What Does Dating Have to Do with Comping Jazz Guitar?

Comping is one of those jazz terms that gets used a lot by jazz guitarists. So what is the deal with “comping”, just how do you “comp” and what does that have to do with dating?

1. Watch your volume

No one likes trying to play ideas over an accompanist that won’t shut up; you cannot think. Be aware of your volume, enough to sit nicely underneath the soloist, no more. Exaggerate comping at a low volume. And if you are prone to exhibitionism, video yourself and play back to your jazz teacher, partner or favorite antagonistic friend and ask them for feed back. Remember no-one appreciates the loud guy at the bar and any potential partner will be scared off by your loud and intrusive tones.

2. Watch the amount you play

Comping us about listening to and supporting the soloist, not about playing every weird chord and rhythm you know! Think supportive. Think space. Think of comping as being the glue that underpins the success of the soloist. Don’t forget that you will have your day in the sun, now it is time for you to support someone else. Play it cool and know your worth and you will be a better player.

3. Compliment

No this does not mean playing every one of the soloists’ ideas note for note, but it does mean listen to and compliment. Whether that means shutting up entirely or experimenting with the soloists’ rhythmic ideas, maybe catching and mimicking a phrase, or countering the phrase. This calls for a lot of experimenting and practicing at the gig and is one of the only ways to really work on this. Once you start to “over” compliment you may end up with a slap in the face (like the time you first asked a guy or girl on a date). Take your time, listen and you will know the best moment to make your move.

4. Know the tune

Goes without saying, can’t listen if you’re wondering what chord is coming up next. Know the chords, know the melody, and know the length and form of the tune – capture the dynamics of the song and therefore be able to ‘intuit’ what the soloist might play. Know some comp lines you can fall back on for every feel, fast swing, ballad, ¾, Latin, funk, reggae. Have an arsenal of ideas, sounds, rhythms that will allow you to relax enough as an accompanist to really listen to what’s happening around you.

5. Experiment

Listen to the others, not just the soloist – what’s the drummer doing, can I set up a pedal with the bassist, should I stay out completely for the 1st chorus, is there another instrument comping? Does this tie look good on me? Experimentation is the key to discovering your “thing” and your vibe. Don’t live inside a bubble as people in bubbles often end up all alone with no-one to love them, eating TV dinners and watching soap operas alone.

6. Record yourself

Do this over many different feels and at different tempos. This is very important, as you need to have a good idea of how you sound by yourself. How good is your time, how do you place your comp lines? At the gig conditions change, you may not be able to hear all the players, gear may break, strings may snap etc., be prepared and confident about what you’re going to play. Keep these ideas in mind, practicing them at home and at the gig. Comping is an important part of learning about the musicians around you and being able to communicate and share ideas.

Application of ideas (Take action and practice comping)

1. Play through a familiar standard comping only on beat 1, and holding the chord for the duration of that bar (unless there are more than one change per bar).

2. Now comp only on beat two – and hold chord as above

3. Then try comping on beat 3 for a chorus or two, and then 4 for a chorus or two. See what happens to your playing just from this simple exercise – just comping up tempo on beats 2 or 4 can be interesting! When you feel ready for it, move on to 8th notes – 1and, 2and, 3and, 4and – comping whole choruses at a time on each of the off beats – it is an effective and very simple way to open up the rhythmic aspect of your comping.

4. Practice comping over your favourite recordings – this is a good method of ensuring you play in time and it is also the easiest way of playing along with great musicians (I’d prefer this practice method over play along type CDs).

5. Do the Freddy Green styles – down strums on each beat with a light upward flick (for guitarists) to give the swing (offbeats) feel. Keep the pulse even and steady, with a slightly accented 2 and 4. This has an anchoring effect as it follows the bass walk, crotchet on the down beats.

6. Listen to one of the greatest guitar compers around – Jim Hall! He was a seriously beautiful player, improviser, musician and accompanist (check out the duo albums he did live with Ron Carter). So much space and groove and serious TIME!

Armed with these tips and advice please go out and take action!

Tell me what comping practice ideas and routines do you personally use. Please leave comments and questions below.