Reggae is one of the world’s most distinctive music genres. What started on the streets and in the bars of Jamaica in the late ‘60s is now a global favourite danced and sang to daily.
The term ‘reggae’ itself is often used to describe most Jamaican dance music, but reggae is much more defined than that, drawing influence from other closely-linked genres such as blues, jazz and calypso.
Reggae bands are often large—almost orchestral at times—owing to the complexity, intricate layering, and rhythm of the music they produce.
With such complexity comes great diversity in the choice of instruments mastered by reggae musicians, too. Read on to learn more about what instruments are used in reggae the most, how they’re played, and how this world-renowned genre has evolved with its instruments over time.
What instruments are used in reggae?
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The bass guitar is widely considered the ‘lead instrument’ in reggae, with few instruments as integral to the genre’s distinctive sound.
Typically playing with the thumb and little palm muting on a four-string bass, reggae bassists generate those instantly recognisable deep throbbing booms and catchy grooves.
Jazz bass-style guitars have traditionally been the go-to choice for most reggae bassists—although many musicians would argue the guitar itself is not too important, as the desired sound is all in the tuning.
Various types of bass guitar can achieve a reggae sound–it just requires some initiative from the bassist playing it. For example, you need to find a suitable amp, the right guitar strings and master the playing style, too.
Fender bass guitars are also a common favourite among more modern reggae musicians. This is mainly because one of the pickups is very close to the neck on these particular models, which helps create that ‘fat’ low-end tone heard throughout reggae.
Most reggae bassists will turn up the guitar’s neck pickup instead of the bridge pickup and then play close to the neck with flat-wound strings for maximum volume.
Although it’s very much down to personal taste, one thing certain is that reggae music would be a whole lot different without its bass.
Check out these songs for great reggae bass guitar examples
- Bob Marley – Could You Be Loved?
- Eek-A-Mouse – Heroes Dead And Gone
- Toots & The Maytals – 54-46 Was My Number
Related: 10 Tips On How To Play Reggae Bass
Standard electric guitars are arguably as important as bass guitars in reggae music.
The two instruments work in harmony, complementing, and at times contrasting, each other to produce the sound we know and love. In fact, if you listen to reggae closely, you’ll often hear the guitar doubling the bassline, either with muted pick work or by providing a steady chordal backbeat.
In reggae, the main guitar is sometimes referred to as the ‘rhythm guitar’. The rhythm guitar is often considered part of the percussion section, typically replacing the snare drum beat in a standard 4/4 pattern.
One of the biggest differences between reggae guitar and guitar in other musical genres is the percussiveness of the chord changes.
Reggae guitarists tend to be much lighter and more fluid in their fret handling when it comes to the formation of chords. No sooner the strings are plucked, too, the fingers are off, forming the next chord pattern.
The result is a crisp, sometimes toneless (but always clean) scratch sound, as opposed to the clarified chords with notable tones heard in other types of music.
Reggae guitarists create a sparkling sound that cuts through the mix and creates that unmistakable and undeniably unique groove.
Check out these songs for great reggae electric guitar examples
- Alton Ellis – Girl I’ve Got A Date
- Bob Marley – Stir It Up
- The Heptones – Sweet Talking
If the bass guitar is the driving force in reggae, the drums and percussion set the tempo.
The drums and bass are often mixed together in the recording studio before other instruments are added. This is because these two are ultimately the backbone of every reggae song.
The combination of the drums and bass in reggae music is known as the ‘riddim’—the Jamaican Patois pronunciation of ‘rhythm’.
Although many different rhythms exist in reggae, one of the most important and notable is the one-drop rhythm—which can be clearly heard in various Bob Marley songs, the aptly-named ‘One Drop’ in particular.
Pioneered among others by the late, great Carlton Barrett—a long-time drummer for Bob Marley and the Wailers—one-drop rhythm is a sparse, unhurried beat in which the snare and bass play on the same beat.
