Edward Havel

Rhetoric of Reggae Research Paper

Professor Alfred Snider (Tuna)


Drums and Bass Guitar: The Foundation of Reggae Music

Reggae is a style of music that needs a strong backbone and a strong driving force. That is, the drums are the backbone and the bass guitar is the driving force. For a reggae song to be successful, it needs both a skillful drummer and bass player. The drums have to be in perfect time, and the bass has to move the people. The bass works off the drums, which in turn, makes the people dance. Reggae drum and bass styles were so popular that they influenced styles in later generations such as rap and hip hop. Since drums are the time-keeper and the backbone of the song, I will start with them first.

The drums are one of the most important instruments in reggae music. This stems from Jamaican roots back to Africa. In African music, the drums along with percussion are the lead instrument. “Most African music includes, and depends upon, percussion instruments.” (Tracy 21). African music kept a steady tempo and had lots of syncopation. This parallels to reggae music in that aspect. Reggae rarely has a “shaky” tempo, and always has syncopation whether it is played by the drummer or percussion player. Obviously, Africans back then did not have drum kits. They did have a variety of drum sizes to reach higher and lower pitches just like drum sets have today. They also had cymbal-like instruments which were played in African music. This style of African drumming is very similar to early Rastafarian music as well. Often, there aren’t even any instruments other than drums. Basically, when you put African drumming into a simpler form with only one drummer, you get drum set.

The reggae drum set is essentially a compacted form of all African drum and percussion elements. As a reggae drummer, I have a bass drum, two rack toms, a floor tom, hi-hats, two crash cymbals, a ride cymbal, a splash cymbal, a timbale, a jam block, a tambourine, and a cowbell. The basic reggae drum set up consists of lots of drums, lots of cymbals, and lots of percussion instruments. This gives a wider range of variety to perform syncopation. Although, I don’t play strictly reggae music, so I don’t have as many percussion instruments in my drum set as other reggae drummers. Then again, many reggae bands have a percussion section, so the percussion element is decreased from the drum set.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/Bob-marley-wailers-crystal-palace.jpg


This is Bob Marley and the Wailers playing a show. If you focus on the drum section in the back, they have both a drummer and a percussion section. Because this band has a large percussion section, the drum set does not have as many percussive elements.


“Percussionist, Uziah "Sticky" Thompson keeps Ziggy's rhythm light and danceable”


This is an example of what a percussion player’s set up may look like. Uziah Thompson has a few tambourines, a few cow bells, a few jam blocks, chimes, and many other percussive elements.


            Reggae drums have fairly flexible guidelines. The most important of these is the down beat. This is hitting the bass drum on the third beat which gives the music a much more sexual feel. The down beat is one of the reasons why reggae was controversial, and also reflects Rastafarian beliefs. “The beat critiques society. Downbeat as oppression of Babylon, light upbeat is promise of salvation and rescue” (Snider). Most reggae songs have this drum beat. Another characteristic of reggae drumming is the use of the hi-hats. These are the premier cymbal used. They hold a steady and consistent beat. The hi-that’s (and drums in general) provide a “steady, “hypnotic” groove primarily based on repetition” (King, Foster 64). The hi-hats are the time keepers. In most songs, the hi-hats are being played from the beginning of the song to the end. Then there’s the snare. The snare is usually played along with the bass drum on the third beat. More times than not, the snare hit is a rim-shot. This is when the snare head isn’t hit, but the rim of the snare is hit to provide a softer, block-like sound. This style of drumming is called “One Drop” named after Bob Marley’s song One Drop (http://www.drummuffler.com/how-to-play-reggae-drums). The One Drop style is used a lot of the time, but not all the time.

            Another style of drumming is called Rockers invented by drum and bass duo, Sly and Robbie. This is when the emphasis on the bass drum is played on the first and the third beats instead of just the third beat. Everything else stays consistent with the One Drop style. This gives a much harder sound, and it also makes the song drive much more. It is not quite as laid back as One Drop. The last common style is called Steppers. This beat includes bass drum hits on all four quarter notes, creating a strong driving pulse (http://www.drummuffler.com/how-to-play-reggae-drums). This creates an even harder sound than Rockers, and an even stronger beat. All three drum styles I described give a similar feel which is laid back, but still confident and solid.

If you listen to variety of reggae songs, you will realize that the drums sound more or less the same. This is true to the untrained ear, but if you dig deeper, you will find that the drums are different in many ways. Given the drums stay consistent with the three styles previously discussed, the drums will change in the “empty spaces”. There is a lot of room for change and creativity. This is where the syncopation becomes so important in reggae drumming.

