Reggae music is many things to an entire culture. To it’s native Jamaica, it’s a culture and art form that carries the struggle and faith of Rastafari. To the United States and United Kingdom, it jumpstarted a new way of thinking about music both from an arrangement perspective as well as
Reggae music is more than just something college kids around the world play when they’re chilling out at parties. Reggae music has a rich historical background and revolutionary musical style that has confused musicians as well as inspired musicians. Its challenged the musical status quo of the time in more ways than one and it’s musical influence is still resonating even to this day with no sign of giving up.
Few styles of music can say they’ve contributed so much to the overall tapestry of world music in so many ways and in this article we’re going to examine reggae music as a style of music and pay particular attention to how to play reggae bass and reggae bass playing as a style of bass playing.
We’re going to look at:
A short synopsis of reggae music as a style of music
Reggae instrumentation and some background into each instrument
An extensive look into reggae bass playing as well as it’s evolution from ska and rocksteady
Must-know reggae bassists and recordings
Some must have resources for anyone looking to jump into playing reggae or further their study of the genre
The Roots of Reggae Abridged
When reggae music entered the mainstream of Britain and the United States and out of Jamaica during the mid 1970s and early 1980s, musicians were baffled by what they were hearing.
A genre of music without a “one” beat? The snare and the kick would hit together on the “three” beat, drummers around the world would ask themselves. Stewart Copeland of the Police even commented in an interview how taken back with the style of drumming that came with the genre. Guitars only playing on the “two” and “four” beats or on the off beats, guitarists asked themselves and very thick, loud bass playing?
“What kind of music is this?”, everyone wondered.
Like what rhythm and blues and soul music is to the United States music culture, reggae shares many of the same messages, connections and roots to the Jamaican people. Reggae has been just as much an outlet for Jamaica’s people to express their feelings towards love, religion, faith, life, spiritualism and culture as soul, and the blues have been to the United States. Reggae music is soulful entertainment in Jamaica today and it’s a powerful social force that represents the pressures of everyday life putting them into words that describe, reveal and persuade the people that listen to its powerful messages.
Prominent reggae artists including (but not at all limited limited to) Bob Marley, Burning Spear, King Tubby, Yellowman, Toots and the Maytals, Wailing Souls and Peter Tosh were outspoken social critics who used reggae music as vehicles to carry their messages of faith, humanity, Jamaican and Rastafarian culture to the people nearby within ear shot and the world alike.
The music originated from confrontation and struggle, it’s based on freedom and never giving up. Politicians have been know to use reggae music as the central part of their campaigns. Prime Ministers have had songwriters create songs for their political campaigns, knowing full well that this music can easily bring crowds of people together, while uniting a country, and political party at the same time.
While the roots of reggae are rich with significance and symbolism and the lyrical subjects can be analyzed for months on end, the music itself is just as much an area worth studying and examining.
Reggae Instruments: Guitar, Drums, Bass and Keyboard
Now let’s delve into the music itself, starting with the instrumentation. Your typical reggae ensemble mirrors much like your run of the mill rock, blues or even 4 piece jazz band in terms of instrumentation: drums, guitars, bass and keyboard.
Like with any ensemble, the drums are the musical foundation of the group. They provide structure as much as they provide musical guidance and direction.
Unlike funk or rock where the back beat is accented, it’s the “three” beat that makes reggae so unique from the perspective of the drums. They either play accents on “1” and “3” (kick on 1, kick and snare on 3) for a typical “roots” groove, or “one drop” (the “1” has dropped out) with no accent on “1”, and kick and snare on “3”.
Carlton Barrett of the Wailers was the first to coin the One Drop Rhythm, a drumming style where the kick and the snare both hit together:
While the One Drop Rhythm is fundamentally a single strike of the kick and the snare at the same time, there is some ambiguity on whether or not the drop is on beat three or just on beats two and four. The difference comes from how the song is being counted. If the song is counted at tempo, the drums will likely feel like they’re landing on beats two and four but if the track happens to be counted in half time, the drop will feel like it’s on beat three:
Check out these tracks to hear what a One Drop Rhythm sounds like – all by Bob Marley:
“No Woman, No Cry”
“Get Up Stand Up”
“Waiting in Vain”
Like reggae drumming, reggae guitar work is deceptively intricate and heavily rooted in the context of the genre itself. The skank guitar (also known as the ska stroke, guitar skank, reggae skank and so on) is the style of guitar most commonly associated with reggae and reggae-esque music.
