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Practising swing rhythms on the piano

September 21, 2019


Okay, this video is a response to YouTube user Onias who has a problem with swing rhythm, which obviously is pretty central to jazz, blues all that kind of thing, and he – at least I’m assuming you’re a he, Onias, it doesn’t say on your profile, so apologies if you’re a lady – what he described is a fairly typical problem in that Onias has had quite a lot of classical piano lessons and possibly as a result of that classical training is struggling to master the swing. That is pretty common. It’s not something I’ve experienced myself but I have heard it talked about a few times. [Plays swung rhythm] So there we have a swing rhythm. What I’m going to do in this video is talk a little bit about how we deal with swing, a little bit about what it is, how it’s sometimes misrepresented and a quick exercise to help you, hopefully, master it. One of the problems you’re going to have with swing if you’ve had classical lessons is the way it’s often represented on paper. In a lot of sheet music, swing is approximated as a dotted quaver followed by semiquaver, dotted quaver, semiquaver. So that’s eighth note, sixteenth note, eighth note, sixteenth note if you’re in the US. One of the problems with that is it’s a huge over-approximation, it’s so inaccurate because a dotted quaver is three times as long as a semi quaver so if we played that as dotted quavers and semi quavers it would actually sound something like this [Plays rhythm as dotted and semi quavers] So that’s one source of confusion and one source of problems. When people are playing these syncopated rhythms, that they’re used to playing classical syncopated rhythms, which is typically dotted note followed by a note half the length of the original. Dotted quaver, semiquaver. Some publishers try to get around that by, instead of approximating swung rhythms as a crotchet followed by a quaver tied together as a triplet, so the first note is twice the length of the second note, rather than three times the length of the second note. That’s closer, it’s much closer to a properly swung, syncopated, jazz or blues rhythm. It tends not to be used much because it’s really confusing to look at on the page, publishers don’t like doing it. Sometimes what they do is write the dotted quaver semiquaver, but at the top they add a little note saying dotted quaver, semiquaver equals crotchet plus quaver times a triplet, which isn’t really satisfactory. One of the reasons it’s not satisfactory is that swung rhythm is about much more than just the length of the note. It’s about where you put the stress on different notes as well. [Plays swung rhythm] As you can hear in there, there’s a lot of stress going on particular notes. Especially on the notes that are slightly longer that tend to get a slight extra push, which is why it’s kind of misleading to think of swung rhythm, properly swung rhythm from jazz or blues, as simply a matter of note lengths, because it’s not. If you’re struggling to get it, one of the first things you should do is think about the way you’re counting. Okay? [Plays swing rhythm] 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Now in classical music, in the Western European classical tradition, if you have a four beat bar, the stress in that bar naturally falls on the first and the third beat. ONE, two, THREE, four. ONE, two, THREE, four. ONE, two, THREE, four, and the same is actually sort of true in a lot of rock music and pop music. If you listen to a standard four beat played on a drumkit by a pop drummer, he will emphasize beats one and three, beat one he’ll put down his bass drum and beat three he’ll hit the snare. [Demonstrates four beat on drums] Hey, I could be a beat boxer. Anyway, so jazz and blues are unlike that because in jazz and blues the emphasis falls on the second and fourth beats of a four beat bar, which are the off-beats. Sorry if this is a bit theoretical, but it’s quite important. So instead of having ONE, two, THREE, four. ONE, two, THREE, four, you get one, TWO, three, FOUR, one, TWO, three, FOUR and having that sense of the stress on the off-beat is really important to getting your swung rhythm right. [Plays swung rhythm emphasising off-beats] Now let me see if I can do it just on the off-beat [Plays swung rhythm counting only off-beats] You see how the off-beat stress marries with the stress in the swing. One, TWO, three, FOUR, one, TWO, three, FOUR, one, TWO, three, FOUR. So often what you’re getting in the swing is a stress in the note when there’s an off-stress in the rhythm, but sometimes it marries up as well. It’s quite a complex relationship between the off-beat stress, that’s typical of jazz and blues, and the swing. So without digging down too deep into the dynamics of it, one thing you could do, Onias, to practise your swing is just a little movement like that which keeps your hand in one position. Start off counting: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, and if you’re not quite getting it right, start to put the stress on the off-beat, the two and the four. One, TWO, three, FOUR, one, TWO, three, FOUR, one, TWO, three, FOUR, one, TWO, three, FOUR. That kind of gives it a feeling of drive, which is key to swung rhythm. You know, it should really feel like it’s driving and pushing you forward. It’s almost an industrial kind of feeling. [Plays swung rhythm] And then what you can do once you get confident with that is start to put a left hand in, and just play a simple twelve bar. [Plays twelve bar swing rhythm] Something like this. [Plays twelve bar swing rhythm] Okay, and then take from there. There are other exercises you can do, I’ve talked to Onias already and I know he’s doing some of this stuff, but if you’re struggling then try playing your scales. I hope you’re practising your scales regularly. Try playing your scales in a swung rhythm. [Plays C major scale with swung rhythm] Bit of an approximation, but anything you can do to get out of the standard classical emphasis on beats one and three, and the very straight four bar discipline that was sort of beaten into you when you were having classical lessons. I’m not making a value judgement there, I love playing classical piano, and that kind of sense of the one and three stress in a four beat bar is absolutely key to so much music from Schubert to John Phillip Sousa Marches, you know, but if you’re playing jazz and blues you have to kind of get on the off-beat. The irregular beat. So there we go. Have a go at that and see how it goes, I mean, I must confess playing a swung rhythm is one of the very, very, very few things that I’ve always been able to do fairly naturally on the piano. So because of that it’s quite hard to think about and analyse what I’m doing. So I hope that’s useful. Give it a go, give me some feedback, let me know how you get on and if it needs digging into more deeply then certainly I’m happy to do that. Okay, there we go. If this is the first time you’re watching one of my videos folks, check out my book, How to Really Play the Piano, which has got chapters on things like chords and starting to improvise using twelve bar blues and various other resources in there. Great back up if you’re enjoying the videos. £14.95 for the print edition, it’s available in North America, the UK and Europe. Or you can get the digital edition right away for £9.95 anywhere in the world. Okay? I’ll include a link on how to find that. As I say, any questions, give me a shout. Hopefully Onias, that has just pushed you a little bit further down the road to mastering this. Okay, there we go.