In these “empty spaces” between the beats, there is lots of syncopation. Syncopation is when notes are played when they aren’t expected to be played. Minus the percussion, which is filled with syncopation, the drum set applies this method as well. In between beats, the drummer will often do a roll on the rack tom or hit a cymbal. Much of the time, these fills will be on the snare. This is not a traditional use for the snare. The snare is used in the main beat throughout the song in rock and roll. These hits are often random in relation to time within the song. A fill starts a large number of reggae songs.

In my experience, I roughly plan out my syncopation when I play live. I don’t necessarily plan what, where, or how I will play a fill. I just play what I feel. I can’t speak for all drummers, but fills between beats with no major significance will be random. The bigger fills are specifically coordinated, however, with the bass player (which will be discussed later).  This makes the technicality of reggae drumming much higher. Improvisation is a major factor in reggae drumming. These drummers are extremely creative and can come up with a new drum fill on the spot easily. The technicality makes the drums the most difficult reggae instrument to play.

The bass guitar, along with the drums, holds a steady groove throughout reggae songs. As Stephen A. King and P. Renee Foster mention in Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control, “the bass guitar and drums provided the repetitive riddim figure” (65). The bass guitar’s role in reggae music is to provide a solid, full sound to the song. The bass guitar brings everything to unity. It is the glue that holds the guitar, drums, organ, percussion, horns, vocals, and any other instruments together. It is the hook of the song and often plays the melody. This also gives the music a sexual feel. The bass guitar, as I mentioned previously, moves the people. The deep and loud sound of the bass makes people bob their heads. It is said that the bass hits the body in the gut region, which in turn, makes people dance.

Reggae bass is laid back, but that doesn’t make it simple. The bass guitar first became a dominant instrument in reggae when rock steady came around. In early ska, the bass guitar was not as imperative because ska was much more up-beat. The fast paced style did not need anything else to make people dance. When rock steady came along, however, this all changed. Without heavy bass in rock steady, it would feel empty. Therefore new bass styles emerged leaving more room for creativity. “In this period, you will see much greater rhythmic diversity” (Friedland 13).

New bass guitar methods emerged with rock steady. Most notably, the bass began to mix the uses of quarter notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes. This makes the bass guitar more of a main instrument than anything else. The guitar is often misperceived as the lead instrument. While the guitar is just doing up-strums on the off-beat, the bass is running up and down the scale with complicated rhythmic patterns.



This is Errol Flabba Holt, an influential dub bassist.


The bass guitar is basically best friends with the drums. They work off one another. “In Reggae, the bass becomes an even stronger influence—anchoring the beat and giving the drummer more freedom to experiment” (Friedland 19). As I mentioned before, the drummer often adds in drum fills in the “empty spaces”. The bass guitar allows the drummer to do this by holding down the tempo for him. For major fills or transitions, this has to be coordinated. The bass guitarist needs to know when the drummer will take a big fill, so that he won’t play a fill at the same time. My bass player and I coordinate our fills so that the tempo is constant, and so that we don’t run over each other.

The bass also coordinates with the lead guitar. Very often, the bass guitar will play the same riff as the lead guitar. This could either be for only a few bars, or for the whole chorus or verse. The synchronizing between the bass and the guitar gives a tremendous sound because the bass is obviously octaves lower than the guitar. They are, however, playing the same exact thing. In newer styles of reggae, the guitars are heavily distorted which gives this style a cool sound.

(King, Foster 63)

This is a section of a song by the Istaelites composed by Desmond Dekker. It is an example of the bass guitar and lead guitar synchronizing with sixteenth notes. As you can see, they

play the same exact thing. The lead guitar just plays it a bit lower on the scale than the bass.


            The bass guitar is most significant in the dub style of reggae. Dub limits the vocals and pumps up the bass and drums. Without vocals, the bass is needed more than ever before. Since there is no clear cut message being given, the bass needs to tell the story. This is a very indirect way of relaying a message, but it is just as powerful. The bass guitar is king when it comes to dub.

