Reggae drumming. How do you do it? Reggae is a playing style that, in terms of difficulty, is often underestimated by a lot of drummers (and musicians). Playing tight, authentic reggae grooves can be a little harder than you’d think. For example, if a reggae track emerges during a jam session, it gets pretty clear, pretty quickly that a lot of the musicians involved have no idea what they need to play or even what their role is. In this blog, I try to lay out the essential reggae drum rhythms along with some tips to pull the tightest sound from your groove.

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Reggae Drum Rhythms

Reggae rhythms can be relatively simply but to work, they have to be played with precision and be as tight as possible. While they’re essentially made up of recognisable patterns, the challenge lies in all the small details and variations that ultimately define the groove. As with other playing styles, you can identify and subdivide reggae into a number of subgenres and styles and find an unending and continually evolving vocabulary of rhythms and variations to adapt, develop and play with. The most essential rhythms found in Reggae are:

  • Ska / Rocksteady
  • One Drop
  • Rockers
  • Steppers

The skill needed to play Reggae comes close to that of Jazz since, unless everyone is listening closely to one another, it’s going to fall apart fast. As such, a Reggae drummer has one clear task: produce a repetitive, super-tight groove. Your partner in crime is the bassist and together, you form the bedrock for the second half of the rhythm, or ‘riddim’ section; the guitarist and keyboardist.

Ska / Rocksteady

Ska originated in from Jamaica and slowly emerged towards the end of the 1950s and is what you get when you melt American rhythm and blues with Caribbean styles like Mento and Calypso then shape the whole thing with swing or big-band-style jazz instrumentation and detail. Ska comes in two distinct flavours: Straight-up Jamaican Ska (with prominent swing and big-band influences) and the slightly later developed, British ‘Two-Tone’ Ska, made popular by bands like The Specials and Madness. In this blog, I’ve limited things to Jamaican Ska and the more recent ‘60s sound of Rocksteady. Rocksteady is basically a more laid-back variation of Ska and is seen as the forerunner of Reggae. Separating Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady isn’t always easy but, if you listen closely, you can spot the difference in the way the guitarist plays the afterbeat. In Ska, the afterbeat is played with an upstroke followed by a downstroke while on Rocksteady tracks, this order is subtly flipped and sometimes, the organ doubles the pattern. In very literal terms, a Ska organ plays the afterbeat rhythm: ‘ki-koo-ki | ki-koo-ki’ while a Rocksteady organ does the opposite, ‘koo-ki-koo | koo-ki-koo’. I did warn you that the the secrets of Reggae lie in the details!

Basic Ska and Rocksteady Rhythms

Below, you’ll find two bars of a basic Ska and Rocksteady rhythm. On each accent, it’s possible to play the hi-hat half open. Also, the open notes in this phrase indicate rim-clicks and no open snare hits should be played.

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

One Drop

The ‘one-drop’ is a true roots-reggae rhythm made immediately recognisable by Carlton Barrot, the drummer from Bob Marley & The Wailers. This beat can be heard all over ‘Three Little Birds’, ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘Waiting In Vain’, ‘Stir It Up’ and ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. While the one-drop looks every bit like a rocksteady rhythm, it has a slightly different feel. The backbeat of Ska and Rocksteady, as well as pretty much all pop music, has an accent on the 2nd and 4th beat: one-TWO-three-FOUR. With a one-drop rhythm, the accent falls on the third beat: one-two-THREE-four. On every third beat, the kick drum is played and accented by a rim-click (by hitting the stick against the rim of the snare). Count 2 and 4 are accentuated by guitar and piano in a ‘skank’ or ‘afterbeat’ pattern while no accent is played on count 1. Hence, ‘the one is dropped’. Besides the count and tempo difference, the considerable influence of African rhythms is apparent in the use of percussion and the high-tuning of the snare drum, making for tight rim-clicks and a timbale-style sound when the snare is played open (this only happens during fills and variations. Crashes are also barely used).

