Reggae is the ultimate genre when it comes to feel and subdivision—the perennial “less is more” genre. If you listen to a Top 100 list of reggae classics, you’ll recognize that a number of them swing with a very clear 8th-note triplet subdivision. A large number are also played as straight as can be 8th notes, and then there are the ones that fall within the cracks of straight and swung. When tackling a reggae song you must first decipher the 8th-note subdivision in order to create a template for the groove and feel. I find that most of my students that are good players still have a hard time figuring out where the subdivision lies due to the lack of knowledge of this style of music.  It is easy to simply hear the entire band, fall victim to the soothing rhythms, and not even realize what the subdivision is.

Let’s look at a few tracks from the same 1979 Bob Marley album, Survival:

“So Much Trouble in the World”
On the straighter side at 156 bpm One Drop

On the straighter side at 125 bpm Four on the Floor

“Top Rankin’”
Very much in-between at 135 bpm, One Drop

Very much in-between at 142 bpm, One Drop

“Africa Unite”
Very much straight at 128 bpm, Four on the Floor

“One Drop”
Swung 8ths at 120 bpm, One Drop

“Ride Natty Ride”
Straight at 125 bpm, Four on the Floor

“Ambush in the Night” 
Swung at 120 bpm, One Drop

“Wake Up and Live”
Straight with a lean to the middle at 134 bpm, One Drop

Every one of these songs puts the upbeat in a slightly different place. Tempo of course has an effect on the optionsthe slower the tempo, the wider the space between notes thus creating more wiggle room in the groove. Play along to the aforementioned tunes and hone in on your 8th-note feel compared to the recording. This will help not only with your time and feel, but also your ability to move around a click without drastic jumps.

Stewart Jean is Program Chair for Drums at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA