Reggae was developed by Jamaicans mixing ska and American soul in the late 1960s. The rhythmic style of reggae is off-beat, relaxed and slower than other music genres such as disco, soul, jazz and pop. Common instruments found in other genres are also used in reggae music. The way each instrument is played reinforces sound of reggae.
Played in tandem with the drums, the bass guitar provides the "riddim" (rhythm) of a reggae song. The bass in reggae is usually played as a simple riff, but it's often thick and pronounced. Prominent reggae bass guitarists include Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who played for Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Robbie Shakespeare, one half of the prolific Jamaican production team Sly and Robbie.
Most reggae songs use a standard drum kit, but the pieces are played in a specific way. The snare drum is often tuned to a much higher pitch, which gives it a sound that resembles timbales. Most drummers utilize the cross-stick technique in which the rim and head are hit simultaneously. Reggae drum patterns usually place an emphasis on the third beat in a 4/4 time signature. Reggae also utilizes bongos, cowbells, clave and shakers.
An electric or acoustic guitar in reggae tends to stress chords over individual notes in a pattern. The guitar chords are usually emphasized on the second and fourth beat in a 4/4 time signature. The guitar is connected to a special amplifier that is often dampened so the sound is short and scratchy. The chord is often played as a double chop (a note or chord played twice in one beat). Like the other instruments, there's a relaxed feel to the sound of a guitar in reggae.
Horn sections play the introductions, instrumental breaks, solos or counter melodies. Uptempo songs will feature a bright and boisterous horn section. The typical reggae horn section will have a saxophone, trombone and trumpet. Each member will play the exact same pattern. One horn may be in a higher octave than the others, or play in another key that meshes melodically.
Derek King is an undergraduate student attending the University of Austin. King was editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper for four years. In addition to online instructional articles, he also creates content for the music and entertainment blog GetFreshKid.com.