Reggae developed as a genre in the Jamaican ghettos during the late 1960s. It is characterized by a strong bass line, one-drop rhythm with accents on the third beat of each bar, and simple repetitive chord structures. Lyrics feature harmony, often in Jamaican dialect, sometimes with social or political themes.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s Jamaican folk music called “mento” mixed and combined with imported jazz and R&B to create”ska.” Most Jamaicans could not afford their own radios, so large lawn dances were organized in open areas with music broadcast from sound systems, like large mobile discotheques. To this day Jamaican music is produced primarily for these direct venues.
During the later ’60s there was a gradual slowdown of ska, which led to a new genre called “rock steady.” The slowdown has been attributed to everything from a particularly hot summer forcing dancers to slow down to growth of the “rude boys” youth movement, whose members preferred a slower dance speed, as well as to a simple need for something new and different.
While ska was a cheerful. optimistic genre, rock steady focused more on the trials and tribulations of life in the Jamaican ghettos. Electric instruments were dominant in rock steady and the bass guitar was promoted to lead instrument.
Rock steady adopted a one-drop rhythm and guitar parts began to double up, leading to a new genre. How exactly that genre became known as reggae is a source of controversy. Frederick “Toots” Hibbert’s 1968 track “Do the Reggay” is often sited as the first source of the name being associated with the genre. However, some say that the word “reggae” was first used around 1960 to describe ragged dance style. Others say it comes from “streggae” a Jamaican term for poorly dressed women.
As a genre, reggae is often associated with the Rastafarian religion, which grew in popularity following Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962. Although not all reggae musicians are Rastafarian, the god Jah and the sacramental use of ganga or marijuana are sometimes subjects of reggae music.
Most historians agree that Bob Marley was one of the first musicians to bring reggae to a worldwide audience. Although he died in 1981, at age 36, his music lives on through his children.
To this day, reggae continues to evolve as a genre. Characterized by a laid back style, the key to playing this genre is knowing where each instrument drops in relation to the beat.
Typically the bass guitar is the lead instrument, acting as the rhythmic and melodic hook (or riddim) that defines a song. A guitar plays chords on beats two and four, known as skank. Sometimes another guitar plays the bass line, only one octave higher, and occasionally may add a rock or blues-style solo to a song.
A range of percussion instruments are typical in reggae bands. Usually there’s a standard drum kit, with the snare drum tuned very high. Bongos are sometimes played in improvised patterns and solos, especially African0style cross-rhythms, and cowbells, claves, and shakers provide additional patterns.
Traditionally reggae bands included a piano, although today they are more likely to us an organ, keyboard, or synthesizer. A horn section-saxophone, trombone, and/or trumpet- are also traditional, but the horn line is sometimes covered by synthesizer.
Resources to Play
Listening to the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Third World, and Toots Hibbert will give you a great overall introduction to reggae and its classic “riddims” which tend to be repeated in songs. The website www.reggaetrain.com has links to music, artists, and festival information.
Reggae Bass: The Complete Guide to Reggae and Jamaican Bass Lines (1998) by Ed Friedland offers performance tips, authentic grooves, and riddims with standard notation and tab, plus a CD with 47 demo tracks.
How to Play Reggae Keyboard: A Complete Method for Mastering the Many Styles of Reggae Piano and Organ (1999) by Jimmy Peart is a step by step guide to reggae rhythmic and melodic techniques.