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73 Comments

  • Reply M H July 24, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Brilliant!

  • Reply Andrew Denniston November 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Hi Bill, loving your videos!
    I have a question regarding counting time – in this case when playing blues..
    (I hope this is the right place to ask a question?)

    How do you count in your head when doing a blues impro?
    Do you just count the quarter notes or do you count in triplets?
    ie. "1 + a 2 + a 3 + a 4 + a"

    I seem to easily get lost when trying to improvise and I dont know whether I should be counting down to the lowest "denominator" all the time?

    Thankyou. Andrew

  • Reply Bill Hilton November 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

    @AndrewDInSydney Good question! I always count quarter notes (that's crotchets, for the sake of UK/European readers). When I was learning to swing I counted threes (i.e., as if in 12/8 time). However, swing is as much about emphasis as about timing, so in the end I found counting fours easier. Pro tip: if you're struggling to count fours, do what I do and bang your foot on the floor 😉

  • Reply Andrew Denniston November 24, 2011 at 11:12 am

    @billhiltonbiz Thankyou for your quick response:)
    Oh yes, Im a great foot-banger!
    I think I treat all my blues playing as though it is 12/8 – probably not the best for jamming with others then?
    Ive been told by drummers that they count every sub-division when they play (in whatever style). So if they have a 4/4 bar with a triplet then, say a 4 semiquaver beat, then maybe 2 crotchets, then thats what they count.. Would you say you count like that in other styles? Thankyou.

  • Reply Bill Hilton November 24, 2011 at 11:41 am

    @AndrewDInSydney No worries 🙂

    I'd say definitely count that way while you're learning, but then see how it goes. As I said, I just count straight fours now. You'll also find it becomes fairly unconscious after a while.

    Drummers are drummers – in my limited experience, when you're drumming you do indeed count the smallest division (say, hi-hat) and time other beats (say, bass and snare) against that. I couldn't say for sure, though.

  • Reply Andrew Denniston November 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    @billhiltonbiz Thankyou Bill.
    I really appreciate your taking time to respond, and everything else you do:)

  • Reply Cairn December 27, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    you are swingless man…but you're oral explanation is quite cool….

