A Very Brief History of Ska and Reggae Music

Posted: June 25, 2014 in Music
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Cover of "The Bassist's Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco(Excerpted from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco (2nd ed.), by Tim Boomer. This material originally appeared in slightly different and shorter form in The Drummer’s Bible (2nd ed.), by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni. All chapters in both books begin with brief histories of the styles covered.)


Caribbean music is the result of the fusion of many different musical cultures, including South American, Cuban, African, North American, and even European. In keeping with Island Music’s upbeat, danceable nature, most Caribbean music is rather simple rhythmically and does not usually stray outside of 4/4.

This post continues the history section from the Caribbean chapter and explores Ska, and Reggae.

The role of the bassist in all of these styles is supportive—there is always a strong groove that reflects the music’s upbeat mood. As well as providing a solid foundation, some Reggae bass lines can be melodic, duplicating the guitar or vocal lines in Reggae.


During World War II, American service men stationed in Jamaica brought big band Jazz/Swing to the island. Local big bands such as Eric Dean’s Orchestra (with Ernest Ranglin, guitar) soon became popular. When R&B displaced Swing in the 1950s in the U.S., with Rock and Roll following, Jamaican music adapted. Radio broadcasts from New Orleans introduced the music of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and other New Orleans singer/songwriters to Jamaica.

New Orleans Second Line (see Jazz chapter), along with early Rock n’ Roll, Jazz, and R&B blended with Mento, a type of Jamaican folk music. The result was a new Jamaican sound, which came to be known as Ska.

At the time, “sound-systems” (dances with DJs spinning records) were the primary source of music in Jamaica, principally because a single DJ or “toastmaster” was cheaper than a band of musicians, and more reliable. People who couldn’t afford radios came to rely on DJ-hosted dances as their only access to new music. The constant need of the sound-systems for new tunes created a huge opportunity for Jamaican musicians—initially big band Jazz players—to make records

Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin says that musicians created the word Ska “to talk about the skat! skat! skat! scratchin’ guitar that goes behind.” Prince Buster (Cecil Campbell), a Jamaican producer, is credited with having his guitarist Jah Jerry (Skatalites) emphasize the “afterbeat,” thus laying the foundation of Ska. Another way that a guitarist might refer to this is “backwards comping,” in which the guitar strongly and equally accents all offbeats (the “ands” of beats) in comping patterns. This pattern is largely what gives Ska its characteristic sound.

Initially Ska was optimistic and enthusiastic, reflecting the achievement of self-governance in Jamaica in 1962. This upbeat mood was reflected in the bass lines of the time: a free walking style at relatively fast tempos. As the culture became darker, the sound reflected the change in mood. The tempo slowed and Ska morphed into Rock Steady (which later became Reggae).

The first successful Ska musicians were Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals, The Wailers, Cecil Bustamente Campbell (Prince Buster), Kentrick Patrick (Lord Creator), and the Skatalites. The core musicians of the Skatalites played on the majority of the recording sessions for these bands, although they were not credited.

As Jamaicans emigrated to the UK, Ska clubs appeared in the cities in England in which they settled (Blackburn, Lancashire, and Margate), and the second wave of Ska, or two-tone Ska, was born. Second wave bands, such as The English Beat, The Specials, Selecter, Bad Manners, Madness, The Police, and Men At Work, brought Ska international popularity in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Currently third wave bands such as No Doubt, 311, The Mighty Mighty Boss Tones, and Sublime have continued the Ska tradition.

The noticeable differences between Ska and Reggae are Ska’s characteristic guitar comping pattern, its “straight” feel, its use of a “four on the floor” bass drum pattern (in contrast to Reggae’s “one drop” [on beat 3] pattern). Early Ska featured laid back walking grooves. Modern Ska has a more driving feel. In it, the bass stresses the downbeat to offset the guitar’s upbeats, which are more pronounced than in early (Jamaican) Ska. Ska also features greater use of horns than Reggae. Harmonically, Ska songs tend to be on the simple side, revolving around the I, IV, and V, and use a lot of seventh chords, but rarely anything more complicated.


The origin of the word Reggae is unclear. Some claim that the word stems from “Regga,” which refers to a group of natives from the Lake Tanganyika region in Africa. Bob Marley claimed it was a Spanish term for “The King’s Music” (in Spanish, “la música del rey”), which is unlikely enough that one suspects that Marley was pulling someone’s leg—although it is barely possible that the word “Reggae” is a corruption of the word “rey” (king). Toots Hibbert of the Maytals says he came up with it, too. Yet another, more likely, explanation is that of Jamaican studio musician Hux Brown: “It’s a description of the beat itself. It’s just a fun, joke kinda word that means ragged rhythm and the body feelin’. If it’s got a greater meanin’, it doesn’t matter.”

Reggae incorporates Rhythm & Blues, New Orleans Second Line “in the crack” (between swing and straight) feels, African rhythms, Jamaican folk traditions, and Rastafarian culture (a religion developed in Jamaica which deifies former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie). Although its roots extend back to the 1950s, the genre’s success is partially due to the breakthrough of Calypso and Ska in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Reggae gained popularity in the 1960s through musicians such as Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Toots and the Maytalls, Jimmy Cliff, and, most importantly, Bob Marley and the Wailers. Even though he died in 1981, Bob Marley still stands as the leading voice of Reggae. The influence of Reggae extends into popular music through Johnny Nash, Stevie Wonder, The Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Paul Simon (“Mother and Child Reunion,” which is considered by many as the first attempt at Reggae by a white musician). Contemporary artists include Ziggy Marley (son of Bob Marley), Third World, The Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear, Sly and Robbie, and the still-active Jimmy Cliff. Many older Reggae bassists, with careers dating from the early days of Caribbean music, are still recording and touring today. As well, The Easy Star All Stars from New York City have been recording covers of famous albums in Reggae style, such as “Dub Side of the Moon” and “Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band,” covering the classics by Pink Floyd and The Beatles respectively.

Bass lines transitioned from the double-time of Ska to Reggae’s precursor Rock Steady in 1966. One story, possibly apocryphal, involves an Alton Ellis studio session. When the bassist didn’t show up for the session (“Get Ready — Rock Steady”), Alton had the keyboardist (Jackie Mittoo, founding member of the Skatalites) play the bass line on piano with his left hand while he played the keyboard part with his right hand. As Mittoo couldn’t play both parts simultaneously at the fast Ska tempo, they slowed the tune down. The result was so unusual that when the bassist recorded his part, Alton insisted that the bassist play it the same way as the pianist. This resulted in a syncopated, repetitive line that no longer had the quarter-note walking feel of Ska. The bass style moved from continuous, steady movement to cluster-like patterns, with more space between phrases.

Understanding Reggae bass requires understanding the “One Drop” drum groove. Reggae drumming resembles that of the New Orleans Second Line, in which the feel of the music falls “in the crack.” This requires playing between a swung and a straight feel.
Bass lines, of course, should also be played “in the crack.” The distinguishing features of a Reggae beat are the simultaneous rim click and bass drum kick played as one note on beat 3 of each measure (hence the name “One Drop”) and the “in the crack” hi-hat pattern, plus the slow to very slow tempos that contrast sharply with Ska’s fast tempos.

Harmonically, Reggae songs are often even simpler than Ska songs. They usually revolve  the  I, IV and V chords, and chords are usually simple triads.


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