6 Reggae Musical Instruments You Should Know

Written by Andre Roberts
Last updated

Reggae is a popular style of music that originated in Jamaica in the 1960s. It didn’t take long for this ska-based style to spread around the world, especially with help from well-known artists like Bob Marley, Wyclef Jean, and Jimmy Cliff. 

One of the key elements of reggae music is the instruments used to create it. From drums to guitars and everything in between, these instruments are tools of the trade and have helped shape what has been known as the international music of the oppressed. 

1. Guitar

Reggae music always counts in 4/4 time, which is important to note when talking about one of the most commonly used instruments: the Guitar

In a reggae setup, there are usually two guitar players. One guitarist’s job is to maintain the rhythm, and they do so by playing on the offbeat. The other guitarist adds texture to the music by filling in with melodies and riffs. 

The latter of the two is considered the lead guitarist and gets the chance to really display some cool musical abilities and improvise a little bit. 

One distinctive sound of reggae is the rhythm guitarist who will play short, sharp chords that are often slightly muted on the offbeat known as syncopation.

If you pick a random reggae song and play it, you’ll likely hear exactly what we mean by this.

2. Bass Guitar

The Bass Guitar is often considered the lead singer of reggae instruments. It’s a critical factor in creating the rhythm, bassline, and tune of any given reggae song. 

While the role of a bass guitar is essential in reggae music, its riffs are generally very simple and repetitive.

Musicians repeat two or four-bar riffs and use very simple chord progressions, and many of the same rhythms are used across popular reggae songs. 

3. Drums and Percussion

Drums and Percussion are vital parts of reggae music, as they help maintain the traditional 4/4 time.

Most reggae songs use a standard drum set to meet this beat, but the music also uses timbale and high-tuned snares.

There are three main drumbeat categories in reggae – One Drop, Rockers and Steppers.

One drop beats emphasize the backbeat with the snare or a rim shot. A rocker’s beat emphasizes all four beats, typically using the bass drum. And the stepper’s beat drives the music using the bass drum on every fourth beat. 

Reggae percussionists also often incorporate the cross-stick technique, which is when they hit the rim and the head at the same time.

A percussion section might also include shakers, cowbells, claves, and bongos.

4. Piano and Keyboard

Pianos, Keyboards, and even Organs play a significant role in reggae music as well.

While the guitars tend to lead the sound, these instruments are used to double the guitar’s rhythm and give the song a more complex sound. Note that pianos and keyboards are rarely used alone in reggae music.

Other genres, such as pop, rock, and R&B often highlight the piano by using it solo in ballads and anthems, but reggae doesn’t do this. But the instrument makes for the perfect accompaniment to the guitar and bass. 

Many times, especially with more modern technology, pianos and keyboards are replaced with synthesizers to create more unique tones.

But it’s safe to say that the keyboard will always have its place in reggae music, along with the rest of the music industry. 

5. Vocals

Because reggae originated in Jamaica, many people know reggae Vocals to portray the Jamaican sound through an artist’s accent.

Of course, given the international spread of reggae music, not all reggae artists have a Jamaican accent. So what’s important to nail down as a reggae artist?

In general, reggae artists need to master the arts of singing, talking over a beat (or chanting), DJing, and Sing-J, which is a mixture of singing and DJing.

These techniques are necessary in order to maintain the integrity of the genre.

In addition to technique, reggae vocals should stay true to their roots. Reggae formed as a kind of rebel music that often ruminated on topics of politics, society, spirituality, and love.

In short, most reggae songs are centered around things that truly matter to people.  That being said, reggae music has never been a genre known to sell out.

Reggae vocals can include any kind of lyrics that an artist wants to write, but they should be authentic and genuine, reflecting the true values of the artist and not just what they think will sell. 

6. Horn Section

When you think of chill, laid-back music, you normally don’t imagine a Horn Section. Yet somehow, reggae has done a fantastic job of incorporating horns into its genre.

The horn section is frequently used and quite important. Reggae uses a few traditional horns, typically the Saxophone, Trombone, and Trumpet.

The job of these instruments is usually to keep a melody or a counter melody in a song—not to be loud and overpowering, as reggae is rarely those things. 

A reggae horn section is far different from a jazz horn section, for example. However, every once in a while a reggae artist will mix in some bold, loud phrases for the horn section.

These more aggressive tunes work best for up-tempo songs and offer a nice change from the typically soft and soothing horns we hear in reggae music. 

Reggae music can use anywhere from one to three horns, with the section following the lead horn’s melody.

You can expect a reggae song to incorporate horns during a song’s intro, as a solo, and in instrumental breaks, too. 

Summing up Instruments Used in Reggae

Bob Marley, who is often considered the King of Reggae, once said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

That seems to be a wonderful way, to sum up the reggae genre, what it stands for, and why people love it.

These instruments— including the vocals of artists who play them—have constructed some of the best reggae music in history and continue to make soulful, impactful songs in 4/4 time today.

Use them properly and they will treat you well.