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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Putting Some Blues in Your Swing

I've hesitated for some time now on writing this post because it can be badly misunderstood. But after watching The Golf Fix Monday night I feel that it's necessary. For some of you -- especially you musicians and music lovers out there -- this post may seem like the Holy Grail. The rest of you... well, just try to stay with me. I'll make it as simple as possible.

Michael Breed analyzed a viewer's swing and blamed a problem on late wrist cock, which wasn't entirely correct. (I also have a problem with his contention that players have to learn to "hold the angle," when in a properly-done swing the wrist angle actually increases on the way down, but that's another post entirely.) I say it wasn't entirely correct because there are some assumptions that go into Michael's swing analysis. These assumptions highlight the differences between what we call a classic swing and a modern swing.

I'm going to try and explain them today... and I have to do it musically, so there's a few music vids on today's post. Understanding this may help you eliminate a lot of your inconsistency.

You may have heard of a product called "Tour Tempo." In fact, I've mentioned it on this blog twice -- here and here. The basic idea is that the best players throughout history have had a backswing that was 3 times longer than their downswing. That sounds like a simple 4-count (1-2-3-4) or a 2-count (1-and-2-and) doesn't it?

However, if you listen to the Tour Tempo rhythms, you'll find that that doesn't sound quite right. And they know that. Otherwise, you could just count the rhythm and save your money. You need to use their rhythms to get it right.

Here's the reason why: There are rock (or straight) rhythms and there are blues (or, appropriately enough, swing) rhythms. I'm going to teach you the difference today. Trust me, it's worth it. It will help you understand some of the apparent contradictions between teachers.

Linda Ronstadt, a very eclectic singer, once famously said that it was difficult to find a drummer who could play both rock and country swing rhythms. In a rock (or straight) rhythm, every beat is exactly the same length. You can count it as "1-2-3-4" or, if the beats are broken down even more, as "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and." Here's a classic example, Ronstadt's "You're No Good" -- the song starts about 30 seconds in:

"You're No Good" is easily counted with the "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and" rhythm, with the "2" and "4" beats sounding louder. (That's why they're in bold and larger type. I'll do that throughout this post to make it simpler to see.) Each "big" beat is evenly divided into two "smaller" beats.

In a blues (or country shuffle or swing, whichever term you want to use) rhythm, the beat is divided into 3 pieces. It's counted "1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4-and-a." I know that sounds tricky, but lots of music from the 1950s used it, so you're probably more familiar with it than you think. Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire") and Little Richard ("Good Golly Miss Molly") are just two examples. I've chosen an old Fats Domino song, "Blueberry Hill," because you can hear the rhythm so clearly in the piano part:

Hear that "BUH-buh-buh, BUH-buh-buh" rhythm of the piano? That's what Fats is playing with his right hand, while his left hand does that walking bass line. But the bass line doesn't hit on every "buh" that the right hand plays, and that's what gives the music its "swing." (And for those of you who are interested, musicians call this a "triplet.")

You wouldn't swing your club to that rhythm as it is, however. Let's change it a bit. Here's the Jeff Healey Band playing "Hoochie Coochie Man" from the movie Roadhouse. It's the same rhythm but it sounds really different. Can you tell what's changed from "Blueberry Hill"?

If you guessed that Healey isn't playing all three of the little beats, you got it right. This rhythm looks more like this:
  • "BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-(  )-buh" or, if you prefer,
  • "1-( )-a-2-( )-a-3-( )-a-4-( )-a"
where those empty parentheses are the partial beats Healey left out. This is the traditional blues shuffle that most modern musicians use. You probably tend to count it as "buh, BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-( )" because that sounds more natural to you.

Now here's one more example, just to show you that you've heard this before. This is a very fast version of the shuffle Healey played in the last video, this one courtesy of Linda Ronstadt again. Remember the classic "When Will I Be Loved"?

This actually combines both of the above versions, with the drummer playing the Fats Domino rhythm as a lead-in fill, then switching to the Jeff Healey version for most of the song. That gives the song the familiar "bounce" that made it so popular. You have to count the "1-( )-a-2-( )-a-3-( )-a-4-( )-a" very fast though!

Why have I made such a big deal of this? Because the modern swing focuses on mechanics. It wants everything to fit into a very precise framework... including the rhythm. Straight rhythm fits that ideal better because it can be easily measured with a metronome.