1. The “Two” and “Four”
The classic skank guitar pattern is to strike on beats two and four:
This particular strumming pattern is typically used to strike staccato chords on beats two and four at a slow to medium tempo. Rarely (very rarely) will you find reggae music or skank guitar described as rushed or pushing the beat forward or playing ahead of the beat. The guitar part is meant to be complimentary and reinforce the overall
What’s interesting about the guitar with regard to the other instruments in a reggae band is that this guitar pattern helps to create a back-and-forth feeling created between the guitar and the drums striking on beats one and three are one of the stylistic hallmarks of reggae music. It’s this relationship that helps to create that feeling of gentle push and anticipation in the music and makes the listener feel like they’re slowly rocking back and forth between one instrument and another.
2. The “And”
Another common reggae guitar technique is an upstroke on the “and” of a beat:
When used in combination with the specific style of drumming associated with reggae music, the “And” guitar technique helps to create a feeling of gentle push and anticipation from beat to beat and keeps the listener engaged.
3. The “And A” or “E And”
Lastly, we look at the “And A” or “E And” style of guitar playing. If you’ve ever listened to “Stir it Up” by Bob Marley, you’ve heard the “And A” and “E And” in action. Like the “And” style of guitar playing, the “And A” and “E And” help to create a feeling of gentle push throughout the song by accenting the space in between the kick and the snare.
Though there are times when the keyboards have an independent melody or harmony of the guitar or the bass, most of the time, the keyboard is going to mirror the guitar part.
As a result, all of the guitar techniques that were mentioned above are equally applicable to the keyboard parts.
Bass is certainly a center point to this genre but reggae bass playing was not always the reggae bass playing we now think of it as. The term “reggae bass” has become something of a catch-all phrase to describe any sort of bass playing to music that comes from the Caribbean, missing the point that there were many earlier incarnations and off shoots of what we now know as reggae.
The earliest form of music to come from Jamaica was a mid-tempo style of music called ska. Ska music had a similar instrument make up to American rhythm and blues acts or soul groups from the 1960s with the inclusion of horns and extensive use of walking bass line. Ska bass players typically played on upright basses and when the electric bass was introduced, palm muting was used to re-create that upright thump.
Out of ska came rocksteady, a slowed down version of ska. Rumor has it that the summer of 1966 in Jamaica was so hot and stuffy that the dancers who were dancing to the ska music being played couldn’t keep up. They allegedly complained that the heat and the speed of the music was wearing them out too quickly. The band responded by taking their mid-tempo ska and slowing it down significantly creating a steadier musical tempo, hence rocksteady.
The influence of American rhythm and blues still runs deep in rocksteady, particularly with the instrumentation and bass playing. Here’s a comparison of rocksteady artist, Delroy Wilson, and the Staples Sisters side by side. See if you can’t hear some of the musical similarities, particularly in the bass playing:
Rocksteady morphed into the musical period that we most commonly associate with reggae music. It was during this period of the 1970s that significant stylistic musical changes began to take place: the skank on the guitar on music changed to become doubled up or struck just on the and (see the Guitar section above) and bass lines became much more active and pronounced in album recordings.
It was also during this time that bass players were given a little bit more musical freedom and bass lines during this period began to become more intricate – relatively speaking bearing the standards set by ska and rocksteady in mind from before. Moreover, technique began to change as well during this time with the bass player’s fingers moving closer to the front pickup and bottom of the neck creating that distinctly dark fat tone associated with reggae, articulation between notes began to fade and was instead replaced with a loser, more laid back feel.
This period in reggae music was also the time roots reggae began to take hold. Roots reggae differed from it’s earlier musical roots in that the roots in roots reggae referred to the roots of the culture of Rastafari and Jamaica. Akin to how American folk music touches on culture, heritage, struggle and faith, roots reggae can be thought of as Jamaican folk music.
This was also the time when reggae was beginning to make an impact on musical styles and direction in the United States and the United Kingdom. Artists throughout the 1980s borrowed heavily from reggae music including the Police, Eric Clapton, Rush and many others.
Stylistically speaking, bass playing continued to refine itself to what we now think of as “reggae bass playing”. The feel is noticeably looser, 16th notes are loose and shuffle grooves feel very open not like Jaco or American jazz fusion that was also taking off at around the same time where bass playing was considerably tighter and more focused to a rigid pocket feel.
One thing to remember is that classifying a particular act as entirely ska, rocksteady, reggae, roots reggae or dub can be very difficult. More often than not, the amount of musical overlap is tremendous and putting most reggae acts into a single box can be very challenging to do.
Here are some essential reggae albums to consider, many of which have one of the bassists mentioned above playing bass. All of these albums span across all walks of ska, reggae, roots, rocksteady and dub:
In the discussion of reggae music, it’s likely that the term dub has come up. Just as likely, the term dub has been used in conjunction or in the same sentence as reggae.
As we’ve touched on in this piece already there is a considerable amount of crossover from one musical classification to another particularly in the genre of reggae as a whole.
Dub music, at it’s core, is an instrumental remix of a song or recording.
