Guest Blogger, Victor Rice: So You’re Starting a Ska Band…

Firstly, Congratulations on your venture to continue and hopefully further a musical tradition that finds favor with listeners and dancers all over the world! Ska is not only a style, it is a rare phenomenon in the history of music – I call it so because it is possibly the only music form in existence where we can not only name the time and place of it’s inception, we can point to the originators – and some of them are still walking the planet as I write this! Think of that: can you name the creators of the Waltz? the Samba? Royal Cambodian Court Music?
The reason such rare information is available is because the form was created after the advent of recording technology – and the reason we can site people such as Lloyd Knibb among the creators is because the name Ska was coined as a means to define, and sell, the beat and the dance. This was done certainly for commercial reasons, as well as for the obvious purpose of identifying the music/dance itself. It’s also important to mention that in most African languages and culture, there is no distinction made between music and dance; they are one and the same.

This may sound as if I believe that the only way to make Ska music is to sound like the Skatalites. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that – however, there are a number of guidelines that should be considered.

For one thing, tempo is all-important. Ska as a dance is very reminiscent of a popular soul dance from the same era, sometimes called the Monkey or Climb. Names and other words don’t suffice to describe the dance, so I urge anyone interested in this music to find a clip online with Jamaicans dancing the Ska in the early ’60s. It’s not essential to learn the dance, but if you’re interested in playing Ska music you’ll do well to perform at a tempo that would allow this dance to be possible. There is nothing quite like playing the Ska, in front of people dancing the Ska. For me personally, it is an invigorating feedback loop, physically and otherwise!

I realize I’m opening up a popular argument here: Is the British interpretation from the ’70s and ’80s not Ska? I prefer to make the distinction one song at a time. If the tempo is too fast to actually dance the Ska, I call it ‘Ska-influenced’ at most. The drum beat is of course important, as is the presence of upbeats in the guitar and keyboard instruments. All of these elements conspire to get the body moving in a particular way. One thing is certain, the Ska cannot be danced very quickly with any of the swing and grace originally intended.

The bass lines of Lloyd Brevett draw from two different sources, namely syncopation typical to Cuban Salsa and ‘walking’ bass lines typical to American Jazz. The bassist may be listening to the kick drum or the hi hat when making the decision where to drop the note.

Pianists should be playing the upbeat in at least one hand. Remember, if one is not contributing to the rhythm of the dance, one might be detracting from it. As with any musical situation, the actual range and voicing of chords are dependent largely on what is happening in the rest of the band. A good rule of thumb is to leave some space in the spectrum for the other players and to compliment the range and voicing of the guitar and organ – that is, go where they are not.

The organist can follow the same idea, though there are other options available. A half-time ‘bubble’ between the left and right hands- commonly heard in slower Rocksteady, ‘Skinhead Reggae’ and One Drop beats – can be just the thing to glue the piano and guitar to the drums.
The organist can reach most easily into the areas normally occupied by the horn section – melodically and supportively. However, leaving one’s hand down on the keyboard to sustain notes and chords can easily clutter the arrangement and get into the singer’s space. Proceed with care.

Guitarists should bear in mind: the most important function for the guitarist is to support the upbeat. And the most common misinterpretation is to play the upbeat with an upstroke, the result being the chord sounds from the top down. Jah Jerry, Ernest Ranglin and Lyn Taitt all played the upbeats from the lowest note to the highest – and the result is an upward motion in the chord. I believe this is crucial to keeping the beat light and uplifting.

The three things that make this a challenge for the guitarist are:

1- It’s less comfortable to play upbeats with a downstroke.
It’s a matter of physical sense. But if you have a chance to watch Devon James play with the Skatalites, for example, you will notice that he marks the downbeat with a ‘ghost downstroke’ between each upbeat, making the task twice as active and incredibly solid.

2- The top of the chord, at the end of the downstroke, is the part of the chord that cuts through the overall sound to the listener’s ear. To arrive at that part of the chord on time, the guitarist must begin the downstroke earlier than if played upstroke. Getting used to this  can be daunting but is possible with practice.

