• Create rhythmically interesting
• Learn how to use syncopation.
• Develop a more “conversational”
approach to rhythm playing.
To me, the guitar is one of the greatest
instruments of all time. Not only is it
beautiful as a music-producing machine,
but also the variety of sounds that can be
made from a single guitar are beyond comprehension.
A guitar can play the role of
a lead voice effortlessly, sounding like the
most natural thing you’ve ever heard. It can
also turn on a dime and be the ideal instrument
for accompaniment. In this lesson, I’d
like to focus on the latter role and explore
how to develop your own personal concept
of accompaniment—or “comping,” as it’s
known in jazz—from the perspective of
rhythm first, and then harmony.
Let’s begin by defining what it means to
comp. In jazz, the role of the accompanist
is to essentially bridge the gap between the
rhythmic and groove-oriented world of the
bassist and drummer with the harmonic and
melodic world of the soloist. Simply put,
it’s up to us to connect the dots, all while
striking a balance between giving soloists
space to create a melodic narrative and pushing
them towards new heights with harmonic
and rhythmic commentary. At its core,
comping is a social activity. It can be equated
to being a moderator on a panel discussion.
You have the bird’s-eye view of everything
that’s going on and have the power to direct
the listener’s attention to any aspect of the
unfolding music that moves you.
The responsibilities of a good accompanist
are more or less consistent. However,
it is important to address a difference I’ve
noticed between musicians who are good
at comping and those who are especially
great at it. Lesser-experienced guitarists will
usually define, albeit quite unconsciously,
their role as someone who lays down the
chords to keep the form clear and to show
the soloist where they are in the song at any
given moment. Though this can be absolutely
essential and effective, it can get you
in trouble when you’re playing with more
experienced soloists or rhythm sections.
These musicians are already completely clear
on the form and don’t need the chords to be
outlined so rigidly. In such scenarios, great
accompanists will relinquish the responsibility
of only defining the form and time feel,
and will instead use comping as a means of
adding rhythmic and harmonic color to the
music. It’s through this approach that comping
becomes really exciting and truly interactive.
All of a sudden it becomes important
that your comping has a melodic and
architectural contour. Ideally, it should be as
integrative and intriguing as the solo being
played. When this is done at the highest
level, it can lift the music to new heights.
So let’s explore how to go about practicing
this approach. One of the best ways
to work on the subsequent examples is
to start by recording a simple bass line
for a song of your choice (just the roots
played in half-notes), then record a solo
on another track, and then go back and
practice comping along with your solo.
This will help simulate a real-life comping
situation, but with the benefits of it being
a controlled environment.
So often, we are taught that the road to
great comping lies in learning hip voicings.
Although an expanded harmonic toolkit is
important in order to be an effective commentator,
having an intimate relationship
with the rhythmic side of things reigns
king. In order to practice this, let’s take a
harmonic progression and rather than using
full chords, start by comping with one note
at a time, played only on one string—in this
case, the 4th string. By limiting ourselves
harmonically, we’re forced to focus more on
the rhythmic integrity of our accompaniment.
As far as harmonic content, let’s begin
by playing notes that can be found in the
scales associated with each chord, mainly
focusing on chord tones such as the 3rd,
7th, or 5th, to help clarify the harmonic
motion that underlies the progression. With
a simplified, one-string, harmonic concept
in place, it’s time to start practicing rhythmic
variety, beginning with relatively simple
phrases and working our way up to more
In Fig. 1, we focus on long tones with
occasional passing tones in order to basically
provide a countermelody. From a rhythmic
point of view, we are embellishing the bass
line, as well as the hi-hat. You can think of
this first stage as representing the harmonic
equivalent of the drummer’s ride cymbal.
This can produce an echo effect to the solo,
much like the way a viola line in an orchestral
piece might play a melody that weaves
around the main theme played by the violins.
From a conversational point of view, this is
akin to having a conversation with someone
who more or less agrees with everything your
saying, but occasionally offers an insight on
the topic that wasn’t totally obvious to you.
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Next, let’s add some more syncopation.
One of the most effective tools at your
disposal is the use of sustained and staccato
attacks. The conversation between the two
can often create a wonderful sense of forward
movement, and furthermore symbolize the
marriage between the staccato feel of the
snare drum with the sustained characteristics
of the cymbals. Syncopation is often most
effective when it is thought of in the context
of a larger phrase. It can work well to visualize
all of your comping in four, eight, or
six measure chunks—or any length for that
matter. If you are playing a 32-measure song,
you can simplify it by envisioning eight
sections of four measures, or four sections
of eight measures. This will help to keep a
structural and thematic through-line in your
comping, and allow you to avoid always
sounding like you are jumping on each
syncopated idea played by the soloist. In
conversation, this is similar to the difference
between speaking to someone who interrupts
you to tell you they know what you are
talking about, versus speaking with someone
who listens intently to everything you have
to say and then when a pause arises, offers
their response. See Fig. 2 for an illustration
of this kind of phrase-based comping.
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Finally, let’s begin to add a second note to
our single-line comping in Fig. 3.
However, rather than adding it for harmonic variety,
we will only be adding the octave, so as to
explore the concept of density in comping.
In any given accompaniment scenario, two
of the most important tools at your disposal
are the use of dynamics, as well as density.
We’ve already seen the effect of increased
rhythmic density through the use of syncopation,
but let’s now explore alternating
between one- and two-note comping, all
while maintaining a steady rhythmic narrative.
For me, the power of this is being able
to play dense rhythmic passages using single
notes with the ability to reinforce simpler
passages by adding the octave. It’s possible
for a really intriguing and supportive accompaniment
to emerge by alternating between
these two approaches.
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From a conversationalist point of view,
this could be analogous to having a conversation
with a whole group of people,
all with different yet mutually supportive
viewpoints. Rather than putting the pressure
on one person to respond and interact with
you, you are essentially providing the soloist
with a whole community of voices to interact
with. When executed well, this elegant
transition between different timbres and
varying degrees of density provide an incredibly
interesting and thoughtful through-line
in one’s accompaniment. This approach
supports the main attraction and keeps you
from playing a mere background part.
Eventually, after practicing these techniques
for a little while, you will quite
naturally want to expand upon the harmonic
side of comping. In future lessons,
we will explore how to become acclimated
to a wider array of harmonic shapes and
structures on the guitar, so you don’t feel
trapped by having to play chords that always
begin on the root. In the meantime, practice
comping with an ear towards rhythmic propulsion
and enjoy exploring all the ways you
can make the music come alive.
is one of those rare musicians who feels equally at home in acoustic and jazz cir- cles. He has been a member of legendary vibra- phonist Gary Burton’s group since 2004, and also regularly collaborates with pianist Taylor Eigsti. Lage’s latest album, Gladwell, reflects
his wide-ranging musical interests and talents by incorporating chamber music, American folk and bluegrass, Latin and world music, tradi- tional string-band sounds, and modern jazz. For more information visit julianlage.com