A typical reggae drum kit is a compact mix of modern drums that tend to be played at a slower tempo, filled with syncopation.
In layman’s terms, syncopation means the rhythm contains a few surprises, differing in places from what the listener might expect. This lends itself perfectly to the variation in reggae drumming from both a sound and visual perspective.
Check out these songs for great reggae drumming and percussion examples
- Bob Marley – One Drop
- Peter Tosh – Legalize It
- Burning Spear - Lion
Related: 11 Drums Used In Reggae Music
Despite its prominence, the reggae keyboard is still somewhat an enigma.
First introduced to the genre in the ‘80s in the form of synths, the keyboard is one of the most versatile instruments in reggae. In fact, some bands even use keyboards in place of other instruments, such is their evolution and capabilities.
One of the first things to mention is that you needn’t be confused by the term ‘reggae keyboard’. Most standard keyboards on the market can be used as a reggae keyboard with a little experimenting.
Of course, the beauty of keyboards is that they’re digital, so by no means are reggae musicians limited when it comes to searching for that sound.
While every reggae keyboard player will strive for their own unique sound, ‘piano with a bit of extra oomph’ is normally the desired end product, musicians would agree.
Reggae musicians have experimented with and treated us to many different keyboard effects to achieve their sound throughout the years. We could be here all day discussing the variation.
From reverb and wah to flanger, chorus, and phaser (check them out if you’re unfamiliar), each effect takes the reggae sound and the listener somewhere new—and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Check out these songs for great reggae keyboard examples
- Bob Marley – Jammin’
- Steel Pulse – Reggae Fever
- Bob Marley – Three Little Birds
The horn and brass instrument families are large, and many feature heavily in both traditional and modern reggae.
While it may seem unusual for an otherwise laid-back genre, the blare of brass was often the backbone to most of the early reggae coming out of Jamaica in the ‘60s and ‘70s. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, touring with a full brass section on stage was the norm for most reggae bands.
Trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and various other horns are commonly used in reggae. Despite the emergence of technology and digital sound in more recent decades, there’s still very much a place for these in the reggae ensemble—and rightly so.
Horn and brass sections play the introductions, instrumental breaks, solos, and counter melodies reggae listeners are familiar with.
In particular, reggae tracks with a high tempo will often feature a bright and boisterous horn section, typically featuring a sax, trombone and trumpet.
While it’s not uncommon for each individual instrument to be tuned differently or indeed played in higher octaves, each member of the section will more often than not play the exact same pattern.
Horn and brass work together, normally to either keep a melody or counter it, such is the diversity of reggae.
Check out these songs for great reggae brass and horn examples
- Rico – Take Five
- Clinton Fearon – Conqueror
- UB40 – Food For Thought
While you probably associate the organ with the church, it’s also made a home in a lot of reggae music—especially roots reggae. Bands such as The Wailers, UB40, and Third World were and still are all frequent users of the reggae organ.
Although some modern reggae artists often opt for a keyboard instead of an organ, the organ remains essential for a more traditional-sounding track. In fact, the organ and keyboard are sometimes played in harmony.
The organ is a hybrid instrument that belongs to both the keyboard and wind families. It’s played using both the hands and feet, but the reggae sound is by no means easy to achieve.
While some have described the organ’s impact as giving a song’s beat a ‘3D feel’, the main purpose of the reggae organ is to produce what’s known as the ‘reggae bubble’. The ‘reggae bubble’ is also sometimes referred to as the shuffle sound—a style of playing unique only to this genre.
In a nutshell, the reggae bubble is a bass-like, low-pitched choppy sound that adds movement and body to a song’s main rhythm (or riddim) section.
The reggae bubble gives the genre its dynamic, often offbeat sound, and mastering it is all about timing. Without it, those famous reggae grooves would sound much hollower, that’s for sure.
Check out these songs for great reggae organ examples
- The Harry J Allstars – Liquidator
- Desmond Dekker & The Aces – Fumanchu
- Iration – Get Back To Me
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