Whilst, through history, there’s been a tendency for some musicians to look down on reggae, the style remains one of the most difficult for those brought up on American-influenced rock and pop music to authentically capture. In this post, we’re going to explore some of the mechanics of authentic reggae, focusing in particular on the role of the guitar. Prepare for some surprises as we delve deep into the workings of a revolutionary genre.
Jamaican Reggae is a fascinating and wonderfully unconventional style of music. It might sound deceptively simple, but it encompasses sophisticated rhythmic and dynamic nuances, which have wrongfooted many a pro. If you’ve heard or read interviews with any of the outsiders who were brought in by Island Records to supplement The Wailers’ seminal Catch a Fire album of 1973, you’re bound to have sensed how alien a structure reggae was to them. To quote guitarist Wayne Perkins…
“Compared to anything else I’d ever heard in my life… this was backwards.”
Perkins, initially flummoxed by the whole thing, was advised by producer Chris Blackwell:
“Don’t listen to the bass!”
Notoriously, reggae bass lines are full of syncopation, unexpected gaps and other odd phrasing idiosyncrasies. And after the bass was taken down, Perkins did begin to gain a picture of what was going on. But the apparent simplicity of reggae had shown its deceptiveness at the highest level.
1973’s novelty single Snoopy Versus The Red Baron (above) was the first record I asked my parents for as a child, after the track charted and screened on Top of the Pops. Little did I know at the time, that my attention had been attracted not by the work of the single’s ‘public faces’ – a group called Hotshots – but by the real architects of the recording: reggae band The Cimarons. In everything but the packaging, the vocal, and a bit of Bavarian-style brass, this was an archetype of early 1970s reggae, played by an archetypal reggae band. By ’73, there was clearly considerable recognition of reggae’s enormous potential within the UK recording industry.
THE ROOTS OF THE VIBE
The specifics of reggae are not easy to teach, because the spread and development of the genre came courtesy of feel, inspiration and evolution – not tutoring. There is no official set of reggae guitar guidelines, because from one influential player to the next, approaches have markedly differed. Some influencers played barre chords. Some played chords in the rock format, with thumb over the top of the neck. Bob Marley (pictured at the top of the post, in a capture from 1973 BBC TV footage) would do both – back to back in the same song.
Ultimately, the style is very spiritual and human, and its natural, pulsating dynamics connect with the listener on a very deep level. Part of that deep connection comes from the musicians’ innate sense of rhythm and vibe – the way they ‘push’ or ‘pull’ the timing and make the track breathe. But another part comes from the style’s total inversion of the conventional 4/4 bar.
Reggae doesn’t typically employ unusual timings, but it does re-arrange the roles of the instruments within a standard beat. It also has a revolutionary take on dynamic emphasis. Instead of making key beats louder in order to emphasise them (as is the case in American-influenced music), reggae uses empty space. Whereas in a rock track the first beat in a bar would be the heaviest, with everything piling in to assert maximum authority; in reggae the first beat might only have the faintest acknowledgement – perhaps a closed hi-hat and nothing else. This concept of deconstructing the bar and placing the weight on the offbeats might explain why reggae ‘outsiders’ sometimes visualise the structure as “backwards” or “upside down”.
THE RHYTHM GUITAR
In reggae, the rhythm guitar is really part of the percussion section. Typically, it replaces the snare drum beat in a 4/4 pattern. In other words, it plays percussive chops on beats 2 and 4 of each 4-beat bar. The main snare hits, meanwhile, often drop out of a reggae beat altogether. If traditional reggae has a standard snare contribution at all, it’s a rim click on the third beat of the bar, in sync with the main bass drum kick.
Although the rhythm guitarist frets chord shapes, the strings are usually depressed so lightly and fleetingly that there may be very little sense of the actual chord character. No sooner have the strings been depressed, than they’re released again. The challenge lies in precisely syncronising the moment when the plectrum whips across the strings, with the release of the chord. The pressure applied when squeezing down the chord is subtle, and in a classic reggae chop the strings won’t go all the way down onto the frets.
One of the key differences between real reggae rhythm guitarists and rock/pop guitarists trying to emulate the reggae style, comes in the percussiveness of their chord chops. Rock/pop guitarists tend to fret the chord hard down, for a noticeable duration, which clarifies the voicing of the chord, but compromises the percussiveness. A reggae guitarist would have a lighter, crisper, more percussive approach, producing an almost toneless scratch as opposed to a ‘chord’. Listen to the intro on The Wailers' Stir It Up, and you’ll hear that pure reggae rhythm guitar sound, with no ‘additives’. You only get the faintest hint of the actual chords.