One Drop Rhythms

The One drop in it simplest form:

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

One drop with hi-hats in eighths:

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues


Now we come to the ‘80s and the time when rock music was everywhere. This not only found its way into the Reggae sound but affected where reggae bands could get gigs. Everything needed to be harder – everything had to rock. The Rockers rhythm can be explained and felt in a number of ways. You could compare it to a standard rock-ballad beat, only double the count (the count, not the speed!). The kick is played on the 1 and 3; an open snare or rim-shot is played on the 3 to accent the kick and the hi-hat is played in eighths. This differs from the standard rock-ballad since the hi-hat would be played in sixteenths, the snare on 2 and and 4 and the kick on 1 and 3.

“Why the different count when it’s the same rhythm?”

That’s a little tough for this humble blog to explain. It’s similar to comparing F# and Gb. Both describe the same note but the names have a different function. Much depends on the bass line and melodic phrases layered over a Rockers beat. Rocker beats can even be found all over hip-hop, layered with bass lines and melodies that sound little like Reggae but are still Rocker beat style. A genuine master of this rhythmic style is Sly Dunbar from the renowned production duo, Sly & Robbie.


Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

You can also play this beat with a half-time count and feel:

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues


To inject a little more drive into the Reggae scene, the so-called Steppers beat evolved. Essentially, your hands do the same thing as they would when playing a one-drop beat while the kick, instead of hitting every third count, now hits every count for a gigantic, driving beat while the snare can be played open or with rim-clicks and toms start to be incorporated into the basic rhythm. Great examples of a classic Stepper beat are found in Bob Marley’s ‘Jamming’ and ‘Exodus’ or ‘African Postman’ by Burning Spear.


Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Hi-hat Variations

The hi-hat is one of the most important parts of the kit since it dictates tempo and groove. The hi-hat is also where you’ll play most variations. In the hand-written examples of beats added to this blog, I’ve included eight-note hi-hat rhythms with straight timing but you can easily play the same parts with a swing or shuffle. Below, I’ve included a few common hi-hat patterns that you can use. Most are played with a light accent on counts 2 and 4.

Variation 1

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Variation 2 (swing)

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Variation 3

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Variation 4

Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Note: Variations 3 and 4 are not used so much for Ska and Rocksteady but fit best with other rhythms like One-Drop, Rockers and Steppers.

Essential Point: Cues

Especially during live shows, Reggae includes a lot of improvisation. The singer or band-leader often uses a number of cues (signals or words) so that everyone knows what’s going to happen next. Since a lot of these cues are standard and every singer uses them, they’re worth knowing. “Drum and bass!” is a standard cue for the guitarist and pianist to drop out and give the drummer and bassist some space. This is also sometimes called ‘Dubwise’ but in this case, the guitarist and pianist will often lay delays and other atmospheric effects over the ‘dubby’ drum and bass layer. If the singer needs to calm things down, so that the audience can hear what they’re about to tell them, they’ll call out “riddim!”. At this point, the drums and bass stop while the guitarist and pianist carry on the afterbeat (also known as the ‘skank’ or ‘riddim’). The spontaneous switching between the two halves of the rhythm section happens a lot during most live reggae shows. Numerous repetitions of an intro are also featured; mimicking Jamaican sound-system culture where DJs restart hit-singles repeatedly to wind up the crowd and lock them in for what they know is coming. The singer will often use the command “wheel!”, “pull up!” or “rewind” to cue the repea, directly referencing sound-system vinyl DJs. Another essential cue is “mix!”, which launches the entire band into a predetermined standard pattern of rhythmic accents, which every member plays in the same way. Pay close attention to your singer, because if you miss this cue, you’re probably not getting paid. An example of a commonly used mix-pattern is included below:Reggae Drumming – Rhythms, Sounds and Cues

Tips & Tricks

To get an authentic Reggae sound, there are a few basic rules you can follow. Remember, Reggae music is about variation and evolving so you’re not going to get arrested for finding your own way to play it. However, here are a few great pointers to help you on the way:

