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What Is Ska Music? Best Things to Know 2023

What is Ska Music
  • Max Kuehn

This article will cover all of what is ska music, ska evolutionary, characteristics as well as hallmarks of ska music. It will certainly help you in knowing a lot more about this kind of music. Fidlar is glad to provide all the information in this comprehensive rundown of ska music.

Definition Of Ska Music

Ska is a music genre that mixes Jamaican and Caribbean rhythms with punk rock energy and horn sections. These elements combine to create a highly danceable, energetic style of music that has gained mainstream popularity.

Ska Music Evolutionary Changes

It originated in Jamaica, a part of North America. American R&amp heavily influenced this genre; Jamaican ska music is, in essence, a mixture of R&B music and traditional Jamaican music.

Instead of being a strange mix of two different styles of music, Ska quickly became a distinct genre full of explosive energy, incredible instrumentals, and a great brass section.

This genre has seen many changes over its history. This has made it distinctive. Based on periods, the collective changes in ska can be divided into three waves.

The First Wave: The Original Jamaican Scene

The second world war saw the end of global tension, especially in the United States. New Orleans and Miami’s most popular radio stations began to grow their reach. This allowed American music to be introduced into Jamaica’s street culture.

Jamaicans could now listen to R&B and other American music. “Ain’t That A Shame,” a song by Fat Domino, a blues musician, was one of the most popular songs on Jamaica’s music charts.

Many artists and producers attempted to capture the essence and uniqueness of R&B due to its popularity in Jamaica. A new R&B was created that included elements from traditional Jamaican music. You can find elements of Jamaican folk music (mento) and Caribbean music (calypso).

However, this new music genre was quite different from American R& B. These similarities to R&B were subtle and sometimes indiscernible. This was the birth of Ska music.

Fast forward to the 1960s, and ska sound was the most popular genre in Jamaica. Many local artists and jamaican producers embraced ska’s popularity.

This was a huge hit, and the music industry was constantly releasing it. This was a common genre at parties and street festivals.

Ska Music Evolutionary Changes

The Second Wave: 2Tone

The second wave in the evolution of ska music came when there was an increase in Jamaican immigrants living in Britain. This genre gained popularity again in the 1970s. Historisch, this era of ska music’s popularity is known as “2-Tone”.

Ironically, “2 Tone” is the name of this era in ska’s popularity. First, Jerry Dammers’ punk rock band, “The Specials,” adopted ska music and incorporated elements of punk rock into it.

This song refers to a “rude boy” (or “rudy”), which is Jamaican slang for a lower-class teenager with a penchant of delinquency. He is encouraged to get his lift together.

They were able to create a new form of ska music that was more energetic and fast than the original Jamaican version. This era of ska music evolution was called “2 Tone Ska music.”

The second reason was the fact that the band was racially mixed. This was a rare feat at the time. The band used ska music to highlight and address racism because of their race.

2 Tone Records was the one responsible for introducing ska music in the United Kingdom. This began the journey to ska’s international recognition.

Many artists and groups were inspired by the band to explore ska music. Among the most prominent bands of this era were:

  • Madness
  • The Selecter
  • Bad Manners
  • The Bodysnatchers

The influence of the British record label wasn’t limited to Britain. This genre gained popularity in Canada, contrary to popular belief. Canadian band “The Villians” was inspired by 2 Tone’s artistic music.

The band adopted ska music and became one of the most well-known ska music groups in the country.

Ska Music Evolutionary Changes

The Third Wave: To Where It All Started

2 Tone records quickly became a global phenomenon. American bands began to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of ska music, and they started to incorporate it into their own songs. The punk rock band was one of the first to do this.

This resulted in the merging of two music genres, punk rock bands mixed punk rock with ska influences. The evolution of ska into ska-punk music was possible.

It has evolved into the third wave of popularity, vastly different from the original style. The result was that American punk-ska music and Jamaican music had experienced major changes.

The most significant change was in third-wave ska music, which abandoned the traditional Jamaican folk music style in favor of punk rock music and strong guitar riffs.

The 90s saw punk bands become hugely popular and rose quickly to stardom in music. Top ska musicians such as:

  • No Doubt
  • Sublime
  • Reel Big Fish
  • The Mighty MightyBosstones

They gained widespread popularity and were often on the billboard’s top 200s lists. These ska bands also created many playlists featuring modern ska music.

Less Than Jake” was an indie band that made ska-punk music inspired by the third wave ska bands. Chris DeMakes, the lead singer of this band, gave an amazing interview about how they created a unique ska music style influenced by pop music and punk music.

Chris discusses the unique elements of their punk-pop version of ska music and the music trends from the 1990s. Music trends are crucial for the success or failure of a genre.

The music trends in America at that time paved the way to ska music’s rise in the country’s musical industry. If you’re interested in punk-pop ska music, give their song “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads” a listen.

Four Characteristics Of Ska Music

Four Characteristics of Ska Music

Many ska core elements have been a part of the history and evolution of ska music.

