Beginner's Guide: 10 Essential Reggae Guitar Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. Get comfortable with the reggae rhythm
  2. How to play the reggae strum
  3. Learn some basic reggae chords
  4. Practice muting strings
  5. Start listening to reggae music
  6. Learn to play a few reggae songs
  7. Try your hand at reggae improvisation
  8. Explore different reggae sub-genres
  9. How to play reggae lead guitar
  10. Keep practicing and have fun

So, you've picked up a guitar and you want to dive into the cool, rhythmic world of reggae? Well, you're in the right place! This beginner's guide will walk you through 10 simple yet effective tips on how to play guitar for reggae. And remember, mastering the reggae rhythm doesn't happen overnight—it's a journey, so let's start yours today!

Get comfortable with the reggae rhythm

The first step to playing reggae on your guitar is understanding its unique rhythm. Known as the 'skank' or 'bang', the reggae rhythm is the heart, soul, and backbone of the genre. Here are some steps to help you get comfortable with the reggae rhythm:

  • Understand the beat: Reggae music typically follows a 4/4 time signature, meaning there are four beats in a measure. However, unlike most other music genres where you'd strum on the beat, reggae rhythm guitar is often played on the offbeat, specifically on the 2nd and 4th beats. This 'offbeat' strumming is what gives reggae its distinctive, laid-back feel.
  • Keep it simple: When learning how to play the guitar for reggae, less is more. Instead of trying to play complex chord progressions, start with simple two or three-chord progressions. This will help you focus more on getting the rhythm right.
  • Practice with a metronome: A metronome is a musician's best friend, especially when you're trying to get a feel for a new rhythm. Set it to a comfortable tempo and practice strumming on the 2nd and 4th beats. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually increase the tempo.
  • Learn from the masters: There's no better way to understand the reggae rhythm than by listening to the masters of the genre. So, put on some Bob Marley or Peter Tosh and try to play along. You'll notice how their rhythm guitar parts are simple yet effective in creating that unmistakable reggae groove.

Remember, the key to mastering the reggae rhythm is patience and practice. So, take your time and enjoy the process. Soon, you'll find your fingers naturally moving to the reggae beat!

How to play the reggae strum

Now that you've got a feel for the reggae rhythm, let's move onto the strumming pattern. In reggae, the strumming pattern is subtle but integral to creating the genre's distinctive sound. Here's how to play guitar for reggae using the right strumming technique:

  • Master the "down-up" technique: Unlike most guitar strumming where a downstroke is followed by an upstroke, in reggae, you often start with an upstroke. This unique strumming style helps accentuate the offbeat rhythm that defines reggae.
  • Go for a short, sharp sound: Reggae strumming is often sharp and staccato, meaning the notes are short and detached. To achieve this, make your strum quick and immediately release the pressure from the strings after each strum, effectively muting the sound.
  • Use the right hand position: A common mistake beginners make when learning how to play guitar for reggae is trying to strum all six strings. Instead, target the higher strings (G, B, and E) for a bright, crisp sound that's characteristic of reggae music.
  • Strum lightly: Reggae isn't about power strumming. It's a genre that's all about restraint and subtlety. So, when you strum, do it lightly. Don't hit the strings too hard. Let your pick or fingers glide over the strings gently.

Remember, perfecting the reggae strumming technique will take some time. But with patience and regular practice, you'll be playing that laid-back, offbeat rhythm in no time!

Learn some basic reggae chords

Now that we've tackled the rhythm and strumming, let's dive into the chords. If you're looking to understand how to play guitar for reggae, you'll want to get familiar with some basic reggae chords. Here are a few that are commonly used in reggae music:

  1. A minor (Am): This is a simple chord for beginners, yet it's used frequently in reggae music. To play this chord, place your second finger on the second fret of the D string, and your third finger on the second fret of the G string. Your first finger goes on the first fret of the B string.
  2. G major (G): Another staple in reggae music. For the G major chord, place your second finger on the third fret of the low E string, your first finger on the second fret of the A string, and your third and fourth fingers on the third frets of the B and high E strings, respectively.
  3. C major (C): The C major chord is another common chord in reggae. To play it, position your first finger on the first fret of the B string, your second finger on the second fret of the D string, and your third finger on the third fret of the A string.
  4. F major (F): While this chord is a bit more challenging for beginners, it's an important one in reggae. For the F major chord, press your first finger across all the strings at the first fret, place your second finger on the second fret of the G string, and your third and fourth fingers on the third frets of the A and D strings.

