Reggae Guitar Chords – An Essential Guide

Learning to play reggae guitar chords gives us a whole new realm of chords to play on the guitar – let’s learn why!

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In this free lesson you will learn…

  • 3 reggae songs to add to your songbook
  • How to play partial barre chords
  • The secret to mastering barre chords
  • The traditional reggae strumming style

An Introduction To Reggae Guitar Chords

Reggae music has always held its own distinct style and sound.

Founded in Jamaica, the reggae sound is uplifting, hopeful, and is often used as a vehicle for songs of freedom and liberation.

Bob Marley brought his unique and rebellious sound to the world in the 1970s, and it didn’t take long for it to catch fire in the ears of other musicians as well.

In the 1980s, punk musicians found themselves to be singing songs with similar themes to reggae musicians.

  • The topics of liberation, freedom from oppression and judgment and free will all rose to the surface.
  • At this time, many of these musicians began to adopt a reggae sound to accompany their own. This would give way for many unique bands to shine through.

Reggae-Guitar-Chords

Many artists in the punk and reggae worlds found a union of sound that would bring these two genres together.

The marriage of punk rock and reggae music would also help give rise to another genre of music known as “Ska”. Check out The Mighty Mighty Bosstones here.

This genre of music is a beautiful example of how musical stylings can make their way across the world.

  • Today, we’re going to break down the function of reggae guitar chords, and talk about how they are different from other chord voicings.
  • By the end of this article, you’ll be playing along with the likes of Bob Marley, Rancid, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Ready? Set? Strum. Let’s go.

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Reggae Guitar Chords: What’s The Difference?

There are a few key concepts to keep in mind when learning reggae guitar chords:

  • Reggae music can be played using your typical open-position chord voicings, but it can also be played using partial barre chords (More on this below)
  • When we refer to ‘reggae guitar chords’ we are referring to partial barre chords themselves, as this is the chord voicing most closely associated with the style of music
  • At the beginner level, we can learn reggae music using our familiar open-position chords, but as we advance we should move toward the use of partial barre chords.
  • This will help us keep to the tight, slappy reggae sound we’re used to hearing

Reggae-Guitar-Chords

The primary difference between reggae guitar chords and their open-position counterparts is that these chords rely heavily on barring.

  • Reggae music uses a quick and slappy sound to create upbeat melodies and grooves.
  • Barre chords are much easier to mute, which make them ideal for playing this style of music.

Pro Tip: We’re going to talk about playing reggae music in the open position as well.

If you’re a beginner and you’re worried about barre chords, don’t worry – You’re still in the right place.

Let’s discuss the technique of muting and how it will help us learn more about reggae guitar chords below:

Reggae-Guitar-Chords

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Reggae Guitar Chords: Beginner Strumming (Bob Marley – ‘Redemption Song’)

For this beginner example, we are going to play using open position chords.

We don’t yet have to worry about the strumming patterns that we’ve learned until the intermediate example, but you can try them over this song and it will still work. Feel free to experiment!

  • Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ is one of his more well-known tunes, and gives us a great introduction to the world of reggae music.
  • This song has been played many ways, and so you can feel free to interpret the chord progression however you like in terms of strumming patterns.
  • Be sure to count a steady 1-2-3-4 pattern throughout the progression.

Check out the chords below:

Reggae-Guitar-Chords

Progression:

Verse: G – Em – C – Am

Chorus – G – C – D – G – C – D – Em – C – D – G

Although this song does not make use of any complex strumming patterns, it serves as an excellent introduction to the sound of reggae music.

  • It also teaches us how major chords help lay the groundwork for many songs in this genre.
  • Keep your ears peeled for the sounds of G major and C major and how they breathe life into the rest of the chord progression.
  • Once we have gotten the basis of this song under-hand, we can start to look at the technique behind reggae guitar chords.

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Reggae Guitar Chords: Muting

Reggae music has its own style, and a large part of it revolves around the muting of guitar strings.

String muting is a technique used commonly in Reggae music, but also in genres like ska, funk, punk rock, and even some motown music.

By muting our strings, we create a percussive effect that helps emphasize the chords we play after.

In order to mute our strings effectively before strumming the chord:

  • Decide on the chord you want to play
  • Play the chord once, then release your grip on the chord
  • Strum the chord again with your tips of your fingers resting in the chord position, rather than fretting it

Reggae-Guitar-Chords

Pro Tip: For open-position chords, we need to be a bit more careful about muting our strings.

  • If we are playing a C major chord, we will want to angle our fingers backward in order to mute all of the strings when we strum a muted chord.
  • Keep the position in mind so your fingers don’t lose their place.
  • How we go about muting different chords will largely depend on the chord we are playing, as well as our hand position.

All-of-me-chords

This technique challenges us to be more aware of our hand positioning in order to get the most out of it.

Effective string muting takes practice, so don’t give up if you don’t get it right away!

After we have gotten a feel for this technique, we can move on to learning how to strum reggae guitar chords.

how-to-play-reggae-on-guitar

Reggae Guitar Chords: Strumming Style

Along with string muting, the way that we strum chords in this style of music is extremely important.

