Ska music began in Jamaica in the late 1950s. While the ska of the 50s and 60s closely resembled calypso music with a jazz influence, much of the ska of the 80s and 90s reflected rock and punk influences. Throughout each stage of its evolution, ska maintained its same essential core and used a specific arrangement of instruments for its characteristic sound.
The electric guitar has served and continues to serve many purposes in ska. Artists use barre chords with emphasis on the high (EBG) strings. They're syncopated to achieve bouncy, high-frequency melody riffs. Rock-oriented ska artists will also use power chords with amplified distortion to achieve an aggressive rock element, often reserved for an upbeat chorus. Some examples include “The Impression That I Get” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the cover of “Come On Eileen” by Save Ferris.
As with many popular music genres, the bass guitar sets the foundation for the melody in Ska. Ska songs typically use a walking bass line, in which the bass notes continuously move up and down the scale. A bass is often tuned low in ska for a sub bass effect.
The brass section most audibly sets ska apart from other genres of popular music. A common horn section includes a trumpet, trombone and saxophone, or some combination thereof. It may also include additional brass instruments like French horns. In a typical ska arrangement, the horn section provides rhythmic accompaniment.
Most ska bands use a standard drum set, including kicks, snare, cymbals, hi hats and toms. Calypso-influenced ska arrangements may also take advantage of steel pans and other Caribbean percussion devices, but this is less common.
Early ska artists often used piano or organ melodies, though keyboards fell out of favor in two-tone or third-wave ska. Typically, the keys would follow the bass line or accompany the guitar leads. That technique was later adopted by reggae artists.