Watch the Jamaican Grooves online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp
The basic reggae rhythm pattern is called the ska (rhymes with yeah, not jah). The word also refers to a dance and a jazzy pre-reggae Jamaican music that first appeared in the early '60s. The ska rhythm in Ex. 1 became integral to the rock-steady style that succeeded ska in the mid '60s and has been the backbone of Jamaican reggae to this day. The ska is generally played by guitar and piano in unison.
For an authentic sound, use barre chords between the 1st and 10th frets. Strum through all the strings, emphasizing the highest ones. (Some players use only the top four strings.) Swing the right hand freely without muting. A quick, consistent left-hand release is essential. The ska should be about the duration of a hand-clap, yet every note of the chord should be distinct. Occasionally the ska is sustained a bit longer, depending on how the pianist is playing. Use a fairly light touch and make sure your inversions complement the keyboard parts. Some reggae tunes call for a behind-the-beat feel, while others are more on the beat. Your amp should be set clean and not too loud, with plenty of presence and treble.
In the late '60s the pattern in Ex. 2 became popular. It's possible this rhythm derived from an attempt to manually imitate the sound of an electronic delay. Jamaican musicians call this the "double riff," "double stroke," or checkae (that's how the rhythm sounds). Mute the strings wlth the left hand after playing a ska and catch the high strings on the upstroke. This rhythm has either a straight-eighth or shuffle feel, depending on what the hi-hat and organ left hand are playing. You often find a swing feel at slower tempos.
Around this time the music began to be called reggae, a word that has come to stand for all Jamaican roots music. The pattern in Ex. 2 is what many people think of as the reggae rhythm, due to its currency in the early '70s, when the music first became widely known to Americans.
The pattern in Ex. 3 was also popular around the same time. It is derived from mento, a pre-ska folk style, but the accents are different in reggae mento. It is basically a double riff with an added upstroke. Of the three sixteenth-notes, the first upstroke is held longest; the downstroke is accented but held shortest. Traditional mento strums are much more even. At very slow tempos this pattern can be played with all downstrokes.
In the mid '70s the basic drum style changed (Ex. 4), and tempos slowed drastically as a result. Although the double riff was occasionally heard on sessions, players started to go back to the straight ska because it was too hard to sync up the double riifwith the new, busier hi-hat patterns.
Toward the end of the '70s the drum style changed again and began to resemble slow funk and rock grooves. The tempo came back up, making room for a new semi-mento style (Ex. 5). Sometimes one guitar would play this pattern while the other played the ska, but more often this part showed up in a variation of the ska, as in Ex. 6. At faster tempos, you may find it easier to play the last two strums in this pattern as upstrokes.
Guitarists also experimented with changing the inversions of the basic chords while playing this rhythm, giving the part a melodic function (Ex. 7) agian, at faster tempos you might play this with all upstrokes. In the late '80s, the advent of dance hall reggae, with its complex drum machine patterns and much faster tempos, resulted in guitarists abandoning these variations and returning to the straight ska.
In many of today's Jamaican sessions, the ska is played with one-hand synth chords and rhythm guitar is ignored altogether. When a guitar appears, it often plays a lead pattern and is used as flavoring rather than as a staple. However, contemporary reggae bands usually include at least one guitar for live shows.
Reggae players take rhythm guitar very seriously. In fact, the lead player might more properly be called the second guitarist: If there is only one guitar on a reggae record, it is almost always rhythm. When I started doing sessions in Jamaica, I was allowed to play rhythm only if the other guitarist didn't show up! Let's explore some of the roles that the lead-ah, second-guitarist plays.
The reggae lead player works hand-in-glove with the bassist. In terms of holding down a reggae groove, the bass player has the most important gig. Bass is the foundation; classic reggae "riddems" (chord patterns and bass lines used over and over again under different melodies or raps) are identified by the bass line. The lead player's job is to enhance the bass part.
Typically, the reggae lead guitarist doubles the bass line an octave higher, adding weight and emphasis to the essential bass line. Reggae evolved under primitive conditions: Doubling the bass ensured that the line would be heard no matter how bad the recording or listening environment.
Doubling works best when the bass is playing a simple, repetitive part. To get the correct sound and feel, use a bright, clean tone (not loud!) and mute with your right hand at the bridge. To minimize intonation problems, iinger the line as close to the nut as possible. Fret lightly with your left hand while still producing a clear tone, and copy the bassist's duration and accenting. The key is to be absolutely accurate and consistent with the length of each note. Watch the releases: Your left and right hands should work together to control note length. Mimicking the bass player's fingering may help match the phrasing, but if the line climbs onto the G string, it may be better to reftnger the passage rather than to deal with the tonal difference between wound and unwound strings.
Usually all downstrokes work best for doubling, although sometimes a line grooves a little better with alternate picking. Ideally, the guitar and the bass will sound like one huge instrument. Examples 8a and 8b show two classic bass lines that have supported hundreds of reggae records.
A common variation on bass-line doubling is called rolling. The guitarist uses mandolin-like trills on some notes while exactly doubling others. Examples 9a and 9b show how to roll the lines in examples 8a and 8b, keep the left hand as light as possible. Note the harmonized notes in 9b replacing unisons with thirds or other intervals can add power and color if you do it with discretion.
In Ex. 10, the lead guitar plays a choppy syncopated phrase in the spaces of the bass line. This reflects advice I got on my second session in Jamaica: "Play where the bass isn't." If the bass is playing lots of roots and fifths, try using other chord tones. If the bass line has strong harmonic content, emphasize roots and fifths in your guitar part.
The lead part in Ex. 11 creates a running, double-time feel against the more deliberate bass part. Mute this one very, very lightly. In Ex. 12 this concept is reversed: The guitar plays a half-time, relaxed feel against the active bass line.
Many reggae tunes consist of a single bass line and a couple of chords. Sometimes the right thing to do is to lock onto one part and play it throughout the song. However, it can be effective to mix techniques, doubling the bass on the verses and playing a catchy countermelody or counter-rhythm for the choruses, for example.
For some essential listening, pick up Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey (Mango) featuring Chinna Smith (lead) and Tony Chin (rhythm). Another good choice: Toots and the Maytals' new collection Time Tough:The Anthology (Mango) with Hux Brownand Lyn Tait on lead, and Ranny Bop and Rad Bryan on rhythm.