Get The Sound: Ska

More than just Two-Tone

Bingley Music Live 2012

Every now and again we try and show you how to achieve the unique sounds, styles and tones of specific genres of music. In this article we’re going to focus on ska.

The roots of ska comes from a style of music called Mento. It’s a kind of Jamaican folk music that developed from the West African slaves who worked in the plantations. Slaves who could play music were often rewarded for their skills by their masters, and the music they created was called Mento. It gave the performers a way of releasing some of the tensions they faced in the harsh living conditions. Often light-hearted in nature, the lyrics commented on aspects of life such as poverty and social issues.

Nowadays it perhaps takes on a slightly different appearance, but certain truisms remain. But how can you get that iconic ska sound? Let’s take a look.

Background to Ska

By the time the 1950s came, a new style of music reached Jamaica from mainland USA. What these musicians were hearing was jazz, and rhythm & blues. The appetite for this kind of music grew and grew as aspiring musicians took advantage of the new American tourism trade. Soon it caught on across Jamaica.

It is said that guitarist Ernest Ranglin was the first to coin the phrase, ska. Over a period of months the shuffle blues that everyone was copying began to morph, adding a mento lilt and a new sound emerged. At the dancehalls a new type of business was beginning to grow with sound systems recording and playing original songs that were cut to a soft vinyl known as ‘dub plates’. Everyone wanted to hear the latest hit song. This spurred on a whole industry which became so competitive that people were killed just transporting records. Everyone wanted the next hit.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that British bands began making the ska music they heard from the Trojan records imports from Jamaica. Bands like The Clash, The Specials and Madness created the new sound which became Two-Tone. That sound carried all the way from the UK to the USA, and in the late 80s and early 90s ska took its next hurrah in the form of 3rd wave ska. For a long time that sound has been dormant, held in the underbellies of alt-clubs, dives and fringe towns. But thanks to a new breed of artists like The Undercover Hippy, The Skints and Nubiyan Twist, ska is back once again.

Squier Classic Vibe 50s Telecaster

Components of Ska Sound

Even though the genre has such a vivid history, there are certain elements that make the sound what it is. And because the style is so distinctive due to the iconic guitar sound, that’s as good a place any to start.

The tone of ska is cutting. It pushes through with top end clarity and mid-range punch. It’s for this reason many people who play the style opt for a Telecaster sound, due to the Tele’s famous neck pickup being perfect for the job. The Squire Classic Vibe 50s Telecaster is not only affordable but highly rated by reviewers around the world.

And if there is one amp that’s matched perfectly to the Tele sound it’s the Fender Hot Rod Deville. Countless ska guitarists play the Tele/Deville set-up and it just screams of offbeat clarity that pushes through the mix and makes the groove jump. That said, it requires some effective dampening on both the strumming and fretting hand to make those offbeats pop, plus don’t forget to make it swing just a little.

Squier Vintage Modified Fretless Jazz Bass

It’s All About The Bass

While the quintessential ska sound comes from the offbeat ‘skank’, the bass provides the contrast. In this genre, you’ll often find the bottom-end undulating on the beat. Look back to the days of early ska pioneers like The Skatalites you’d find Lloyd Brevett stood there with the upright bass. For our electric four stringed friends, the warm, thudding tones of a double bass might be almost out of reach, but you can get pretty close.

Of all the bass gear out there, the Ampeg Portaflex PF 500 bass amp head and Ampeg Portaflex PF 210he bass cabinet system is an excellent way of recreating dark and earthy tones of an acoustic bass. They are based on the classic B-15 amp made famous by those early Motown recordings James Jameson played on. He was an upright player, later electric aficionado, and most certainly would have been influential in the Jamaican sound in the 1960s. You can get close to that full bodied tone of early ska with a fretless bass, like the highly playable Squire Vintage Fretless Jazz Bass.

Nord Electro 5D

All Filler, All Killer

Between the throbbing bottom end and the striking sound of the guitar lays the heart of ska. The piano was a key feature of early ska, but soon morphed into the much more inorganic tone of the Hammond organ. This new tool gave players the freedom to express their youth-filled angst in a multitude of colourful sounds. There’s a great story that Jerry Dammers, the main songwriter from The Specials used to play a church organ that was cut into two halves to make transporting easier. Today you can get a lush range of organ tones from the Nord Electro 5D. In fact the Nord Electro is far more than just a Hammond emulator; it has piano, Rhodes and a whole bunch of great synth sounds. The Nord gives you authenticity and the opportunity to expand your sound into new levels of experimentation.

Back to Fundamentals

If you’re serious about creating the ska sound, we’d suggest going through the old Trojan back catalogue and checking out the awesome movie Rockers to discover the subculture and roots of ska. What you’ll discover is to play the ska takes a whole load of commitment, but it has real feeling. There are some amazing tracks played in the 80s and 90s too, all of which brought new pop sensibilities allied with that classic Jamaican ska sound.