Jazz Chords – You Can Make It Simple And Unlock Amazing Sounds

A few years ago I was teaching a student and in the lesson, we were talking about Jazz Blues comping. He was frustrated with his own playing and said that he could not get it to sound right. Explaining that he wanted it to sound like my comping, but that I was using way too many chords and playing very complicated stuff.

To me, that was a bit surprising, because I was trying to demonstrate comping by keeping it simple and while we talked about it I started to realize that you could look at what I was playing as being a simple approach, but it could seem very feel complicated approach, and what really needed to change was the way you think about it.

Getting The Learning Process Right

When you are learning something new then the information can seem overwhelming but often this is also because you don’t have a way to organize what you are learning, and that means that you have to remember a lot of isolated bits of information when really this is about seeing how the pieces fit together as a whole. When it comes to Jazz Chords then, with a bit of practice, you can lean back and play and think about how it sounds instead of trying to figure out how to add a chromatic passing chord to the II chord of the secondary dominant that is added before going to II, because you are really just sliding into a chord.

So, in this video, I want to teach you that same lesson using a basic Jazz Blues, and also show you how to keep it simple and get it to sound right. I also want to show you how crazy it gets if you over-analyze because I think that is both funny and a good demonstration of how NOT to try to use music theory, something that so many get very wrong and that really gets in the way.

Start With Easy Chords

The first thing I told the student to do was to take a Blues in C and then dial all the chords back to 3rd and 7th. I had already taught him the basic shell-voicings and actually also some more complicated chords. That will give you this:

You ALWAYS want to be able to take the chords back to their most simple form and then build it up from there, as you will see this incredibly powerful.

This was close to how I was demonstrating comping the blues, but I was embellishing it a bit with some passing chords, doing things like this:

Here I am about using some approach chords and sliding into the chord, nothing that I consider too complicated. In my head, I am mostly thinking about the basic version of the chords:

But you can (over) analyze this and then it becomes this:

But that is certainly not what I am thinking, that seems way too complicated, and I think that is important to be aware of that because I am really just moving up or down a half-step and then back to the main chord. When I play I am using that to create some movement while still playing the chords in a way that you can hear the song and the harmony. You have to remember that the goal is to play the song and make that interesting in some way.

Nobody thinks complicated stuff when they play, by the time you play then it is a sound, it is something you are familiar with and it is certainly not you solving mathematical equations while trying to comp a blues. Nobody has time for that.

The Real Bonus

In this case, I am just using the 2-note chords, so I move around a bit more, and you want to explore doing that a bit, but the biggest bonus from simplifying and tying everything you play to a simple voicing is something like this, where I still just tie it all back to those original 2-note voicings:

What you see here is that I am still thinking from the basic 2-note chords, but I am using other melody notes not just moving the entire chord around.

So I showed the student how the C7 can be expanded into this:

and for the F7 you have this:

And the trick is just to think of it like a scale version of the chord, material that you can use to improvise while comping.

So a phrase like this:

Is not me thinking all these chords:

Because if you are comping and making music with the chords then it is more compact and efficient to think of it as this chord with this melody added

Because that way you can improvise with it and you are not drowning yourself with information and different chords when there is really only one chord in the song. (show C blues)

There are not 15 different chords at that point in the song, it is just a C7 or an F7.

This is also why I very often just write the basic chord quality no matter what extensions are in the chord, because That is the important information, and if I was comping the song then I am very likely to play something else in the next chorus.

How You Work Practice This

For this to work you need to have your basic shell-voicings and or 2-note voicings down and be able to play them through the song, then you want to sit down and go through the chords exploring some options for melody notes.

Keep it practical: So easy to play and easy to use, don’t worry about skipping some notes, you don’t need to play entire scales like this.

Work a bit on making melodies with each chord and then start using it while comping in a comfortable tempo.

You can even ease into it by only adding a few melody notes in the beginning, 2 or 3 options are already a lot for comping.

Let’s take a look at how to develop some melodies and what to listen for.

Where It Gets Really Great!

Like this, you have a lot of melody notes that fit on the chord, and you can probably hear the harmony in them, so if you want to get better at playing phrases with them then you can take one of the chords and then first just come up with a melody

and then add the chord under it:

Since this is comping and not a chord solo then it pays off to hold back a bit and not play too busy melodies.

Try to think about the rhythm, make sure to use repeated notes since that is a great way to lock in with the groove and even though you have a lot of options then it is good to remember that in comping less is more.

Another thing that works well for comping is to repeat things, when you do that in a solo then it is referred to as motivic development, but in comping that is often called a riff, and having a repeated pattern is also a solid way to glue the whole song together and it is often very nice for the soloist to play on a very stable background like that.

Wes and I Are Checking Out The Same Things

I often imagine some big band phrases that will get you on the right track. Recently I discovered that Wes also did this if you listen to his “shout chorus” on the blues “The Thumb”

And Wes learned this from playing and listening to big bands, so checking out some Count Basie to get some ideas on how to play great rhythms and melodies is not the worst idea ever.

All The Pieces Together

With more melodies notes you can still add all the tricks of sliding into the chord to add some chromatic movement and in that way get something that sounds like this:

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