  • Reply Bill Hilton December 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    @HvKleist090 Alas for me! Glad you like the explanation, though 🙂

  • Reply threehourzsleep December 28, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    It ain't got a thing if ain't got that swing …. (gasp! what happen to the Nord? a pint in the upper registers?)

  • Reply Bill Hilton December 29, 2011 at 12:01 am

    @threehourzsleep It's an old (i.e., pre-Nord) vid, Matt – the red beast is alive and well and will be appearing again early in the New Year. Did you have a good Christmas?

  • Reply threehourzsleep December 29, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    @billhiltonbiz Yes! We opted for tried and true, usual gifts this year. A transmission for our son's car and new tires for my wife's. Difficult to wrap or keep secret. We did go out of town and impose on some relatives we only see once a year, and that was fun. Taught a few the game of cribbage, which I just learned myself this year. Yourself? (btw very much enjoyed this vid; many useful ideas to try)

  • Reply Céline December 30, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks so much for your explanations! As always they are very useful. 🙂

  • Reply musicalthinker January 4, 2012 at 3:27 am

    @billhiltonbiz this has actually helped me loads man thanx.

  • Reply Meg Serranilla January 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Hi Bill, could you teach us how to play swing if there's no band to back you up, ie just piano and vocals? thanks very much! love your videos!!!

  • Reply bhichar damrongpiwat March 23, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Thanks, very helpful indeed

  • Reply Henry Leach June 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you so much, this helped me alot! and what kind of piano do you use?

  • Reply Alex Seegmiller June 11, 2012 at 1:35 am

    can you make a video on how to play one fast rhythm with one hand a slow one with the other?

  • Reply Crunkmastaflexx July 9, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Good video! I also feel like I can understand my music sheets better too

  • Reply Tom Goldschmidt July 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    You write and say that a rock drummer emphasises beats 1 and 3. Sorry, but the snare in rock (= emphasis) falls on 2 and 4, and it's the bass drum that gets beats 1 and 3, as one can see in any score for beginner rock drummers. What you're singing is : two quavers (bass drum) on beat 1, one crotchet (snare) on beat 2, two quavers (bass drum) on beat 3, one crotchet (snare) on beat 4.

  • Reply Bill Hilton July 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Hmm – you could very well be right, as I'm speaking from the position of not having had many drum lessons. When I did (aged about 12) the first rock beat I was taught went [1 hi hat + bass][2 hi hat][3 hi hat + snare][4 hi hat]. However, I'm prepared to bow to your greater knowledge here – I'm not a drummer in any sense!

  • Reply Tom Goldschmidt July 24, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks for bowing, you really made my day ! 😉 Regards.

  • Reply Bobby Smith Band August 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Enjoyed your lessons

  • Reply Zoe Bruwer September 15, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    hey bill, you give us a great exercise to do. but what is the use if we dont know the keys used, the note progression or the rythm you used
    id realy like to atleast know the notes you use so that i can practise them

  • Reply 유하영.HAYOUNG’s JOURNEY December 17, 2012 at 6:33 am

    잘보고갑니다

  • Reply Austin Hamilton March 8, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Absolutely great video! I play guitar and I love your advice on practicing scales/arpeggios in a swing groove! Never really thought of that before, thanks!

  • Reply Matt McCarrin March 14, 2013 at 12:34 am

    That is 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … Thats why it appeared that it was the 1 and 3… they teach eight note rhythms. Check out my channel I have tutorial on this subject. Its pretty straight forward and extends into quintuplets and seventuplets. Thanks for the lesson. swing is triplets minus the middle note.

  • Reply Christian David Echeverry April 25, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    what fucking happen with the lef hand ?

  • Reply pantano207 August 2, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Great tutorial, man. Thanks!

  • Reply Discoteque77 November 1, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks man, great introduction to swing.

  • Reply Mark Painter December 5, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Wow, thank you so much. The remarks about the stress on the 2 and 4 beats really made me realize what wasnt working for me.  

  • Reply Timothy Dzimiri December 19, 2013 at 10:04 am

    once again, a good tutorial from you!…neatly broken down for easy understanding. Good teacher.

  • Reply Furkan İstanbullu February 5, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks to you i can play blues piano im grateful

  • Reply Bluesy06 November 4, 2014 at 2:55 am

    Thank you for making this video! I finally understand the notations on sheet music when referring to swing music time. So helpful!

