Developing a Concept of Swing

A reader writes: It seems like everyone is taught the standard “off beat” articulation of swing eighth notes, but I feel that swing is really much more complicated. Why is it that some players seem to swing so hard while others do not? What’s the secret to swinging hard?

Yes, everyone is taught the standard “off beat” articulation of swing eighth notes, and you’re right, swing is much more complicated than that. It’s not even that it’s more complicated. It’s that swing cannot be defined by anything that you can write down.

Let’s try to write some swing down

Listen to Cannonball and Trane play over Grand Central:

Cannonball swings so hard! He even comes right out of the gates with an incredible swinging line:


No matter what you do to better notate this example, add any articulation marking you like, there’s no way it will ever resemble the hard-swinging-in-your-face concept performed on the recording. The magic of swing is an aural experience and that’s where it will stay. Trying to write down swing and learn it from paper, or trying to learn it from concepts and exercises described in a book is a fruitless pursuit.

Variables in swing

Listening to different players swing, you can observe a number of variables that each player uniquely expresses with respect to their style of swing:

  • The ratio between the lengths of adjacent notes.
  • The accent of specific notes.
  • The articulation of adjacent notes.
  • The precise placement of notes in relation to the time.
  • The way the fingers move in correspondence with the tongue (just fingers for non-wind instruments). In fact, John Coltrane told saxophonist George Braith around 1966 that he had developed a definitive way to close the keys, which would allow him to achieve clarity in his lines without relying that much on his tongue (Simpkins, 235).
  • And just like most aspects of this music, infinite gradations of subtlety.

Now, do you need to actually practice these variables independently to achieve the swing concept you desire? Not really. You see, if you focus all your practice time on these variables that comprise swing, you’ll have difficulty assembling these disjunct pieces into one solid concept.

Understanding the variables at work provides a framework for hearing and naming the differences between concepts of swing from one player to another, but the best way to learn and fine-tune your idea of swing is through observation and imitation. As illustrated previously, you’re not going to learn to swing from a book, but you will learn it from the recordings, and define your concept of swing along the way.

Concepts of swing

Stan Getz swings. So does Cannonball. And so does Trane. But they all swing completely differently. Listening, observing, and imitating the styles of swing you most resonate with is the secret to understanding and developing the style for swing you desire.

When I think of hard and heavy swinging, I think of Cannonball. Notice how he heavily accents the upbeats and almost exaggerates the length of the downbeats.

Coltrane on the other hand, favors a more straight swing feel, which may not swing as hard with respect to the accepted terminology of swing (the off-beat tonguing and accent the up beat model), but you be the judge. I think his concept of swing is just fine:) In fact, Coltrane’s modern sound in part comes from this straighter concept of swing.

Clark Terry’s sense of swing combines clean articulation with precise accenting. Simply incredible! And make sure to listen to Oscar Peterson lay it down on this track as well. His idea of swing and time-feel is second to none.

Wynton Kelly has a very distinct style of swing which largely defines his voice.

Paul Desmond swings in a polar opposite way than Cannonball, but also in an amazing and beautiful way.

Check out the way singers swing, too. Nancy Wilson on this track sits right in the pocket and you get the bonus of hearing some more perfect swinging Cannonball.

Listen to as many instruments and soloists as you can, paying extra attention to how they use the variables listed (or other things you discover) to create their particular brand of swing. Gradually, you’ll be drawn to the styles you like the most. Emulate these and use them as a model to develop your own concept of swing.

The secret to swing

Now that I’ve provided some insight into swing, you should have a better idea to why some people swing really hard and others do not…and you should know what the secret to swinging hard is, but will you be able to communicate it verbally or write it down? If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you know what the answer is.

Swing is a mystery that will remain on the recordings, residing there for those who wish to understand and unravel its intricacies. Sure, we say that you need to learn language and tunes from the recordings, and you may heed that advice or you may not and still get favorable results, however, when it comes to swing, it’s black and white. You must absorb the sound of it because that’s all there is to truly define it.

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