I’ll be straight with you, Reggae was not a prominent genre in my musical upbringing. I grew up on Classic Rock, Metal and Pop. Over the years I also became a huge fan of Funk and Mariachi music. But Reggae was always like an acquaintance to me more so than a close friend.
While writing this article I revisited some of the songs that managed to cross over into my world (usually songs that were so popular that everyone knows them). But I also listened through albums and groups that I wasn’t previously familiar with.
Make no mistake, I’m no Reggae expert.
However, I’m a musician and a fan of all kinds of music, and I tried to capture the spirit of the genre (as I experienced it) with these 8 Reggae chord progressions. Enjoy.
1. I IV I IV
Few genres are defined so clearly by one artist as Reggae and Bob Marley. This chord progressions comes from perhaps the most popular Reggae song ever written, “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & The Wailers.
Related: My Top 10 Funk Chord Progressions
It’s not surprising that this most influential Reggae song also sports the most popular reggae chord progression. You’ll find this one in songs like “Pressure Drop” by Toots & The Maytals and “Do The Reggae” by Tropical Depression.
Chords from the song: A major, D major, A major, D major
2. i V i V
Prepare yourself to see lots of I, IV and V in this list. These three chords are incredibly prominent in the genre. This progression was taken from “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley & The Wailers (not our last from them).
Chords in the song: C minor, G major, C minor, G major
3. V ii V ii vi
This chord progression may appear to stray from the I, IV, V pattern, but the reality is that II, V and VI share the exact same intervals. This Reggae chord progression comes from “You don’t love me (no, no, no)” by Dawn Penn. The feel of this song differs from the often upbeat vibe in Reggae, and this primarily stems from the combination of more minor chords and a slower tempo.
Chords in the song: D major, A minor, D major, A minor, E minor
4. I vi iii
This progression comes from the song “Amber” by 311. Now 311 is often labelled a rock band, but this song clearly takes major inspiration from the Reggae genre. And it helps show that when you write Reggae style music that doesn’t follow those standard 3 chords, you can create something more unique and modern.
Related List: 8 Joyful Calypso Chord Progressions
Chords in the song: C major, A minor, E minor
5. I III vi V
Another funk chord progression from another 90’s rock/ska/reggae band. This one is from “Santeria” by Sublime. 90’s kids like me will recognize this as a song that managed to cross over onto pop radio stations and brought a sound that we hadn’t heard before.
Of course the sound wasn’t particularly new, but it was a slightly new take on Reggae and it brought the sound to a new generation of kids.
Chords from the song: E major, G sharp major, C sharp minor, B major
6. I ii IV I
“Don’t Worry Be Happy” was written and performed by Bobby McFerrin. There is a common misconception that the song was written or recorded (or both) by Bob Marley. Even though he wasn’t involved in the writing of the song, there’s no denying the influence Marley had on the sound.
The real triumph of “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” at least in my opinion, is the talent of Bobby McFerrin, recording the entire song a cappella. It brings a unique sound to the song.
Chords from the song: B major, C sharp minor, E major, B major
7. I vi I vi
Another song from Bob Marley & the Wailers, “Buffalo Soldier” is another staple of the genre. While this Reggae chord progression manages to differ from the norm in some ways, it uses a very standard pattern from the genre. The pattern is simply to alternate between two chords.
Chords from the song: A major, F sharp minor, A major, F sharp minor
8. I IV V IV
This super standard chord progression comes from “Red Red Wine” by UB40. By now you should realize that reggae uses the I, IV and V chords more often than perhaps any other style of music. Though to be fair you’ll find chord progressions like this in every style of music.
Chords in the song: C sharp major, F sharp major, G sharp major, F sharp major
Making Reggae Music
Of course using a Reggae chord progression is only a piece of the puzzle in creating music that fits the style. There are some common themes in the music that separate Reggae from other genres.
- 4/4 time where chords typically hit on the 2nd and 4th beats of a measure
- Drums are typically in the background, often featuring the hi hat
- Slower tempos are normal, usually below 100 bpm
- Vocals are the star, you almost never hear guitar/bass/drum solos
- Like Funk (one of my fav genres), trumpets and other horns are often a big part of the sound
I like to look at these patterns/trends and find ways to break the rules so I can keep the soul of a genre, but make something new. For example, why not try featuring the guitar a bit more if you’re a great guitar player?
There are no rules in music. Humans just like to group things together and organize them so we can feel like we understand it better. The reality is that it’s the creative and unexpected elements in music that really make it special.