Capturing the sound of reggae can be challenging. Some instruments are better suited than others to give the music that distinctive reggae flare, and the bass is no exception.
Reggae musicians agree Fender Jazz-type bass guitars provide the best reggae tone since one of the pickups is very close to the neck, which produces the fat low-end tones found in reggae. Most reggae players turn up the neck pickup vs the bridge one, equalize out the highs and mids, and use flatwound strings.
Although Jazz-bass style guitars have been traditionally the choice of some of the greatest root reggae legends, Fender Precision-type bass guitars can also produce a very good reggae sound when tuned the right way.
The Steinberger bass is another renowned reggae bass choice and played by reggae greats.
While the above types of bass guitars are the most commonly mentioned for playing true reggae, they are by no means the only types.
A good reggae tone can be achieved on many types of bass guitar through the right tone equalization, amp, guitar strings, and most importantly, playing style.
Reggae players generally find passive basses without much preamp color and fitted with flatwound strings are the best for capturing the reggae bass sound.
Jazz bass: the best basses for reggae music
True jass-style basses makes it easier to obtain that sound due to the proximity of the pickup to the neck, which gives then a much better low-end tone than some other bass guitars.
Reggae legends Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Bob Marley’s former bassist, Robbie Shakespeare (Black Uhuru, Yellowman, Peter Tosh etc), and Flabba Holt (Roots Radic, Israel Vibrations), all have used a vintage Fender Jazz bass as their main bass.
Reggae bassists typically love the sound of the Fender Jazz bass tuned with the bridge really high and with the neck pickup raised to the max, giving them that Bob Marley type sound with little bite and much bottom end.
There are many affordable Jazz basses, and their two-pickup design also makes them suitable for a wide range of styles.
For roots reggae, having a pickup in neck position is important, including on a 5-string, for getting those low tones, especially if plucking close to the neck.
Other popular bass guitars for reggae
The three world-famous bassists I mentioned (Family Man, Robbie Shakepeare, Flabba Holt) are known to have also used the Hofner 500 with their standard flat wound strings, and the Steinberger L-2 or XL-2, also with flat wounds.
The Steinberger was a popular reggae bass in the 80’s and 90’s due to its deep tone and very light weight. Family Man’s Steinberger was set up with 2 jazz pickups.
While, for the above reasons, many reggae bassists swear by the J-bass, some prefer a P-bass (Precision) type e.g. a Fender Precision or Lakland Hollowbody, also with flat strings and with the tone rolled off, for producing what they consider the best reggae tone.
P-bass fans find the J-bass a bit too bright for reggae and prefer the P-bass for its fatter, lower “dub” type of sound and slightly stronger thump. For some, the P-bass is a better choice if you exclusively play reggae.
Renowned bassist Denis Bowell, who played with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Alpha Blondy, and other star bands, had an amazing reggae sound with a Tokai P-bass. Bill laswell uses P-bass for his dub tracks. P-bass is also used in many Studio One recordings.
Another quite popular reggae bass guitar is the Rickenbacker, again with the neck pickup volume turned all the way up.
4 or 5-string bass for reggae music
Many reggae bass players in the U.S. and Europe long for that vintage roots reggae sound from the 1970s. A lot of the popular reggae is primarily old-school (Marley, Tosh, Toots) and tourist-style Reggae.
Reggae bassists in the islands nowadays tend to look for a more modern sound such as “roots conscious” dancehall style. Jamaicans and Rastas now look to Sizzla, Capleton, and dancehall boom-shots vs Bob Marley and the likes.
Thus, they’ve moved on from J-bass and now use a broad range of basses with a lot more 5-strings.
5-string basses are also becoming increasingly common in reggae recordings as they produce a deep low tone and the low B gives a special color to the sound. 5-strings are now generally expected e.g. for dancehall songs.
Flatwounds are still widely used in Reggae for their smoother feel, warmer and darker sound. They provide a flatter, more acoustic sound vs a lot more zing and punch for roundwound strings.
Aston Barret and his disciples-turned-Reggae icons have long favored flatwounds. In contrast, new-generation Jamaican Reggae bassists tend to choose roundwounds more and more.
Amps for the best reggae bass sound
Aside from the choice of bass guitar, some reggae musicians believe most of the Reggae sound can be achieved through the right amp setup. For them, the amp matters way more than the bass.
See also: best amp and cab rigs for reggae bass
Since the traditional Reggae tone focuses on the lower frequency range of the bass, a lot of amp power is required to produce those frequencies.
Some players use a Jazz bass with roundwounds and still achieve a good Reggae sound by keeping both pickup dimmed, rolling off the treble, and boosting the sound with a lot of amp power e.g. six tens / 300 watts.
Classic Reggae band bassists sometimes use a jazz-bass with roundwound strings with an ampeg 4×10 and an eden 1×15 for live performance. However, a good classic Reggae rig may include an all-tube head (e.g. SVT, Orange, or Mesa), a 1×15″ or 2×15″ cab (e.g. Bergantino), and a passive type-bass with flat strings (e.g Chromes).
Reggae bass playing style
The player’s style and technique can also affect the choice of a good Reggae bass. Once you have good bottom end bass tone, a good Reggae sound greatly depends on the bass player’s rhythmic attitude and feel and his/her ability to syncopate.
Reggae bass players typically play with the thumb and little palm muting. They use the front pickup and play close to the neck for maximum volume and a lighter attack.
Typically, they will set the action high (more bottom from the notes) and play between the 12th fret to the end of the fingerboard.
Good bass Reggae technique is what generates that deep throbbing boom, regardless of the bass and string type.
However, choosing a P-bass with flat strings and tone rolled back often offers a shortcut by giving you that fat boom even without having great technique.
Best bass guitar for dub?
While roots Reggae bass focuses on a good old-school flatwound thump, dub is more about a clean, clear, bare-bone,spaced-out, long-sustained, smooth, super deep sound.
Roundwound strings are best-suited for this type of bass sound. A bass with built-in low-pass filters will more easily produce a clean and powerful sound for dub. You can also add an ACG filter-based pre-amp to your bass.
An example of a good bass for playing dub is a Musicman Bongo with two Humbucker pickups and flat strings – the deep sound hits you in the chest.
Like roots Reggae, the best dub tone can be obtained by playing with the thumb near the neck pickup and slightly muffle the strings with the side of your fingers for a fatter and rounder sound.
Some dub (and Reggae) players like to add in a bit of bridge pickup to tune in their tone.