10 - Reggae

Welcome to the introduction to playing reggae guitar on my music website! To play reggae guitar, you skank by playing chords on the 2 and the 4 or on the upbeats. Some folks play this with a downstroke and some with an upstroke. The best ways to learn reggae: go to shows and play along to records! Of course, you want to get the right chords but the main thing is to get the right feel, so open up your ears and heart!

There's other stuff too, like soloing. Use pentatonic and blues scales, as well as minor and major scales. And another big thing is stick bass. To play stick bass, you usually play what the bass player is playing, or something related. It's always somewhat muted (with the picking hand's palm). This clip of Burning Spear has stick bass. I don't really get into stick bass in this lesson, but you can start by learning the bass line to a song and then doubling it on guitar while somewhat muting the strings. I'm still learning a lot about reggae but hopefully I can help you out some!

Check out this lesson on how to play Get Up, Stand Up if you’d like. I guess at some point I’d like to add some other songs. The following is one of my favorite songs. Hope you enjoy listen while you check out the lesson. If you have any questions please write me.

Subjects Covered – Lesson 10

  • Chords
    • Simple reggae riddims
  • Scales
    • Playing the major scale, the major pentatonic scale and the blues scale
  • Musicality
    • Playing along to Stir it up, Mr. Brown , There she goes, Waiting in vain
  • Exercises
    • Reggae riddim

The main points for this whole course are

  • keep your hands relaxed
  • keep your guitar in tune
  • play in time, with the rhythm
  • musicality always beats technicality
  • practice too slow instead of too fast
  • play along to records whenever you can
  • play with other people whenever you can

Reggae history

Brief Background

Most chords in reggae are the same chords you would find in rock and roll, though reggae uses a lot more bar and half bar chords. You can control how long the notes ring a lot easier with bar chords than with open chords.

Dub does seem to have some more jazz chords, though. We are going to learn different ways to play the same chords that were used in lesson 8 (50s rock and roll in G except the e minor). If you listen to early Bob Marley recordings you can hear the three and four chord 50s rock and roll/doo wop sound in some of the songs that I guess people would call either early reggae or rocksteady.

If you are interested in learning a bit more about reggae history. Here’s a couple links:

Reggae Chords

Partial Bar Chords

Though one can reggae using the chords we already know, it is an appropriate time to learn bar chords. Bar chords are used in all styles of music. Partial chords are easier to learn and you can start playing them in a day or two. Basically, you use the same finger of your left hand to play more than one note.

  • keeping the rhythm is more important than playing all the notes
  • play in time

| G | C | D | C |

Full bar chords

Full bar chords are for lesson 11, but since a lot of people seem to be stopping by the reggae page, I’ll include them here. If you hand hurts from playing a full bar chord, just play the partial chords listed above. You see in the videos that the guys are playing the full bar, but to me it sounds like they are mostly playing the higher notes of the chord.

Playing on 2 and 4

In reggae, the general rule of thumb is that the guitar plays on the 2 and 4 or on the ‘and’ of each beat. For example, in “Waiting in Vain” on Legends, you could say the guitar was on the 2 and 4 or the ‘and’, depending on how you count the beat. If you listen to people playing, usually the guitar plays something along those lines, but it isn’t exactly always the 2 and 4 or the ‘and’. Besides playing on the 2 and 4, a lot of times people downstroke on 2 and 4, upstroke on the ‘and’ of 2 and 4, like in Stir it Up, which you can listen to below.

Before you even start playing chords with songs, just mute the strings with your left hand. Then, play along with the guitar with your right hand. It’ll sound like you are chicken scratching like in funk, but you’ll be amazed at how much you learn about the groove by doing it that way.

Scratching the strings

One of the most beautiful things about playing guitar is all the different sounds you can get just with your two hands. Like in funk and flamenco and country, reggae players add a lot of depth and groove to their playing by gently muffing or muting the strings during or right after they play them. You have to find the sweet spot and then you get a thicker sound.


You can look at other lessons in the guitarkitchen to find out more about scales. Lesson Two starts with a vamp over a pentatonic scale. If you are familiar with that form of the pentatonic, check out lesson seven for a different form. Anyways, here are a few of main scales: blues, pentatonic, major. If you listen to the songs below, I’ll include some tips for different scales you can use with the songs.

C major or a minor pentatonic!

C major or a minor blues scale

The red dot is the blue note.

C major, a minor or d dorian minor

Check out lesson eight to learn more about the relation between pentatonics and major scales.

Songs to practice

These are from the Legends album. Use the major chord form that you just learned, plus this minor bar chord form. This will allow to most all these songs. This minor chord is an a minor. You can use the chord form and play it on different frets, depending on the song, just like the major chords. Even if you don’t know the chords to the song, just mute the strings with your left hand and lock into the groove.

Stir it up

These chords are A, A, D and then E. These three chords are the same chord forms as the G, C, D chords that are shown above. Instead of playing on the 3rd, 8th and 10th frets, play them on the 5th, 10th and the 12th frets. If the 12th fret is hard to play, you can play it as an open chord. There is one other part to the song, but you should try to figure it out yourself. It uses the A and D chords. Listen to the bass. Stir it up has a really famous bassline.

There’s two parts. The bassline corresponds to the chords. When the bass line changes, you need to play the part that is just A and D. Incidently, listen to the drums too. He’s playing a one drop beat. Literally, you drop the one, but usually people play the hihat. You play the hihat for each beat but cross stick and play the bass drum on 3. There are variations but especially in the beginning he’s playing one drop.

I also just added a lesson about Stir It Up from someone on YouTube. She’s got a nice feel and a good voice.

Actually this is another drum clip from Horsemouth jamming with a bass player. I love watching reggae drummers because it’s so mysterious they get such a big beat from playing so few notes!

Mr. Brown

I love this song. I haven’t really figured out what it is about. Who’s Mr. Brown? It’s got three chords. C# F# G# and then it goes back to F#. It’s the same chords again but it goes from the 9th fret to the 2nd to the 4th to the 2nd. Well, there’s another part, too.