Breaking down the Purdie Shuffle--My Favorite Groove

By Dan Ryan

Quick, name the most prolific drummer in the history of recorded music. Still thinking? If your answer was anyone other than Bernard "Pretty" Purdie (come on now...be honest), I have unfortunate news for you--it's Bernard Purdie. Ok, now that we've established that, it's time to put your thinking cap back on. What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Bernard Purdie?

If you guessed the Purdie Shuffle, then congratulations--you know your drum history! As one of the most iconic original beats of all time, I find three things about the Purdie Shuffle amazing: a) how much it has been used (I have used it or some close variation of it on almost every album I've been a part of--which, in case anyone was wondering, is nowhere near as many albums as Purdie has played on); b) how many times the first question people have asked me upon finding out I'm a drummer has been, "Can you play the Purdie Shuffle?"; and c) how many people know about the Purdie Shuffle but don't know about Bernard Purdie himself. So I've decided it's time for both a history lesson and musical analysis on both the man and the groove.

Let's start with a brief history behind the man himself. Bernard "Pretty" Purdie was born June 11, 1939 in Maryland as the eleventh of fifteen children. Whoa. Upon buying his first kit at age 14, he became the primary breadwinner in his family, earning money by performing with country and carnival bands. When he moved to New York in 1960, he immediately got scooped up by the scene, playing with (most notably) Lonnie Youngblood, then King Curtis. Aretha Franklin made him her drummer in 1970, and his unparalleled career had officially started. Since then, Purdie has recorded and toured with anybody and everybody, including such names as Steely Dan, Isaac Hayes, Donny Hathaway, B.B. King, Lou Donaldson, Hall & Oates, Miles Davis, Cat Stevens, and Joe Cocker (and several others).

Purdie has also recorded a slew of his own albums, the most notable being Soul Drums (in 1967, his first as either a leader or co-leader), Soul To Jazz (a two-part foray into the acid-jazz craze of the mid- to late '90s), and Purdie Good Cookin' (his most recent album as a leader).

From the brief research I've done on Purdie and his influence on modern music, I've determined this much: He's featured on an insane number of albums. His website says he's the rhythmic foundation on more than 3,000 albums...whoa. Even if that's exaggerated, even one-tenth of that number would be impressive. But one thing's for sure: Bernard "Pretty" Purdie has always been in high demand no matter what the situation calls for.

So let's get to the bottom of one of his deepest grooves: the Purdie Shuffle. Quick history lesson with this one: It's been used a lot. A whole lot. Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters" and "Home at Last," Led Zeppelin's "Fool In The Rain," Death Cab For Cutie's "Grapevine Fires," and Toto's "Rosana" are just a few well-known tracks that feature the oft-used pattern. So now that we know it's popular, I'm here to try and crack the musical code as to why. Check out this short looped video of me trying to do just that:

Before we dive in, here's the notation for a one-measure sample of the basic idea behind laying down this beat. To give you a quick drum-notation primer, we'll work our way from top to bottom on the staff (the five horizontal lines on which the notes are placed). The x's above the staff signify the right hand--either on the ride cymbal or hi-hat (in this case, the hi-hat). The notes in the second space from the top are the snare drum. The notes in the bottom space are the bass drum, and the x's below the staff are the hi-hat pedal, played by the left foot. Don't worry; I'll get into it in-depth below. You can hear this exact groove in Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters" (as stated above and below), but it doesn't kick in until almost the one-minute mark. Now, on to the break-down.

Purdie Shuffle Musical Notation

Let's start with the hi-hat. You'll notice that half of the hi-hat beats have o's over them. This tells the drummer to play the hats slightly open to give them a sizzle sound. The other ones are closed. Typically, closed hats would be marked with a plus sign, but you'll notice that on the beats in this example, there is also an x below the staff, which indicates the left foot should push the foot pedal, thus closing the hats. This closed-open, closed-open, closed-open hi-hat pattern is one that Purdie and several other funk and soul drummers made prominent in the '60s and '70s. It is quite difficult, although thankfully not necessary to create the effect desired by the Purdie Shuffle. You'll also notice an accent above the downbeat of three, in sync with the snare. You can essentially forget about that accent. The snare itself will provide all the accent you need, and trying to play the hi-hat to match that volume is a waste of movement and energy, in my humble opinion. Other than that, you've got a typical hi-hat shuffle pattern. Now, as you will hear around the 3:30 point of "Babylon Sisters," the shuffle rhythm can also be played on the ride cymbal, which opens up possibilities for the left foot to add some flavor or extra stability to the beat. In "Babylon Sisters," it sounds as though Purdie is leaving the hi-hat out while playing the ride. You could have it on the downbeat of one, the downbeat of one and three, on all four quarter notes, on two and four, or simply lining up with the snare drum.

Next is the kick drum. The kick is the most flexible part of the groove, as long as the "a" (third triplet partial) of four and the downbeat of one are there. In the notation, this would be the very last beat and very first beat of the example. To not have these present in the beat would be like trying to drive a bus with one tire that was half as big as the other three. It would prove awkward, and eventually impossible. In the example above, the only addition to those two beats is the "a" of two. You will hear Purdie play the kick all over the place when playing this groove, and as a fellow drummer, I encourage you to try it all over the place yourself, keeping in mind that without the "boom-boom" effect created by the upbeat of four into the downbeat of one, the wheels will eventually fall off the bus--meaning that no matter what else you do with the kick drum, those two beats need to be there to create the feel you're going for.

Finally, let's look at the snare drum. To me, this is the glue that binds the other two parts together. If you were to play your typical snare pattern in conjunction with the above notated hi-hat and kick patterns, you'd have a shuffle, which is exactly what Donald Fagen and Walter Becker did not want in either "Babylon Sisters" or "Home At Last." In the following video, they'll tell you all about it, along with Purdie himself. What Purdie did to break that up and make it different was to play the snare drum on the downbeat of three, making the groove a half-time shuffle. And of course Purdie, being the chops machine he is, added the middle partial of the triplet to all four beats. (Those are the snare beats with parentheses around them, known as rebounds or ghost notes.)

Put all three (or four, in the event that you decide to move over to the ride) parts together, and voila: "You Done It...You Done Played the Purdie Shuffle." It's one of my favorite beats for the following reasons: It has a subtly pulsing drive to it generated by the triplet interplay between the snare and hi-hat; the kick drum's anticipation of, and eventual arrival at, the downbeat of one holds it in place; and that backbeat just makes you want to sway. In the explanation of each part, I was going to introduce the snare drum by labeling it the most important part of the groove until I realized that every part of that groove makes it what it is. If you take any part of the groove away, any single part at all, you're no longer playing the Purdie Shuffle. The one exception, I suppose, is that you don't necessarily need to add the open hats on the upbeats, but only if you don't want authenticity.

In closing, it's amazing how such an easy-going, laid back groove is actually really hard to learn and make swing! Even after Bernard Purdie is long gone, this beat will live on forever in the repertoire of drummers of all ages and genres. I also want to add that while I've never personally met Purdie, I can tell from the videos I've seen of him giving lessons, playing drums, and talking about drums that he is a genuinely good person, even more so than he is as a drummer. You can see it in his face when he's smiling about the open hat he accidentally threw into a groove; you can hear it in the vocalized drum hits he routinely shouts out while playing; you can hear it in his voice when he talks about drumming. This is a man who absolutely loves what he does, and only from such a person do you get one of the most sought-after grooves of all time. Thank you, "Pretty."