The sketchiness of chord character is not considered a problem, because routinely, the percussive guitar chops in reggae are underpinned by staccato keyboard chords, which raise the listener’s sense of musical context. The keyboards would traditionally comprise a staccato organ offbeat ‘shuffle’, and often a piano chord ‘clunk’, which drops in precise sync with the guitar rhythm chop.
The organ will normally fill the 1/8th offbeats with deep left hand chords, and then match the rhythm guitar with brighter, right hand offbeats, on the quarter steps. Sometimes, there’s even a staccato offbeat from the horn section, syncing with the rhythm guitar – although that’s really more of a ska/rocksteady era tactic than a classic reggae trait. The bass often flits between holding the main downbeat, and emphasising offbeats. It’s probably the most creative instrument in the best reggae.
But however the track is filled out, the guitar chop is rarely heard without some kind of chordal support, and that makes the intro to Stir It Up a valuable insight into the raw sound.
Bob Marley played double (down/up) rhythm guitar strokes on the 1973 version of Stir It Up. A single (down only) stroke was, however, much more common in authentic reggae, and the double stroke was increasingly phased out through the course of the decade. Indeed, on the 1978 live version of Stir It Up, Marley plays the intro with single strokes. An illustration of evolving trend if ever there was one.
Because the Stir It Up guitar intro plays on the offbeat, those used to on-the-beat rhythms (like rock 4/4) may sense that the drums arrive in the wrong place. They don’t, of course, but until the first drum hit, beat 1 of each bar is imaginary. If you don’t know you have to imagine that silent downbeat, you probably won’t consider it. That can cause confusion when the drums cut in.
Another interesting offbeat guitar intro opens Hands Off She’s Mine by The (English) Beat. This open-G-tuned maverick salvo played by Dave Wakeling, is not authentic reggae guitar, but it is an offbeat pattern in a reggae-influenced track, and at first listen you get the same confusion, with the drums appearing to bring in the rest of the instrumental backing out of step. Again, however, the confusion is caused by a silent downbeat, and the timing of the drums’ arrival is precisely as it should be. These intros perfectly illustrate why so many American-influenced musicians have been wrongfooted by reggae’s offbeat defaults.
Most truly authentic reggae thrives on transients of emptiness or relative emptiness. It’s about fooling with the listener’s expectations. Persuading a listener that something should be there, and then letting them sense the void. This feeling of empty space is something that dub reggae has exploited to the max. In some particularly sparse dub sections, the main 4/4 beat exists purely in the listener’s mind, whilst, for example, a lone syncopated echo drifts away.
Classic reggae rhythm guitar patterns from the genre’s formative years were generally played with a clean or mildly overdriven electric solid. From the present back to the start of the ‘80s, the sound is predominantly clean. But head into the ‘70s and things can dirty up considerably. Because the rhythm guitar chords are almost instantly muted, any mild overdrive ‘edge’ or roughness doesn’t strike you the way it would in a rock, punk or blues track. It’s just a sort of fat, gritty roughness. That roughness is evident in a lot of Bob Marley’s live performances.
Another particular trait of 1970s reggae rhythm guitar was substantial tonal depth. If you listen to some Trojan records from the middle of that decade, you’ll hear some extremely authoritative rhythm guitar chops. There would be a strong low end in the guitar tone, and the chords would be fretted low on the neck, with the bass strings sounding solidly in each chop.
A great example of this sits within Ken Boothe’s Crying Over You. The track incorporates a classic piece of reggae rhythm playing courtesy of one Willie Lindo. The guitar is dominant, assertive, percussive – it really slaps you in the face. But there’s a beautiful depth to the tone. The instrument is most likely a Telecaster. Traditionally, Teles have a fuller low end than Strats, whilst still retaining a snappy bite. It sounds like Lindo used a very nice, warm valve amp too. But the real secret of the impact lies in the percussive attack, the brevity and uniformity of each chop, and the high volume balance in the mix. The rhythm guitar is right up front, and it’s not swimming in reverb or any other effect. Keeping those chops uniform in every respect would not have been as easy as it sounds, and the production is sublime too.
Through the course of the ‘80s, reggae rhythm guitar progressively became more hi-fi in tone. The bridge pickup setting was also used less, and the ‘prettier’ sound of pickup combinations became more common. In fact, by the late ‘80s, a lot of reggae rhythm guitar parts were not even played on guitars. But the guitar was never going to be replaced in the long term. For those seeking authenticity, there’s never been any alternative.
Whilst delay has been a popular effect for reggae rhythm guitar, it’s often been added by producers rather than the guitarists themselves. Indeed, until the early ‘80s, reggae guitarists would most typically mimic studio delay in live contexts by actually playing the syncopated repeats manually. Some still do. The studio delay effect used in seminal dub mixes was a tape echo, which would degrade and warp the signal as the repeats drifted on. However, the arrival of digital delay units in the '80s helped transfer control of the effect to the guitarists themselves within a live environment.
