Reggae Rules: How to Play Reggae the Right Way

This reggae primer is designed to get you up and running with a cross-section of guitar styles that have been in use for nearly five decades.
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Though the genre itself is less than 50 years old, reggae has left perhaps the most significant and indelible mark on the music world since the advent of rock and roll 15 years earlier. 

Guitarists including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards, and groups like the Clash and the Police embraced and helped popularize reggae by often incorporating its rhythms and vocal stylings into their own music. And now you can, too.

The following reggae primer is designed to get you up and running with a cross-section of guitar styles that have been in use for nearly five decades. You can use a metronome or drum machine to practice the following examples, but you won’t get the complete experience until you play them with a full rhythm section. 

Ska, Baby!

In the early ’60s, before the term “reggae” was coined, there was ska (it rhymes with “yeah,” not “bra”), which, in the mid-’60s, evolved into its slower-tempo cousin, rock steady. The word “ska” can have three meanings: a dance style, a jazzy pre-reggae Jamaican music, or the actual rhythm that became integral to the rock steady style that succeeded it and remains the backbone of Jamaican reggae to date. 

Rhythm-guitar-wise, both styles are characterized by a clean-toned electric playing full or partial barre chords on every eighth-note upbeat as opposed to putting emphasis on the one. The only difference is the tempo, with ska clocking in at circa 92-132 beats per minute and rock steady pulling back to around 80-100 bpm.


Ex. 1a illustrates the basic ska, which is typically played by both piano and guitar. Ex. 1b applies a barred Bb chord to the ska (emphasizing the lack of open strings used in the genre), and Ex. 1c shows how to properly play it. 

Here, each down-stroked chord hit should last approximately the duration of a hand-clap. Muting is accomplished by partially releasing fret-hand pressure immediately after each pick attack. Ease up just enough to stop the string without breaking contact. As you apply and relax pressure, it should feel like your fret hand is pulsating in sync with your pick attack. (Tip: The ska is occasionally sustained a bit longer depending on the piano part.)

Played accordingly, Ex. 2 expands the ska to a two-bar, I-IIm (Bb-Cm) figure. Full or partial barre chords are generally the voicings of choice in most ska, rock steady and, later, reggae idioms. Ex. 3 presents a chord library of a half-dozen Bb and Cm voicings suitable for use in Ex. 2 or many of the following examples. Get to know them.

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Double Your Pleasure

The music began to be called reggae in the late ’60s, when tempos decreased drastically and the ska/rock-steady beat slowed way down to around 60-80 bpm. Setting the style apart was the so-called Reggae Double Riff shown in Ex. 4, where each upbeat staccato eighth-note is augmented with an upstroke on its neighboring sixteenth-note. 

Play a ska, mute the strings, and then catch only the high strings on the upstroke. (Note how only the first sixteenth in each pair is accented.) Apply fret-hand “pulse” muting and learn to feel it using any of the Bb and Cm voicings from Ex. 3. Popularized in the ’70s by the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals and Burning Spear, this became the go-to reggae rhythm.

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A slightly different reggae rhythm is the Reggae Mento depicted in Ex. 5. A throwback to an early style of Jamaican folk music as well as calypso, this rhythm augments Ex. 4’s double riff with another sixteenth-note preceding each pair of sixteenths. Note the up-down-up picking pattern, and how the accents remain on the eighth-note upbeats. 

The trick here is to give the first sixteenth in each three-note grouping its full duration while playing the remaining two staccato. This is accomplished by not releasing fret-hand pressure on the first hit, and then pulsating with the next two pick attacks.

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Rubbing The Tubs

If guitar is the backbone of reggae, drums and bass are its heart and soul, so let’s talk rhythms. Most reggae drum grooves are built from one of two rhythms: the One Drop, or the Straight Four. Ex. 6a notates the One Drop with its steady stream of hi-hat eighth-notes punctuated with unison snare and kick hits “dropped” onto beats two and four. 

That said, there’s a long-standing debate as to whether reggae should be counted in half-time (as we’ve done thus far) or in double-time, as seen in Ex. 6b. Here, the tempo and bar count double as each eighth becomes a quarter-note and the kick and snare “drop” shifts to a single hit on beat three. 

