Rhythm Is King: Bob Marley’s Hypnotic Pulse
The simple and effective chord stabs that fueled early reggae hits may appear easy, but getting them right is a real art. Here are a few quick examples to help you master it.
• Understand how to lock in single- and double-chop strum patterns.
• Learn how to phrase a “stuck line.”
• Create interlocking parts in the style of classic Wailers tunes.
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Bob Marley has rightfully earned his place as one of the most important figures in modern music. Alongside artists like the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Bob Dylan, Bob Marley has left an indelible mark upon the international consciousness. His message of revolution, and freedom from oppression, resonated with millions of people all across the globe. Amongst his fans, these ideas remain just as vital today.
Marley’s songs were a conduit to the people, expressing in his singular voice what so many wished to articulate. And in the process of becoming an iconic musical artist, he almost single-handedly popularized reggae music and Jamaican culture to the masses. Unfortunately, as with most artists of this level of fame, the life of the man became shrouded in mystery and half-truths, often overshadowing what initially brought him to prominence: his music.
But his musical excellence is not limited to his iconic songwriting and instantly recognizable voice, he was also a fantastic rhythm guitarist. His sense of timing was impeccable and never deviated from the most necessary of parts. What he plays on guitar is often taken for granted by casual listeners, and even his most dedicated fans. I hope to shine a light on the immense talent and taste that Mr. Marley showcased every time he picked up a guitar.
In the early 1960s, Jamaica was taking in a wide range of musical influences, from traditional styles like mento and calypso (a form of Trinidadian folk music) to American soul and R&B. This wide swath of influences ultimately culminated in the first truly Jamaican form of music, ska. It immediately became a hit in the downtown areas of Jamaica, while uptown it remained an invalid and delinquent musical style. Marley was at the forefront of this phenomena with his group, the Wailers, who had their first hit single in 1964, “Simmer Down.”
Ska initiated a very distinctive feature of Jamaican music that subsequently became the basis for reggae: heavily accenting the upbeat. The rhythm guitar in ska music plays all four upbeats, or the “and” of each beat. Don’t miss what the bass and drums are doing either: The drummer is accenting beats 2 and 4 while the bassist is playing a cool walking line.
Over the next several years, Jamaican music—including the Wailers—went through several different iterations and variations. During this time reggae began its development, and by the early ’70s had come into its own. In 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers made their first major label release, Catch a Fire. I personally consider this to be their crowning achievement and a perfect encapsulation of the original Wailers lineup.
The initial release of Catch a Fire featured several overdubs by American and European musicians. And while at the time of the recordings this was a great way to expand Marley’s audience—and it did just that—the subsequent release of the original Jamaican versions proved that the outside overdubs only took away from the sound of the band. The Jamaican versions are also ideal for this particular lesson because Bob’s guitar is at the forefront of the mix.
Great rhythm guitar playing, across all genres, has at least one thing in common: an illusion of simplicity. There are tens of millions of people, and this includes musicians, that have listened to the music of Bob Marley for most of their life. I can be almost certain that 99 percent of them have never once stopped to take in just how perfect Bob’s guitar playing is. In a way, I think Bob created this problem for himself, simply by being so damn good! Most of the world’s introduction to reggae happened through Bob’s music, and having almost no other reggae to compare it to, people take for granted that right from the start they were dealt the absolute best that ever lived.
I think the most prime example of his guitar playing is the intro to “Stir It Up.” It’s absolutely perfect. His timing is impeccable and unbelievably consistent. I’m sure there are many of you out there who are thinking, “What the hell is this guy making such a big deal about? I could play that in my sleep, it’s just three chords and a simple rhythm.” Well, not exactly.
The virtuosity is all in the subtleties: the immediate dampening of his left hand, as well as the almost hypnotic steadiness and even attack of his picking hand. Go ahead, give it a try. I promise it will give you a much harder time than you imagine.
The primary function of reggae rhythm guitar is percussive, the secondary being harmonic. For many guitarists this will be antithetical to almost anything they’ve played before. But I assure you that if you embrace it, the result will be thoroughly enjoyable. In the context of a band, I find the role of a percussionist to be enlightening. It forces you to refocus your brain and commit to a purely supportive role.
Ex. 1 uses a single chop over an A–G chord progression. This I–bVII chord sequence is very common in the Wailers’ music. The chord shape is one of the few that Marley used. This single chop is the most minimalistic of the traditional reggae rhythms and a great place to start testing your timing. Use a single downstroke and mute the strings with your fretting hand almost immediately. Remember that intro to “Stir it Up?”