            When the bass and drums are playing together, it is called the riddim. This term draws back to early sound systems in Jamaica. The vinyl records would have an A side and a B side. The A side would have the song in full form. The B side, however, would have the instrumental dub version. This side consisted mainly of bass and drums. This gave the DJs a chance to sing over the tracks. The B side is the most important idea of a sound system. It is the dub version of the A side. The B side has no lyrics and features the bass and drums. Of course, the B side will still have percussion, guitar, organ, etc., but the bass and drums are the key element of the B side. This gives the venue a live performance vibe. Sound systems were free, so anyone can go. Most Jamaicans couldn’t afford to go to a real concert, so this was the next best option for them.



This is a painting of what a sound system in Jamaica would look like. As you can see, the DJ has a microphone talking or possibly singing to the crowd. Symbolically, Haile Selassie, the God of Rastafarians, is over looking this sound system from the sky.


The riddim is usually the first thing mixed down in the recording studio. The drums and bass are mixed together because they set down the backbone of the song. The drums set the tempo, and the bass is the driving force. It is important to mix the drums and bass appropriately. Usually the bass will be the loudest instrument in the song followed by the kick drum. In reggae, it is all about the bass. The lower the sound is, the louder it will be. The drums can’t be louder than the bass because the bass is the “lead instrument”. I like to think of reggae drums as being a modest instrument. They set the tempo and provide the general groove of the song. However, they are not mixed as loud in the studio. The drums are in no way competing with the bass guitar, rather working in harmony. The bass guitar and drums are mixed with the most volume in the studio. The guitar, organ, piano, and percussion are all mixed under the bass and drums for a reason. The bass is flat out the loudest instrument in the song (even louder than vocals). Then there are the vocals and the drums, and everything else.

(Davis, Simon 45)


            The picture above displays the volume and frequencies of certain instruments in reggae music. As you can see, the bass is the loudest as I mentioned before. The numbers listed on the left side of the graphic represents the frequencies. The higher up on the graphic the

instrument is, the higher pitched it is. The picture of the man on the left side of the picture describes what part of the body certain frequencies affect. The higher frequencies hit the head, and the lower frequencies hit the head, chest, and stomach. (Davis, Simon 45) Again as I mentioned before, the bass (as a low frequency) hits the gut which in turn makes people dance.

You could say that the bass guitar is “glorified” more than the drums, but neither get the credit they truly deserve. If anything is over-glorified in reggae music, it is the guitar. Granted, the lead guitar is a difficult instrument to play, the rhythm guitar is not. The rhythm guitar is mixed moderately loud in the studio and is often played by the lead singer. In some people’s eyes, guitar comes to mind when they think of reggae instruments. It may be the front instrument on stage, but it is the easiest reggae instrument to play. All the rhythm guitar plays is muted strums on the off -beat. An inexperienced guitar player would have no problem playing reggae rhythm guitar. I am not saying that the rhythm guitar is not important, because it is extremely important. It keeps the rhythm just like the drums and bass do. When the drums or bass take a solo or fill, the rhythm guitar is always there to keep the tempo. It is essentially a percussion instrument, but played with precise chords.

The riddim is the basis of reggae. Without it, reggae would just be acoustic ballad music. Granted, some of the greatest reggae songs are acoustic such as Redemption Song by Bob Marley. The whole idea of reggae music is the riddim. The riddim is what makes people move. It’s contagious. When I hear a reggae song, I can’t help but tap my foot or bob my head. This idea of the riddim has influenced many styles of music, and helped these styles evolve into what they are today.


One of the most famous drum and bass duos of all time is Lowell (Sly) Dunbar and Robert Shakespeare, also known as Sly and Robbie. These two played on or produced over two hundred thousand songs. “Theirs is the ultimate musical marriage, a partnership that, once formed, re-etched the very landscape of not just Jamaican music, but the entire world’s” (officialslyandrobbie.com).

Robbie Shakespear

Robbie Shakespeare (http://slyrob.3va.net/history.html)


Before Sly and Robbie met, they were well respected musicians who played with very well known acts such as Bob Marley. Once they started playing together, they performed with basically every major Jamaican artist. In the seventies, the duo came up with the Rockers riddim. This style (as previously mentioned) adds a bass drum hit to the first beat, which became very popular. This style did not replace the One Drop riddim, but it did decrease the use of it.

Sly Dunbar

Sly Dunbar (http://slyrob.3va.net/history.html)

Sly and Robbie are the perfect example of drums and bass being overlooked. Sly and Robbie are behind the music. They produced or played with artists such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Ben Harper, Matisyahu, Sting, Santana, and many more. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know about these guys until I wrote this paper. And I am a drummer and a huge reggae fan. They do not get the respect they deserve along with reggae music in general.

