Reggae Improvisation Based On A Rhythm

A guide on how to approach a grade 1 or 2 improvisation exercise in a reggae style when only a rhythm is given as a starting point, includes a Free MP3 Backing Track.

Before starting this lesson I advise you read our Introduction To Improvisation lesson first. You will also need a copy of This Free MP3 that is used as a backing track for this lesson (this file was updated 05/03/2017).

In this improvisation exercise you will be presented with a four bar pattern similar to that given in our improvisation introduction and I will be discussing how to approach creating a part for it. Here is the notation for this exercise:

The sheet music for the exercise

So you can see the tempo is 100bpm, it is played in a reggae style, it's a four bar pattern and it is based on a rhythm. You can also see that bars 2 and 3 are to be the same or similar to bar 1 and that in bar 4 there is a fill. First of all let's make sure you can play the given rhythm. You will be playing on the '2', the '+' after 3 and the '4'. Play the rhythm along with a metronome a few times to get a feel for it.

Once you have the rhythm you should think about what structure you are going to use for the piece. For grades 1 and 2 improvisation I strongly recommend always following an 'A B A C' structure. By doing this you have a 'set' structure for any four bar improvisation that you just need to fill in the parts for. In the case of this structure, 'A' refers to a bar of groove, 'B' is a variation on that groove and 'C' is a fill. There are several examples of how to apply parts to this on the lesson linked above. You don't have to follow this structure, I recommend it because it gives you more options for showing off your abilities whilst sticking with the given style.

Now you know what structure you are following you need a groove for the 'A' part. The groove will be played in bars 1 to 3 so is the bulk of the piece. In this case we will use the same approach taken in our Introduction To Grooves lesson, where you were given a rhythm and then turned that rhythm into a groove. An important thing to take into account at this point is the genre the piece is to be played in. You should include traits of the genre within your groove to make it more appropriate to the backing track. Reggae has a very distinctive groove style which has been covered in This Lesson and a good 'generic' reggae groove would be the part presented in step 3. Remember that the key features of this style are off beat eighths and a sidestick and bass drum played on the backbeat. That given groove gets most of the notes from the given rhythm in except that note that falls on an '+' count. I would suggest here that something simple like a bass drum would be most appropriate. A side stick or open hi hat would work pretty well too.

The bars below show my suggested off beat eighth note right hand part on the left and on the right is a version of the full groove following the given construction idea that you could play for this bar.

An example groove for this exercise

Have a play around with the other ideas I mentioned above and come up with a part that you like.

That's the 'A' sorted out, which is bars 1 and 3. Next let's get the 'B' section. This is just going to be a subtle variation on the groove used as 'A' and there are a lot of things you could do here. I will keep it simple in this lesson and just suggest opening a hi hat or adding in another bass drum. Below I have a shown written examples of each of those ideas.

Four options for the 'B' section

Remember that it is also well worth listening to the backing track and picking out any interesting rhythms presented there and applying them to your variation.

Finally we need a 'C' section, which will be the bar marked 'fill' in the sheet music. Again, listen to the backing track and listen for anything in the fourth bar you can take and apply to your improvisation as this is how you will get the best marks. Reggae is all about that offbeat count and fitting parts around it. As I've said in many improvisation lessons now, always go with an option that you know you can play well. A simple idea played really well is always far better than a great idea played badly. Below are four possible options for a 'C' section, I have kept things very simple here as this isn't a genre a lot of people are familiar with.

Four options for the 'C' section

So there are your four parts. You hopefully now have a good idea of how to take a rhythm, turn it into a reggae groove, create a variation on that reggae groove then create a subtle fill to complete a four bar phrase. To end on here are two examples of possible combinations that would fit this improvisation exercise.

Full Phrase 1

A full four bar phrase for this improvisation

Full Phrase 2

A full four bar phrase for this improvisation
  1. Create your own part for the improvisation exercise presented at the start of this lesson.
  2. Play your part to the backing track and see if you think it fits well.
  3. Think about different ways you could approach this exercise.