Here are some tips that should help you master the art of reggae guitar playing. I assume that you already know how to play the guitar and you are comfortable using bar chords. I will mainly be using bar chords in this lesson. For those who do not know their bar chords, I will show you a technique you can use. I must add though, that its application is very limited. But I will show you if you promise to learn your bar chords.
First, let's talk about your...
Rest your left hand on top of the strings without applying any pressure, and it will mute your sound. Then quickly press down on the top three strings when the right hand strikes the chord. You are trying to create a short, staccato sound. Practice first with the strings muted, and then progress to pressing them down.
The right hand plays a strong down-stroke motion on the offbeat of the rhythm. You are not trying to "strum" the strings; you want to "chop" them. Put some power into your picking attack and make use of the guitar as a percussive instrument. Also remember to play only the top three strings.
Reggae Strumming Patterns
1. The most common reggae rhythm guitar pattern involves playing a downstroke on the offbeat of the rhythm. So if you are counting in 4/4 time, you would play a downstroke on the + (the "and") of the beat.
D D D D
and check out Bob Marley's "Jammin'" as an example.
2. The second most common reggae guitar strumming pattern involves a slight variation. Instead of just a downstroke, now it's a down and up stroke on the offbeat.
DU DU DU DU
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
And listen to "Get Up, Stand Up" by Bob Marley as an example.
The best way to learn how to play reggae rhythm guitar is by listening to your favorite reggae songs and trying to play along. Start with these two basic patterns, and then you can alter them to create your own reggae guitar strumming patterns. Be sure to check out the extra (third) strumming pattern in the video below.
Reggae Guitar Lesson
We will use G-minor. Hold the G-minor bar chord and strum down. Use a nice and easy pace. Do not pick the strings one after the other. Just strum down. If it's done properly you should get a bright sustaining sound – doesn't sound like reggae does it? Don't worry! We are about to fix that.
To get that illusive reggae sound, after each strum, swiftly and fractionally raise the strings from off the fret board – only fractionally. Make sure that your fingers are still on the strings (see image right). This has to be done right to get the proper reggae sound and feel. Notice when you do this how the sound quickly dies. This dampening of the strings at this point is the hallmark of reggae playing. Get this right and you will be more than half way in mastering the art of how to play reggae guitar.
You now need to practice this over and over until it becomes easy. You could try counting yourself in and on the second count strum down. Repeat but, do not go pass two counts. To get this tight, squeeze the strings against the fret as you are about to make contact.
See both videos for more on this:
How to Do the Chop/Chuck
If you are really keen on how to play reggae guitar, you must learn this technique. The strumming technique I showed you above is very effective and you could go on stage with that technique alone but, you would be bored to death over time. This is where the chop or chuck comes in.
Here's a quick way of doing it. Repeat the exact technique I showed you above but this time, include a return stroke while the strings are slightly raised. You only need to play the first three or four higher strings for this to work. You should hear a lovely choppy sound. If you can do this successfully over and over, you have mastered this intricate technique. Well done!
I must admit that this is not the way it is taught by many people but, believe it or not, this is how most reggae guitarist play. It is far more versatile, especially if you want to do some quick lead work or deliberately pick the lower strings while you play.
See video for more on this:
Here's a "bad" little technique you could try for variety. Pick the low E-string then strum down. Strum down quickly again but this time with the strings slightly raised form off the fret, then another quick strum down, while firmly pressing the strings against the fret. Do it over and over. This can really spice up your playing.
The "Ska Slowed Down" Technique
The other technique is actually ska slowed down. To find out more, have a look at reggae music history. All this technique involves is pronouncing the strum on the up stroke and doing the chop on the down. Start of by strumming up quickly and then down quickly while slightly raising the strings off the fret. Do this over and over for practice. You could even start off with the chop to give variety. This style of playing sounds good but it is not that versatile. If you love it, stick to it while learning the other technique, you might be pleasantly surprised.
For those who only know open chords:
Hold the A-minor open chord. Now strum the chord using the method I showed you earlier. It sounds off! I know. That's because you are also playing the high E and the low E and A strings. To solve the problem, after you strum the chord, use your strumming hand to quickly mute all the strings. This is done by placing the heel or palm of your hand over the strings. See acoustic reggae guitar for more.
Reggae Guitar Soloing
This aspect of reggae guitar is not very difficult, given that it's similar to other genres. The main thing to keep in mind is timing. Reggae is played on the off beat and those who aspire to master the art of reggae guitar soloing should listen to many reggae guitar solos and practice them.
It's also important to learn techniques such as hammer-ons, slides, bends, string skipping, pull-offs, double stops and Vibrato. Learning these will make your soloing come alive.
That's it. For practice, try to do it while changing chords. Remember this method can be very hard to get at first and not only that, it can be very limiting. So learn your bar chords.
There is much to learn about how to play reggae guitar but, the information here should be enough to get you started. As always nothing in reggae is cast in stone so experiment and see what works best for you.