How to Swing (And When It's Called For) | Hub Guitar

How to Swing (And When It's Called For)

It might have been better to name this article “When to Swing”, as knowing that is equally important.

What is Swing?

Swing is one of many pieces that make up style. It is the choice to not play rhythms, especially eighth note rhythms, literally.

Swing also includes the concept of shuffle, which is a kind of swing where the quarter note is divided into two notes having lengths of a ratio of 2:1. That means the first note in the pair is twice as long as the second. This is the kind of swing most often heard in blues music.

If you divide a quarter note into two smaller notes, the result is two eighth notes.

In standard music notation, technically those two eighth notes are the same length. However, musicians aren’t in the business of playing music exactly as it is notated. You could add a little bit of swing to the notes, for instance by making the first note a bit longer than the second. The normal maximum amount would be three-fourths for the first and one-fourth for the second.

If it’s not being played that way, why is it written that way?

Swing is usually consistent throughout a song or at least a song section. There is no need to try to write complex rhythms all over the place when you can just tell your band to “swing it a little”.

Likelihood of Encountering Swing

No Swing Maybe a little Some Swing Heavy Swing
Classical MetalLatinPopR&BBluesJazz

Some styles of music, such as classical, are never played with swing. Others, such as blues and jazz, use swing almost exclusively.

Degrees of Swing

There are a few different degrees of swing, ranging from “none at all” to “very heavy”. About the heaviest swing would be equivalent to three sixteenth notes and one sixteenth note.

No Swing (also known as “straight”)

If the music has no swing, it is referred to as “straight”. Try to contain yourself.

Light Swing

Light swing might increase the length of the first note by about 3 to 2, making the first note 50% longer than the second.

Medium Swing

Also called “shuffle”, this is probably the most common and also the one most players will learn first. Medium swing can be expresses as two-thirds and one-third. Underlying the beat is a triplet feel. That means in a pair of eighth notes, the first one is really twice as long as the second.

Heavy Swing

This can also be notated as a dotted-eighth followed by a sixteenth. That means the first note is three times longer than the second note of the pair.


The best way to make use of this is to put it into practice. Despite how complex the swing rhythms above may look, they are not that complex to play, just to write.

Swing is a feeling. You learn it by doing it. Start with medium swing, and see if you can apply that to various situations including sight-reading and improvising, or whatever else you happen to be playing. You can even play a classical piece with swing. (But be prepared to hear people say you're “doing it wrong”.)

Key Exercises

  1. Practice the above rhythm using no swing, light swing, medium swing, and heavy swing.
  2. Try adding swing to a tune that you learned to play straight, such as a classical etude.
As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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