3- It is difficult to play this way at fast tempos. Therefore, if the guitarist finds it near impossible to play the Ska this way, the beat is probably too fast to dance the Ska as well. Using this technique, the guitarist will most likely be the first musician in the band to know when the tempo is too fast.

There’s another function for a second guitarist, what I call the Stick Bass. Stick Bass refers to a function, not an instrument. It refers simply to a second guitar doubling the bass line to create a transient attack that combines with the roundness of the bass. The combined sound is large but defined. The guitar can also pick a different line, contrapuntal to the bass for an added layer of percussive and melodic action.

To speak of the horn section is to speak to the arrangement of the song. The horns are literally the life breath of the beat as well as the most potentially expressive part of the band, overridden only by the singer. The function of the horns in relation to the vocal melody can be broken into two different styles- I call them the Continental and the African American Styles:

In the Continental Style(I exclude the UK since they are something of an anomaly when it comes to horns in general), the horn section uses polyphony, playing melodic arrangements in tandem with the singer, playing with or against the vocal line with supportive and counter-melodies respectively.

In the African American Style, horns exchange melodic function with the singer in a call-and-response fashion. When the singer has the tune, the horn section folds into the rhythm section by playing upbeats to support the beat.

In either case, there are two interesting areas available to the horn section – Voicing and Tuning:

The Voicing refers to the choice and spacing of notes to each player from the chord in the song.

The objective, ideally, is to get two horns to sound like three, three horns to sound like four and so on. A knowledge of the overtone series is crucial to an effective horn arrangement. A surprisingly full sound can be achieved, for example, from two horns if
(1) a reed instrument is combined with a brass instrument,
(2) an upper-range instrument is combined with a lower-range instrument i.e:
Alto Sax/Trombone, Trumpet/Tenor Sax and
(3) one horn plays the 3rd of the chord while the other plays the 7th of the chord. Interval distances of a 6th or 10th are helpful in getting a full, balanced sound with overtones that can allude to a third part.

Congratulations, you have just been given a formula to the Stax and Studio One horn sound.

Four situations should be generally avoided in horn arrangements:

1- Doubling of notes, especially in the same octave. The result is diminishing at best, three horns may sound like two, four horns like three and so on. At worst, it is not pleasing to hear because the two horns rarely if ever play exactly the same pitch. Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard would be one example of an exception. An arrangement with all horns playing the melody in unison is another exception, but that one can easily be overused.

2- Playing in the extremes of the instrument’s range. Trumpets do not need to live at the top of their range, nor trombones at the bottom of theirs. Horn instruments should be played inside their comfortable ranges. They sound better there because they were built to sound better there. Why fight it? Do not feel the need to make extra work for yourself or display technical prowess at the expense of a pleasing section sound.

3 – Playing songs in ‘natural’ key signatures. If the song was written by the guitarist or keyboardist, it may often be written in a natural key for those instruments such as C,G,D,A or E. Experiment with moving the key to Db, Ab, Eb or Bb. A general compromise will have to be found in the set between songs that favor the rhythm section or the horn section.

4 – Parallel motion. Horn instruments should avoid moving in the same direction from one chord to another, and even at the same beat. Instruments also don’t need to play the same function of each chord, the combined sound will be much more interesting if the instruments are written in the path of least resistance, providing a variety of color to each chord as the 3rd, for example, travels between horns.

For all of these reasons, horns arrangements should be created at the piano as opposed to the guitar.

The Tuning refers specifically to the horn’s ability to play truly in tune. The rhythm section is made up of tempered instruments(string bass an exception here), but the horn can make subtle adjustments in pitch at the mouthpiece – and as is done with ‘fretless’ instruments like the violin or voice, one can play the 5th of a chord slightly sharper, the major 3rd slightly flatter as actually occurs in the natural world of acoustics. This gives the horn section the chance to make a harmony sweeter and more resonant than is possible on the guitar or keyboard. When rehearsing the band, some time should be set aside – preferably separate rehearsals – for the horn section to explore the fine tuning of an arrangement. It can be helpful to have the bass player around for this.

