The drums in reggae music have always worked to give this amazing music its distinguishable sound.
Reggae music although it originated in Jamaica, has roots back to Africa, which means many of the instruments that are used tend to be African or Afro-Cuban.
These days, modern reggae music uses the drum set, which is common in most types of modern music. Reggae drummers tend to use a lot of auxiliary percussion, or even have a separate percussion section.
The percussionist, Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, who plays for the band Ziggy Marley, uses tons of different percussion items, including tambourine, woodblocks, and windchimes to keep the music varied and interesting.
Since the drum kit is used and very prominent in the music, it has a certain role to mark the parts of the rhythm.
Although different rhythms exist in reggae music, a very important of the beat in reggae music is the 3rd downbeat. This is called the one-drop rhythm, and it can be heard very clearly in Bob Marley’s song ‘One Drop’.
Reggae music is usually slower tempo music which has a lot of syncopation.
Reggae constantly has syncopation since usually, a percussionist will be playing a cross-rhythm over a drum set, but many times the drummer will have to take the role of the percussionist and play different rhythms over each other.
The reggae drum set is basically a compact mix of modern drums, African (or Afro-Cuban) drums, and percussion elements.
Although the 1 beat of reggae music can be played, it generally is not the most prominent beat, and many times drummers emphasize different beats, for example beat 2 or 3, in order to avoid the 1 beat.
Drummers will also frequently do a roll on the rack tom or strike a cymbal in a cross-rhythm or fill that is similar to how a drummer would play in an Afro-Cuban musical tradition.
Timbales are high pitched drums that are very popular in South American music. These drums (or drums tuned to sound like them) are also found a lot in reggae music. Reggae drummers typically use these drums to transition between beats or to introduce songs.
For example in the first bars of Bob Marley’s classic song “Three Little Birds” you can here a timbale fill.
Although the snare drum is common for many styles of music (rock, pop, jazz, metal, orchestral), a snare drum that is tuned very high and removing the snares (the wires below it that give it a buzzing sound) can also be mistaken for a timbale.
The snare is typically played along with the bass drum on the third beat. The snare hit is usually hit by doing a rim-shot. A rim-shot is where the snare head and the rim of the drum are hit at the exact same time which can offer a sharper attack, which when the snare drum is tuned high, can sound like a timbale.
A typical reggae beat could sound like this (click play below). This is taken directly from one of the sections of “Three Little Birds.”
Take note of the beat: the bass drum is not played on the one, rather on the three. Beat #3 is the strong beat in reggae music.
The snare drum also emphasizes beat three however it can also improvise a bit. The cross-rhythm can be found in the second bar of the rhythm above.
This is not a traditional usage for the snare as we would see in pop music or a rock-and-roll tune.
In my experience, I need to think of my snare drum as a different instrument, it has a different role to play than my rock and roll brain is used to.
In a lot of reggae songs, the hi-hats are being playing the eighth notes of the beat, sometimes they rest on certain beats or do sixteenth note fills, but for the most part the do eighth notes.
The hi-hats can be open or closed and the pattern can change within the song depending on how the drummer wants to improvise.
The pattern above I transcribed from one of the verses of ‘Three Little Birds’, and it seems to be the most common thing that the drummer played. However, if you listen to the song sometimes he opens or leaves it closed on other beats.
The bongo drum is an Afro-Cuban instrument that has been used as a reggae instrument by the Rastafarian community for a while.
Although the instrument is very common within the community, many modern reggae artists make minimal use of the bongo. However, when it is played it is employed to do African cross-rhythms (usually improvised) to complement the song.
The clave is an instrument generally used in Latin music. Similar to this music, the instrument has a defined role and pattern it plays.
However, unlike Latin music the patterns these instruments play are generally less complicated and not varied.
Cowbells and shakers have a similar role to the clave—they repeat a defined pattern without too much improvisation.
There are truly no limits regarding what reggae music can employ. Reggae artists have used many different instruments from all over the world to create their groovy danceable rhythms.
The guiro is an instrument in which you use a stick to rub the side of to produce a rachet type sound.
Another instrument is a cuíca which is a Brazillian instrument that one uses to make a squeeking sound by rubbing a stick against a drum head.
Some have actually been known to utilize very unconventional instruments such as cups or potheads to achieve a unique sound.
Although I’m not traditionally a reggae drummer, when I am asked to play reggae songs I usually don’t over do it.
I’ll usually use my bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat for the backbeat. If I can I will also utilize a rack tom (and tune it up before) to get a timbale like sound. Crash cymbal for emphasis, although you usually don’t crash on beat 1 with this type of music.
Although I use my ride cymbal in every rock gig, and even in my electronic music project, it usually just doesn’t fit for me in a reggae song—except when I need to have a bell-like sound, which can take the place of a cowbell or agogo which wouldn’t be uncommon to hear in reggae music.
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.