But using a straight rhythm for your swing creates a very hard, fast change of direction at the top of the backswing. You need a lot of strength and concentration to pull it off consistently. As an example, on The Golf Fix Breed's viewer was actually letting go of the club at the top of his swing and overswinging. So, in order to make it easier for players with less strength and skill, modern teachers tend to recommend an early wrist break to eliminate that hard, fast change of direction at the top. However, since this removes much of the clubhead momentum that keeps your wrists cocked on the way down into the hitting area, teachers have to come up with other ways for you to "hold the angle" until later in the swing.

However, the modern swing developed after the advent of steel shafts. The classic swingers had to deal with much more flexible shafts that wouldn't take the stress. They had to learn how to make a change of direction that was gentler and based more on feel. Think about all the classic teachers who talk about "feeling the clubhead"; now you know where that comes from. These teachers taught the late wrist cock so they could use the clubhead momentum to keep their wrist cock during the downswing... and they used a softer, less mechanical rhythm so it wouldn't overstress the soft shafts of the time.

So these classic swingers used more of a blues rhythm to "count" their swing rhythm. How did they do that? This is why I made you sit through all those videos! Pay attention, because here's the payoff:

When you count your rhythm like Jeff Healey did above -- "BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-(  )-buh, BUH-(  )-buh" -- the missing count makes it feel as if the emphasized beat before it is longer. You may remember that in the second tempo post mentioned earlier I took some ribbing because I said I sometimes counted my swing rhythm as "one-THOU-sand-one" with the emphasis on the "THOU," not the first "one" as most people do. (I was intrigued when I later heard Martin Hall do the same on one of his shows.) The reason is that, by stressing the "THOU" syllable, it makes that syllable take slightly longer to say than the others.

And that's why the Tour Tempo rhythms aren't simple "1-and-2-and-" rhythms. The players with the best swing rhythms don't count every beat the same length! Tour Tempos's findings were probably complicated by the fact that they were looking for rhythms that fit a variety of players, some of whom used classic techniques and some who used modern techniques.

The actual count, based on my own testing (which admittedly is not as scientific as the Tour Tempo folks), is that the best rhythm for feeling the clubhead is:
  • the "-buh, BUH-(  )-buh, BUH" part or, if you prefer,
  • the "a-2-( )-a-3" part
of the blues rhythm. Here's how it fits into a swing:
  1. You start the club back on the first "buh."
  2. Your hands are at around the 11 o'clock position at the first "BUH." Remember this beat is longer than the rest, which gives you time for the club to set and start changing direction.
  3. Your hands start down on the second "buh."
  4. The ball will probably be gone by the second "BUH."
Now you know why I hesitated to do this post. If you find it to be too confusing, don't worry about it. Just use a straight "1-and-2-and" count and slow your swing down until you have enough time to change direction smoothly. (In fact, I suspect that's why so many players and teachers recommend that you slow down your backswing.) Or try my "one-THOU-sand-one" count, which will slow that second beat down just a bit.

But the rest of you -- especially the more musically inclined -- may find that adding a little blues rhythm to your swing removes some of the blues from your game... and your scorecard.


  1. I thought about you as soon as he started talking about the late wrist cock. I was like, "Mike is going to have something to say about this." We had talked about this topic before, after I received that lesson from Michael Hunt in Miami.

    I can relate to the music analogies and I love the Blues. Maybe Fats Domino can help me find my thrills on the golf course. As a former and sometimes current musician, I can dig it.

  2. I like Fats too, but don't use the evenly-accented triplets like him. Leave that middle beat out and "swing it" a little! You need to get one beat a little longer than the others. In my experiments I found that using all three of the "trips" like Fats tended to make me too mechanical and actually threw my rhythm off.

    I think the silent beat makes the blues rhythm a little "heavier," so it's a bit more driving and tends to pull the muscles into the rhythm better. That may just be me, but I've found I swing much more consistently if I use the heavier "Hoochie Coochie Man" rhythm.

    The nice thing about using a blues rhythm is that you can actually give yourself a one- or two-bar "intro" to get your body in rhythm before you actually swing. That's really helped me sometimes, and it doesn't make your pre-shot routine noticeably longer.

  3. what about the allman bros any sample you suggest

  4. Try "Stormy Monday" -- it's got almost the same slow, almost burlesque blues rhythm as "Hoochie Coochie Man."

  5. I'm sure it's very profound and as interesting as it was, I didn't understand one word of this article.... (insert smiley face here)

  6. I don't know about profound, Stephen, but I'm always looking for new ways to describe things in hopes that if one doesn't help, another will. Music analogies aren't going to help everybody, but I try them anyway. ;-)