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Jamaican Music Instruments: Everything You Need To Know

Jamaica is an island country located in the Caribbean Sea between the USA and South America. It is a country with rich musical traditions and unique Jamaican instruments whose distinct sound is recognizable in genres such as ska, reggae, rocksteady, dub, dancehall, and reggae fusion.

These Jamaican instruments can also be heard in non-Jamaican music genres such as Lovers rock, jungle music, and grime. But in order to be able to recognize their unique sound, someone must be properly acquainted with them.


The guitar

The guitar, which is one of the most popular instruments, has a place in almost every kind of music culture. Thus, this 6-stringed, chorded, acoustic, classic, or electric instrument can be considered a Jamaican instrument as well. Its versatility enables it to be easily incorporated into the Jamaican-Caribbean style as the lead part, supporting chords, or even melody.

The guitar is one of the most popular instruments in Jamaica
The guitar is one of the most popular instruments in Jamaica

The Cuatro (guitar) was introduced to the Jamaican people by Spanish colonizers and it is an adaptation of the classical Spanish guitar. The traditional version of the Cuatro would only have four strings (seeing as cuatro means four in Spanish), although the more modern version has five sets of double strings.

Having been made from laurel wood gives the Cuatro a twist to its sound, unlike the classical Spanish guitar. It is usually the lead instrument and it has been recognized as the national instrument of Puerto Rico. The Cuatro is also closely related to the Mandolin and the Lute family.


Steel pans (steel drums, pans)

The steel pan is a musical instrument in the idiophone family of instruments (instruments that create sound by the vibration of the instrument itself). The first steel pans were created by frying pans, bin lids, and oil drums in Trinidad and Tobago by the locals under French rule during the French Revolution (1789).

Steel pans
Steel pans

The pianists (steel pan players) strike the instrument with a pair of sticks with rubber on their edges and depending on the position of the strike a different tone is generated. They are widely used in the production of Jamaican music.

In the 20th century, the steel pans were played in steel bands of four to two hundred players and thus different sizes were used (boom, cello pan, guitar pan, and ping pong).


Maracas (rumba shaker, chac chac)

The Maraca is in the family of rattles (percussion instruments that produce sound when shaken). They have Latin American origin and are used in the Caribbean and Latin music genres. Although, they are more than a musical instrument. The Maracas were used by shamans in magic and healing rituals.

They consist of two parts, the handle, and the hollow oval-like speaker. The latter is filled with pebbles, seeds, or beads and decorated with sometimes a slit in the top feathers or even human hair in some traditions.

Expert Tip: Maracas can produce a wide variety of sounds despite their simple design. Although today they are usually made of wood, plastic, leather, or glass.


Conga (tumbadora)

The Conga is a percussion instrument that resembles a barrel with a tunable drum on its top end.

There are three types of Congas each one for its own purpose: The Quinto (primarily for lead drums as it has the highest tone), the Tres od or Tres golpes ( which is used in both rhythm and lead as it has a middle tone) and the Tumba or Salidor (which is solely used for rhythm as it has the lowest frequency).

The Conga is a percussion instrument that resembles a barrel with a tunable drum
The Conga is a percussion instrument that resembles a barrel with a tunable drum

The Conga was originated from African cultures and later incorporated into Jamaican music. Therefore, while it may not be originated within the Jamaican instruments, it was later incorporated into Jamaican music tradition.

A modern adaptation of the Conga has expanded the number of drums it consists of contradicting the single-drum traditional design.


Bongos

The Bongos, sometimes accompanying the Conga, is a percussion instrument that consists of two open-bottom hand drums one being larger than the other. They were first used in Cuba in genres such as salsa and son Cubano but they were later widely used in all sorts of Jamaican music, mainly reggae.

The two drums provide a different variety of tones as the larger one (major or female) has lower frequencies than the smaller one (minor or male). The player holds the Bongos between their knees with the major drum on the side of their dominant hand. The palm or the fingers are used in different techniques.

They can also be played on a stand and with mallets or drumsticks.


Palitos (claves)

The palitos is a handheld percussion instrument that is acquainted in both Cuban and African music culture. They consist of two cylindrical wooden pieces and they are played by striking them together. The correct placement of the fingers of the player enables the characteristic sound of the instrument.

Expert Tip: They are used in genres such as rumba and salsa. The general technique of the instrument is quite simple and easy to learn.

The real value of the Palitos is hidden inside the player and their ability to play different patterns and rhythms effectively. They complete the trio of percussion musical instruments that consists of the Conga, the Bongos, and the Palitos that are commonly seen together in orchestras.


