Learn Ska Guitar with 3 Classic Licks


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The weather’s getting warmer and you might find yourself thinking of board shorts, the beach, and California 90’s ska-punk. Right? With all respect to Jimmy Buffett, a lot of us guitar players like our beach music a little edgier. Enter Sublime and the American Ska revolution.

Formed in Long Beach, California in the late 80’s, Sublime didn’t achieve national recognition until after the death of songwriter/singer/guitarist Brad Nowell in 1996. Their self-titled release of that same year produced a number one single, “What I Got,” which remains a barroom singalong, along with the hits “Santeria” and “The Wrong Way.” In the summer of 1996 there was no escaping Sublime’s music, with their edgy fusion of ska, punk, hip-hop, and yes, guitar-driven power trio rock.

Ska originated in Jamaica, and while it sounds much like sped-up reggae, it’s actually the older of the two styles. When Bob Marley brought reggae to the rest of the world in the late 70’s, ska was embraced, especially in the UK, by young punk bands like the Clash and the Specials. In the US, the style was adopted by bands like Fishbone and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones through the 80’s. By the 1990’s ska sounds had entered the mainstream with hits by Rancid, No Doubt, and Sublime.

Ska music generally features a fast tempo, prominent horns, and strongly accented offbeat guitar chords called the “skank.” At slower reggae tempos, the skank “chop” appears on beats two and four, bringing out the backbeat. In ska, the faster tempo puts the skank on the offbeats: one AND two AND three AND four AND. The chords are generally played primarily on the treble strings with a sharp upstroke.

Sublime’s music used the skank extensively, but also featured a variety of rock guitar techniques including power chords and distorted solos. Instead of horns, the guitar was the primary instrumental voice, and while many of the recordings feature hip-hop style collage textures, the guitar remains front and center. Our first examples show more of the rock influence, while the last is an influenced example of Nowell’s approach to the classic ska chop.

Sublime: "What I Got" Lick

Let’s start with two primary parts inspired by the monster hit “What I Got.” This is a very simple two-chord acoustic guitar figure, alternating between D and G. Technically because these chords don’t include a 3rd like the familiar major shapes, they are essentially open power chords:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

Notice the “swing” indication in the music. The opening drum loop of “What I Got” is essentially a hip-hop shuffle, and so to match that rhythm we play the eighth notes unevenly: long-short-long. This creates a nice bounce. When listening to the audio examples, note that the slow version keeps the eighths straight so you can concentrate on the picking pattern, which is down down-up up-down. This could be played other ways, but the upstroke on the B string brings out that offbeat note nicely. At full tempo you’ll hear the swing, and the picking pattern will remain the same.

Like many accomplished players, Nowell doesn’t play everything the same way every time. Listen closely to the acoustic guitar part of “What I Got” and you’ll notice that there are many variations. Here’s one example, with slightly less pick movement. This one locks with the rhythm section to reinforce the groove. Keep the swing rhythm and be sure to play the offbeat eighth notes with upstrokes, for a pattern of down – down – up-down-up-down down. Listen to the slow and faster audio examples to lock the rhythm into your ear.

Exercise 1a

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

Sublime: "Santeria" Lick

Example 2 is inspired by the chorus of the song “Santeria,” and features arpeggiated partial barre chords and simple triads with a sharp, syncopated rhythm:

Exercise 2

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

We start with a 4-note A major chord in 5th position. Notice how the middle finger slides from fret 6 to fret 8 of the 3rd string to set up the move to the B chord, which uses the same shape. This is followed by a series of lightly strummed triads: E, B, and C# minor. Listen to the audio examples to get the rhythm, and notice how the notes on the high E string are naturally accented by the syncopated rhythms and the upstroke of the pick. Play the pairs of sixteenth notes down-up to bring this out, especially when crossing strings.

Example 3 showcases Nowell’s style of creativity as a songwriter and guitar player. This lick, inspied by “The Wrong Way,” starts off with slowly arpeggiated barre chords before breaking into the ska beat, and works through four different keys in the course of the verse. Play the “chop” with a sharp upstroke, sometimes punctuated by lightly muted downstrokes in between. Notice the use of full barre chords, partial barre shapes, and the occasional fill-in lick. When playing the 6-note barres, focus on the treble strings for the chop. Release the left-hand pressure on the downstroke to produce a muted downbeat, and hold the chord down again to catch the swinging upstroke. The first 8 bars use a simple repeating A-G pattern, but notice how it ends by sliding up to a full barre C to set up the change to the distantly related key of F#! This is an unusual change but it works great.

Check out the transition from example 3 to example 3a.

Exercise 3

Full Speed Demonstration

Slow Demonstration

Example 3a alternates between F# and E. Notice also the alternating use of an E5 power chord with a one-finger partial barre E. We transitions into example 3b with a nice R&B-flavored hammer-on lick into a partial barre B chord. This next section alternates between B and A before sliding into a full 6-note D barre as a transition to the last section in E, also using 3-note partial-barre triads. Notice how it maintains the skank rhythm throughout, but punctuates it with small variations to signal the key changes.

Exercise 3a
Exercise 3b

None of these are all that hard to get under your fingers, but mastering the grooves will take some careful listening! Listen to the rhythm section and the way the guitar locks tightly with the bass and drums to keep the music moving.

So your mission this weekend is to get skanking! Check out Stuart Ziff’s great lesson on ska rhythm on JamPlay.com, and then start getting those licks under your fingers. One love, brothers and sisters.

How Reggae Developed by Stuart Ziff

Taught by Stuart Ziff

In this lesson, Stuart explains and demonstrates the "skank" rhythm. Practice this simple rhythmic pattern along with a "one drop" backing track.

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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