Posts Tagged ‘Reggae’

Cover of "The Bassist's Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydecoby Tim Boomer, author of The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco

The most common role for a bassist is, of course, to support his or her band rhythmically and harmonically. Bassists are not limited to any specific role, however, as we can do considerably more, such as playing the hook (or the melody) and soloing, improvising, and comping.

Providing a solid foundation for a band is still, however, the usual role of the bassist—especially if you play in a dance band. The bassist is the bridge between the melodic players and the rhythm section. You live in both worlds: melody and rhythm. You are that bridge.

There is truth in the saying that “You make most of your money below the fifth fret.” You establish the chord being played and the basis of the pulse simultaneously by playing the root note of the chord on the first beat of a measure (and at most chord changes). Next in importance to the root, usually, is the fifth, then the third or seventh. Pretty simple stuff, but it works.

It is also common to play patterns. Bass lines. This does not prevent you from varying the pattern in a musical way by slightly changing the notes played, note duration, or by adding a little syncopation, but over the course of a song there will still typically be a pattern. This might seem obvious, or easy, but you need to lock in with the drummer, be aware of solos, notice when the lead singer changes the form, watch the dancers on the floor, try not to knock over your drink, and still keep it interesting.

You can learn a lot by watching the dancers and seeing the effects of your playing. A groove is a pattern, a predictable sound that dancers can follow. Watch them. Bassists (and the rest of the band) may get bored playing the same lines over and over again, so, of course you’ll fill and vary the pattern in other ways, but if you break the groove too often, dancers will get out of sync, the thread will be broken, and the dancers will stop.

One way to be creative, and keep dancers happy, is to understand playing “in the pocket.” This is often described as playing in such a way that the groove is very solid. The bassist locks in with the drummer and never wavers. Using the standard rock beat as an example, the drummer plays kick drum on beat one (the downbeat) and also on beat three, and the snare on beats two and four. The bassist also plays precisely on the downbeat, followed by a pattern. That pattern can be a little ahead of the beat or behind the beat or exactly on the beat. As long as the drummer and bassist are in sync with each other, and play/feel the downbeat at the same time, they are in the pocket. You know it when youre in it, as it feels like the music is playing you, or the entire band is one instrument.

If you are not playing for dancers, you can leave the groove at any time—but returning to it provides resolution in a song. For instance, in jazz, the bassist (or more often a horn player or pianist) plays the “head” (the melody played in the first verse of a multi-verse song) after several choruses of solos to bring the tune to a close. And the audience will recognize it—“Oh look, theyre playing that theme again”—and any improvisation that came before the final statement of the head will seem intentional.

In the same way, once you have established the basic foundation of a song, look for holes where nothing much is happening—a sustained note or chord perhaps, or a straight groove. You can then find a space to develop an idea—either melodically or rhythmically. You can repeat a note, syncopate, or play (a) note(s) outside of the pattern you’ve established.

You can also intentionally leave holes by resting, as in Reggae bass lines. This sets up a pattern that extends across measures rather than a pattern that repeats within a single measure. It still allows complexity, but in a relaxed context. It also allows your bandmates a lot of space. Study Miles Davis to learn about the spaces in music.

Developing your own style has a lot to do with knowing when to play and when not to. In a few words: “If in doubt, lay out.” Typically, if there are vocals, you simplify and come down in volume to allow the focus to be on the vocalist.

Another important aspect of playing bass is to learn to use fills tastefully. Fills are usually played at the end of four– (or eight- or twelve-) measure patterns that lead to a new section of a song or the repeat of a verse. They are not played in random places.

This doesnt mean that a bassist must strictly follow rules. Jazz musicians and jam bands often break rules, and often get away with it—sometimes with brilliant results. It is simply helpful to know that some styles sound better when you play patterns typical of them.

The bass now encompasses everything from standup bass to electric bass to synthesized and sampled bass. Basses themselves now feature not just 4 strings, but 5, 6, and even 12 strings; theyre produced with up to 28 frets. There are both fretted and fretless basses, acoustic bass guitars, piccolo basses, and onboard-MIDI basses. And its certain that more variations are waiting in the wings.

The technique of playing these instruments has also evolved greatly over the years. Bass technique is virtually unlimited now. You can combine nearly any style with any other, from anywhere in the world. You can use effects, tap, slap, pluck, pick, thump, play with a bow (or an e-bow). You can lay down an unmistakable heavy groove or take extended solos in a jam format. You can also just play roots, fifths, and octaves on a standup or a P-bass and be happy.

As one of my deepest influences, John Entwistle from The Who, said when asked what he thought when he saw another bass player, and what he felt about the camaraderie of bassists: “The first thing I think of is poor fellow” (and, paraphrasing, “poor bastard”). We are underrated and underappreciated, but essential.

I love bass. Thank you all for being bassists. We need more of us.