  • Reggae drummers rarely use a ride. Two or three crashes, certainly a hi-hat and maybe a splash, cowbell or wood block are all you need.
  • To get the right sound, it’s a good idea to use a set of sticks no thicker than the standard 5A. 5A is perfect and 5B is possibly even better. With a thick set of 7A or 7B-sticks, you won’t get enough volume out of those oh-so-important rim-clicks. The sound of your rim-clicks also relies on where you hit the stick, so always aim between two tension rods on the rim of the snare and for the perfect click, make sure not to hit too far ahead or too far behind the mid-point of the stick.
  • Tune your snare high – to the point where it sounds like a timbale. Alternatively, just get yourself a timbale and use it as a side-snare. If you listen to Carlton Barrett (Bob Marley) you can clearly hear that he rarely turns the snare on. This gives the timbre of his snare hits a short dryness that better matches the toms (the toms have this dryness since the resonance heads have been removed).
  • A common misconception among drummers is that you can only get that fierce, high reggae sound from a piccolo snare. Most of the time, you’ll be fine with a piccolo but you’ll always miss out on that enormous body and volume. From a 14 x 6.5 or 14 x 8 inch snare, you can conjur that great, fierce tone as long as it’s tuned correctly and attention is paid to the head and damping. You’ll also get the best result out of a snare made with steel, brass or harder wood types. The benchmark for this is again, Carlton Barrett, who used a Ludwig 402 snare (usually a 14 x 6.5 inch) on many Bob Marley recordings. It might be a surprise to know that, even though they couldn’t sound more different, this is the very same snare used by John Bonham from Led Zeppelin.
  • If you’re a drummer in a reggae band, nine times out of ten, you’re going to be responsible for the intro. Most of the time, this is played in two timings. The first part is played half-time and the second is the all important intro-fill that, if the fill is clear enough, brings the rest of the band in. Carlton Barrett is, of course, the master of intro-fills. Do a quick Youtube search with his name combined with ‘intro fills’ and you’ll immediately know why (here’s a great example).
  • In standard pop, the fill is usually closed with a crash on the first count. With reggae, since the third count is king, this is where you’ll usually hear the crash hit. Crashes are rarely used and when they’re used during a fill, they usually land on the fourth count or the third count of the bar before the fill. Also, in most pop music, the kick is played at the same time as the crash while in Reggae, the snare is always played with the crash.
  • Seek out some footage of live shows and study what renowned reggae drummers are doing. Start by finding some early bands you like – bands that originated in Jamaica so you get a good sense of the most authentic form of Reggae. Popular bands with a heavy reggae influence like The Police or UB40 are great but offer more of an interpretation of the style rather than the style itself. The best place to start is at the source and then get an idea of what’s going to best fit your personal style.
  • If you have no idea of where to begin, then check out the film Rockers (1978) and have a listen to the following drummers:
    • Lloyd Knibb (The Skatalites)
    • Carlton Barrett (Bob Marley & The Wailers)
    • Sly Dunbar (Mighty Diamonds, Beenie Man, Black Uhuru, Britney Spears, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Bunny Wailer, Culture, Don Carlos, Gregory Isaacs, Grace Jones, Dennis Brown, Ini Kamoze and many others)
    • Angus ‘Drummie Zeb’ Gaye (Aswad)
    • Mikey ‘Boo’ Richards (Mighty Diamonds, Jimmy Cliff, Culture, Third World, Midnite)
    • Winston Grennan (Toots and the Maythals, The Heptones, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff)
    • Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis (Roots Radics, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Big Mountain, Black Uhuru, Ziggy Marley)
    • Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace (Burning Spear, Gladiators, Inner Circle)
    • Lincoln ‘Style’ Scott (Gregory Isaacs, Roots Radics, Israel Vibration, Sugar Minott, Bunny Wailer, Barrington Levy)
    • Wilburn ‘Squidly’ Cole (Barrington Levy, The Melody Makers, Ziggy Marley, Damian Marley, Stephen Marley, Lauryn Hill, Amy Winehouse)
    • George ‘Dusty’ Miller (Firehouse Crew)

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