Another effect heavily associated with reggae rhythm guitarists has been the phase-shifter. With reggae rhythm guitar, the phaser is set to cycle slowly with very deep intensity. Each guitar chop gains a different tonal character. The phaser’s popularity in reggae owes a lot to its compatibility with the percussive approach. Unlike chorus and some other more typical guitar effects, phase shifting doesn’t need the chords to sustain in order to be noticeable.
Reverb use can vary widely, not only according to the guitarist’s personal taste, but also to accommodate production tricks. In reggae, reverb can, for example, be used to emphasise certain guitar chops on an isolated basis. The standard chop might have a very dry aura, but every so often, between one and a few chops might be treated with heavy reverb. It’s all part of the way reggae basks in the unexpected. Reggae rhythm guitar can sit nicely in a mix without any reverb at all, although it takes a very precise and tight player to lay down a track without the forgiving properties of the ‘verb.
Compression is something a purist would probably reject, but it’s good for flattening out uneven volume in recorded rhythm chops. It can also create a sense of ‘loudness’ at lower volumes. However, expert rhythm players like optimum control over their dynamics, and compression interferes with that. In my view it also subtracts some organic richness.
GUITAR AND AMP TYPES
Although the percussive cut of Fender guitars is a logical match with the ideals of reggae rhythm, lots of different guitar types have been used in reggae over the years, and the all-time King of Reggae himself was best associated with a Gibson Les Paul Special. Gibson guitars can be quite well suited to reggae rhythm – especially if you’re looking for a rougher sound with mild overdrive. But you have to pay close attention to the kind of pickups the guitar has.
Single coil Gibson models (like the Les Paul Special) will be fine, and mini-humbucker instruments like the Les Paul Deluxe have been successfully employed by top reggae artists too. However, once you get into the realm of full-sized humbuckers, you really need to know what sort of output and tone the pickups have. Vintage output humbuckers (PAF-style) suit reggae with the right amp setup, but high-output or ‘hot’ rock pickups tend to be ill-defined and lacking in bite.
In summary, most decent pre-1980s vintage originals or replicas should work well enough in reggae, because up until the end of the ‘70s, ‘hot’ pickups were not really a ‘thing’ on stock instruments. Fender, Burns, Vox and other guitar designs with slim single coils will probably be the safest bet. They have the top end if you want it; you can back off the tone if you don’t. My own favourite for reggae is the vintage design Fender Telecaster (pictured above). You can really feel the cut and substance of a Tele’s wide frequency range at high volume.
But old, lower-output Gibsons/Epiphones (including vintage type semis), Yamaha SGs, Gretsches, Rickenbackers, and of course more modern single coil guitars, are perfectly compatible with reggae too. As a rule, avoid any guitars designed for heavy rock or metal, because the bridge pickup probably won’t have enough definition at the top end.
The best amp types in my experience are vintage spec valve jobs, because they impart plenty of depth and authority without losing treble, and without the need for contrived distortion. Old Marshall or Vox (AC30) designs will probably work better with humbucking guitars. Fender amps will probably be preferable for single coils, including Fender’s own guitars.
However, a lot of reggae guitarists have gone off the beaten track in their choice of amps. The Roland Jazz Chorus (notably not valve-driven) has met with considerable approval, and Peavey amps (some of which had built-in phasers) have hit big in reggae too. In the group’s early years, both Campbell brothers used Peavey Mk.III heads with UB40. Around the same time, I recall a number of local reggae-influenced groups using Peavey Deuce combos, often with the onboard phasers cycling slow and deep. Old solid state HH amps have proved another effective choice for reggae guitarists. They’re full of zest, and they cut through without sounding tinny.
The techniques of reggae rhythm guitarists are as idiosyncratic as the music itself. I’ve already mentioned Bob Marley’s tendency to mix a thumbed-bass rock chord shape with more traditional barring in the same song. But other well known reggae guitarists have employed seemingly unworkable approaches, and somehow managed not only to make them work, but to make the result highly engaging. Some players, for example, have fretted major chords when the rest of the band is playing minor. Not the relative major – literally the root major. The band is in A minor, the guitarist plays A major.
Because reggae rhythm guitar is really a percussion instrument, the effect of this is typically quite subtle, but it does subconsciously connect, and sometimes it becomes very conspicuous. You can hear a blatant example at the start of Ku Klux Klan by Steel Pulse. It’s immediately after the little break in the intro. The track is clearly in A minor, but the rhythm guitar plays A major. And it’s no accident or error. The same tactic appears on live versions of the track, and you can actually see David Hinds fretting A major chords on his Yamaha SG. Theoretically it shouldn’t work, but because of the way reggae instruments slot together in percussive bursts, it contradicts the laws of harmony.
