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What percussion instruments are used in reggae music?


Reggae percussion
Musician playing reggae percussion

Reggae percussion instruments are a key part of the reggae sound. The most common reggae percussion instruments are bongos, congas, cowbells, tambourines, vibraslap and Cabasa. These instruments are typically played by other members of the band. Each instrument plays a different role in creating the reggae sound. Bongos provide a spiritual African feel while congas add complexity and texture. Cowbells add accents and help to keep the rhythm moving forward. Tambourines add energy and excitement, while the vibraslap and casaba add the seasoning. Together, these instruments create the signature reggae sound.


How do play reggae percussion?

The bongos


Playing reggae bongos is a bit different from playing other types of percussion drums. Reggae bongos typically have two drums of different sizes. The larger drum is called the hembra and the smaller drum is called the macho. The hembra is usually played with the left hand and the macho is played with the right hand. Some reggae bongo drummers use bespoke drums and many times they only use one drum.

To play reggae bongos, start by sitting with the drums in between your legs. Position the hembra so that it's slightly higher than the macho. The drums are played with both hands. The middle portion and the outer third are the two most common positions used. When the outer part of the drum is hit, the left hand generally rest on the middle of the drum while the right-hand slap the outer surface.

For a start, think in terms of 5 hits. Using 8 notes do 4 hits in the middle with both alternatively and one on the outer surface with the right hand while the left hand is muting the drum in the middle. You can use 16 notes for variation or you can make your imagination run wild. However, you must keep the time and feel. Also, utilize the offbeat (playing behind and ahead of the beat) for added variation.


The congas


Congas are a type of Afro-Cuban drum. They come in different sizes, with the Tumba being the largest and the Quinto being the smallest. The congas are played with the hands and are typically held between the legs. Sometimes just one drum is used depending on the taste or type of song.

To play reggae congas, start by sitting with the drums in between your legs. Position the Tumba so that it's slightly higher than the Quinto. The drums are played with both hands, similar to the bongos and all the techniques described can be applied.


The cowbell


The cowbell is used by the main drummer most times, as he or she generally has it attached to their kit. It is sometimes hand-held by a percussionist. It can be played by just doing two hits on the first beat or it can be used to emphasize the offbeat. Just make such it is not getting in the way of the other instruments - in other words, find a space in the reggae riddim it can occupy.


The tambourine


The tambourine is a handheld instrument that consists of a frame with small metal jingles called "zils." The tambourine is usually played by striking it with the hand or by shaking it.

To play reggae tambourine, start by holding the tambourine in whichever hand you are comfortable with. Use the other hand to strike the tambourine on the edge. You can also shake the tambourine up and down or side to side. Experiment with different techniques to find what sounds best.

You can strike it twice on the first beat or use 16 notes and emphasize the third beat or come up with a musical pattern that fits the beat.


The vibraslap


The vibraslap is a percussion instrument that consists of a wooden plank with a piece of metal attached to one end. The metal is struck with the hand, causing the wooden plank to vibrate and create a "slapping" sound.

To play reggae vibraslap, start by holding the vibraslap in one hand. Use the other hand to strike the metal plate. This is what gives the seasoning and since it is not difficult to play, you add to taste. Just make sure you are on time and try not to clash with the other instruments.


The cabasa


The cabasa consists of a cylinder with metal beads attached to it. The player holds the cabasa in one hand and rotates it to create a rattling sound.

To play reggae cabasa, start by holding the instrument in one hand. Use the other hand to rotate the cylinder. Remember to use 8 and 16 notes for variety and try not to take up too much space. Experiment with different techniques to find what sounds best for the reggae beat.


Great reggae percussionist


Some of the great reggae percussionists include Noel "Santa" Davis, Skully Simms and Bungo Herman. Check them out for a good lesson on playing reggae percussion. To help you practice and get the groove right try these reggae instrumental beats.

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