It’s always fun to see what other folks include on their “desert island discs,” so here you go. Since most such lists are for single genres and usually encompass ten discs, I’ve allowed myself more leeway here — listing all types of pop music — and am listing 25 discs, which seems fair given that they cover the following genres (jazz, blues, soul, funk, country, latin jazz, rock, and punk). I’m cheating by adding a list of “honorable mentions.” Whatever. Here ya go: my desert island discs, in no particular order:\

Desert Island Discs

  • James Brown Live at the Apollo (1960) — the seminal early funk disc. If you only listen to one cut off this, check out “I’ll Go Crazy.”
  • Kutche, by Saib Khaled and Safy Boutella — the best Rai disc. Incredibly good musicianship combined with intricate syncopation. Nothing else in the genre comes close.
  • La Cuna, by Ray Barretto — not for Afro-Cuban purists, this disc features a mix of genres (latin jazz, latin rock, funk, soul) with amazingly good musicianship by some of the best musicians of the late ’70s and early ’80s (including Barretto, Steve Gadd, John Tropea, and Joe Farrell). The next time you’re impressed by some guitarist playing fast scalar passages, listen to Tropea’s solo on “The Old Mountain.” That’ll put it in perspective.
  • Songs for a Tailor, by Jack Bruce. Impressively inventive song writing, and better than competent execution.
  • Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.  The best, most driving rock album of the ’70s.
  • The Harder They Come soundtrack. Pretty much every great tune from this mind-numbingly boring, awful genre on a pair of discs. Huge fun and great lyrics.
  • Repo Man soundtrack. Minus the Sex Pistols, the best punk from the early ’80s all in one place. Iggy Pop’s title track is a gem.
  • The Sermon, by Jimmy Smith. My favorite type of music — hard-driving blues-jazz with great solos (especially those by Smith and guitarist Kenny Burrell).
  • Jacaranda, by Luiz Bonfa. Not available on CD, this ’70s Brazilian-jazz-rock album features great songwriting and very good musicianship. Not for those who expect sambas or bossas.
  • Tied to the Tracks, by Treat Her Right. A great, hard-driving blues-rock album by the forerunner to Morphine. The lyrics are twisted, the harp playing is mind boggling, and this disc is better than anything by Morphine.
  • Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis. Beautifully executed, the perfect background for a 3:00 am beer out on the patio.
  • Everlastin’ Tears, by Willie Edwards. Great contemporary blues. Edwards got totally screwed with this one, signing away the rights to all the songs to the producer. I can’t re-record any of this shit without dealing with the vampire who’s sucked Willie dry.
  • Are You Experienced?, by Jim Hendrix. Need I say more?
  • Strange Days, by the Doors. Every song is great, including two hard-to-play masterpieces, “Love Me Two Times” and “Moonlight Drive.”
  • Inner Mounting Flame, by Mahavishnu Orchestra. Great musicianship and proof that odd-time and compound-meter songs can drive. A whole lot of fun.
  • Are We Not Men?, by Devo. The best and by far funniest new-wave album. Contains the best cover ever recorded: Devo’s version of “Satisfaction.”
  • The Last Real Texas Blues Band, by Doug Sahm. Great, greasy R&B — a reminder of an era.
  • Sugar Thieves Live. Both a wonderful contemporary blues band and a throwback to classic material.
  • Losin’ Hand, by Al Perry and the Cattle. Well produced and very funny alt-country.
  • Ah Um, by Charlie Mingus. Probably the best, most intricate blues-jazz album ever recorded.
  • That’s The Way I Feel (Thelonious Monk tribute by various artists.) An absolutely fantastic, mind-boggling, at times hilarious (via Todd Rundgren!) tribute to the greatest jazz composer who ever lived (and, yeah, I’m counting Duke).
  • Bringing It All Back Home, by Bob Dylan. The first album that helped me focus my rage at the atrocities being committed to others and to me by the government and the corporations.
  • Barbeque Dog, by Ronald Shannon Jackson. A brutal, dissonant LP with one of the cuts simultaneously in different keys. Thirty years on, it sounds fresh.
  • How Shall the Wolf Survive?, by Los Lobos.  The first album by my favorite live band. A whole lotta fun, with uncomfortable things to think about.
  • Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. Not their best LP by a long shot, but the one I want to hear after having a few beers.

Honorable Mentions

  • Revolver, by the Beatles (best songwriters of the 20th century)
  • Abbey Road, by the Beatles. (see above)
  • The Doors (eponymous album).
  • L.A. Woman, by The Doors. Like so many other albums of this time, the first side was great and the second side sucked.
  • Beggar’s Banquet, by the Rolling Stones.
  • Let It Bleed, by the Rolling Stones.
  • Battered Ornaments (eponymous)
  • Harmony Row, by Jack Bruce. Damn near as good as “Songs for a Tailor” — the songs he saved up while being the bassist in Cream.
  • Thousands on a Raft, by Pete Brown. Fun stuff by Cream’s lyricist.
  • Raw Sienna, by Savoy Brown. Kim Simmonds’ attempt to match the Beatles. Not anywhere close to successful there, but a very good album in its own way.
  • Science Fiction, by Ornette Coleman.
  • Guitars Cadilacs, by Dwight Yoakam. Best country album of the ’80s.
  • In a Silent Way, Miles Davis.
  • Jack Johnson, Miles Davis.
  • Bitches Brew, Miles Davis.
  • On the Corner, Miles Davis. A great early genre-bending LP.
  • Jerry Reed’s Greatest Hits, most of the soundtrack from Jerry’s by-far best album, Smoky and Bandit II, plus the novelty hits (“Amos Mose,” etc.)
  • Junior High, Junior Brown. Huge tongue-in-cheek fun from maybe the best current guitar player.
  • Gravity, by James Brown. The best funk album of the ’80s.
  • L.A. is My Lady, by Frank Sinatra. I still can’t decide whether this is deliberate or inadvertent self-parody. Fun either way.
  • Birds of Fire, Mahavishnu Orchestra.
  • Treat Her Right (eponymous album). Contains a fantastic cover of Harlan Howard’s “Everglades.”


We put up our 1,000th post a few days ago. We’re now looking through everything we’ve posted, and are putting up “best of” lists in our most popular categories.

This is the fourth of our first-1,000 “best of” lists. We’ve already posted the Science FictionAddictions, and Interviews lists, and will shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.

Best Music Posts


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.