For Bob, it wasn’t about filling space with the chords, it was about setting up a rhythm for the whole band to build an arrangement around. Also, the downstroke is not a suggestion for reggae rhythm guitar, it’s a rule. Upstrokes are to be used in calypso and ska music, but it’s a huge no-no for reggae.
Your left hand might give you the most trouble when first trying to cop the phrasing. It’s all about how much note content you let through before letting up on your strings and dampening the sound. It’s important to practice to a metronome because you will have nothing to hide behind. If you only play along to Wailers tracks, you will fool yourself into thinking your chop is more locked in that it is. The difference between a great chop and weak chop is literally milliseconds, so playing to a metronome will give you the blank canvas you need to hear each and every subtlety.
Ex. 2 borrows its chords from “Stir It Up” and shows that I–IV–V chord progressions have their place in reggae too. The universality of these chords is pretty astonishing, considering that a large portion of the most important songs in modern music history were written using only these chords. It’s very important that you don’t accentuate the 5th-string notes on the IV and V chords, because doing so will give you a far too fat and bassy tone. Instead, you want small and percussive. Really focus on connecting with the triad that sits on the inner three strings, that will give you a similar snap.
The double chop was Marley’s go-to rhythm. There are songs where he opts for the single chop, but a majority of Wailers recordings are based around this pattern. When most people think of reggae guitar, they think of a “chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka” sound. That’s the double chop. Both hands are more involved on this one. Check out Ex. 3. A VIm–V progression in the key of D, this is similar to what you might hear in “Slave Driver” and “Kinky Reggae.” Also, it’s common in some reggae songs to never actually play the I chord, which in this key would be a D major chord. This is done to maintain the dark and moody character of the song, and to never fully let the tension release.
Ex. 4 features another common minor key progression: VIm–IIm–VIm–IIIm. We are sticking in the key of D, so that translates to Bm–Em–Bm–F#m. The shapes used here are slightly different than before. For instance, we are playing the minor-chord shape on the top four strings and excluding the 5th string rather than playing a barre chord.
Marley’s chord choices almost never strayed from a standard major or minor chord. He didn’t use seventh chords or extensions like 9 or 13. This kept things very simple and harmonically noncommittal so he could maintain his role as a percussive player first and foremost.
A “stuck line” is a muted single-note line often played by the band’s other guitarist. There are several different types of stuck lines, but most can fit into two categories: doubling the bass line or creating an independent melody. A few prime examples of this are “Stir It Up” and “Get Up, Stand Up,” although even in these contexts the stuck line will slightly deviate from the bass, adding additional rhythms to certain sections of the phrase. Listen to how Peter Tosh adds little rhythmic flourishes in between phrases before he locks back in with the bass on “Stir It Up.”
In the case of “Midnight Ravers,” you can here that Tosh is actually hinting at, and eventually doubling, the background vocal melody. He could have doubled any part or even created his own, but instead he decided to grab hold of an important existing melody and accentuate it.
Ex. 5 is a stuck line to be played under a static Am chord vamp. Make sure to lay back on your timing. If you’re rushing in reggae, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. Also, experiment to find the right amount of picking-hand pressure for the palm muting. You want the notes to be short and staccato, but not choked.
Ex. 6 is a stuck line based around a I–IV vamp in the key of A. These notes are less staccato than the previous example but still muted. With this example, the phrasing is very similar to that of a bass player. So if it helps you, pretend you are playing bass. Put yourself in that mindset and see if it makes it easier to nail the line.
I hope this lesson has assisted in deepening your technical understanding of both Bob Marley’s music, and reggae as a whole. But please keep in mind that reggae is about much more than just technique and facility. Reggae is a spiritual music, and when presented correctly it will make the listener lose the sense of self and become one with the sound. Now I’m sure that many of you think that this sounds like mumbo jumbo, I can assure you it’s not. You don’t have to believe in anything supernatural to know that your mind can achieve alternate states of consciousness while listening to music, similar to those reachable through meditation. Over the last four decades, Bob Marley and the Wailers have brought millions of people to this transcendental place, and it surely was not by accident. The pulse of their music was intentionally hypnotic, and each player in the Wailers played a role in creating that feel. Bob Marley’s rhythm guitar played a huge part in this sound, and though it sounded simplistic, it was always rock solid. If there is one thing that you take away from this lesson, it’s to adapt Marley’s philosophy of reliability and selflessness in your musical endeavors.