Jazz Guitar Comping Lesson 1
Before the development of amplification technology allowed the guitar to function as a lead instrument in a jazz ensemble, it was originally used as rhythm instrument supporting the melody or improviser. We call the method of providing harmony and rhythm to support to a soloist “accompaniment,” or “comping” for short. Comping remains an integral skill for modern jazz guitarists and in most settings it will be the bulk of their performance. It makes an excellent starting point for any aspiring jazz guitarists both because it is so indispensable, but also because it imbues a firm understanding of the harmonies over which they will eventually be improvising.
Above are three root-position “drop 3” 7th chord voicings constructed from the low E string. They are called “root-position” because the root is in the bass (the lowest pitch in the chord) and “drop-3” because the third note below the soprano (highest pitch in the chord) is lowered by an octave. Since the root is in the bass, the pitch of whichever fret we place it on the low E string will be the root of each chord. This simplifies comping for us, as we only need to memorize the pitches on the 6th string.
The titles of the chords contain a quality and the added chord tone “7.” The qualities “major” and “minor” tell us whether the triad contains a major or minor third along with the root and perfect fifth. A major 7th chord adds a major 7th to a major triad, while a minor 7th chord adds a minor 7th to a minor triad. The dominant 7th adds a minor seventh above a major triad and will be notated simply as a “7” on a lead sheet.
The earliest guitar comping styles were characterized by The Count Basie Orchestra guitarist Freddie Green’s “four-to-the-floor” style. This involved chopping each chord in steady quarter note downstrokes (hence the name). It is a great place for burgeoning jazz guitarists to begin as it allows one to concentrate on the left hand. Let’s apply these voicings in the Freddie Green comping style to the following set of exercises. Begin by finding the root on the low E string, then forming the specified chord shape. Before you begin comping, play through the progression at your own pace using only one strum per chord to master the left hand. Once that is comfortable, begin comping the progression with a metronome, drum track or backing track.