Reggae Drumming

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on June 3, 2019

Reggae drumming is one of the most unique styles of drumming. The rhythmic concept that developed in Jamaica is really something amazing.

Reggae is a unique music that emphasizes almost all the possible weak beats of the bar. It can be written in a couple different ways (i.e. with pulse on quarter note, or eighth note), but either way, there are several instruments in the mix, that all contribute accents on weak beats of the bar, which gives an amazing sense of forwarding motion not found in many other types of music on earth.

There are several modern incarnations of reggae, and I'm not about to go into an argument about which is the real reggae, or which is better than the other. I will say, however, that some newer kinds of reggae grooves have a bit less of that rhythmic tension/forward motion than the more traditional styles.

Let's begin...

The Rhythmic Game

Earlier, I mentioned the emphasis on weak beats in reggae drumming. This is one of the coolest things about reggae.

The "rhythmic game" takes place in two different ways. Using rhythmic placement, but also playing with our "sound expectations".

The rhythmic placement aspect of reggae involves placing heavy emphasis on beats 2 and 4, or on beat 3 in half time. We also can play smaller accents on the up beats (on the "and" of every beat), using our hi-hat.

We emphasize weak beats on several levels: larger cycles on beats 2 and 4, or 3 in half time, and smaller cycles with the "and" of each beat.

Now for the "Sound Expectations" aspect of reggae drumming. Normally, we are used to hearing lower sounds (like a bass drum) as "home", a "resolution", even an "answer" to a question. High-pitched sounds like cymbals or snare drums are the "questions", "tensions" or whatever the opposite of home might be to you.

We also associate beat "1" with home. So naturally, when we hear a low sound on beat one, our tension has been resolved-our question answered. In reggae, you will find lots of bass drums on weak beats like 2 and 4, (or 3 in half time).

You will also notice that beat "1" is hardly ever played, but often when it is played (say, at the end of a fill), the drummer will hit a high pitched sound like a snare drum (instead of a bass drum) on beat one to further propel the rhythmic tension that has been happening throughout the groove. He/she leaves the question unanswered.

Often, the only player to emphasize beat one is the bass player.

The Different Grooves

As I mention in the video, there are 3 common grooves that I know of in reggae drumming. The "One Drum", the "Stepper", and the more modern "Rock-Reggae" or "Sublime" groove.

The "One Drop" is a more traditional reggae groove in my opinion. It's written like this...
One Drop Groove

The snare drum is played with a sidestick in this groove. Notice how there is no accent on beat 1!.

The groove can be played with swung or straight sixteenth notes. Those accents on the "ands" or each beat are meant to help emphasize the up-beats that the guitar or keyboard instruments are playing.

The "Stepper" is a very cool groove that has more of a driving, on-top-of-the-beat feeling than other reggae grooves. The hands are similar to the one-drop, but the bass drum is a lot more active. Check it out...

Stepper Groove

The snare drum is still played with a sidestick. The bass drum really drives this one.

The "Sublime Groove" is more of a rock-influenced reggae groove. You almost wouldn't know it was a reggae beat without hearing the rest of the band playing. It's written like this...
Sublime Groove

The snare can be played either cross stick or wide-open. It's an edgier beat that the band "Sublime" uses a lot.

In case you're wondering, all three groove are covered in the video at the top of the page!

Some Great Reggae

There's so much Great reggae out there! Whether is roots or dub, or anything in between, there's reggae for everyone. Here are some of the artists I recommend listening to.

  • Sly Dunbar (Drummer)
  • Carlton Barret (Drummer)
  • Bob Marley
  • Lee "Scratch" Perry
  • Agustus Pablo
  • The Skatalites
  • Peter Tosh
  • Toots & The Maytalls
  • Burning Spear
  • King Tubby
  • Max Romeo
  • Horace Andy
  • Capleton
  • Desmond Dekker

To name a few...

Aside from this list, there are so many more great artists that feature some great reggae drumming. Send me a message if you'd like me to add more to the list!