Jah, rastafari! Whether skanking along to a one drop beat or gently chanking to an island-style song, reggae has an appealing sound. To play it on the ʻukulele you have to have a little bit of an imagination, but that’s part of the fun!
There’s a trick to a reggae ʻukulele strum however! Easy to do, hard to execute. I’ll show you how.
Reggae ‘Ukulele Basics
Listen to lots of reggae. I always say, “If you haven’t heard it, you can’t play it.” The more familiar you are with the style, the more you will understand what’s happening in the music – even if you physically can’t make the correct motions yet.
Bob Marley is the obvious name here. He was the best, still is the best, and should be studied from the beginning to the end of his career. If you aren’t familiar with Bob, buy the Legend album and go from there. If you are familiar with Bob, beef up your collection with Exodus, Kaya, Survival, and as many other masterpiece albums as you can afford.
Basic Skank Strum on ‘Ukulele
Reggae is a band-based music. Each instrument plays a key role and each has a very unique sound that is found only within the genre.
The obvious instrumental part that we’ll be copycatting on ʻukulele is the guitar’s (sometimes also played by the keyboardist). Lucky for us, it’s also the most vital to the sound. Without the rhythm skank, reggae doesn’t sound so reggae.
So what is a “skank”? No, it’s not a trashy lady. It’s a short strum on the offbeat. It sounds like this:
After the drum fill, listen for the repeating “chank chank chank” sound the keyboard and guitar are making. That’s the skank.
It can be counted two different ways:
1 *2* 3 *4*
1 *and* 2 *and* 3 *and* 4 *and*
Which you choose depends a lot on the song. For this first, basic style of reggae strumming we’ll look at the former.
I think the video is pretty self explanatory, but in case you need a little more info on the muting section, check out the page dedicated to it:
Learning to feel the offbeat can be tricky. But with some patience and practice, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to pick it out of a lineup on your first try.
Unappealing as it might seem, the best way to work your timing chops is with a metronome. It doesn’t have to be hard. With a couple minutes a day you’ll be a timing freedom fighter! Here are some tips to help your time spent with a metronome:
Jawaiian ‘Ukulele Strum
Moving into more advanced reggae sub-genres we come to a different group of islands in the sea: Hawai’i. When the local Hawaiian musicians got hold of reggae, they created their own spin on the Jamaican sound. Jawaiian has a softer feel than reggae and is a little more friendly. The songs are more often about petty things than social injustice and struggle – the traditional reggae subject matter.
Jawaiian has had some moderate success in the past decade breaking into the mainstream sound. Many pop songs have borrowed elements that gave them a more island feel without the hard reggae edge. I’m Yours, Cheerleader, and even some actual jawaiian songs by artists like Common Kings have found extensive airplay in the US and abroad.
Obviously there are many ways you can change a genre and a simple strum variation is not all that makes jawaiian jawaiian. But in a nutshell on the ʻukulele, a slight change can create a more island-y feel.
The difference between the jawaiian strum and a skank strum is that you start on the offbeat with a downstrum and then immediately follow it with an upstrum on the “and.” This gives the jawaiian strum a lilting feel. Like this:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
- - D U - - D U
Check out the video for all the details:
Ska ‘Ukulele Strum
If you’ll remember, in the first reggae ʻukulele strum style – the skank – I said there were two ways to count the offbeat. On the “2” and “4” beats or on the “and” of each beat. Counting one way or another doesn’t really have an effect on the sound of the song, but by switching the counting, you essentially double the timing or cut it in half.
With this last reggae ʻukulele strum style we’ll be leaning exclusively on the “and” count.
1 *and* 2 *and* 3 *and* 4 *and*
This is a ska feel. It races along at an obnoxious doubletime pace. Like the guitar chank in the verse from this song by Sublime: Same In The End.
With three different reggae ʻukulele strum styles under your belt you’ll be able to play most things reggae on your instrument. What you should do now is begin learning your favorite reggae songs, one at a time. The chords to these songs tend to be very simple. Sometimes the whole song is only one chord! Master the variations on the chank and your feel will convey the message even if the chords are boring.
For a handful of jawaiian and reggae songs with easy chords, check out: