Comping is an important jazz guitar skill that doesn't get talked about enough until there's a problem. And even then, the advice on what to do is pretty limited.
We've talked before about how when we’re playing jazz guitar, chords are our main job.
Whether you're playing by yourself, whether you're playing in a band, or you're playing a duo with another musician, our main job is how we play our chords in rhythm and in time. That’s where comping comes in.
Comping is also potentially confusing at first, especially if you come from another style of music (which you probably do).
If you've been playing rock or country or blues or anything other than jazz before, you probably have a lot of ideas on how to strum your chords, and good patterns that you can use - but none of them probably sound like jazz.
In this lesson, we're gonna take a look at what comping is, some strategies you can use to get started, and then finally, how to take your jazz comping to the next level so you can be creative with it.
All right, let's dive in.
What Is Comping?
Comping is a jazz shorthand for the word “accompany''.
So to comp for somebody means to accompany them. This means you're playing chords with some kind of rhythm while someone else is playing a melody.
Or you are playing chords to accompany someone while they're playing a solo.
This is a very common thing to do and really, chords and comping are the main job of any jazz guitar player.
And that goes for in situations where you're playing in a band or even if you're playing by yourself - it's common to comp for yourself in between solo lines.
I've heard some music educators relate the word comping to “compliment” - to think of it as if you're complimenting the soloist or the melody.
This is a great way to think about comping. It helps you realize that you are interacting with someone and making it more conversational, rather than having your rhythm that you play no matter what is going on around you.
So whether you think about it as accompanying, or comping, or complementing, that's what comping is.
In the most basic sense, comping is how you play the chords you play in jazz.
You could potentially think of this as your jazz guitar strumming patterns.
That being said, we don't always want to be playing memorized rhythm patterns, without any sense of what's going on around us.
Let’s look at some strategies you can use to develop your comping.
Things You Can Do Right Now
Jazz comping on guitar is a potentially complicated topic and it takes a long time to get really good at it.
That being said, there are some things you can do right now, to improve your comping and make it so that you can successfully function and a jazz setting while sounding pretty good and being able to test things out.
As you work to improve your comping skills, the first thing we can do is static patterns.
Static rhythm patterns are a good kind of “gateway” into comping. They're going to give you something to play that is generally going to work for you and is repeatable.
These things can also get old quickly if they're overdone, or if you try to use them in a style where they aren’t appropriate.
So that's kind of the trick. We need some patterns and tricks we can use today, but we also need to be aware of where these things fit in to the music around us.
Freddie Green Style
First off, let's talk about static comping patterns for some traditional big band jazz styles. We're talking about songs that are in the style of Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.
These are cases where you need to be playing something called Freddie Green style. This is a style of comping where you are playing four quarter notes per measure.
These notes are generally played short and on the quiet side.
In these styles your guitar sound should not be loud and audible above the rest of the big band. You should be able to hear it, but on the quiet side. Again - these recommendations are for a very specific set of jazz band music.
If there are written figures in the guitar part, you probably have some wiggle room there as far as what you need to play.
Depending on the situation you're in, I've had good luck both playing the written figures and sticking with Freddie Green while ignoring those rhythm figures. Check out our lesson on reading jazz guitar chord charts to learn more about how guitar parts are written.
What you play really depends on what the band needs for that song, and your sense of that will come with experience.
Freddie Green style should only be used when it's stylistically appropriate, because it's not always the right answer. There are going to be times where it just sounds wrong (like in non-swing styles).
But in swing style or Basie style songs, it's absolutely what you want to be playing.
Freddy Green Details
When we're playing Freddie Green, the quarter notes should be short. You can accent on beats two and four, or not.
Some people really like to have the guitar accent on two and four. I tend not to.
I have found that even, short quarter notes will often get the job done while helping lock in a steady tempo.
What you're doing is providing a quarter note pulse, and you have to feel out what the bandleader wants, what makes the players around you feel comfortable and what feels solid for you in time.
It's always good to be flexible in situations where you need it. You should be able to play even staccato quarter notes in some situations and you should be able to play with accents on two and four in others. There is no one right way to do it.
It takes time to figure this stuff out so be patient and keep trying. And keep in mind - your job is to make the musicians around you feel comfortable with what you're playing.
Our next static pattern is the Charleston rhythm. Now this rhythm is a little bit more flexible and has some different places we can approach playing it.
I like to experiment with the length of the first note - leaving that first note long or cutting it short. Either way might be the right answer depending on the song you're playing.
I tend to like keeping both notes short because I feel like that keeps the rhythm tighter. It puts more attention on the start of each note.
Some people like to leave the first note long and that's okay too.
Sometimes it comes down to personal preference, and sometimes it comes down to the demands of the music you're playing at the time.
The reversed Charleston (for lack of a better name) is a lot like the Charleston but it's offset by an eighth note and the note values are reversed.
So what we're looking at is an eighth note on the "and" of one and then a quarter note on beat three.
So this can be used on its own as a slightly offbeat feeling pattern or it can be alternated with the Charleston for a pretty good effect.
Mix And Match Static Patterns
One thing that's important when we're dealing with these static patterns is unless you're playing in the Basie style, any of these static patterns is gonna get old and it's gonna get old pretty quickly.
So it's important to get used to the idea of mixing and matching between these three static patterns to create some variety in your comping rhythm patterns.
So sometimes you're playing quarter notes, sometimes you're playing the Charlson, and sometimes you're playing the reverse Charleston. You can mix these up one after the other, like in the example below.
The example above shows the pattern changing measure by measure, simulating a comping pattern that is reacting to the rhythms going on in the band or in the solo.
