This list should actually be called the most important guitarists of Jamaican music because there wouldn’t be reggae without the two styles that preceded it on the island: ska and rocksteady. Two styles that, like reggae, don’t centre on the guitar as the main piece in the band, but with the weight focussed on the rhythm section, especially the bass. This doesn’t mean there are more than a few pioneers of a highly interesting and personal style, where the guitar is mostly used to accompany the rest, although there have also been some outstanding soloists.
You can’t start a review of important reggae guitarists anywhere else. Ernest Ranglin is one of the fathers of Jamaican music, and more specifically, ska. He is the inventor of that guitar rhythm that seems off-beat but was the basis for what ska is, and eventually rocksteady and reggae. Ranglin is one of the most significant session musicians in Jamaican history, being the guitarist behind Easy Snappin’ by Theophilus Beckford, considered the first ska song, and My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small, the first international success of Jamaican music, and being the lead guitarist in the early years of Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One in Kingston. You can also appreciate his style as soloist on the soundtrack of Dr. No of the James Bond brand, or in the marvellous It Hurts To Be Alone from the early Wailers, composed by Bob Marley, and sung by Junior Braithwaite while he was briefly with the band in 1964. His favourite guitars are the semi-hollow bodies, due to his passion for jazz too, such as the Guilds, mostly used in the 50s and 60s, not to mention his Super 400 or the ES-175, ES-335, and the ES-339. His preferred amp is the Roland JC-120.
Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith
Perhaps the most recorded reggae guitarist. From his beginnings in the early 70s together with Soul Syndicate, to his recent collaborations with artists as big as Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill, ‘Chinna’ Smith has played with almost all the greats in Jamaican music like Bob Marley (on Rastaman Vibration) , Dennis Brown (on Java), Jimmy Cliff, Bunny Wailer, Johnny Clarke and Ziggy Marley. His Telecaster is, like he says, the reggae guitar.
Born in Trinidad, guitarist Nerlynn Taitt was already a renowned musician when he first set foot in Jamaica in 1962, during the celebration of its independence. Shortly after he became the most sought-after session player in Jamaica, now that Ernest Ranglin was in England. He left his mark by turning ska into rocksteady with his guitar in what are considered the first 3 songs of this style, Take It Easy by Hopeton Lewis, Girl I’ve Got a Date, with its amazing intro by Alton Ellis, and Tougher Than Tough by Derrick Morgan. You can hear his style perfectly in Desmond Dekker’s hymn 007 (Shanty Town), about the ‘rude boys’ in the ghettos of Kingston. Taitt left Jamaica for Canada in 1968, but his style would be perfected by one of his disciples, Hux Brown, to create the reggae guitar style. His chosen guitar on most of his Jamaican recordings is with a Hofner Super Solid, one of the first solid guitars ever heard on the island.
The man who taught Bob Marley how to play a guitar is one of the biggest reggae figures of all time. Together with Marley and Bunny ‘Wailer’ Livingston, they formed the Wailers in 1963, becoming the most important group in Jamaican history. After Catch a Fire and Burnin’, he embarked in a solo career with records as great as Legalize It and Equal Rights. He was the lead guitarist while with the Wailers, using in his later years with the band a Gibson Les Paul Standard and a lot of wah. But his most memorable guitar was one given to him by a fan in 1983, in the form of an M16 rifle, the perfect weapon for this tireless freedom warrior who get up and stood for their rights without quitting the fight.
The most important figure in the history of reggae and Jamaican music, Robert Nesta Marley was a good rhythm guitarist in his own right, and had excellent lead guitarists. His first big guitar was a Fender Stratocaster, but all through his career his favourite guitar was his Gibson Les Paul Special which you can see in most of his recorded concerts. Of course we can’t omit another of his mythic guitars, the Ovation Adamas acoustic, with which he moved half the world with Redemption Song.
Possibly the author of the most memorable solo in the history of reggae, which he did on the live version of No Woman No Cry by Marley. Anderson was an American guitarist steeped in blues tradition when Marley signed him up in 1974 to replace the original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Anderson put his stamp on the remarkable Natty Dread, released that year, and subsequently Live! in 1975, where the famous version of No Woman No Cry was included. He stayed in the band until 1976, a year which, in a twist of fate, he started working for Peter Tosh, and together they would cut Legalize It and Equal Rights. In the late 70s he would return to Marley for the recording of Survival and Uprising. After Marley’s death, he would work with names like Ben Harper and Lauryn Hill. His favourite axe was a Stratocaster and his best amp was the Fender Twin Reverb.
Junior Marvin (not to be confused with Junior Murvin of Police & Thieves) was the guitarist who replaced Al Anderson as lead axe for the Wailers. In early ‘77, Marvin got a call to work with Bob Marley & The Wailers, and the very same day, Stevie Wonder offered him a spot in his band. Two of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century had their eyes on him, and Marvin was faced with an impossible choice. But his Jamaican roots and on advice from his family, he went with Marley. He wasn’t mistaken, his guitar would become a fixture on records by I Shot the Sheriff’s author until his early death, beginning with the essential Exodus, where you can hear his solo on Waiting in Vain. With his bluesy jazz touch, Marvin got something that Marley had always wanted: to build bridges between Jamaica and the U.S., especially with the black community, one of the musical sources he drew from. He achieved this by plugging in his Stratocaster into a Cry Baby and 2 Fender Twin Reverb amps, attaining a sound half way between Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield.
Lynford 'Hux' Brown
The first of Lynn Taitt’s disciples, ‘Hux’ Brown is the guitarist who played what some consider the 1st reggae song in history, Bangarang by Lester Sterling, a number in which he still hit the double stroke with his right hand, up and down. It’s not the only classic he appears in with his Hofner, as Brown also played on such things as Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians, and The Harder They Come by Jimmy Cliff, or The Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon, which the author of Bridge Over Troubled Waters recorded in Jamaica when he was making his first solo record.
Another name that can claim to be one of the first reggae guitarists, Frater started his career in 1968 as a member of prestigious Soul Dimension, a group from Dodd’s Studio One where he replaced the great Ernest Ranglin. His first recordings were with the great Jackie Mittoo on songs such as Ram Jam and Who Done It, but also left his mark on hits like Sweet Talking by the Heptones, and It’s A Shame by Delroy Wilson.
Stephen ‘Cat’ Coore
Coore started off very young with the legendaries Inner Circle in the early 70s, but it was with Third World that he reached fame. His soloist style, with a touch of Carlos Santana, made him one of the most prominent guitarists in reggae. His work on songs such as Try Jah Love, Talk to Me and Always Around is full of class. Despite being one of the few and most renowned guitar soloists in reggae, Coore is a true defender of the pioneering work of Ranglin and Taitt: "What makes up a good reggae guitar part," Coore added, "is the feel for the rhythm and the sound of the instrument – that’s very important. It should have a clear top-end, but it should not be too brittle. That Fender Jaguar sound on the two pickups is one of the greatest reggae rhythm sounds. It has a bright top end, but also a nice middle and bottom end. In Jamaica, that was one of the most famous reggae guitars for years. If you didn’t own a Fender Jaguar, you didn’t own a guitar. That was the tradition.”