What Makes Reggae, well, *Reggae*?

I love Reggae music. It’s my absolute favourite type of music. There’s something about it – it’s clearly the music of ordinary people, which gives it depth, and the rhythm is just addictive. You just cannot stand still when you hear it.

What’s so special about reggae rhythm? At first look, it’s just the regular 4/4 beat. But it’s somehow different at the same time. And even within reggae, the pop style of UB40 for example, is very different from the roots reggae of Bob Marley. This got me wondering.

Then, a few months ago, I saw the 2012 documentary ‘Marley’. It is an amazing mosaic of the life of an amazing man. And I understate it severely when I say ‘amazing’. It was available on Netflix for a while, but I see that it has now gone away, at least here in the USA. You can still buy it from Amazon, or watch it in low-resolution here. I highly recommend purchasing and keeping it, it’s that good.

From this documentary, I learnt about how reggae came to be, and how it is different. A typical 4/4 beat emphasizes the first beat the most, and the 3rd as well. Here’s a good example, Bohemian Rhapsody by the popular rock band Queen. You can clearly hear the 1-2-3-4 if you look for places where the drums start, as they do at 02:00 in the video.

In this case, the numeral in bold and italics is the strongest beat, and the numeral in bold alone is strong too. We could represent it like this pictorially:

The thicker and longer the line, the stronger the beat. You can imagine beating a drum with a severity equal to the weight and length of the arrow.

In reggae, it is the off beat (#2) that is emphasized, as well as two next beats. The ‘2’ and ‘4’ are typically guitar, and the ‘3’ is the base drum. Now the beat is 1-234. Bunny Livingston, one of the original Wailers, explains it really well in this short clip from ‘Marley’:

So in our pictorial representation, this is what the reggae beat would look like:

This reggae beat was discovered most likely by accident. Bob Andy, the recording artist of Studio 1 where Bob Marley and the Wailers did many of their early recordings, said that there was some equipment they had brought from the USA, which they tried one day. It was a tape delay, and it caused an echo of the guitar strum, which led to the ‘chekke’ sound typical of the reggae guitar. Carlton Davis, session drummer of the Wailers talks about this sound in ‘Marley’. And  you hear it clearly in the Bob Marley song that follows as well:

The drum beat comes on the ‘3’ and is usually quite strong, which is why is is 1-234. The ‘chekke’ comes on the ‘2’ and often on the ‘4’ as well. And the bass guitar also comes in on the ‘2’ and ‘4’. Aston Barrett, bass guitarist of the Wailers explains it here:

This is what makes reggae unique. This idea of guitar and drums is really important. If you switch the two, drums on the ‘2’ and ‘4’ and guitar on the ‘3’, it sounds totally different, as you can hear in this song from the 70s by The Police:

So, now that you understand the reggae beat, let’s leave you with a very nice reggae song from Steel Pulse. Enjoy!