Ska Guitar Rhythm Playing

Welcome to the world of Ska Guitar!

Ska is a style of music that can be described as “Upbeat Reggae.” It has influenced classic rock bands like The Clash, as well as more modern bands like No Doubt.

Here we’ll look at a rhythm guitar technique that describes the basics of Ska.

classical guitars

This is the first example in a five-part series. We’ll work on a basic Ska rhythm, playing on the upbeats. Keep the right hand loose and moving in an up-down motion. Focus on the upbeats.

First off, ska is very funk- influenced, so you’ll need a clean funky sound. Skank is played on, at most, the bottom four strings and uses the following chord shapes:

—5—5——-2–4——-5–7——-7—3——-4———7–2—————
—5—5——-3–5——-7–9——-9—5——-4———8–3—————
—6—6——-2–4——-7–9——-8—4——-4———9–4—————
—7———————————————————-4—————
——————————————————————————
——————————————————————————
F-shape D-shape A-Shape dm-shape Maj7 am-shape

Once you have the chord shapes, you need to learn the rhythm. To play the most common skank rhythm, mute on the downstroke and play the upstroke. Do this by lifting you fingers just enough to mute the strings on the downstroke and then pressing them back down on the upstroke.

This is all done while the right hand keeps a constant rhythm. Start out very SLOW at first; this rhythm may take some time to develop. An example of the rhythm is down below:

Example:
—x—-5—-x—-5—-x–||–x—2——-x—3——-x—2——-x—5——-
—x—-5—-x—-5—-x–||–x—3——-x—3——-x—3——-x—5——-
—x—-6—-x—-6—-x–||–x—2–x8—x—4–x8—x—2–x8—x—6–x8—
—x—-7—-x—-7—-x–||–x———–x—5——-x———–x—7——-
————————–||————————————————–
————————–||————————————————–

^ v ^ v ^ Riff A Supertones “Grace Flood” Verse 0:05

Once you have a handle on the rhythm you can try some Supertones riffs. Riff A uses the basic ska rhythm and is played over the verses. The hardest part is keeping the rhythm while changing chords…remember, start SLOW.

Riff B uses the same rhythm, but it has a minor sound that is very different then Riff A.

—x–7——-x–5——-x—8——|-xx–55—-xx–44—-xx-22—-xx–44—–
—x–8——-x–7——-x—8——|-xx–55—-xx–55—-xx-33—-xx–55—–
—x–9–x4—x–7–x4—x—9–x8–|-xx–66-x4-xx–66-x4-xx-22-x4-xx–44-x4–
—x———-x———-x–10——|-xx–77—-xx–66—-xx——-xx———
————————————|—————————————–
————————————|—————————————–
Riff B Supertones “Tonight” Verses Riff C Supertones “Resolution” 0:25

Keep a soft, clean tone with an out-of-phase pickup setting. A guitar with single coil pickups is best for this (a Fender Stratocaster or similar) but you can also use a guitar with humbucking pickups, if you use the middle position on the pickup selector.

You’ll need to mute notes with the left hand on your down strokes. Keep the notes very short!

Don’t dig into the strings too hard or rake across them strongly with your right hand, or you will sound like a washboard. Always keep it light and loose!

Finally, there are many, many variations with the ska rhythm. Riff C is an example of a slower doubled ska rhythm, which is much easier to play. Mute the strings on the first down and upstroke and then play the chord on the next down and upstroke. The song takes off after this riff and then uses the normal ska rhythm like in riff A and B.

Well, that’s about it. Keep this lesson in mind when going through any ska tabs because transcribers don’t usually tab the ska parts because it is a little tedious.

Enjoy…