A common strategy to get you started is to change your rhythm by the section of the song. In a jazz band chart, you'd be looking for rehearsal numbers or letters. And that's where you would change your rhythm.
In a lead sheet, you'd be looking for some sort of section marking whether it's a repeat or a double bar line, or something like that.
You end up looking for a solid 8 or 16 measure chunk of the song. That’s where you generally want to be changing your rhythm in a mix and match situation.
This way you won't be playing the same thing all the time. It'll keep you thinking and it'll be more interesting for your listener as well.
Pads/Long Notes (or doing more with less)
Sometimes playing an active rhythm isn't the right answer. Sometimes using the rhythm patterns covered so far can feel like too much, so things are sounding rhythmically cluttered.
During a section or in a song where a lot is going on around you rhythmically, playing pads (long chord sounds) can be a helpful strategy.
One easy entry into this is to play whole notes and half notes. These longer note values give harmonic support with your chords without making things sound too busy.
So sometimes, if things are just really, really active in the song as a whole the best thing you can do is either sit out or play a long chord and the music will be better for it.
Alternating Long And Short
Another helpful strategy that kind of bridges the gap between static patterns and pads is alternating the long and short sounds.
So one good way to get started with this is playing with quarter notes and dotted half notes.
In all of these rhythms, the quarter notes should be short and the dotted half note is going to be played at full value.
A short quarter note followed by a dotted half note or a dotted half note followed by a short quarter note can provide some nice contrast to your more active rhythmic playing.
As with everything else we've talked about, none of these are the single right answer.
So when we go back to our earlier idea of mixing and matching rhythms, we can add in our pads and our alternating long and short patterns to create a bigger rhythm vocabulary.
So a set of good comping rhythms in a style that's not Basie specific is going to be some kind of combination of quarter notes, whole notes, half notes, Charleston rhythms, reverse Charleston rhythms, and eighth notes.
All of these ideas are going to blend together to become what you play behind a soloist, and behind the melody.
The Big Picture
You are what you eat, musically speaking. Everything you listen to is going to influence your guitar playing on some level or another.
If you are only listening to classic rock, you're gonna have a hard time sounding like a jazz guitar player. On the flip side if you're only listening to jazz, you're gonna have a hard time being a great classic rock player.
So in general, it's important to spend time listening to the style of music that you want to play. (And hopefully this is a style of music you want to play because you like it anyway - so listening to it isn’t a chore)
Specifically for comping - for accompanying other musicians, you need to spend some time listening to great accompanists.
There's tons of great accompanists in the history of jazz. What I strongly suggest you do is to find a guitar player or a piano you like and find recordings where they are not the star of the show.
It might take some digging but it's going to be worth it.
It's easy to look up these days and find anytime your favorite guitar player, favorite piano player was on someone else's album, and that's where they're going to be playing a little bit more of a supportive role.
And that's a good chance to hear their accompaniment skills and action.
As you're listening, a good exercise is to find some rhythmic phrases you like and try your best to recreate the rhythms for yourself.
When I say rhythmic phrases, I mean purely the rhythm. Ignore anything fancy they're doing with their chords, and ignore whether or not the chords are changing.
Just listen to the rhythm that’s being played, and try to apply that to your own comping.
If you want to and you really like it, go ahead and try to write down that rhythm so you'll have an easier time remembering it later.
Your next step is going to be to try it out with actual music.
With comping, all the listening you want to do is great, but you have to get your hands dirty in order to get these rhythms into your playing.
So it's important to try out these rhythms and phrases you like when you're playing with other people. Or when you're recording into your loop pedal or however it is that you're practicing your comping.
As you test it out, it's important to pay attention to what works for you and what doesn't.
Does this rhythm phrase that you liked on a recording sound good when you play it? Or does it sound really awkward?
If it sounds awkward, maybe you need to make some adjustments. Maybe you're not quite remembering it correctly, or need to change it a little bit.
So make some changes and try it again. This is how we develop our own comping language that really works.
Ideally, everything that you play should make sense in relation to what's going on around you.
The rhythms you choose should make sense with the melody or the solo that's happening, rather than being a rhythm pattern you chose ahead of time.
And ultimately, you want to be able to react rhythmically to whatever you hear when you're playing. So at that top level of doing this, you don't want to be planning out memorized rhythms in your comping.
You want to be reacting to and interacting with the music that’s going on around you.
That's the real goal, and listening to great compers and experimenting in your own playing is how you're gonna get there.
Keep Practicing Comping Skills
When you're working on comping, you're working on how you play your chords with rhythm and in time.
You can use some static patterns to get started and they can be reliable for you in many situations, and for years to come.
There are always going to be places where the Charleston rhythm is your best bet. There are always going to be situations where the Freddie Green style is going to be the right answer.
So you can use these static to help get you started and they will be useful for quite a while.
As you play more creatively though, the real goal is to have your comping be a more seamless part of the music - reacting to the soloist or the melody, and thinking about complementing what is going on in the music around you.
That's where we want to get to for playing and music outside the Basie style swing big band.
You need to listen to the great accompanists if you want to get good at jazz comping. Try out some of their rhythms, and then experiment with them and take risks as you're comping for people.
See what works, and maybe more important, see what doesn't work. Make adjustments to your comping patterns and try again.
Comping can be a really fun part of learning to play jazz guitar, so keep practicing and have fun with it.
Check out the lessons below to learn more:
Step By Step Guide
If you're looking for a step by step guide to learning jazz guitar chords and developing your comping, click here to check out our online course.
Jazz Guitar Survival Guide Chords and Comping was designed to give you everything you need to start playing jazz guitar chords and creating your own comping patterns.
Check it out today.