The Golden Rules of Melodic Comping
Wanna get called back for a gig? Well, you better learn to not step on the melody.
• Understand the basics of skillful comping.
• Learn how to create a melody while playing chords.
• Improve your knowledge of chord extensions. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
What exactly is “melodic” comping? To answer this question, we must first define “comping.” This term is used by jazz musicians as a shorthand way of saying accompanying. By definition, it’s the practice of supporting the melody or soloist. Comping can take many forms including playing rhythmic patterns, pads, arpeggios, CESH (contrapuntal elaboration of static harmony), textures, riffs, and more. The best results often come when you use a variety of these concepts, but for this lesson I want to focus on the melodic side of comping.
Melodic comping is simply implying a melody with the top note of your chord voicing. These chord-filled melodies are usually improvised. Generally, the top note of a chord is the one that sticks in the listener’s ear and implies a melody. Here are a few tenets I like to keep in mind.
The Golden Rules of Comping
- The melody always comes first—your job is to support. If there is any clash whatsoever, then what you are doing might not be helping.
- Simple is always best.
- Consideration of register is critical. Low-register melodies can be difficult to implement effectively and often create more problems than solutions. It’s not impossible to make this work, but that’s not where I’d recommend starting. High-voiced chords can put you in the same register as the melody, which can also create issues.
- Not all comping needs to be melodic. Like anything it is possible to overdo it. Sometimes the musical time in the band isn’t good, so our job would be to lock that in. This could mean playing a riff or just playing a rhythmic pattern. If the music is already too busy, comping melodically could make things worse. The best thing to do is to listen intently and ask yourself, “What can I do to make the music better?”
- Serve the music, always. Even though we might play something that’s theoretically correct, or might feel good, it could be stylistically wrong or simply inappropriate … or maybe what you are playing is not what the bandleader or soloist wants. Practice and experience will help with making better decisions.
Ex. 1 shows an implied melodic line over the first four measures of a 12-bar blues in Bb. In the PDF you can see the top-line melody on the first staff with the comping pattern below it. I have added color to the chords by using a few common extensions. On dominant chords, the 9 and 13 are always good choices.
We take a different approach in Ex. 2. Here, I’m harmonizing a simple C Lydian scale (C–D–E–F#–G–A–B) with various colorful extensions. (I started on G to keep all the top-line notes on the 1st string.) It’s important to know that no matter what note of the Lydian scale appears in the melody, you can create a major-sounding C chord. While it is beyond the scope of this lesson to cover how to harmonize chords, I’m hoping this will be food for thought. For more information on harmonization, I recommend you check out “Digging Deeper: Rocking Chord-Melody Technique” by Aurelien Budynek.
In Ex. 3 you can see how a melody over a Im–VIm–IIm–V progression can be harmonized. We’re in the key of D minor, so we are treating the VIm and IIm as half-diminished chords by lowering the 5 by a half-step. This is one of the most common progressions in jazz music.
We use a classic 6/8 groove for Ex. 4. The progression is another common one, but this time it’s I–VIm–IIm–V in Eb major.
Standards form the common language that connects jazz musicians. In Ex. 5, I’ve demonstrated how to comp over the first four measures of the classic “There Will Never Be Another You.” Although the song is in a major key, it uses a minor IIm-V7 progression leading into the VIm. Check it out.
“Donna Lee” is a bebop standard made famous by saxophonist Charlie Parker. It has some not-so-common harmonic movements that are well worth looking at. Check out the II7 chord in the third measure (Ex. 6).
In Ex. 7 we’re looking at a static one-chord vamp, like what you might find in the Miles Davis tune, “So What.” The chord stays on Dm until the last two measures, and while you can just stick to one chord voicing, it’s much more interesting if you create some movement around the Dm. This kind of embellishment is commonly called CESH, as I described at the start of this lesson.
While rules are there to be broken, one must know them before one can break them effectively. As always, the best lessons come from listening to music played at the highest level. A few guitarists I’d recommend listening to are LA-based Larry Koonse and Bruce Forman, and New York-based Peter Bernstein and Steve Cardenas. These guys are masters of the art of comping. They may not necessarily think of their comping in these terms, but if you listen closely to what they are doing, you’ll hear implied melodies in their chord work. These guitarists consider their musical choices carefully.
Also, this melodic comping concept isn’t limited to guitar, so check out piano players for inspiration—there’s a wealth of information just waiting to be discovered. Good luck on your comping journey!