UB40 (pictured above in captures from 1983 BBC TV footage) were another reggae band who a little later exploited the tension between major and minor to the max. Rhythm guitarist Ali Cambell would fret major chords against keyboardist Michael Virtue’s minors, and if you’re lucky enough to have the old BBC radio recording of UB40 at Coventry Apollo in September 1982 (for Kid Jensen), you’ll hear obvious evidence of this. I saw the band live at the same venue, the night before that radio programme was recorded, and Campbell’s rhythm playing was bolder than usual, with a little extra emphasis on the character of each chord.
The track Food For Thought was particularly interesting. The actual chords of the song’s backing progression are:
A minor, E major, G major, D major.
But if you went to see UB40 back in the heyday of that song you’d have witnessed rhythm guitarist Ali Campbell playing something that looked like:
A major, C# minor, G major, D minor shape – probably with the B string damped out.
And at some gigs (certainly the Coventry Apollo gigs of 18th and 19th September ’82), you could hear a lot of that loud and clear. The only chord in the progression where the rhythm guitar matched the track, was the third one – G major. The A major definitely sounded as A major at those Coventry gigs, and the C# minor sounded as C# minor or minor seventh. It harmonised with E major because C# minor is E major’s relative minor. The final guitar chord looked like D minor, but the fretting of the B string would have created something quite alien, hence my assumption that it was not fretted.
You also hear Ali Campbell playing major over minor in One In Ten, on the same live recording.
Reggae lead playing is typically a lot more conventional than the rhythm. Actual lead breaks are often heavily based around blues concepts, although reggae solo work can incorporate African and jazz infusions, along with other esoteric influences. Listen to John Kpiaye’s playing on Linton Kwesi Johnson In Concert With The Dub Band (the mid ‘80s live album) for an object lesson in adventurous reggae guitar soloing.
Other reggae lead players, such as Carl Harvey, have performed cranked up, wailing solos to rival those of the rock greats. Listen to Harvey’s work on Toots and The Maytals’ Live at Hammersmith album from 1980, and you’ll recognise instantly that the dude was only a pair of spandex pants short of rock legend.
Most reggae lead, however, is a lot more subtle. In keeping with general reggae protocols, the lead guitar tends to shun spectacle and work quite inconspicuously for the enhancement of the overall track. Palm-damped, single note picking has often characterised reggae lead. One very common tactic is for the lead guitar to duplicate the bass line in semi-percussive, palm-damped plucks. Because reggae bass is very deep, and devoid of upper harmonics, a percussive attack from the lead guitar can articulate the bass pattern at key moments, so the line is raised in the listener’s consciousness. It’s almost like engaging the percussive attack setting on an electric organ. The progression gains more presence.
But palm-damped picking doesn’t necessarily need to follow the bass. It can instead generate intricate riffs, which fill gaps in the rhythm. Unusually for a reggae instrument, a palm-damped lead guitar riff may incorporate 16th or 12th beats within a bar.
Sliding chords or double-stops are another popular element of reggae lead guitar. Going right back to 1960s ska you find the upward semitone chord slide sparingly highlighting the odd chord change. It notably crops up in Prince Buster records like Judge Dread (occurs very obviously at 3 mins 10 in the linked YouTube play). However, whether this type of full chord slide would be played by the lead guitarist or the rhythm guitarist would be a matter for the band to decide.
Some of the lead guitarist’s work in reggae can be described in unmitigated terms as rhythm, and sometimes, the lead player will simply double the rhythm player’s chord chops, perhaps with a little more chordal substance.
THE BEST WAY TO LEARN
So, what’s the best way to learn reggae guitar? Well, most of the genre’s greatest exponents were self-taught, and the way they taught themselves was by listening, and thinking. The more reggae you hear, the better you’re going to be at playing it. In an age where we can pop onto YouTube and watch the greats of reggae actually doing their thing, there’s no excuse for ignorance.
Prince Buster (pictured above in a capture from 1998 BBC TV footage) was one of the most influential figures in reggae and ska, inspiring new generations of musicians to take Jamaican styles into new areas. Certainly in the UK, Prince Buster was relentlessly acknowledged as a key influence by hybrid bands such as The Specials, who themselves became hugely influential on future generations. But back in the late 1970s when a then new wave of British ska was soaking up the rich catalogue of classic Jamaican music, there was no Internet, and no one was offering reggae lessons in local newspaper ads. The newcomers simply listened to the masters. That's how the baton was passed on. And for instinctive, abundantly human genres like reggae, that's how it'll always be.