As for vocals – the main concern should be that the key of the song is comfortable for the singer. This concern completely overrides any consideration to the horn or rhythm section, as the band must support the singer in every way possible. All musicians(including the singer) should be listening to the drummer for the rhythm and time – but at the same time, all instrumentalists should be listening to the singer for the song. As with horn arrangements, songs written on the guitar or piano should be transposed to the singer’s range in order to get the most of it.

To conclude with my first installment: these are general guidelines – rules if you will – based on historical practices. Some are decades-old, particular to the original style. Some are centuries-old. And all are artistic rules, meant to be broken!

But if one doesn’t first understand that there are always rules, there can be no conviction or pleasure in breaking them. One who breaks the rules without knowing is not doing themselves any favors.

I hope you found this interesting if not useful! Please look for my next installment, covering  technical aspects of recording…



  1. Maddie Ruthless Says:

    Mr. Rice thank you so much! These are great tips, and being a guitarist, I am going to have to practice this technique. Now that I think about it, I think I have been switching up both techniques. Can you elaborate any more on the bubble with the keyboards? do you think it sounds more solid to keep the upbeats steady in the left hand?

    Res: Hey Maddie – glad you liked it! Yes, I think it’s a good idea for the keyboardist to keep the left hand on the upbeat. With the organ in particular, the right hand can play half-time, hitting beats 2 and 4 with the snare drum. That’s the ‘bubble’ I was talking about.

  2. Dan Neely Says:

    Thanks Vic, that was beautiful. It hit on all cylinders.

  3. dsiebler Says:

    Wow, Vic, you just blew my mind on the horn voicings. Was just listening to Skalloween by Skatalites this morning before I read this article. Disecting the head in that tune, I hear a lot of unison, but then voicings break out in key spots during the melody.

    But, in a song like Latin go Ska there is very little unison.

    Is this just an aesthetic choice? Or are there some guidelines when and when not to use unison?

  4. VR Says:

    Dsiebler, glad to be of help. i think playing the melody in unison is an obvious exception to the guideline, since it can be so effective. It can, however, get overused, that’s my only note on that. Using it in certain parts of the tune against harmonies in other parts is a great way to shape an arrangement, as the Skatalites demonstrate.

  5. JJ Loy Says:

    Victor- Does playing the melody in unison create the “power horn” sound that’s so popular in ska-punk?

  6. VR Says:

    JJ – Yes, that’s it. Also found in some Skatalites and Madness tunes… it can be a musical weapon.

  7. Aaron Says:

    Nice summation, Victor! The guitar techniques were spot on, although it’s notable that Jah Jerry played the downstroke with his thumb rather than a pick. This was key to his sound.

    The only part that is really absent from this great article is ska drumming, something which could take up an entire artcile all on its own. The innovations of jazz drummers to Drumbago and then most importantly Lloyd Knibb and his adaptation of burru drumming to a trap set are immesurable in their importance to the foundation of ska.

    Are you planning on writing a drum piece, Vic? If not, I would be more than happy to take a crack at it. I may not be as “qualified” as someone like Eddie Ocampo, Oliver Charles or Korey Horn, but as a ska drummer and researcher I consider myself to be a student of the style and I would love to see more drummers get a better understanding of those dynamics.

    Thanks for writing this, Vic. I’m looking forward to the piece on recording!

  8. VR Says:

    Thanks, Aaron! I feel there could -and should- be a whole installment livicated to Ska drumming, and I’m not sure I’m up to the task. I have started on Installment #2 though, about recording. And already I am getting bogged down in Drumville. I will talk about the click track for sure!
    I do have a lot to say about recording the drums. But most, if not all of it applies to any style.

  9. So You’re Starting A Ska Band, Part 1 - by Victor Rice | Ska 4U Says:

    [...] an extraordinary guide to starting for a ska band, from a man who really knows his bidniz. Victor Rice is a master producer, musician, composer, and [...]

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