How To Play Ska

Everything the guitarist and bassist need to know about ska.

Ultimate Guitar
This lesson is designed to help us musicians learn how to construct and/or preform ska songs. There are already some lessons on Ska available on UG but this lesson will include more then they already discus.

Ska History

This section is important because it helps us avoid having misconceptions like: - "Ska is just fast reggae." - "Ska is a cross between punk and reggae." - "Ska is this great new sound that came in the 90s." (It is a great sound, just a lot older then the 90s) This is a very watered down history. 1st wave. Ska came about in the 60s in Jamaica were it connected with the Rude Boys, the low life's of Jamaica at that time. In the late 60s it slowed down to rock steady and reggae. Ska was about being someone, even if your no one. Bands include: The Skatalites and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. 2nd Wave. Ska came back in the late 70s in Europe as the 2 Tone Ska Revival. It mostly connected with the Skinheads and the Mods, two opposite social classes at the time. Ska was about racial unity. Bands include: The Specials, Bad Manners, and The Madness. 3rd Wave. Ska came again in the early 90s in America (Took it long enough!) It had also developed 2 sub genres, ska punk and ska core. Ska ended suddenly when the record companies pushed it too far and didn't allow it to develop itself. Ska was about acceptance and being happy. Bands include: The Toasters, The Hepcats, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Reel Big Fish. 4th Wave. OK, so the 4th wave hasn't happened yet, thats where you come in! Ska is becoming more popular once again and is looking right at another revival.

What Is Ska?

The term "Ska" means "music you can dance to" but thats pretty vague so we'll break it down for you. Ska is energetic upbeat music with the chords being accented on the offbeats. Fairly simple. It also typically has some sort of horn line, but this is not required (you could have a lead guitarist instead, or just have chords and vocals. Do it how ever you want, the sky's the limit.)

Dancing To Ska

Originally when you danced to Ska music you danced "The Ska" but it seems to have been outdated so we're just going to tell you how to dance to it nowadays. We call it "Skanking"(and it has nothing to do with that naughty girl down the street). Its a 2 step dance that takes a lot of coordination. You push each foot out and pull it back with the beat of the song and you swing your arms the oposite way. Its a lot harder then it sounds and in order to really learn how to dance it you need to see some one else do it.

Ska music

Ska is energetic so its usually faster, and it commonly has a horn line so its usually played in a horn friendly key (C F Bb Eb Ab Db) Our examples will be in the key of F using a V VI I progression.

Guitar in Ska

The part most of you have been waiting for! What the guitar does in Ska. In Ska the guitar is primarily for chords, but its not easy. The chords are all played on the offbeats and only on the top few strings (example being on just the GBe strings, which is what we'll use.) But never fear, it can be done. One common misconception about this is that they use barre chords, this isn't unheard of and they are used, but it has a lot fuller sound than we're looking for. Usually we want it on the high strings. We're going to use 6 movable chord patterns in this lesson, 3 major and 3 minor that you can use for chord on just those three strings. Major
e|-|-5-|---|---|   e|-|-3-|---|---|   e|-|-R-|---|---|
B|-|---|---|-3-|   B|-|---|-R-|---|   B|-|-5-|---|---|
G|-|---|---|-R-|   G|-|-5-|---|---|   G|-|---|-3-|---|
D|x|---|---|---|   D|x|---|---|---|   D|x|---|---|---|
A|x|---|---|---|   A|x|---|---|---|   A|x|---|---|---|
E|x|---|---|---|   E|x|---|---|---|   E|x|---|---|---|
e|-|-5-|---|---|   e|-|m3-|---|---|   e|-|-R-|---|---|
B|-|---|m3-|---|   B|-|---|---|-R-|   B|-|-5-|---|---|
G|-|---|---|-R-|   G|-|---|-5-|---|   G|-|m3-|---|---|
D|x|---|---|---|   D|x|---|---|---|   D|x|---|---|---|
A|x|---|---|---|   A|x|---|---|---|   A|x|---|---|---|
E|x|---|---|---|   E|x|---|---|---|   E|x|---|---|---|
R is the root of the chord and you just find that anywhere you need the chord. As we mentioned, Ska is also played on the offbeats (another misconception is that its the upbeats, but the upbeat is always on a full count so this won't qualify although upbeats can also be used). To help us do this we're going to mute all the strings and strike them on the onbeats (1,2,3,4) with a down stroke and them unmute the strings and play them on the offbeats (the 'and' of each count, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and)like the below example (for the moment we won't worry about exact chords, just concentrate on muting and playing).
Once we have this we can start working on chords and chord shifts.
There are also other variations on this pattern, such as adding a strum on the down beat of each measure.
Or adding it elsewhere in the measure.
Once you have the timing down you can later remove the muted strikes and play just the off beats.
There are more patterns but thats all we'll talk about in this lesson. If you were going to play some sort of lead guitar part, or write out a part for a horn line, you could use any note in the F scale (because our example piece is in F) it would be the G scale on Bb instruments and D scale for Eb instruments (they're transposing instruments, its better if you don't ask) On to the bass!

Bass in Ska

Finally a lesson that includes bass! (outside of the bass lesson section) I've never seen so many different styles of bass in one genre before (from my experience) we have walking, fifths, roots, counter melodies, melodies, harmonies, everything you can think of, and all in the same song if you wanted to. So for simplicity's sake I'm just going to give you some patterns on our set chord progression (C Bb F). Have fun!



And many more, just use your imagination! And as far as playing anything else, just make sure to stay in the key. Till next time, Love Skavoovie.

21 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Cockpuncher 2.0
    Sorry for double post, my answer went inside the quote :S Yes, Sublime and Rancid are considered Ska
    v2a2n2g2 wrote: thats pretty damn cool. i use to be an ignorant metalhead, im into fusion, funk, blues, and reggae nowbut i still love my definitely incorporating this into my funk playing.
    Ska is the best and this lesson really clears up many misconceptions
    Examples of chord construction were great! (I could have done without the vague description of what ska is, though)... In any case, good work
    Sublime can be considered ska to an extent. Critics and fans have considered Sublimes genre to be...well called "Sublime" sublime's fusion of many genres like hip hop, ska, reggae, thrash, punk, and many many more create a genre no other band has been able to successfully completely recreate or even touch. thats why the are so awesome. Music is life, live a fun one, Listen to ska. Easy Skankin
    Time Again
    No necessarily, Sublime does do some ska style music but not entirely. Rancid only has a few ska/punk songs like time bomb and such. Operation Ivy was the ska/punk band before Rancid that involved matt freeman and tim armstrong from rancid. Though Tim did do a solo album with the aggrolites that was still more reggae. Innovation is definitely happening. Streetlight Manifesto is ska like ska has never been played before.
    Cockpuncher 2.0
    IRISH_PUNK13 wrote: L.P wrote: wait so are bands like sublime considered ska :S Yes and yes yeh and what about rancid
    very helpful lesson for those who know little to nothing about the intricacies of ska.
    nice! but what about a lesson about common chords and scales... and that stuff.. see ya!
    L.P wrote: wait so are bands like sublime considered ska :S
    yeh and what about rancid
    thats pretty damn cool. i use to be an ignorant metalhead, im into fusion, funk, blues, and reggae nowbut i still love my definitely incorporating this into my funk playing.
    Willy Billy
    But is there any common progression in ska like in blues? (Blues progression in C)C-C-C-C-F-F-C-C-G-F-C-C)
    I'm more of a barre chords guy when it comes to Ska, (besides, I think the chords with only the first three strings are called "inversions") but other than that a great lesson. Bonus points for the bass advice.
    Thank you so much! But I have a question. You said, that you are using the V VI I progression. But your VI is an Ais instead of an Dm. Am I wrong? I am not to deep into the theory. I would be glad, if someone can explain this