Dub is a term that has been used to describe different facets of reggae music, but at it’s core, dub music is a stripped down instrumental remix of a reggae song. Typically, a producer will strip away instrumentation and usually leave behind bass and drums and soak the entire recording in reverb or delay. Some have referred to dub as the anti-soloing, and others claim that the name comes from the overdubbing of instruments on top of one another in a new way to form a remix.
Dub music is a style of music that originated in the studio back in the 1960s. Producer Lee “Scratch” Perry is the most famous name associated with the origin of dub music. Perry believed that the studio mixing board could be used as an instrument and had it’s own traits and characteristics that could be used to make music. was listening back to a track and solo’d the vocals (to hear the quality of the vocal track). Alongside Scratch Perry, producers Errol Thompson and Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock are names that come up as pioneers of dub.
Reggae Bass Players: A Short List of Power Players
Up until this point, we’ve looked primarily at reggae bass players and players that have crafted their musical presence through the 1970s and 1980s. In this list, I’ve included not only prominent bass players from reggae, roots, ska and rocksteady but also bass players from recent years who have made their names playing Westernized adaptations of reggae and ska in the form of ska punk and reggae rock as well.
Aston “Family Man” Barrett (The Wailers, Aggrovators, Burning Spear and many, many others
Robbie Shakespeare (Black Uhuru, Sly and Robbie, Gregory Issacs, Cutty Ranks and just as many others as Family Man
Miles Doughty and Kyle McDonald (Slightly Stoopid)
Chuck Fay (State Radio)
Eric Wilson (Sublime)
Ian Lewis (Inner Circle)
Leroy Sibbles (The Heptones)
George “Fully” Fullwood (Soul Syndicate)
“Cat” Coore (Third World)
Clinton Fearon (Gladiators band)
Val Douglas (The Skatalites)
Ron Benjamin (Midnite)
Reggae Bass Technique Essentials: What You Need to Know
In this section, we’ll cover some of the absolute essential playing techniques and general rules of thumb when it comes to playing reggae music as a bass player.
1. Play Close to the Neck
As we’ve covered so far, whether we’re talking about the early years of ska or reggae as we know and think about it, a seminal characteristic of reggae bass playing is the deep tone and without EQing your bass in any particular way, the fastest, easiest way to get that tone would be to play closer to the front pickup and the bottom of the neck.
2. Playing With the Thumb
On the topic of deep tone, playing with the thumb rather than index finger is another shortcut for getting a deep, fat tone ideal for reggae, replicating the upright bass sound and even for playing other genres of music like rhythm and blues, soul and old school funk (just ask George Porter Jr. about playing with his thumb).
3. Looseness Wins
We’ve briefly touched on one of the defining characteristics about reggae music and that is it’s looseness. Walking lines and swung bass lines in reggae tend to stay behind the beat and generally play very relaxed.
As a frame of reference, think of how Jaco Pastorius played during his time with Weather Report. Jaco’s playing – and much of the jazz fusion bass playing during the 1970s and 1980s – was very quick, sharp and precise. The playing pushed the song forward and was rarely playing behind the beat or dragging the tempo of the song down. Reggae music is the opposite of how the 1970s and ’80s American jazz fusion scene played.
4. The Hallmark Genre of Less-Is-More
Rarely will you hear a bass line performed by Family Man Barrett or Richard Daley described as “busy”. Like we’ve already covered throughout this piece, what makes reggae bass playing so distinct is, first, it’s looseness of time and feel and second, it’s less-is-more approach to bass playing.
Seldom will you find an uptempo bass line with flurries of 16th note runs throughout a reggae song. Reggae bass lines are supportive in that they support the looseness of the style of music itself and the song being played at a given time. The real challenge amidst this looseness is staying locked into the drums. Because the tempo in reggae is slower than your typical rock or even blues song and the feel is significantly different, maintaining control with your drummer is something to be cognizant of when playing reggae.
Essential Reggae Bass Lines and Tab Sources
To wrap up this post, I’ve included a handful of quality resources for the bass player looking to jump head first into playing reggae. Below is a compilation of books, videos and other resources that will certainly take any bass player from zero to one hundred
In this post we’ve covered a lot of material on reggae music and playing reggae bass playing. We’ve explored:
Some of the cultural significance of the style of music
The instrumentation and some of the traditional playing styles of each instrument
Some essential reggae albums and bass players to focus in for educational study
And some of resources to continue learning from.
The biggest point to remember when you’re starting to learn reggae – or any new technique, song or skill on bass guitar – is to develop a consistent, manageable, sustainable regimen of practice. Learning new skills, feels and songs takes time and it’s certainly not an overnight change but the actions won’t stick unless reinforced with sustainable habits.
So that’s reggae bass – go forth, practice and have fun with it!