Jazz Chords – The 3 Rules That Make You Sound Pro!

I am incredibly lucky that I get to jam with great musicians, and one of the reasons for that is something that Jazz beginners miss: You need to be able to lay down great-sounding chords that feel comfortable to play over. If you can’t play chords and comp then nobody wants to play with you. Let me show you 3 rules that your comping needs to follow, and don’t worry none of them are about difficult complicated chords and with the 3 rules, you can start to play beautiful and swinging comp, and even though I am starting with really simple chords, you can go as far as you want with this, check it out!

Let’s take a simple medium Bb blues, with a focus on playing as if you are in a duo with a horn, a vocalist, or another guitarist which means that when you are comping then you are responsible for three of the main ingredients of the song:

The Tempo, The Groove, and The Harmony.

#1 Be Clear

You need to be clear! Make it easy to understand what you are playing, where the time is, and how the groove sounds.

If we start with Time and rhythm: There is a great Peter Bernstein quote: “Don’t Be Afraid of the one when you are comping” – What that means is you have to communicate the groove to both the soloist and the audience, so stay grounded and play a chord on beat 1 often. That’s what makes it comfortable for the soloist and easy to follow for the audience. Be Clear!

When it comes to notes then being clear is about working with simple chords with a bass note

Like this:

I am playing shell-voicings here, so these easy 3-note versions of the chords: Bb7 and Eb7, Fm7 Bb7.

A trick I am using for Getting the groove across is that I split the shell-voicing into two layers: bass and chord,

You’ll see later just how much you can open that up and how powerful that is! Here it is helping me get the swing feel in there. Like this:

Notice how having two layers already is a melody, similar to how a drumkit has a bassdrum and a snare drum for comping.

A mistake that I sometimes hear is when a student plays too many sustained chords. Long sustained chords make it hard to feel the groove, and that works better if you are playing with somebody else who is laying down the groove, so try to avoid this:

And aim more for this:

Let’s look at the next rule which is more about HOW you play before getting to what you can do with the chords:

Be Connected

Be connected! This topic often concerns something that seems scary to most students trying to learn comping.

As you know, some people have the reputation of being magic at comping behind soloists, think of Herbie Hancock behind Miles or Wayne Shorter, or somebody like Wynton Kelly behind Wes Montgomery, but what makes them magic?

A lot of it is about having the right balance between 3 things:

  1. What is going on in the music or song
  2. What is the soloist playing
  3. What can I do with the harmony and the rhythm

The first two are about the most important part of playing Jazz chords, which is not rhythm, extensions or voice-leading. The most important part of playing Jazz chords is listening, and knowing when to play. You need to listen to the entire band and to the soloist. You can make horrible mistakes with that, for example, make sure that you don’t play a million syncopated chords

if the feel is more relaxed and open and the rest of the band sounds like this:

Another pitfall, that I see in lessons where I am teaching comping is that it turns into being about ear training and being able to, on the spot, transcribe and analyze everything being played while you are also playing the chords. That is not really how it works, of course, you want to hear and catch as much as you can, but you should also keep in mind that if the soloist is really busy and playing a lot then you don’t have to do so much, and you can even stop playing for a bit, or at least pull back to make it very basic. What is also important to keep in mind is that even if you know exactly what is being played then you are much more likely to get in the way if you also play a lot.

So you want to be connected with the song and the soloist so that what you play fits the mood and the energy and is nice to play over. But you also want to be connected to what YOU are playing.

That connection needs to be there, and it is so important to work on getting it in there so that it doesn’t sound like we are starting a new song every 4 beats. There is a great fairly simple way to start working on this: You need to learn to listen to yourself and you need to learn to think in phrases!  The best way to work on this is to start with the rhythm, and I’ll show you some tricks with the chords in the next part of the video. An easy way to train this is to repeat stuff through a song, and you will find that a lot of soloists find that very nice to play over because it is predictable and easy to both play off and get ideas from and you can rely on it.

So spend some time just taking a riff or rhythm through the song and then slowly start to develop or vary it, but keep the longer story in there as well! Once you can do that you can always open it up.

Make sure to practice with a metronome that is the fastest way to get better time and really be able to lay down a groove! If your groove sounds good with a metronome then your groove sounds good. If your groove sounds good with a backing track then maybe the backing track sounds good. I’ve said it before. Now we need top open up the chords!

Be Creative

We all want to play big beautiful chord voicings because that’s probably what we love about jazz chords: all the colors and extensions,  but at the same time it is much more important to get the rhythm right and not get in the way of the soloists or the other band members when you’re comping. If you are playing with a drummer and your rhythms don’t match that will sound horrible. When it comes to chords then If you check, you would probably be amazed at how most people you admire play very basic and simple chords most of the time. The groove and clarity is the most important!

So a good place to start is to add some forward Motion with the help of some easy and basic passing chords. As you will see, There’s no difficult theory or complicated formulas needed, I am just playing something that’s a half step, or a fret,  away from the chord that I want to go to and using that to drive the progression forward with some nice sounding energy! Something like this.

So I am going to the Eb7 from above and approaching the Bb7 from below, simple stuff just sliding the chord in place.

And of course, you can also use that if you just want to change things up while you’re on the same chord for a longer time.

Earlier in the video I showed you how to split the chord in two parts so that you have a bass note and a chord, but check out how you can take that up a few levels because that goes really really far and you can do all sorts of things!

You can probably tell that this is the same principle:  First playing the complete chord, maybe a simple version, to set up and be clear about where we are in the song. But after that then I don’t play the root anymore and instead, I am free to play a chord fill in between.

As you can see then I’m using all these other kind of voicings that are kind of coming out of the shell-voicing but also some drop2 and some triads. You can really do a lot with this and it’s a great way to create some fills. It is also great for adding some blues flavor to the whole thing.  Like this:

Getting Back To The Blues

I am essentially using the same as what I would do in a solo, so grace notes for the 3rd and making it short and simple prases that stay around the triad with the melody.

And once you clearly establish the chord, then you don’t have to play complete simple voicings on every 1 of every bar, that can be much more open, even completely rootless if that fits. I didn’t do anything with the bass yet, so let’s do that!

Bass!

Thinking like this you can also turn it around and then say well I want to have more movement in the bass and add either small parts of bass movement or walking bass like this:

or go to a complete section where you’re playing walking bass all the time, really adding that quarter-note drive which moves the whole thing forward and sounds great!

Once you start to add other chord voicings and complete chord solo fills then you also need to have a way to think about the chords that tie all those different voicings together. I go over a simple system for that important process in another video, and it is a lot easier than you might think and also sort of coming from how Joe Pass approaches chords. Check it out!

The Biggest Misunderstanding About Jazz Chords And How To Quickly Fix It

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