  • Reply Donald Gudehus December 1, 2014 at 5:44 am

    Thanks very much for a great lesson!

  • Reply Chris B January 19, 2015 at 8:48 am

    first time I've heard his name pronounced Shubert with a hard "t"

  • Reply Heather Soukup April 17, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    That was VERY helpful.   Now I'm looking for the chord theory info to go with the rhythm so I can master  "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" by Christmas.

  • Reply Rachel Gilders May 23, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Exactly! I just can't understand why is it I have sung Jazz for years but now that I'm learning piano I can't master Swung Quavers….. I have been learning only classical! This is very helpful thank you.

  • Reply Ryan Collins June 13, 2015 at 9:13 am

    Im trying to learn piano, but I cant find any help doing triplets on right hand why doing the g5 g5 to g6 g6, so mixing i guess 8th tes left hand and triplets right hand for soloing, any help? So by g5 g5 g6 g6 i mean that normal blues… reminds me if milking a cow

  • Reply Sxire Sean November 5, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    What are some popular keys used in swing? With exciting emotions.

  • Reply Sxire Sean November 5, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    This is what i'm trying to make.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI7Cod-0ORs&index=1&list=PLqweH_Szu3vV-QZH3LaJk85vaa-EFQ_nd

  • Reply Jason Evans January 17, 2016 at 12:30 am

    Brilliantly demonstrated, Maestro. Don't rule out the beatboxing though! 🙂

  • Reply Lorenzo Vietti February 5, 2016 at 11:41 am

    great explanation!!! thank you!!!

  • Reply Kimberly Halbrook June 28, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Cool video thank you for sharing. I am about to teach my student jazz, blues, and ragtime without even really knowing how to play that style so this has helped! Haha I never hear anyone say "dotted quaver." That threw me off! I can't wait to get into the "swing" of this style of playing and pass it on.

  • Reply angelo azarcon September 13, 2016 at 4:04 am

    isn't it practicing not practising

  • Reply Lynkevmusic October 13, 2016 at 8:42 am

    good video. thank you!

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 December 15, 2016 at 10:10 am

    I was practicing a classical piece it might have been Allah turca I ran into descending triplets so i tried to accentuate the first note of trip. sounded wired. I should have just played it straight but in time right. I do the same thing with a table to get right feel. audiences also get it wrong they clap on bests one and three I used to .. then some are clapping on 2 and 4 …what happens lol is there is a clap on every beat..unless the drummer and base are a little loud the rhythm is nullified

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 December 18, 2016 at 5:01 am

    I am reviewing this again.. the notes seem to be a c6.. and I think e g a g c g a g. so i count 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + the beats are on 1 and 3…and we hold out and emphasize beats 1 and 3..

  • Reply Octopus 111111 January 30, 2017 at 3:50 am

    I'm so confused. What on earth are quavers semi quaver and crotchets?I am in the US, so…

  • Reply Wiiomar February 8, 2017 at 1:12 am

    hi hello I'm trying to learn a new song with it including swing going down the keys of the piano, I can play it at the speed perfectly but not the the swing way any advice on what to do?

  • Reply Shidsa Pourbakhsh March 28, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    It was really useful for me.thanks alot.

  • Reply Ai Nakaharai May 5, 2017 at 2:58 am

    I have a question, how do you do swing rhythm when the notes are repeated?

    Thank you

  • Reply Stanley Hunter May 13, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    In response to the part where you show the swing notes written as dotted or triplets…I've always seen swing written as just eighth notes (semi-quavers?) with the word "swing" indicated in the tempo. You just know you're supposed to swing the notes in that case.

  • Reply A L July 2, 2017 at 12:51 am

    I dont know how I never watched this.

  • Reply Rodger Myles July 6, 2017 at 7:19 am

    I would like to see a demo of doing scales one hand swing the other legato. This helps with swing and hand independence.

  • Reply silvia pepunkt July 9, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Very helpful!!

  • Reply Grace Abraham July 30, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Hiya really appreciate what you do
    How would you find out which rythmn pattern is suitable for which song xx

  • Reply Lesley Lane August 6, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Thank you so much. That is so helpful- particularly for a fledgeling pianist!

