[Sheet Music]

Lesson 3: Comping

Comping/ to Comp

To comp means

  • to accompany a melody/ a solo but also
  • to complement the music, that is to enhance what other players are doing and to interact harmonically and rhythmically with other players

It is very important to develop good comping skills. As a great comper/ rhythm player you will be highly valued and wanted as a sideman, and every good soloist needs/ wants sidemen who make him/ her sound as good as possible.

Four to the Bar - "Freddie Green Style"

Playing shell voicings four to the bar is a highly underrated rhythm guitar style. Listen to Freddie Green or Jim Hall do it and you'll see what I'm talking about. It's not even particularly easy to do it right. Lock into the rhythm, emphasize beats 2 and 4 of the bar and feel how it swings...

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A Standard Comping Rhythm

This is another standard basic comping rhythm for swing:

Using Predominantly Higher Degrees

When you're playing with a bassist and/ or a pianist you may want to comp sparsely. You may want to use predominantly the higher degrees of the chords in order not to interfere too much with the other players. The rhythmical aspect is very important. The placement of the notes/ chords should be creative and varied and - above all - enhancing the swing at all times.

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Using Single Note Lines

One very nice and under-explored way of comping is with single note lines. You can:

  • fill between the soloist's phrases
  • weave contrapuntal lines together with the soloist
  • play guide-tone lines as an accompaniment
Suggested listening for particularly nice playing in this style:
  • Bill Evans by Paul Motian ( 1990) w/ Bill Frisell on guitar
  • So Near, So Far ( Musings for Miles) by Joe Henderson ( 1993) w/ John Scofield on guitar

Walking Bass + Chords

When you're the only accompanist it's great to be able to play walking bass and chords simultaneously. If you're a beginner in this area, a way to get started is to write a few choruses, learn them and then start to improvise using the written material as a starting point.

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Bossa Nova/ Samba Comping

Bossa nova/ samba can be played with bass notes. Then you may want to alternate between the root and the fifth of the chord. When playing with a bassist you have the option of using mainly the higher degrees of the chords and omitting the bass notes. No matter which option you choose, the main thing is what you're able to do rhythmically.

A lot of bossa nova and samba can be faked using the following pattern:

Recommended reading on the art of bossa nova/ samba comping:

  • The Brazilian Guitar Book by Nelson Faria
  • Brazil, Your Passport to a New World of Music by Billy Newman


The most important notes of a chord are:

  • the 3rd and
  • the 7th
Other notes that can be added are:
  • the root if you're the only accompanist
  • higher degrees such as the 9th, the 11th, the 13th
  • the 5th if it is flatted or raised

Try to think about and work on voice-leading. One thing that you should try is to use three notes and try to voice-lead through an entire tune. This can be done both with the four to the bar and using higher degrees style of comping. Try to avoid the melody of the tune, try to add something in the gaps in the melody instead.

Recommended reading on voice-leading:
the Mr. Goodchord’s Almanac of Guitar Voice-Leading for the Year 2001 and Beyond books by Mick Goodrick

Less Is More

Don't try to fill up every space. Always keep in mind that very often LESS IS MORE!

© 2004 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.