Jamaica is part of the group of islands known as the West Indies. Over the years, it has seen more than its fair share of an influx of musical traditions and styles. Its location is close to, and in some cases part of, Latin America.
Certain influences from there and the various colonizations that occurred have led to musical diversity. This can be seen in the variety of Jamaican music instruments.
A Sound You Always Recognize
You can’t help but recognize Jamaican-based instruments, but they are not all centered on just one genre. You will hear them in Ska, Dub, Rock Steady, and of course, Reggae. If there is one man that has brought Jamaican music and instruments to the world, then it is Bob Marley.
Jamaican instruments are also found in Latin America-based bands. Santana, in their early days, made good use of percussion to create their sound, as you can hear on “Jingo.”
So, what do we know as Jamaican instruments? Let’s start with what usually drives the rhythms along, the percussion.
Jamaican Music Instruments
This is an instrument most will be familiar with. There are varying sizes of congas, and the tumbadora is one of the largest. It looks like a barrel with a drum skin on top that can be tuned. You will find three different types of congas, and each has its role to play.
This has the highest tone of all the conga drums. You will, therefore, find it taking some of the lead section of the conga rhythms.
The Tres Golpes
The most versatile of the conga drums. This has a middle tone, so you will find it either playing or assisting with the Quinto or playing a purely rhythmic part.
This conga is used almost entirely in the rhythm sections because of its lower frequencies.
Conga Drums are not native to Jamaica; they originated in African nations. They became incorporated into the Jamaican sound at some point. These days, there are a few slight changes made from the congas of fifty years ago. However, the sound and their function are the same.
What you might call the “granddaddy” of the percussion section. It is the big brother to the rest, having a diameter of 13 inches as against the standard size of 10 or 11 inches. The drum is made of wood, and the head is made from animal skin that is stretched tightly over the top frame.
The Buleador is usually played with the hands, and how you strike the drum will determine the type of tone you get. Playing with a flat hand in the center of the drum skin will give you a flat bass tone. To create a sharper sound, you use your fingers toward the outer rim.
Once again, a drum that didn’t originate in Jamaica, the Buleador originally came from Puerto Rico. It has the lowest pitch of all the conga drums. Therefore, it is ideal for laying down deep beats and rhythms.
Another familiar instrument widely used in Jamaican music is the bongos. These are two open-bottom drums that come in pairs. One drum is usually slightly larger than the other. The two drums are tunable, and the difference in size will give you various tones.
The smaller drum, sometimes called the “minor” or the “male” drum, has higher frequencies. The larger drum, the “major” or “female,” has lower frequencies. It is usually played seated with the bongos between your knees.
You would normally play them with hands and fingers as with the congas, but you can also use sticks or mallets. The bongos were initially used in Cuba for salsa and similar rhythms. They are now a firm fixture among Jamaican music instruments.
Of all the sounds connected with Jamaican music, the sound of the steel drums could be the most recognizable. There is something about the sound that brings to mind blue seas, white beaches, and a drop of rum.
They are members of a unique type of instrument known as “idiophones.” That has nothing to do with people glued to their phones all day, although, on reflection, I suppose it could. Idiophones are instruments that create their sound by the instrument itself vibrating.
Steel Drums have an interesting history…
One that goes back to French rule in Trinidad in the late 1700s. They were made from metal lids of any size, or anything similar.
They are played using a special kind of drumstick with a rubber head. You can vary the tone by striking the head of the drum in a different place. Those that play them are known as “pianists,” which is interesting.
You will find Steel Drum bands from four players to over one hundred. For that reason, there are different types of steel drums. These are known as:
- Cello Pan.
- Guitar Pan.
- Ping Pong.
They form an essential part of the Jamaican sound.
The Maracas come from a family of instruments that create sound by shaking them. Once again, they are not originally from Jamaica or, indeed, the West Indies. They come from Latin America but have established an important role in Jamaican music.
The build has two parts: the handle, and joined to that, a hollow container that also acts as a speaker. The container is usually filled with beads but has been known to contain dry, hard seeds, or even seashells.
Maracas have become widely used in various styles across Western music, especially those with active percussion units.
Claves, or “Palitos” as they are sometimes known, are handheld instruments popular not only in Jamaican musical culture but also in Africa and Latin America. They appear to be very simplified. Just two cylindrical pieces of wood that are played by hitting one on the other.
Despite their simplified appearance…
There is a bit more to them than that. You need correct placements of the fingers when holding them; otherwise, you will not get that characteristic sound.
This is an instrument that can only have a real impact in the hands of someone who can play a variety of rhythms and patterns. Often playing across the main rhythm of the music. You will often find the Claves in a group of percussionists that also include Bongos and Congas.
You can hear the effect of these instruments in a rock song. Claves and Maracas are prominent through “I’m A Man” from the legendary band Chicago.
