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Art Of Comping

Many of the lessons featured on Wholenote center on making us, the guitarist, become better musicians and more acclimated on our instruments. There is one exception, and that is the art of "comping". Many teachers/books define "comping" as the short version of accompaniment, and I really had no problem with that, until I had an "old head" define it as "complement". In my opinion, that definition fits like a glove.

"Listening becomes a crucially essential part of playing, and the degree to which you listen will have a direct effect on how a person solos."

One of the key elements in this thing called "comping" is listening!!!! As a guitarist, in any musical situation, be it classical, blues, rock, and more so in jazz music, the guitar is called upon to be primarily a rhythm instrument, requiring acute listening to achieve the status of "complement". Comping within a rhythm section requires the most intimate relationship between soloist and rhythm section players: (bass, drums, guitar, keyboardist). A very good example of this is the legendary saxophonist, John Coltrane.

John Coltrane meticulously hand picked his rhythm section. He knew what sound he wanted, and went out and picked the players he knew would "complement" his style of playing. This was by no stretch of the imagination a knock on previous members of his band; they just didn't "complement" his style, thus giving the jazz world the infamous quartet of: McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison (bass), along with John Coltrane.

In just about all of my lessons that I've had the privilege of sharing with fellow WholeNoters, I've stated that listening is the key! Listening becomes a crucially essential part of playing, and the degree to which you listen will have a direct effect on how a person solos. The interaction amongst players of the rhythm section is also affected and defines the role for each person as an accompanist. Remember, the most important thing, foremost, is the music!! If there's no communication on the stage or bandstand, then the music isn't going to communicate well to the audience. It doesn't matter how many hours you practice 16th note arpeggiated runs!!

As a guitarist, if you're working with a pianist then it should be known that both instruments have the dubious pleasure of being both harmonic and melodic and know a great deal about voicings. It is important to complement the pianist by trying to match voicings. Guitarist should never try to overplay the piano and vice versa. This is where listening comes into play. Small chords usually fits this bill, usually on the higher strings. Try not to employ the lower strings (sixth and fifth), as they have a tendency to clash and clutter and add a heavy sound to the overall background. With a bass player, again, try to avoid the lower strings, emplying those strings or chord voicings will interfere with the bass lines and their clarity. With the drummer, listen carefully to the hi-hat and the ride cymbal. Also, try to understand rhythmic patterns and try to make your picking complement the natural rhythmic flow that is dictated by the drummer. Don't force the rhythm or tempo.

Finally, attention must be given to the ears. Effective eye contact is a plus to enhance communication and most of all be aware of volume and the balance of the volume. There's millions of CD's to listen to if you want a better perception of this "art". Feel free to burnout your ears and CD players. As a student of mine was admiring Pat Martino's solo on the song "Impressions", I brought to his attention to Tyrone Brown (bass), and Sam Ferguson (drums), and said: "Yeah, but check out what those two dudes are doing!"

Frederick Burton is a Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist and teacher