Simplicity is the mark of a master drummer; with reggae, this is very much true. While most people perceive that reggae songs are too repetitive and too simple for their taste, they fail to notice the advanced syncopation and the utmost control by the drummer. These small details escape casual fans. When trying out a reggae drum beat for the first time, you need a lot of control and a lot of feel for the song. But what is hard about reggae can also be easy at the same time. Confusing? Yes, compared to progressive rock or metal, your hand movements and foot activity will be at a slower pace. Reggae requires a laid-back attitude and a cool demeanor, just like the tropical vibe in Jamaica. Although, there are few reminders you need to know before taking a shot on a Bob Marley CD.
There are three basic patterns you need to learn in reggae; they are: One drop, Rockers and Steppers. In One drop beat pattern, you start with the usual quarter note time signature ("1, 2, 3, 4") in hi-hat. The difference is you are not going to strike on the "1" but on the "3." Accentuate this beat by hitting both the snare and the bass. Carlton Barrett of The Wailers invented this beat, which you can listen on the Bob Marley song called "One Drop." The Rockers drum pattern accentuates the beats "1" and "3." You can add a variation on this pattern by creating rim shots (hitting the snare's rim instead of the skin). The Steppers drum pattern is a steady rhythm of the bass drum. It provides a strong and equal pulse within the song; much like what you hear on Bob Marley's "Exodus" and "Buffalo Soldiers." Practicing triplets with your hi-hats is essential when playing reggae; treat it as if it is your snare drum.
Tune you drum to higher pitch; just like a timbales. You can also add snare drum with a "timbales" type of sound. Common drum fills in reggae often do not end in crash cymbals. This needs a lot of restraint for you, but you will be fine. Again, master your control. Use kinds of percussion instruments along your drum such as bongos, claves and shakers to get that authentic Jamaican feel.
Reggae tracks back its root to calypso, ska and rocksteady. If you want a good, solid foundation on reggae, listen to vintage records of these musical genres. Listen to every Wailer's album you can grab on. Stu Copeland of The Police is also a great note when playing reggae.