, but there is a lot to be learned by examining, understanding, and learning to physically feel the rhythm of music in different styles. In addition, there are some common pitfalls with swing feel that can affect us ukers in ways we might not even realize. Being aware and in control of these issues will open your musical ability in a big way.

This lesson is different from my others in that most of the work will be done with our ears before we even touch the ukulele. Tackling the musical term “swing” is a big, deep rabbit hole, so I’ll try to shine a clear light on the work, go into some rhythm background, and suggest some helpful listening. Listening is the most important part of this lesson, but let’s start with some simple concepts that demonstrate how rhythm works within “even” (or “straight”) feel and the “swing” feel. Once you can hear the difference at a basic level, you’ll be ready to move on and do some playing that will focus your ears and abilities.

Just the Ears

Let’s take two obvious examples of straight-eighths feel and swing-eighths feel so we can start to identify what we are looking for. As this is the winter edition of Ukulele, I’ll start with a couple of well-known holiday songs.

Try this exercise, and trust me for just a bit until you get through both parts. 

Sing the first few lines of “Jingle Bells.” To get the full effect of the even-eighths notes, do it as blandly as possible, as if a robot or computer voice were singing. Now try it again, tapping the same rhythm on your leg as you sing. Finally, tap evenly and say the word “jin-gle” over and over. If you do this enough, you’ll be able to “feel” the even pulses and not use words at all. The result is evenly spaced eighth notes, which are commonly known as “straight-eighths.” If you don’t know why they are called eighth notes, that’s no problem. We’ll be looking at that later in the lesson. For now, to get the feel of the rhythm, count them with the syllables “one and two and three and four and….”

Now we go after the “swing” eighth notes by doing the same exercise with “Jingle Bell Rock” (if you need to hear it, it’s easy to find online for a quick listen). Sing it and tap again like we did with “Jingle Bells.” Here you’ll find that when you isolate and tap just the word “jin-gle” in time with the song it has a very strong “lilt” to the rhythm where the first of each eighth note is longer and the second is short. It sounds a little like “ah one ah two ah three ah four ah…” instead of the strict even notes we had before. Try going back and forth by saying the straight-eighth version of “one and two and three and four and…” and then the swing-eighths version, “ah one ah two ah three ah four ah…” Be sure to stay even for the first grouping and then really feel that “lilt” when the numbers last longer then the “ah” syllables in the swing version.

If you can hear the difference and go back and forth between these two ways to play eighth notes, you have the skill needed to explore and feel the styles in music from just about every genre. That’s already a big step! Now let’s look at how we can use this.

Rhythm basics

Another way to get a deeper understanding of rhythm is to look at the notation. Breaking time into counts is an easy way to see and feel how rhythm works. This music math is called subdivision. It is the same concept as splitting a gallon of water into quarts or pints and cups, but instead of liquid, we are measuring time.

In Example 1, a grouping of four notes per measure is used, with a quarter note being the count. This is referred to as 4/4 time, or common time. In this simple breakdown, you see the note heads, stems and flags that represent bigger and smaller portions of the count. The whole note lasts the whole measure and gets four beats; the half note is two beats each. The quarter note is one beat, and there are two eighth notes to every quarter.

As you can see with Ex. 1, this is a clear way to count notes that last different amounts of time. Looking at this it is quite easy to see the eighths notes and count them. Try tapping your foot on just quarter notes (1-2-3-4), and then count and clap eighths notes at the same time (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and). Work slowly, keeping the eighths even and straight like in our first “Jingle Bells” example. 

To help with understanding swing feel, let’s subdivide the quarter note into even eighths, even 16ths, and then into triplet eighths (Example 2). Triplet eighths are confusing at first because there are 12 of them in a measure of 4/4. To fit three even pulses into the space of one quarter note, eighths notes are used with a bracket indicating the triplet. Triplets will sound faster than simple eighths but slower than 16th notes.

The syllables we’ll use to count these will be as follows:


For even notes, count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”

For even 16th notes, count “1 e and ah 2 e and ah 3 e and ah 4 e and ah”

And for triplet eighths, count “1 and ah 2 and ah 3 and ah 4 and ah” 

(Some like to count triplet eighths as “1 tri-pl-et 2 tri-pl-et 3 tri-pl-et 4 tri-pl-et”)

 Once again, tap your foot on the quarter notes, and try clapping and saying the syllables for the faster notes. Go as slow as you need to and try each group many times until you get used to each feel. If tapping your foot makes these more difficult, leave it out for a bit and just clap and say the rhythms until you can hear and feel them. 

Now, We Swing!

The final rhythm example below, Example 3, shows us what happens in a swing beat. The first measure shows the triplet eighths that we just got used to. The second measure has a rest where the second triplet lands. The third has the first two tied together, so it will be the same rhythm as the one before, but the first note lasts longer. The fourth measure contains the way this rhythm is normally written in most music. It is a quarter and an eighth inside the triplet, and sounds exactly the same as bar 3, but is cleaner on the page.

Example 4 is a simple blues melody written in normal eighth notes, but the style is indicated above the first measure as swing with two eighths being played as a triplet quarter to eighth. This is the default way that swing is usually written. It would be extremely tedious both to write and read all of those brackets and triplets if you know the song swings the entire time, so it makes good sense, and looks much cleaner.

That was a lot of work just to get back to what we knew when we just listened! True, but core work like this will reward you with a better sense of time as you play, and that is something you can’t buy.

Now take out your ukulele and let’s put this stuff to work. You can start by trying the blues riff below with a healthy, sassy swing. 

Strumming with and without swing

Here is where the rhythm meets the strings. The first order of business is to do some simple strumming and get used to how it feels to go back and forth between straight eighths and swing. This is an important step, where we can discover how much unconscious “swing” each of us has built into our own down up down up. You may even find that you are carrying the “ukulele limp” virus. This is a condition which can be picked up at some uke groups and in small ensembles, where players only use one or two strums that come with a “unique” swing that seems to manifest itself only by committee, but stays with you afterwards. It then gets played on all material, even if the song really should be played with a straight feel. It’s an easy pitfall, especially for beginners, so no harsh musical judgment is allowed. 

Luckily all we need to do to remedy this situation is play and hear the difference. Try the simple down up down up pattern in Example 5 that moves between C, Am, F, and G7. Apply everything you’ve learned so far, striving for a real clear difference between the straight eighths and swing eighths.

Time For A Song Or Two

The real fun begins when we put this awareness and ability to work on some music. In this case I’ve chosen two classic songs that are perhaps painfully simple, but each are rooted in either a swing feel or an even feel. There will be no question as to the change when we switch gears and try both songs with each feel. Example 6 shows “The Farmer in the Dell” played with a swing feel and Example 7 shows “The Drunken Sailor” with a straight-eighths feel. Play both songs as you normally would, and then try to change from swing feel to an even eighths feel and back.


Wow! If you play the “Farmer in the Dell” with a good, solid even-eighths feel, it sounds like a bad ’80s song. “The Drunken Sailor” with a swing feel makes it sound like we’ve had a few too many ourselves. 

Here is a short list of songs from diverse styles and artists who have written and/or performed them. I’ve chosen these because they have obvious swing or even feels, but please don’t stop here. Explore any and every style that interests you. It’s fun and truly rewarding.
“Take 5” Dave Brubeck (swing)
“Song for my Father” Horace Silver (Latin)
“Pride and Joy” Stevie Ray Vaughn (shuffle swing)
“Peter Gunn” Henry Mancini (straight-eighth groove)
Holiday Popular Music
“Jingle Bell Rock” Bobby Helms (rockabilly swing)
“Feliz Navidad” Jose Feliciano (Latin pop)
“Is This Love” Bob Marley (swing)
“Steppin Out” Steel Pulse (straight)
On Ukulele
“It Serves Me Right (I Shouldn’t Have Joined)” George Formby (swing)
“One Note Samba” James Hill (bossa nova)
Big Band
“One O’Clock Jump” Count Basie Orchestra (swing)
“Tea for Two” Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (cha cha)

Putting It All Together

As simple as this exercise may seem, it is powerful to feel how much of a difference rhythm makes. Some music can easily be turned into a swing feel and it works great. Many classic straight-eighth songs have been turned into swing arrangements and recorded by artists like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. At the same time, it’s really easy and fun to take a swing standard and play it as a Latin number (Latin styles use predominantly straight-eighth feel). 

Being able to choose? Priceless.

Listening to and connecting with music is the single most powerful tool we have as musicians. Use it. I will change the way you play.

Enjoy all the music!!

Ukulele player and flamenco guitarist Daniel Ward is a popular instructor and performer. His latest book is Melodic Meditations for Ukulele.