Jazz Guitar Comping – Introduction
“Comping” is an abbreviation of the word “accompanying”. Within a Jazz group, it is the art of improvising a chordal accompaniment for a soloist or singer. When you are the only chordal instrument in the group, you will likely spend 75% of the time comping—which means that it is the most important thing you do.
Much like backgrounds in a big band or orchestra, comping is a musical statement supporting the melody or soloist and filling in when the melody rests. Unlike written backgrounds, however, a comper’s chord voicings and rhythms are not predetermined. A modern, interactive comper is continually listening and responding to the soloist and the rhythm section simultaneously, and making rhythmic and harmonic choices that propel the music forward. This is in contrast to an older style of guitar comping that involved playing a chord on every downbeat as a time-keeping function, a la Freddie Green with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Comping rhythms have a tremendous impact on the music, perhaps even more than voicings or harmonic alterations. Because of this, you want to have an overall awareness of the direction of the tune being played and what will enable the soloist to be most effective. For example, if the soloist is playing long, complex lines, the comper might simplify and leave more space so as not to interfere. If the soloist is leaving a lot of space, the comper might interject some melodic or rhythmic statements of his/her own.
The process of learning to comp well is a gradual one, and ideally, one that is never truly finished. Your comping vocabulary will always be expanding and growing, and your ability to interact effectively will increase with experience.
While this book provides many of the tools necessary to comp effectively, it needs to be emphasized that the comper’s craft is one developed chiefly by listening and playing. You can gain tremendous insight by listening to great compers and learning their rhythmic and harmonic language. And the single most important thing you can do to develop comping skills is play as much as possible. There is no substitute.