I was taught how to swing in my Grade 7 jazz band. Of course, being an avid music fan, I had listened to lots of music with swing, but up until that point, I never had a name for it.
Perhaps you had a similar experience: swing was explained to me as triplets with the middle triplet taken out. Like this:
That is basically swing. However, you may already know that this is not the be-all end-all of swing. I feel that the intricacies of swing are rarely discussed – instead it is left to us musicians to figure out the finer details for ourselves.
The truth is that there is no right way to swing. Just like colors in a painting or seasoning in food, swing is subjective. It’s easy to tell when someone can’t swing, and it’s easy to tell if a band isn’t groovin’ together. But it’s hard to know exactly how to swing, right off the bat.
It comes with time and practice and a lot of careful listening. It helps to hear people who have a great swing feel play live, watch their movements, listen to them talk, and generally absorb how they conduct themselves.
However, there are a few concepts I’ve learned over the years that I can share with you. Hopefully the ideas presented here will help you to gain a better understanding of what it means to swing.
Today, I want to show you how swing is much more than just triplets. If you can grasp these concepts, I guarantee it will forever influence the way you play and perceive music.
Tight And Loose Swing
Have you heard these terms before? People will often describe swing as “tight” or “loose”. There are a myriad of others ways you can describe it, but basically what they’re saying is this: that last triplet in the audio example can be moved within the beat to be closer or farther away from the next beat. Seem confusing?
The following audio examples show how this works.
In this example, the original triplet swing is played for a bar, and then a loose swing is played for three bars. What happened here is the triplet was moved back a bit, to further away from the next beat. This is closer to being straight.
In this example, the original triplet swing is played for a bar, and then a tight swing is played for three bars. The reason we call it “tight” is because the triplet has been moved to closer to the next beat. In this case, the triplet is approaching becoming a straight sixteenth note.
To further demonstrate the differences, I’m going to use two different drumbeats I made using Logic.
In this example, the swing lands very close to the next beat. So if you were counting: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + , then the “+” is closer to the next beat.
Like this: 1 +2 +3 +4 +.
Now here is the opposite effect:
Here the counts are more like this: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +.
These concepts are much easier to grasp when they’re heard!
Ways To Make Swing Music – Swingin’ The 16th
Up ‘til now, we’ve been talking about swinging the eighth notes. Sometimes, the eighth note is straight, and it’s the sixteenth note that gets swung.
Sometimes a song will seem straight, but then fills and fast licks give it a bit of a swung feel. This is because the song has swung 16th notes. Here is an example of this phenomenon as demonstrated by me.
Sounds pretty straight doesn’t it? But wait, check this out:
Notice how the ghost notes and the hi-hat subdivisions make it seem swung all of the sudden? The key here is that the swing is happening between eighth notes, not quarter notes, meaning that the sixteenth note is being swung.
Here’s that same concept demonstrated clearly on the hi hats.
Tight And Loose 16th Note Swing
Surprise, surprise! You can swing sixteenth notes to varying degrees, just like you can with eighth notes. All the same principles apply: the closer to the next beat the swing is, the tighter the swing will be. The closer to the first beat it is, the looser it is.
Here is a straight 16th note beat:
And if we “loosen up” those 16th notes, they can be swung like this:
It still feels like sixteenth notes, but now they have a bit of a lilt to them.
Finally, here is an example of a really tight sixteenth note swing:
Again, the reason for this is that we’re moving the swung note closer to, or farther away from the next beat.
Test Your Knowledge
You’ve learned a lot! Now it’s time to test your knowledge. Being able to identify loose swing and tight swing helps you learn to differentiate between them and play them correctly.
Can you guess what kind of swing is being used in this song?
Talk To Your Daughter – Robben Ford
I love this song! And listen to that nice, tight swing!
It’s worth noting how different instruments interact with the swing. For example, the keyboard is a little looser than the drums, which maintain a super tight groove throughout the entire song.
Here’s another example. What kind of swing does this song have?
Sugah Daddy – D’Angelo
Were you able to figure it out?
The whole D’Angelo Black Messiah record is super wide and loose feeling, and this song is no exception.
Again, you have to be careful because different instruments will play with slightly different feels. Listen to the drums and the vocal rhythms outlining a loose swung 16th note feel.
Take Your Swing To The Stage
If you live in a bigger city, you probably have a great blues/jazz club. When I was growing up, watching people play swingin’ music helped me develop my sense of feel.
Before long I started signing up to jam with musicians who were much better than I was, and that’s where I truly learned to swing. Playing with other people will always be the best way to test your chops and improve on them.
Remember: it don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)!