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Learning Swing Feel or How to Sculpt an Elephant

Antonio J. Garcia

Learning Swing Feel or How to Sculpt an Elephant
Antonio J. Garcia
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Helping students capture this elusive concept is as much about recognizing incorrect swing style as it is studying the jazz masters

Teaching someone how to swing eighth-note lines in jazz is comparable to dictating how much seasoning to include in fine food. We know it’s right when we taste it, but even what’s “right” is subject not only to cultural traditions, but also our own experiences and beliefs. Easier than describing what’s right is declaring what has gone wrong: too much spice.

In some ways, the concept of swing eighth notes is the Holy Grail of jazz – the priceless essence of the young jazz musician’s quest. No matter how correct the scales, hip the chord substitutions or current the licks, if a player can’t swing, no one wants to listen for very long.

Years ago an article described how someone in quest of the Grail had used a computer to analyze the swing eighth notes of a Bill Evans piano solo. Would technology reveal the mystic equation calculating where – between even eighths and triplet-eighths — true swing eighths fall? Such a definable proportion could then be easily passed from one generation to another. But the study revealed a challenging truth: no two swing eighths in Evans’s solo fell the same distance apart. He followed no formula, and none could be passed on to the reader as the prize so long sought.

Avoiding the problem
Swing eighths are the vernacular of the swing and bebop vocabulary; all great jazz musicians use them as the foundation of their expression. But in an improvisational music like jazz, a student can choose to avoid expressive possibilities that present technical challenges. Listen to young players solo, and you”ll often find that they prefer to solo in triplet quarters, triplet eighths, quarters, halves – anything but swing eighths. This is the root of why they sound less mature. They can’t swing.

To reveal this further, require a young student to perform a solo comprised mostly or all of swing eighths and various rests. Whether players are in junior high or college, the lines usually stop quickly. Any previous content suddenly seems less usable because students are uncomfortable creating a line in eighths – without which they will never sound mature within the swing and bebop idioms.

Getting students – instrumental or vocal – comfortable with performing swing eighths is “job one.” But how can they best learn the indefinable?

Absorbing swing eighths
There is no substitute for listening to the jazz masters, and of even more importance, for imitating them. All great jazz musicians have spent a lifetime listening to and learning from their predecessors and peers, and anyone seeking to absorb this art form should expect to do nothing less. How else can one internalize the different swing feels?

My students are also required to listen to, aurally study and then scat-sing along with recorded swinging solos of the jazz masters that they pick (approved to be within technical reach). By doing so, they digest what’s most important about jazz phrasing, thematic construction, pacing, dynamics – all the elements so difficult to learn out of a book. Later, if instrumentalists, they play along with the recorded solo on their “axe.” No written music is involved at this stage of the process. Listening and imitating is critical, much more so than writing it out, which should come later.

Even with the masters constantly instructing my students how to phrase swing lines, there’s still more that I can do.

Two ways to sculpt an elephant
Some visual artists may possess a great eye and skill for sculpting an image of, say, an elephant. But if others are good enough at knocking everything away that isn’t an elephant, they’ll also be left with a fine result. It is said that Michelangelo approached sculpting not as newly forming an image but as releasing the image already “captive” within the stone.

Similarly, few young jazz musicians, even those who have listened a great deal to the jazz masters, can grow directly to a mature swing-eighth style. I find that the most effective path for most students (along with listening) is to recognize and avoid what is not good swing style. By chipping away at the “stone” – the less-mature styles that definitely aren’t suited to their goal – they are quickly left with a far stronger swing style.

“Anti-swing” vs. swing
Professional jazz musicians know how not to swing. The three most common problems students have that hinder swing style in eighth-note lines are as follows:

1. The eighths in the line are phrased awkwardly, typically in “short-long, short-long” groupings (Ex. 1).

The downbeats within the eighth line are accented (Ex. 2).

The eighths are either phrased evenly or, more often, as extreme triplets, with a quasi-12/8 feel (Ex. 3).

We can turn these three negatives into positive instructions to the young jazz musician pursuing a mature swing feel:

1. Play all eighths long unless marked otherwise, even if followed by a rest (Ex. 4).

By long, we mean that no decay or decrescendo in the sound is present. For wind players, the line should be performed via one unbroken air stream rather than by a series of puffs. For a pianist, each note must be held by a finger until the next note is struck.
Accent upbeats rather than downbeats (Ex. 5), unless otherwise prompted by leaps.

Place the degree of swing-eighths feel somewhere between 12/8 and an even 4/4 or 8/8 (Ex. 6).

I require my students to demonstrate command of these three factors on a variety of scales and arpeggios. Many classically trained students who seemingly can play any scale in even eighths cannot initially get through one octave of a major scale while observing this trio of new instructions. It’s perfectly natural; a person who has mastered juggling three or four balls will falter with five or six as part of the learning process.

Typically, a student might play all eighths long but accenting downbeats — or play them long and accented on upbeats, but in a “triplet-y” 12/8 feel. Maturing takes practice by the student – and diligence on the part of the observing educator to inform students what they have mastered and what they are not yet achieving.

