Usually when people talk about comping then it is about what chords to play, extensions and voicings, but that is not at all what comping is about. There are other things that you want to focus on that are a little less obvious. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve them. And you want to, because otherwise you are going to get fired….
You can probably split this into 3 main skills that you can develop, and these are things that you need to have some control over and you can always develop them further, and if you don’t know them then you will probably ruin the music for everyone!
The upside to this is that the things you will develop with this are also going to make you play better solos, in quite a few ways.
When I went to jam sessions or was teaching combos then one thing that I often had to spend time on was teaching guitarists or piano players to not only think about the chords when they comp.
What Not To Do
I always found that the worst type of comping is when the one comping is only thinking about the notes and the voice-leading and is not taking responsibility for the groove or the interaction at all. Basic things like listening and having a vocabulary of rhythms and grooves is much more important than knowing a ton of fancy voicings.
No Fancy Chords! It’s a Blues
But there are great ways you can work on this. Let’s get rid of the fancy chords!
If you take a Bb Blues then you should be able to play through it with 2-note shells, so just the 3rd and 7th of each chord.
When you don’t have more material in your chord then you are not thinking about extensions and colors or how to get to the next chord, so you have a lot more time to work on being creative with rhythm and locking in with the rhythm section.
While you are working on this then you probably start to notice how repeating patterns can be really useful, and make the whole thing strong, solidifying the groove and the chord.
This is something that you also can spend some time working on, so try to take rhythms from people you like listening to and make them into riffs that you can take through a progression.
Wynton Kelly is a good choice for someone to listen to for this, but a lot of the hardbop guys are really good at laying down a groove like that, if you know a great example of someone comping on a song then leave a comment!
You need to remember that we learn this by hearing how it is supposed to sound, not by reading a book or using some sort of ruleset.
An example of a pattern to practice through a song could be something like this:
And if you try, then you can hear how the consistency that it brings when you make it through the song and how it really helps actually keeps in interesting and also makes whatever variation you play so much more powerful.
I think this is one of the most underestimated things in comping that will make pretty much everyone sound 10 times as good.
The Golden Tip For Comping Rhythms
One thing that can change so much about how you sound when you comp and especially if it grooves is to Be aware of long and short notes, and use that creatively!
There is a big difference between:
and something like:
Essentially the rhythm is the same, and I am only changing between long and short notes.
When you play chords then melody is one of the most important things to make it sound good. Something that helps you tie the whole thing together.
So, besides rhythms, you want to work on playing strong natural-sounding melodies that make sense.
Simply because this:
Does not sound as good as this:
And the difference is that the 2nd example has a melody, it is in itself a story with an interesting flow and more surprises, so you can easily hear how that works a lot better, but how do you develop that?
There are two things I think you want to work on here, and they both have some nice bonus side-effects for your playing.
Chord Melody Will Teach You
If you want to have great melodies when you are playing chords then learn to put chords under some great melodies, so harmonize great songs and make your own chord melody arrangements, like this fairly dense harmonization of There Will Never Be Another You
When you are harmonizing melodies like this then you are finding practical ways of playing melodies with chords and that is something you can take directly into your comping, and you anyway want to be able to harmonize the melodies you play with others.
Shortcut to Chord Solos
When you can improvise a melody in your comping then this is really just a less active chord solo, and you can still think in motivic development call-response. That is a great way make music with the chords
And comping like this is really just setting you up for playing complete chord solos of harmonized lines, which is one of my favorite things to do!
Let’s look at what is the core of comping, and how not to get fired!
Almost nobody talks about this, but I do think this is the #1 reason that you will be considered a good sideman: You Need to be aware of your role in the band and try to serve the music, not your ego.
What Peter Bernstein is talking about here is the importance of making things clear, and being aware of how the music feels. Making other people feel comfortable while playing is incredibly important and not being afraid to lay down clear harmony for the rest to fly over is underestimated. You might want to show your chops and hip rhythms and chords but you need to know when to do that and when to just support.
Again with this, repeating patterns are often a good place to start because you are giving the soloist something predictable to build on and then you can start the conversation from there.
The Most Important Practice Tip
In the videos that I talk about how to learn Jazz then I often tell you to practice playing songs and make music with the things that you practice, and for me that was always how I worked on comping. You really learn so much from putting on the metronome on 2&4 and cop through a tune, think about how to get it to sound good and what kind of vibe it should have. I think that is the best way to work on this, but also something that whenever I ask students about it they look like it is a completely alien idea.
The Efficient Way To Learn Jazz Chords
There is a way to learn and look at Jazz chords that is much more efficient than just practicing drop2 or drop3 inversions and If you want to connect what you know and have more options to use the skills that you have developed with these exercises then check out this video which shows you how to think and organize that.
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