As you learn these chords, it's important to practice transitioning smoothly between them. This skill is key when you're playing reggae music, as the genre often features quick chord changes on the offbeats. So, take your time, practice slowly, and before you know it, you'll be grooving to the reggae rhythm with these basic chords!

Practice Muting Strings

Reggae guitar playing isn't just about the notes you play—it's also about the ones you don't. String muting is a big part of the reggae sound, and it's a technique you'll want to master if you're serious about learning how to play guitar for reggae.

When we talk about string muting, we're referring to the technique of stopping a string from vibrating and producing sound. This can be done either with your strumming hand (right hand for most people) or with your fretting hand (left hand for most). Let's break down both methods:

  1. Muting with your strumming hand: This technique involves using the palm of your strumming hand to lightly touch the strings immediately after you strum them. The key here is timing—you want to mute the strings just after they've been struck, so the note has a chance to ring out briefly before being silenced.
  2. Muting with your fretting hand: This method requires a bit more finesse. After you strum a chord, release the pressure of your fretting fingers slightly, but keep them touching the strings. This will stop the strings from vibrating, effectively muting the sound.

String muting is a technique that adds a distinct flavor to reggae guitar playing. It creates a choppy, rhythmic sound that's a hallmark of the genre. So, while it may feel a bit strange at first, keep practicing—once you get the hang of it, you'll be well on your way to capturing that authentic reggae guitar sound!

Start Listening to Reggae Music

It might seem obvious, but if you want to learn how to play guitar for reggae, you need to listen to a lot of reggae music. It's not enough just to learn the chords and techniques; you need to get a feel for the music, understand its rhythms, and let it seep into your soul. Think of it as learning a new language—you can't truly become fluent without immersing yourself in it.

Start with the classics. Artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear have created some of the most iconic reggae sounds. Listen to their songs, pay attention to the guitar parts, and try to emulate them in your own practice. Notice how the guitar is often used more for rhythm than for melody, how it interacts with the bass and drums, and how it contributes to the overall groove of the song.

But don't stop there. Reggae is a vibrant, evolving genre with countless sub-genres and regional variations. From the roots reggae of the 70s to the dancehall and dub styles of today, there's a world of music out there waiting for you to explore. The more you listen, the more you'll expand your understanding of what reggae can be—and the more tools you'll have at your disposal when you pick up your guitar.

So put on some headphones, turn up the volume, and let the music guide you. Every song you listen to is a potential lesson in how to play guitar for reggae. And who knows? You might even discover your new favorite band along the way.

Learn to Play a Few Reggae Songs

Now that your ears are attuned to the rhythm and vibe of reggae, it's time to put your newly acquired knowledge into practice. One of the most effective ways to learn how to play guitar for reggae is to learn to play a few reggae songs. This will give you a practical, hands-on understanding of the techniques and structures that are the backbone of the genre.

Start with something relatively simple, like Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds". This song is a great introduction to the reggae style as it features a classic offbeat rhythm and simple chord progression. As you play, focus on the fundamentals: keep your strumming steady, your chords clean, and your rhythm consistent.

Once you're comfortable with that, you can move on to more complex songs. Try tackling Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" or Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey". These songs will challenge you with their intricate rhythms and chord voicings, but they'll also reward you with a deeper understanding of the genre.

Remember, it's not about mastering these songs right away. It's about using them as a learning tool, a way to immerse yourself in the genre from a player's perspective. So take your time, enjoy the process, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. After all, every great guitarist started out as a beginner. And who knows, one day you might be the one teaching others how to play guitar for reggae.

Try Your Hand at Reggae Improvisation

Once you've got a few reggae tunes under your belt, it's time to experiment with your own reggae creations. This is where the magic happens—when you take everything you've learned and use it to create something unique.

Improvisation in reggae, as with any genre, is an opportunity to express yourself through your music. It's a chance to put your personal spin on the classic reggae sounds you've been studying. And it's a lot easier than you might think.