We all know how hard it is to break an old habit; it’s far easier to learn new ones. There’s no need to banish the three “anti-swing” factors from one’s vocabulary, as they will likely be expressive tools at one moment or another. But it is critical to add these new skills. Since it’s often difficult for anyone to be really sure they are effectively changing styles in the practice room, I encourage students to alternate playing one or two measures of “anti-swing” with one or more of the more mature swing styles (Ex. 7). The aural comparisons usually steer students in a positive direction.

Within the Groove
An essential corollary to the above three instructions is that players be able to perform good swing style over a metronome sounding on beats two and four-the ground beat of 4/4 swing at a medium tempo. A metronome set to half note = 60 but initiated on the second quarter note of the measure, for example, imitates a drummer’s high-hat on beats two and four (Ex. 8). This proves to be disorienting for many students-which is precisely why they’re uncomfortable with a swing ground beat from a drummer and bassist emphasizing two and four. Many insist: “I can perform the material in swing style if you’d just turn off that metronome”—and then prove they can. But until they can perform it hearing the ground beat of medium-tempo jazz swing on that metronome, adding a rhythm section later merely distracts listeners from their inability to swing within the groove.

Thus I require students in my Jazz Improvisation lessons to perform various scales and chords with the three swing-phrasing elements present-and over a ground beat of two and four. Given this goal’s importance in the overall course grade, students address swing in the disciplined manner they would otherwise choose to avoid in favor of learning more tunes or chord substitutions (which won’t make a difference to the listener if the musicians can’t swing!)

Scale Choices
Though I happen to require all the modes of the major scale (among others) to be played observing these factors, students can achieve some immediate goals by addressing only the first and second degrees: Ionian and Dorian modes (Ex. 9). By doing so, students have to accent first one set of upbeat pitches (via Ionian), then the opposite set of upbeat pitches (via Dorian). Learning only one mode avoids half the challenge of controlling the instrument beyond its idiomatic scale accents. And practicing the two modes in several keys greatly increases one’s ability to swing lines without prompting the old, default “anti-swing” phrasing.

Repeated Notes
As exciting and attractive as it is for students to rattle off myriad lines, practicing only changing pitches ignores yet another essential element of swing. For many students, one of the biggest challenges is not swinging chords or scales but repeated single pitches à la “Sweets Edison,” “Lockjaw” Davis, Bennie Green, Count Basie, and other jazz masters. Instead of swinging, students’ single-pitch attempts often come out phrased with some note-groupings unsustained, downbeat-accented, and/or in a 12/8 or even 4/4 feel (Ex. 10).

While eighth lines of same pitch are an idiomatic challenge to string and percussion instruments (piano, bass, guitar, vibes), they often defy initial efforts by wind players as well. A useful approach is to swing a pitch alternating with surrounding pitches in eighths, then return to a measure of the single pitch in eighths (Ex. 11), thus modeling the latter after a style already attained.

Finally, repeated short quarter notes are generally played short but fat. This stems from the father of all contemporary jazz phrasing, Louis Armstrong, who played his repeated quarters roughly two-thirds of a beat long, thus implying via the silence the missing, swinging eighth between the downbeat quarters (Ex. 12). This made his quarter notes swing more than his predecessors’ short quarters of half-length or less.

Rests are an essential element of jazz phrasing. By making the rests swing, an aspiring jazz musician can make the notes swing far better! This parallels visual art: persons drawing a single vine strewn around a light-colored pole will have far greater success when they recognize not only the shape of the leaves but draw the shapes created between the leaves, where the pole is visible. Such “negative space” defines the boundary of each leaf-just as rests define the shape and feel of the notes they surround in a swing line. To emphasize that negative space, place a tongue-stop at the end of all short notes: for example, in a series of four short, downbeat quarter notes, place a tongue-stop on each of the four following upbeats.

A clearer path
In summary, there remains no substitute for listening to great jazz musicians, and imitating them (vocally and instrumentally) is essential to effective growth. Insist that students confront their concerns about swing eighth notes rather than avoid them. While it’s impossible to define swing eighths, it’s far easier to define what aren’t swing eighths and then seek the alternative.

Recognize the phrasing elements common in students who aren’t swinging well; require opposite elements as positive goals, to be practiced in alternation with the old habits. Be sure students can swing over a metronome on two and four at a moderate tempo, also addressing repeated eighth- and quarter-note pitches, while shaping the rests to imply swing.

Continue to focus on these elements of swing within any improvised student solos over tunes in classes or lessons; cumulatively maintain a high standard of swing. If you require that students devote the same attention to developing swing feel as to learning tunes or chord progressions, you will be impressed by how much progress they can achieve in even a single semester or quarter of study.

Antonio Garcia is an associate professor of music and director of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, a Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, an avid scat-singer and a widely published author. This article is condensed from a feature that originally appeared in a 2000 edition of Bach Brass Notes.

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