  • Reply alahna September 19, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    OML THANKS. i moved from south africa a while ago although i was born here in america, and i cant get hold of these half notes and wierd stuff lol. crotchets, semi-quavers everything yasss thanks for using them

  • Reply Raymond Doetjes November 9, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    Fascinating. I guess blues/jazz and swing rhythms shouldn't be written down but just felt….The black men who started playing jazz, blues and ultimately swing probably never wrote anything down; they just came together after a hard day's work in the fields and let off some steam and frustration with their instruments enjoying those few scares hours of free time in good company.

    I was in New Orleans on a corner of Frenchmen St and I was so amazed that nobody there used sheet music or asked in what key something was played. People just came and joined in and jammed along, the left and another would come and join.
    I guess like the old days on the Mississippi delta.

    And very complicated grooves if you were to write them down, you'd probably not even get them right.

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 December 9, 2017 at 2:44 am

    bill I can more or less swing notes but the left hand comping may need some help..Can you repeat the left hand..

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 December 9, 2017 at 3:33 am

    On the right hand I am accenting the right-hand one and three and in left two and four.. I'll go back over the video.

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 December 15, 2017 at 5:11 am

    thanks.. I have lately begun to make a study of the altered scale.. I think it is one of the best ways to learn where the notes like sharp 9 etc are.. I am trying to do this scale in all keys. I find it fastest by doing the scale pinky to thumb whole scale descending and then what's left is dominant diminished.
    I'm not natural at improv in this scale, buts is coming.. love your channel.

  • Reply Sally Sigler January 16, 2018 at 11:18 pm

    Brilliant, Bill! I knew this instinctively, but you actually explained it in a way I could understand and relate to someone myself! Thank you! Thank you!! This is so timely in my musical development!! 😘

  • Reply Doug Barker February 7, 2018 at 2:49 am

    Bill is awesome in. I have zero rythm but it's coming this type of help!

  • Reply batner February 10, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    I'll try this at home.

  • Reply 🚀Kalle🚀 April 30, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Could you please do an tutorial of the swing version of "Sweet Child O' Mine" by the Postmodern Jukebox? I really want to learn this song and their version is so much better than the original. The piano in it is truly godlike.

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 May 10, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Bill I play swing by nature but starting with standard music and going backwards is not the way to go. I helped a computer programmer ( also a classical pianist), a while back get a close approximation.. I actually had sent him some of my music to him and
    It sounded just a little off.
    The best way to learn swing is to listen to your favorite swing songs. Get it internally. Then go
    back to some favorite swing pieces and play the notes with the
    Overlay of the swing beat. Do this often, repeat and rinse I personally think that our sheet music can only approximate swing rhythm. If I remember right the the human brain has 100,000 chemical reactions per second. I think it it more a human thing not a purely mathematical thing.

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 May 10, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    I use those same three notes to teach piano to older beginners. Nice video..

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 May 21, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Bill I never unsubscribed to you. I have been busy with many projects..including self study..
    It just so happens that I just took a lesson from you on the tritone sub in a piano app in the advanced section.. Some was review but I learned a few things that helped to
    put a few thing in prospective. I am today working on a project, trying to find of free to use or publish songs like Aura Lee. I thought it would make a great tutorial on reading music and just fun to do. I could write it out by hand or an app but that seems unnecessary.. I want to post a clear piece of music as I play.. Also I very been doing a lot of woodwork projects. The best

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 May 22, 2018 at 10:52 pm

    I'm going through my history

  • Reply bang yolo January 24, 2019 at 5:58 pm

    Imagine how much easier life would be starting piano by learning jazz.

  • Reply PIANOSTYLE100 April 13, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Bill from an earlier post…If I remember right the the human brain has 100,000 chemical reactions per second. I think it it more a human thing not a purely mathematical thing. I've never heard a computer program truly nail swing rhythm.. you would think the algorithm would be simple. But not so much.. Also when I'm swinging something..there will be times I don't accent at the same exact minute time or I don't play the note with the same accent. On top of that the structure is very loose many swing players don't read music unless they are in a high level band… Also many Blues/ jazz piano players were blind or partially blind but yet created beautiful wing music..their ear was extremely keen. Most of the time when I am playing a piano, guitar, bass, banjo. I have my eyes closed. Probably that is typical for musicians ..with years of practice.

  • Reply That One Guy Who knows where you live July 19, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    I love jazz and swing
    Great video

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