When it comes to comping then you have lots of books and online lessons on learning chord voicings, and voice-leading, but when it comes to turning that into something that really works then there is really not a lot of advice available.
But there is actually a place to get some inspiration and strategies for developing your comping, which is what I want to show you here.
Probably a lot of you are now thinking that this is about rhythms, and that is sort of true but it is actually more than that, and I am 99% sure that your solos will also benefit from looking at things from this perspective, because there are things in this that can really open up your playing in other ways as well.
A Blues with some Basic Ingredients
For this lesson, I am going to use a simple C blues as an example, and since this is not about using incredibly fancy chord voicings, the most chromatic voice-leading tricks or the hippest extensions then I am going to just use two different melody notes for each chord. Extensions and voicings are nice too, but that is not the focus right now and they will just become distractions that take away from what you should focus on, and I think you will see why.
The chords are kept pretty minimal but it is still more than enough to make some good music.
I will show you 3 types of exercises so that you can actually get your chords to sound like comping, and maybe open up how you think about phrasing and rhythm in general.
#1 Longer Phrases
When you focus on voicings and voice-leading then it is about either what notes you put together or how you get to the next chord in the song.
Of course, both of these things are important, but you can also see that when you focus on that then you are zoomed in and at most looking one bar ahead, and you are almost never playing a song with two bars, there is a whole form.
I don’t know about you, but the people in the rhythm section that I usually admire the most are actually the drummers. That is where the groove and the interaction are both clearly present and where the dynamics of the song are being created. A part of that is probably also that the musician that I really have to connect with when I am comping is the drummer, and for a drummer it is not about voice-leading or extensions, so how do they practice?
Rhythm is melody!
Where most guitar examples are one or two bar rhythms then drummers tend to do exercises that are over longer parts of the song, and working on something that is a combination of different patterns. An exercise might look like this:
Very often then the entire groove is not written out so it is assumed that the ride cymbal is being played, here the highhat is included, but what you want to focus on here is the snare drum rhythm, the rest is not important, you essentially want to read it as if it looks like this:
And this rhythm you can use as a comping pattern on guitar.
If you apply it to the first 4 bars of the Blues then you get:
The big advantage here is that you are starting to hear the rhythm as a melody, and phrases that are not just on a single chord but are a part of a longer sentence with a repeated part and a conclusion.
So phrases that contain smaller parts which fit together. That sounds like something that could be useful for other things than comping?
Thinking in 4 and 8-bar phrases
A side-note to this is that it makes a lot of sense to work on thinking of bar 4 as a conclusion, as the end of the sentence. That is also how our sense of form works, we feel things in groups of 4 or 8 bars and the more you play like that the better you feel that which will later eventually make you a lot stronger and more free.
There is an interview with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter where they talk about how they feel the 12-bar blues as groups of bars together so that a Blues chorus is essentially a 3/4 bar. If you start feeling the form like that then you get a lot of freedom to do stuff in between which of course also describes how they often played.
Of course you want to take a 4-bar pattern like this and go through the whole blues form as well, but let’s move on to how you level this up to get some great comping rhythms going!
The method and exercises that I am showing you here was not how I learned to comp, but I sort of wish it was, because it would have made it a lot easier, and I have seen this work really well for my students. The way I learned was by being around great drummers and having the good fortune to be told about how comping worked as an interaction between drums and guitar, or drums and piano. What I am showing you here will help you listen to yourself to play something that makes sense and tells a story but it will also help you play natural phrases that a drummer can work with so that if you listen to each other then you can also connect and make music together.
#2 Making Your Own Phrases
You can of course start checking out Jazz Drumming lessons on comping to find more patterns like this, that is a great thing to do, and please leave a comment if you have some good resources like books or online lessons, but you can also start creating your own by taking the rhythms you already know, or listening to drummers that are great at this like Philly Joe Jones or Jimmy Cobb and take phrases from them and combine that with what you already know.
The important thing is that you take a step back and worry less about what extensions moving from the 9th to the b13, and instead try to play some strong melodic rhythms, some phrases that last 4 or 8 bars and make sense like that. Often listening to big band can be very useful for this, because you have the right types of simple melodies and strong rhythms in there.
If you start with the previous example but then change it up then you can get something like this for the next 4 bars of the blues, with the same format of a repeating figure and a phrase to end it all:
But you can also introduce more variation, for example going back to the original motif like now also changing or developing one of the repeats:
And really what you are doing making these is developing your ability to hear rhythms that make sense, and also listen to whether the rhythms you put together make sense as a melody for you.
How Wes Uses This In Solos
Another thing is that this can really open up is your soloing: Maybe take a listen to your solos and ask yourself how often they have phrases that last 4 bars with a beginning, a middle and an end? Maybe taking some time to think like this and incorporating that into your solos could be useful as well, there could be a video in that, et me know! The king of this is Wes! If you listen to how Wes improvises then you can certainly hear repeating patterns and motivic development.
Green = Call – Red = Response
You Can’t Practice Comping
Very often when I do a video on comping then I get a comment that tells me that comping is about interaction and therefore you can’t practice it. In my experience, that is not true, and the next exercise is actually about interacting but you are playing alone. Besides that, then there are so many skills involved with comping that you have plenty to work on even without interacting with a soloist and a rhythm section. Simply because you need to Play the chords, keep time, make sure that what you end up with makes sense and has the right colors, and the easier that is and the more freedom you have and it will be the easier to listen to what is going on around you. You also don’t only practice soling with a band, but there you have to interact as well, I hope you do at least…
Until now it has been about written exercises and composing, but you can also start to incorporate improvisation so that you can work on hearing the rhythms in real time and get it to fit together while creating phrases, and this exercise can also be incredibly powerful for solos, but I will show you that in a bit.
An easy way to do that is to start with the layout from the written exercise, and in fact this is also about interacting because you play the written part and then treat that as a call which you then respond to with the next phrase which is your response. A chart using the first one-bar rhythm would look like this:
and with that you can pick a comfortable tempo and then start to fill in the empty bars and see what you come up with. You listen and then you play what fits with that.
If you get stuck then you can also stop and try to explore it out of time
As I said then this is also a very useful exercise if you are working on getting your solo phrases to go from licks next to each other and become more of a coherent story.
A simple version of that could be something like this where I repeat a first phrase and then develop material that is a response:
And your solos can also really improve from working on this:
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