Start with a simple reggae beat. Now, over that beat, try improvising a melody using the chords you've learned. Don't worry about making it perfect. The goal here is to experiment, to explore the possibilities that reggae offers.

Remember, reggae is all about the rhythm. So, as you improvise, keep that steady, bouncing beat at the forefront of your mind. Let it guide your strumming, your chord changes, and your melodic choices. In other words, let the rhythm be your roadmap.

The more you improvise, the more comfortable you'll get with the genre. And the more you'll start to develop your own reggae style. So go ahead, grab your guitar, and start creating your own reggae masterpieces. Who knows? You might just discover your new favorite way to play guitar for reggae.

Explore Different Reggae Sub-genres

If you're wondering how to play guitar for reggae more proficiently, exploring its various sub-genres is a fantastic place to start. Like any genre, reggae is not a monolith—it's a vibrant world filled with diverse sounds and styles. Here are a few sub-genres to get you started:

  • Roots Reggae: This is classic, old-school reggae at its best. It's heavy on the rhythm, with a strong emphasis on social and political themes. Bob Marley, one of the most recognized names associated with reggae, is a roots reggae artist.
  • Dub Reggae: This sub-genre is all about the beat and the bass. It often features stripped-down tracks with lots of reverb and echo effects. King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry are well-known names in the world of dub.
  • Dancehall: Dancehall is a more modern form of reggae. It's characterized by fast rhythms, digital instrumentation, and often, rap-like vocals. Notable figures include Yellowman and Shabba Ranks.

By diving into these sub-genres, you'll gain a broader understanding of reggae's depth and diversity. You'll also discover new rhythms, chord progressions and strumming patterns to try out on your guitar. So go on, expand your reggae horizons. Listen, learn, and let the diverse sounds of reggae inspire your guitar playing.

How to Play Reggae Lead Guitar

Now that you're getting comfortable with reggae rhythms and have explored the diverse sub-genres, let's dive into how to play lead guitar for reggae. Playing lead guitar in reggae is less about fast and complex solos, and more about adding texture and emotion to the music. Here are some tips:

  • Less is More: When it comes to playing reggae lead guitar, the "less is more" approach often rings true. Space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves. This allows the rhythm and bass to shine while the lead guitar adds color and depth to the overall sound. So, don't feel the need to play continuously—let your notes breathe.
  • Feel the Music: Reggae music is deeply rooted in emotion and storytelling. As a lead guitarist, your role is to enhance this emotion. This may mean bending a note to add a dash of sorrow or sliding into a note for a touch of joy. Listen to the song's mood and let it guide your playing.
  • Use Effects Wisely: Effects like reverb, delay, and chorus can add a unique flavor to your reggae guitar playing. But remember, less is often more. Too many effects can muddy the sound and overshadow the rhythm section. Use effects to enhance your sound, not define it.

Being a reggae lead guitarist requires sensitivity to the music's rhythm and mood. It's about adding richness without overpowering the foundational elements of the song. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll be well on your way to mastering how to play guitar for reggae!

Keep Practicing and Have Fun

At the heart of learning how to play guitar for reggae is the simple but often forgotten advice: keep practicing and have fun. Here's why this matters:

  • Consistent Practice: You can't expect to master reggae guitar overnight. It's a journey that takes time, patience, and lots of practice. Setting aside time each day to practice not only helps you improve your technical skill, but also helps you develop a better feel for the reggae rhythm and style.
  • Fun is Important: Why? Because when you're having fun, you're more engaged. And when you're more engaged, you're more likely to stick with it and improve. Plus, reggae is all about spreading positivity and good vibes, and having fun with your practice will allow this energy to shine through in your playing.
  • Enjoy the Process: Don't just focus on the end goal of becoming a reggae guitar master. Enjoy the process of learning, from mastering your first reggae chord to nailing that tricky reggae strum. Each step you take brings you one step closer to your goal.

Remember, the road to mastering how to play guitar for reggae is not a sprint, but rather a marathon. So, take your time, stay consistent, and most importantly, have fun with it. Happy strumming!

If you're just starting out with reggae guitar and looking for ways to improve your skills, check out Debbie Knox-Hewson's workshop, 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!.' Although not specific to reggae guitar, this workshop offers valuable tips and techniques that can be applied to any creative pursuit, including mastering the art of reggae guitar playing.