Tambourine

The Tambourine in Jamaican Culture
The Tambourine in Jamaican Culture

The tambourine can be spotted in one of two forms. The headless tambourine (as shown in the picture) and one with a drumhead. Both of them are usually wooden with metal jingles which are responsible for their distinct jingling sound. It has a place in multiple music traditions in many countries such as Turkey.

Greece and Italy but also in classical and modern orchestras and bands. It can be played both as a handheld instrument and mounted usually on a drum set.

While being a handheld instrument, the player can use either hand or in eastern traditions their hips in order to strike it It emits a jingling rhythmic sound that is most commonly used as base rhythm. Different genres that include the tambourine range from Turkish or Greek folk music to classical, pop, country, and rock.


Panderetas

The Pandaretas, also Panderos are handheld percussion instruments that resemble tambourines without the jingles. They have stretched animal skin as a drumhead and a usually wooden ring. They may originate from either Africa or Spain and are commonly used in Puerto Rico.

There usually are three different sizes of Panderetas that come together as a set. The first one, the Seguidor is the one with the deepest and lowest tone and thus is used for the basic rhythm, much like the Salidor Conga. The Punteador is smaller than the first one, is used both for rhythm and lead much like the Tres golpes Conga, and the Requinto. The smallest of the bunch is mainly used for the lead part of the beat.


Guiro

Guiro
Guiro

The guiro is a percussion instrument that has a hollow gourd and a series of slits on its top side. The slits are then scraped with a stick or tines in order to produce their characteristic scraping sound. The guiro can be found in Latin American genres of music such as son, trova, and salsa. The player has to combine both long and short strokes of the stick.

Expert Tip: Even though it may be simplistic in design only a skillful enough player can fully express the variety of sounds this small instrument can make.

It is usually played by the singer just like the Maracas. Today it is made of wood, metal, plastic, or fiberglass that result in different pitches and tones.


Buleador

The Buleador is the big brother of the percussion family of Jamaican instruments. It is a large, barrel-like drum about 24 inches tall and has a diameter of 13 inches. It is made of wood and the drumhead is made of stretched animal skin.

Puerto Rican in origin is commonly used in Latin American dance music such as Bomba where it plays the basic beat for the dancers and the other instruments. Its incredibly low pitch makes it perfect for base rhythms and root beats.


The national instrument of Jamaica

Jamaica is known for its unique mixture of traditions and cultures. Taking into account this fact, it makes sense why in Jamaican culture, people use a wide range of instruments, dating back throughout their whole history. So, does Jamaica have a national instrument? The answer is yes and that instrument is the Abeng.

Abeng - The national instrument of Jamaica
Abeng – The national instrument of Jamaica

The Abeng is made from the horn of the cow. From the end of the horn, until about 9 inches below, the instrument is formed. Jamaicans open a small hole at the tip of the horn and on the curvy side, near the tip, they made an opening for the mouth. The person that uses the instrument, blows into this hole and a sound is created.

The Abeng falls into the category of aerophones. The main use of it was for the Maroon people to communicate with each other, even at big distances, without being understood by their enemies. Now, it is used mainly for ceremonies of their communities.


What music is Jamaica famous for?

There has been a wide range of popular genres in Jamaican culture throughout history. Its diverse influences from other countries gave Jamaica the power of being a melting pot of many different styles.

Bob Marley was without a doubt the most known artist of reggae
Bob Marley was without a doubt the most known artist of reggae

We are talking about jazz, mento, calypso, or rocksteady. But if we want to answer the question: ‘what music is Jamaica famous for?’ we can only name one genre, and that is reggae. It began in the late 1960s, before that, other styles such as ska were very famous in the country, creating a unique rhythm.

Reggae stems from these early styles but still has the Jamaican storytelling ability, its authenticity when describing the ups and downs of their lives. Bob Marley was without a doubt the most known artist of this genre.

With his lyrics full of love and compassion and his will to end the war, he captivated the hearts of people all around the world. ‘One love, one heart’.


Conclusion

It is easy to perceive that the vast majority of Jamaican instruments are percussion ones. That can also easily be spotted by listening to Jamaican genres that have obviously a very strong presence of percussion music. That is what partly gives these genres their characteristic vibe.

While more modern instruments have made their way in those genres (like the famous reggae bass) it would not be fair to include them in the Jamaican instruments seeing as they were later added.

After reading this article you can finally recognize those strange sounds you listened to during your stay at that beach bar or that reggae concert you went to and truly admire the beauty of the Jamaican music tradition.

About Jayden Buckley

Hi, my name is Jayden and I am author/editor for PlayTheTunes. I remember the first time I hopped on the drums, I was hooked. Music has played an enormous part of my life, and I'm honored I get to share my experiences with you!