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History In a Nutshell
Continuing with our genre breakdown series, I felt that with summer just around the corner, it was most appropriate to talk about everyone’s favorite summer genre: Reggae. From its Jamaican origins in the 1960s, reggae has since gone completely global and is still changing an evolving to this day. Reggae was born out of rocksteady, a popular style of Jamaican dance music with many similar qualities. The transition from rocksteady to reggae came about mostly because of technology. Producers began using electric organs rather than pianos, and developing more three-dimensional spaces for putting things like horns further back in the mix and precise rhythmic elements up front. Bass lines became “dubbier”, guitars became scratchier, and the genre was focused less on dance and more on protest and higher consciousness.
The separation of good and bad reggae, just like in funk and soul, comes from the “feel”. Yes there are technical components, but you have to be in the groove and be laid back just like the music. If you’re not, it just sounds robotic. Let’s get down to the roots of reggae and see what makes it so special.
While reggae has evolved quite a bit over the past few decades, there are essentially three different drum grooves that most reggae drummers use as a foundation. Getting to know these drum beats can help you to distinguish different reggae styles and can make you a better reggae drummer.
Made popular by Carlton Barrett of Bob Marley and the Wailers, the One Drop beat is characterized by keeping the kick on the third beat of every four counts and adding the snare and hi-hat around that in a pseudo-improvisatory fashion. It’s called a one-drop beat because there is an absence of a kick on the first beat, an expected element of modern pop and rock music.
Steppers has the same essential groove as a one-drop except that the drummer keeps a steady kick going on every groove rather than only on the third beat of every four.
Typically slower than both the steppers and one-drop beat, a rockers beat has an emphasis on all four beats (typically with the kick drum) though there are many variations.
Bass is probably the most important instrument in all of reggae. Not only is it the foundation of the song, in reggae, you can usually find that there is a memorable melodic quality to the bass that does a lot for the song’s personality. Bass lines are typically repetitive and repeat themselves every four bars or so.
As for the sound of a reggae bass, you’ll typically find that the bass has a deep, fat quality to it. The high frequencies that you would most likely find in rock or funk bass lines are completely filtered out. If you’re a bass player, think about using a Fender Bass with flat wound strings to get that smooth, creamy sound.
“Shine Eye Gal”, one of Black Uhuru’s most popular songs, is an excellent example of how a reggae bass line should move and how it should sound.
Another unique characteristic of reggae is how the guitar is played. The chords are played in a short and choppy manner that is referred to as a “skank” or “chuck”. Unlike rock music, the emphasis of these short chords is on the “and” of each beat. A typical reggae count would look somewhat like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + where the “chucks” would be played on the “+”. Again, this is only a foundation and many players use double chops or licks to improvise between the chucks.
As for the guitar tone, think about using the bridge pickup to get that high-frequency scratch. Reggae guitar is more percussive than anything and does not require deep resonant chords that you would get from both pickups.
The popular Bob Marley classic, “Stir It Up”, is probably the best example of this “chuck” technique out there.
From the clavinet to the Rhodes to electric pianos, the keyboards in a traditional reggae tunes typically match the guitars and fill up the sound with the same short and percussive rhythms. Though old rocksteady uses pianos, many reggae bands opted for portable electric keyboards in the late 60s for versatility and portability.
Besides keyboards, one of the most unique characteristics of reggae is the organ shuffle, also known as the “bubble”. Getting used to this groove can be tough, though and reggae organ player will tell you it is a must-know. It is played with a shuffle feel in double time to provide movement to the song. As for the tone, you’ll traditionally find reggae players using B3 Organs, though nowadays you see many of them using Korg or Yamaha keyboards that can mimic the same sound.
If you’re a producer or working on trying to replicate that sound at home with a B3 replica, try dialing out a lot of the high-frequencies and bring up the low-mid frequencies to get a top-end bass sound. The organ has a wide frequency range and really needs its own place to sit in a tight reggae mix. Check out “The Night Doctor” by The Upsetters for a solid idea of the “bubble” organ shuffle.
To create counter melodies and fill in empty spaces in songs, reggae bands tend to use horn lines. Whether a real horn section or a synthesized horn section is used, the feel is the same. You’ll typically find three-part horn sections such as a trombone, sax, and trumpet, and the lines are usually soft and tucked further in the background. While not necessary in all reggae songs, horns have become an integral addition to many reggae bands to add another dimension to the sound.
You’ll notice that many modern reggae bands that have elements of ska make their horn lines far more prominent than in traditional reggae. Check out “Wasted Days” by the Slackers for a solid idea of reggae horns.
Vocals and Lyrics
These two qualities have changed so much over the past few decades that it is very difficult to pin down the sound. Traditionally, reggae vocals used Jamaican-English dialect, something that is necessary to study to get the best reggae vocal sound if you are not from Jamaica. They also utilized a less-polished tone that brought out the rasp and natural timbre of the singers voice.
In terms of lyricism, much has changed since reggae’s emergence as well. Originally, reggae was meant to raise awareness in politics, religion, and the Rastafari movement, much of which praised Jah and the use of cannabis. As the years went on, popular reggae artists began to speak on things like love, positivity, and happiness. Though it’s difficult to pin down reggae vocals and lyricism, the king of them all is the great Bob Marley. You’ve probably heard it before, but listen to the vocals on “Three Little Birds”. Notice the vocal tone, the dialect, the stacked background harmonies, and the lyrics that emanate what may be the most simple and positive message to ever come from the mouth of a singer.
Albums To Listen To
Twice – Hollie Cook
Though I talk about traditional reggae throughout this article, I wanted to give a shout out to one of the best modern reggae albums that I believe has really modernized the genre. Hollie Cook, daughter of Sex Pistols’ drummer Steve Cook, Mixed with elements of disco and dub, Hollie brought reggae to a whole other level with this album and I highly recommend it to any reggae lover who wants something fresh, new, and genuine.
Heart Of The Congos – The Congos
If there was one reggae album to give you the best idea of the traditional, unedited and authentic reggae sound, it would be Heart of the Congos by the 1970s Jamaican reggae band, The Congos. Produced by legendary reggae producer Lee Scratch Perry, this album is full of surprises. From the heavily delayed, stacked vocals to the array of traditional African percussion elements, this album has a sound like no other.
Catch A Fire – Bob Marley & The Wailers
I think it’s illegal to write a reggae article without mentioning this masterpiece of an album. Not only did it bring reggae to the international stage, it has retained a fresh and energetic quality to this day that has made it more timeless than most any other album. With the legendary songwriting and vocal sound of Bob Marley and the skillful musicianship of the Wailers, each song on this album is intoxicating, unique, and matchless to any other.