In the movie, Dub Echoes, it is said that dub reggae directly influenced rock, hip hop, disco, and techno. “Dub is the most underrated music in the world. Dub has not been given its respect” (Dub Echoes). The movie also declares that the average hip hop fan doesn’t know where the influence came from, which is Jamaica. Rap and hip hop originated in Jamaican sound systems. The DJs would play the B side (dub side) and rap over it. One DJ in particular, wanted to take this new style of music to America. His name was Clive Campbell also known as DJ Kool Herc.

Campbell moved to the South Bronx in New York City with a plan to spread the sound system idea. It exploded, and new styles of creating beats emerged such using turn tables. Back to my point, this all stems back to the drum and bass riddim in reggae. The drums and bass were featured on the B side of the albums which were played during sound systems. This is where DJs came into play and started to put their creativity into the songs they originally had absolutely nothing to do with. This concept is extremely similar to how rappers become successful. Rappers don’t play instruments (for the most part). They just know how to rhyme and have a good voice. Not have a good singing voice, but a good DJ voice. The whole idea of sound systems and hip hop is that anyone can participate in it. You don’t have to be a good singer at all. You don’t have to play an instrument. All you need to do is be able to write lyrics and be an entertaining person.

This also brings me back to the idea that the musicians and producers are underrated. Who gets all the glory when a rap song gets popular? The rapper, of course. The producer and musicians on the track don’t get nearly enough credit as they deserve just like Sly and Robbie don’t. I don’t mean to discredit rappers or reggae singers. It is extremely difficult to rap or sing. I know I would never be able to do either as long as I live. I am just saying that the source or the music is being overlooked in every sense. From the small example of a bassist, drummer, and guitar player on a reggae album not being acknowledged by the masses, yet the singer is. And on a bigger scale, the originators of dub did not get acknowledged for their influence on rap and other styles of music. DJ Kool Herc did not get acknowledged for being the creator of rap. Millions of people listen to rap and hip hop today, but don’t know the origins. I bet many rappers themselves don’t know where rap came from. The riddim is what everything I’ve discussed branches off of.

The drums and bass are the foundation of reggae music. They establish the tempo, the melody, and the beat of the music. The drums set down a steady tempo, which the bass works off of to create the melody. Together, the bass and drums create the basic beat/groove for the song. When it comes down to mixing tracks in the studio, the bass is the loudest followed by the drums. The riddim is the most important concept of reggae music which showcases the bass guitar and drums. The riddim was played alone without vocals on B side tracks to allow DJs to sing or rap to the audience. This in turn, evolved into rap and hip hop, the most popular genre of music in the world. Not gaining the respect it deserves, reggae sits in the corner of the music industry watching what it has created. The bass and drums in reggae music is where it all originally came from. The reggae riddim is one of the biggest influences of all time on modern music.


Works Cited


Bradley, Lloyd. This Is Reggae Music The Story of Jamaica's Music. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.


Dub Echoes. Dir. Bruno Natal. Soul Jazz, 2007. DVD.


Friedland, Ed. Reggae Bass (Bass Builders). New York: Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998. Print.


"How To Play Reggae Drums." Ring-Arrestor Drum Mufflers. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://www.drummuffler.com/how-to-play-reggae-drums>.


The International Sly and Robbie - Official Website. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://www.officialslyandrobbie.com/>.


King, Stephen A., and P. Renee Foster. Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control. United States: University of Mississippi, 2002. Print.


Scheurer, Timothy E. American Popular Music: Readings from the Popular Press The Age of Rock. Albany: Bowling Green State Univ Popular Pr, 1990. Print.


"Sly and Robbie: history." Sly and Robbie Riddim Twins Unofficial Website. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://slyrob.3va.net/history.html>.


Snider, Alfred. "Rhetoric of Reggae." Music 1,2. Online, Burlington, VT. 30 Nov. 2009. Lecture.


Snider, Alfred. Rhetoric of Reggae. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://rhetoricofreggaer.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2009-09-16T11%3A16%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=7>.


Tracy, Steven C. Write Me a Few of Your Lines A Blues Reader. New York: University of Massachusetts, 2000. Print.


"World Rap-up Hip-hop Shows The International Influence Of Reggae Rhythms | Europe Western Europe from AllBusiness.com." Business Resources, Advice and Forms for Large and Small Businesses. Billboard. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. <http://www.allbusiness.com/retail-trade/miscellaneous-retail-retail-stores-not/4641073-1.html>.