  • Instruments rock plus horns: A typical Ska band includes guitar, bass drums, drums, trumpet, trombone, and lead vocals. Some groups use keyboards.
  • A melodic tradeoff between the singers and the horn section: Ska songs frequently feature instrumental riffs performed by their horn sections. These sung vocals fill in the silences.
  • 4/4 time signature: Ska is almost entirely written in 4/4 time. It is a dance genre that is frequently played at a fast pace. The backbeat is what drummers emphasize (beats two and four), while guitarists often use percussive stabs to mark beats two, three, and four. The bass guitar is active and plays a mixture of quarter notes as well as eighth notes.
  • Lyrics that focus on social justice are a common feature of first-wave Jamaican Ska and second-wave British Ska. These lyrics were primarily focused on equity, social justice, and racial inclusion. The third wave of ska offers a wider range of lyrics that are not directly related to activism or social justice.

Musical Hallmarks Of Ska

Although ska music is a variety of genres due to its many revivals and fusions with other genres, it has distinct rhythms and instrumentation.

It has had a consistent history of instruments. A vital horn section is a prominent part of many bands, and the usual bass, guitar, keyboard, drums, and the vocal lineup is common with popular music from the 1950s through today.

Let’s examine the roles of these instruments in ska and how they have changed over time.

Guitar: The Ska Upstroke

Ska music is mostly played in 4/4 time. This is why it is essential to play on the offbeats. This creates the bouncing rhythm that is so famous for.

The Secret guitarist teacher demonstrates this rhythmic pattern, also known as the “ska upstroke,” is demonstrated by Secret guitarist teacher.

This rhythm emphasizes beats 2, 4, and 4 in 4/4 with a fast, almost percussive guitar strumming.

Musical Hallmarks of Ska

An eighth-note skank rhythm can be used to create a faster groove like those found in high-energy styles such as ska-punk. The rhythm is then read as 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and:

To add more interest, you can play this upstroke on other stringed instruments. Live Ukulele explains how to skank your ukulele with ease.

Musical Hallmarks of Ska


First wave Jamaican Ska had a diverse vocal section. R&B influences first wave ska, as can the soulful and melodic delivery of artists like Derrick Morgan. Some groups, like the Skatalites, used sparse vocals.

Some groups used a style of singing called “toasting”, which is one of the forebears in rap. The vocalist uses shouts, chants, and interjections to sing.

2 Tone featured melodic, more energetic vocals with themes of unity and racial integration.

Third-wave ska music is easy to see if you compare Sublime to No Doubt. While the former sang about drug addiction, California living, and the future, Gwen Stefani wrote about love, relationships, and life on the road.

The unifying feature of third-wave ska music is its punk influence on the vocal delivery. Lyrics were often sung fast with shouts (Oi!) and interspersed with the spoken word. This can be heard in the music of bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish.

Brass section

A typical horn section in ska music includes trumpets, trombones, and alto saxophones. The brass section can either accompany the vocals and guitar or hit the offbeats and provide a countermelody.

The horns were the backbone of ska in Jamaica’s first wave. They allowed the guitarist to freely move over the steady beat and guitar upstrokes, a common feature of ska.

2 Tone retained the horns but reduced their importance to make it more guitar-driven. The third wave ska more fully embraced the horn section. Reel Big Fish’s cover to A-ha’s “Take On Me” features the main musical theme on the brass section.


Another hallmark of ska instrumentation is the walking bass line. This was most commonly found in Jamaican first wave ska. It used either the double bass or the bass guitar in the rhythm section.

These basslines were a perfect accompaniment to the fast-paced and high-energy ska songs.

Third-wave ska, which was more punk-oriented, saw bass players move away from the traditional walking basslines to faster, filled-out parts.

Musical Hallmarks of Ska


First wave Jamaican Ska remained true to its cultural roots, using both traditional and modern instruments. Shakers and tambourines were often used in conjunction with drum kits.

The classic ska rhythm uses a full drum set. Beats 2 and 4 are for the bass drum to highlight the guitar upstroke. Cross-stick, a technique where the drumstick is struck against the rim on the snare drum, adds to the backbeat.

To complete the beat, the drum head is struck on beat 4. Eight notes are then played on the hi-hat:


First wave ska includes piano and organ instrumentation. These instruments would either go along with the bassline or be a part of the melody. In 2 Tone and 3 Wave, keyboards are still available. However, these bands often turn to the organ for a more retro sound.

Modern Ska Music

It has survived three revivals, each with a huge rise in popularity. Many prominent ska-punk groups emerged in the third wave of evolution.

These bands produced great music, and many are still in existence today. Reel Big Fish, Streetlight Manifesto, and Rancid are keeping ska music alive and thriving.

History has shown us that if ska music ever falls off, it will eventually rebound with an explosive comeback.


Although ska is usually a team effort, there is no reason to stop you from building your ska skills by yourself. Listen to all the ska music and then get some ska sheet music. Practice your guitar upstroke and learn how to skank (optional). You can then form your ska revival group by joining forces with like-minded people.

Fidlar hopes you found this article be helpful and can’t wait to hear your upstrokes in the comments below.

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