The half-time Straight Four beat in Ex. 6c - which features uninterrupted sixteenths on the hi-hat and four-on-the-floor kick drum with snare hits on beats two, four and the second sixteenth of beat three - gets the double-time treatment in Ex. 6d

So which way is “correct?” Double-time works best at the slowest tempos, while halftime is better for upper tempo ranges. The choice is yours, but we’ll resume in half-time to conserve space. Both beats can be played either straight as written, or swing-style as shown in the one-drop variation in Ex. 6e. Just add swing-sixteenths on the hi-hat and you’re in business.

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Semi-Mento Journey

Drum styles began to resemble slow funk and rock grooves in the late ’70s before the tempo came back up in the ’80s accommodating a new Semi-Mento style (Ex. 7a). It’s essentially the same as Ex. 5’s Reggae Mento with holes (rests) on beats two and four. 

The Semi-Mento variation in Ex. 7b grafts three beats of the ska to a pair of syncopated hits on the second and fourth sixteenth of beat four. (Tip: Use upstrokes for the last two hits during faster tempos.) Ex. 8 shows how to turn any of the previous two-bar examples into a four-bar figure.

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Moving On Up

Ex. 9, another Semi-Mento variation, integrates different inversions of the same chord within a repetitive two-bar Bb-Cm-Bb rhythm figure. Getting tired of Bb-CmEx. 10 features a library of inversions frequently used in two other common reggae vamps - I-IV (Bb-Eb), and Im-bVII (Gm-F). 

You get three voicings of six different chords, all of which may be applied to any previous example. (Tip: Try I-bVII, or Bb-Ab.) Be sure to transpose them to all keys.

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Double Your Fun

So far we’ve only covered rhythm guitar, but reggae often also involves a “lead” guitarist who plays a secondary role to the rhythm player, and whose typical function is to play muted single-note lines in tandem or counterpoint with the bassist. With the primary rhythm guitar skanking along similar to any previous example, the lead player will often double the bass line an octave higher, as shown in Ex. 11

Note how we’re sticking to the low strings, playing all down-strokes, and using palm-muting versus fret-hand muting to cut short the notes of this typical figure while the deep bass gives each note its full value. 

The same goes for the doubled one-bar lines played over the I-IV (Bb-Eb) and I-bVII (E-D) vamps notated in Examples 12a and 12b. (Note how the chord change in the latter is delayed until beat four.) Both figures have provided the foundation for many reggae songs.

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Play Where The Bass Isn't

Another lead guitar strategy is to stay out of the way by playing counterpoint lines in the spaces between bass notes and rhythm guitar parts. Note how the hammered three-note motifs in Ex. 13 that begin on the last sixteenth of beats four and two are adapted to each chord and rarely overlap the ska or the busy bass line. (Tip: When the bass is more harmonically active, guitar parts should emphasize roots and fifths.)

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Dub City

Finally, let’s dip a toe into the vast ocean known as Dub, a remix technique dominated early-on by the likes of King Tubby, Mad Professor and Lee “Scratch” Perry, where instruments and vocals appear and disappear like magic. 

This is essentially a post-production studio technique, but you can simulate the same guitar effects in live performance with a simple delay pedal. (Tip: A tap-tempo function makes it much easier.)

Begin by establishing a tempo and setting the delay time to eighth-note triplets with approximately 12 repeats as diagrammed in Ex. 14a. (The repeats will fade out over time.)

Hit a single staccato chord on any downbeat, and the repeats will be in time with the beat, but shift that single attack to any straight eighth-note upbeat - on the and of beats one, two, three or four, as broken down in Examples 14b through 14e - and partake in some of the spacey sounds that permeate your favorite dub mixes as the triplets echo off-kilter against the beat before fading away. Obviously this works best with a rhythm section.

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Final Warning: Getting fished-in to the vast world of reggae and dub is opening a huge can of worms, but the payoff is well worth it. Just prepare to spend considerable time, effort and bucks to have your mind blown!