There is little introduction needed for the tambourine. It is commonly used in all types of music, even classical. It is an instrument you will find that can have an important role in music from Jamaica.
There are a few different forms of tambourine…
You can have the instrument with the head on the frame, or you can have a version with no drumhead. They are usually made from wood, with the jingles being metal.
A third variety you will come across is the “double-row” tambourine, such as this VACHAN Double Row Tambourine. It can be played by hand or mounted on a microphone stand or can also be mounted on a drum kit.
It is an excellent percussion instrument for giving a little bit extra to the basic beat and rhythm of the song.
Also sometimes referred to as “Panderos,” these are similar to a tambourine but do not have the jingles. The drumhead is usually stretched animal skin. They are common in Latin America and especially Puerto Rico.
As with the Congas, there are three different sizes. The Panderetas come as a set, each with their role musically.
- Seguidor – the lowest tone and is used to complement the basic rhythms.
- Punteador – slightly smaller and can be used for either rhythmic or lead percussion patterns.
- Requinto – the smallest of the three and is used for dictating the lead patterns and rhythms.
I am sure you have some music and heard something that, at times, sounds like a frog croaking. Or, maybe someone running a stick down some railings.
Possibly you have watched a band playing and see a rather odd instrument. It may be a Guiro. It is an instrument found all over Latin America and the West Indies in a variety of musical genres.
They are played by combining long or shorter strokes of the stick it is played with to create the sound. The designs can vary, but they all have a series of slits cut into a hollow shape. These slits are scraped with a stick to create the sound.
Not in any way considered one of the Jamaican music instruments. It is an everywhere and everybody instrument, but it plays an important part in Jamaican music. And it can be either the electric version or the acoustic.
It came to Jamaica initially from Spain, and a Jamaican variant of the instrument called a “Cuatro” evolved. This had four strings, not six, “quatro” is Spanish for four.
Of course, most of what we see today is the six-string version, but there are some Cuatros still in use in more traditional Jamaican music. They’re probably closer in design to the Mandolin than the guitar and have a not-dissimilar sound.
Something unique to Jamaica is what is sometimes called the “Reggae bass groove.” If you know anything about playing the bass, the first thing you will notice is how much space you have to create interesting things. Although, overdoing it is not good.
The “groove” of the music allows you to start on the first beat, or you can leave it silent and start on an off-beat a fraction behind. For most standard bass players, the difficulty comes when you realize the best results are gained playing slightly behind the beat.
Feeling Da Groove
Whereas in Rock, Pop, Funk, etc., the bass needs to be right on the beat, even though there may be off beats played. In Jamaican music, especially reggae, precision is not so important.
A further interesting point is that some use the 3rd or 5th of the chord for the first note. Again something you have to get used to. But the most important thing is the ‘bass groove,’ as they call it.
Get into the rhythm of the song and use low, like very low, frequencies and sit there. Don’t worry about filling up what feels like spaces; they must be there.
Is There A Traditional National Instrument Of Jamaica?
Given that Jamaica is a country with a heavy mix of traditions and varying cultures, it isn’t surprising to see a range of instruments. Some of these date back hundreds of years. But, there is one that is close to the heart of the people, The Abeng.
It was traditionally made from the horn of a cow with two holes drilled in. Blowing into the hole by the tip of the horn creates the sound. It used to be a communication tool, but these days is only seen in community celebrations.
What Music Is Jamaica Best Known For?
Jamaica has become a melting pot of musical ideas and the instruments that go with them. Its culture is enhanced by the different traditions and cultures that have visited her shores. It has its moments with Rock Steady, Calypso, and even Jazz.
But, of course, there is one genre that stands out, and when the name is mentioned, it means “Jamaica.” That genre is reggae.
It carries with it a lot of Jamaican tradition with its rhythms and storytelling lyrics, yet it only appeared in the 60s. Before that, you could say Ska music was the most widely known.
The Ska Influence
Appearing in the 50s, it was categorized by its walking bass lines played over offbeat percussion. In the early 60s, it is hard to believe that Ska and people like Prince Buster were the music of choice of the British ‘mod’ movement. The British rock band, The Who, were mods to give you some idea.
Whilst there have been a few varieties of Ska, Reggae took control in the late 60s. It was inextricably linked with Rastafari, and so became more than just a musical genre; it became a whole culture.
Whilst there were other artists, it was Bob Marley who led the way. Not only in the music but in its content and philosophy. His lyrics were full of compassion and love, and he was vehemently anti-war. He captivated a generation with his message, as we can hear in “One Love.”
Interested in playing Jamaican Music?
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Jamaican Music Instruments – Final Thoughts
The importance of percussion and bass cannot be overestimated in the role they play in Jamaican music and especially Reggae. The majority of the instruments we have looked at have had percussion involvement. That is no accident.
Jamaican music is all about rhythms. That is the reason it is special and why so many people can’t help but “feel da rhythm” and bob along to this wonderful music.
Until next time, happy listening.