This distinct style requires that we strum a chord and then release our grip of the strings to ‘choke’ the chord from ringing out.

Reggae guitar chords require this abrupt start-stop strumming technique in order to make room for the bass guitar and drums.

metal-tabs

Many instruments play around each other in reggae music, and it is the guitarist’s job to create that space within their playing style.

  • The beauty of reggae music is that the guitarist is not playing on every single beat.
  • Reggae music is typically counted in 8th notes, with the guitar playing on the ‘&’ of each beat.

Our count should look like this (play the bold counts only):

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

reggae-guitar-lesson

On the numbered counts where we do not play (beats 1, 2, 3, 4), we should aim to choke the chord so it does not ring out.

Alternatively, we can slap the muted strings with our pick on these beats to accent the drummer.

There is no rule that says that you must strum one way or another, but when playing reggae guitar chords it’s important to determine what strumming direction suits you best.

  1. Start by muting on a downstroke (beat 1) and strumming up on the chord on the & of beat 1.
  2. Repeat this process for each beat until the pattern is well under your fingers.
  3. If you find this approach does not appeal to your playing style, flip it backwards!

For more info on strumming technique, check out this video from How To Play Reggae.

how-to-play-reggae-guitar

Reggae Guitar Chords: Intermediate Playing (UB40 – ‘Red Red Wine’)

This reggae tune features some of the key techniques that we’ve learned so far in this lesson.

For this intermediate example, we’re going to use real reggae guitar chords.

That’s right – Barre chords.

Once you’ve stopped cringing, pick your guitar back up off the floor and take it one step at a time. You’ve got this!

rhythm guitar lessons

Note: We’re not going to play full barre chords for this song.

Instead, we’ll play partial barre chords using the D, G, B and high E strings.

  • You can use your index finger to barre across the G, B and E strings so you can switch between major and minor chord forms more easily.
  • This song revolves around three chords – D major, G major and A major.

We can begin with the open position D major, and then transition to barre chords for G and A major. See the chord charts below:

easy-reggae-chords

These chord voicings are great for helping us get used to barre chords. They also serve as a bridge to get us comfortable with the concept of barre chords before attacking them on six strings.

  • You will find as well that the G and A major shapes are identical to each other.
  • This means that we can move back and forth between these two chords without changing hand positions!

Rather than play on every beat, the guitarist plays only on the & of each beat (aka ‘offbeat’), like we discussed above.

Pro Tip: You don’t have to play muted strings for this chord progression on beats 1 through 4.

  • Instead, focus only on playing upstrokes on the offbeats. When you play each chord, release your grip to choke the chord.
  • This will give you that abrupt reggae sound you hear in the song.

free-reggae-lesson

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Reggae Guitar Chords: Advanced Playing (Rancid – ‘Time Bomb’)

California punks Rancid adapted a reggae sound to their brand of LA-punk rock that helped them stand out from the crowd early on in their career.

Since then, this band has become known for their fast-paced and upbeat punk sound, with not-so-subtle nods to their reggae influences like Bob Marley and Joe Strummer.

Rancid’s ‘Time Bomb’ is a punk rock standard with its roots in reggae music.

  • This song helps us not only see how these reggae guitar chords work in other styles, but how reggae music has affected other styles of music as well.
  • Music is a universal language, and genres will always influence other genres – that’s the beauty of it!

Check out the chords below to learn Time Bomb:

chords-reggae-guitar

This song is fast-paced and requires us to mute our strings on our downstroke, then strum them on the upstroke.

The same 8th note count applies here – you should only be playing on the offbeat (‘&’).

The intro and verse is just B minor and E back and forth, and from there we progress through a three-chord progression for the chorus.

Progression:

Verse: Bm – E

Chorus: A – D – E – D

This song is fun, quick and easy to play once we get it under our hands, so practice it often and effectively!

As You Can See, Reggae Guitar Chords Aren’t Just For Reggae Music

The musical influence of reggae music can be felt across a variety of different genres.

From punk rock, ska and country music to pop, rap and hip-hop – this is a genre that has had a wide-spread impact.

  • Once you have mastered these reggae guitar chords, you can use them in a variety of musical settings.
  • In many cases where we are playing with a bass or keyboard player, it helps to use these types of chords to ‘make room’ for the musical ranges of those instruments.
  • Practicing this style of playing also greatly benefits our sense of rhythm and timing.

Counting and playing on the offbeat takes time and practice, but it can supercharge both our playing and our practice routines.

Rhythm is all about how well we can count while we play, so try to incorporate foot-tapping into your practice to help you keep good time.

With that, you should make a point of including these chord shapes often in your playing.

Where Do I Go From Here?

If you’re keen on advancing your knowledge of reggae guitar chords, here are a few things we recommend:

  • Try writing a song using these chord voicings!
  • Practice upstrokes in your strumming patterns to get that upbeat Reggae sound!
  • Learn more about Reggae music not just from Reggae bands, but from Punk and Ska outfits as well.
  • Bust out these chord voicings during your next jam session!
  • Ask your guitar teacher to help you work on these chords.

Recommended Resources

If you loved this free lesson on reggae guitar chords, you’re going to love the other content we’ve got for you:

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