John Wheatcroft gives your swing, jazz and big band rhythm playing a shot in the arm as he shows you how to ac’comp’any like the masters with a ton of great ideas.
In jazz-speak the term ‘comping’ is used an abbreviation for the all-encompassing topic of accompanying. For any aspiring jazz guitarist this is a crucial and absolutely essential area of study. The ability to comp with intelligence and sensitivity is one of the most effective skills any player can develop. Even though you might have the most incredible single-note chops, unbelievable lines and phenomenal speed and articulation, if you can’t comp well you’ll probably never get the opportunity to showcase these assets as, frankly, no one will want to play with you!
Anyway, with consideration and skill the rhythm part can be every bit as creative, challenging, sophisticated, hip and impressive as a lead solo, and you’ll find your popularity among fellow musicians will increase exponentially as your comping skills develop.
To be a good rhythm player you need to be a good team player. Familiarise yourself with the roles of each respective instrument in the ‘rhythm section’, usually the drums and bass but often in jazz you’ll need to share comping duties with a piano player, which presents its own challenges. To quote from Joe Pass, “They have 88 keys and they’re louder than you, so at times you need to defer to them!” Regardless, you should be aware of your rhythm section mates’ respective parts for every piece that you play.
We have nine specific musical themes this issue, each an exploration of the 12-bar jazz blues sequence in G major. Rather than divide each variation into a collection of separate studies, I’ve combined them together to create one long cohesive whole.
Of course, you should always practise each approach in isolation, but once you feel you are on top of each idea there is real merit in connecting material in this way. For one, it’s a test of concentration. But there’s the added challenge of negotiating the transition from section to section, the ultimate goal being to transfer these ideas into other repertoire, either standards from the American songbook, or arrangements of your own invention.
Remember that in a real life scenario your primary role as a good jazz, swing or big-band comper is to support soloists or singers until it’s your turn, so you’ll need to imagine an overriding solo here. In reality these examples are busier than you’d want to be, since they condense lots of ideas in a relatively short space. Your function is to fan the flames for the soloist, to provide rhythmic contrast and harmonic support when necessary. It’s also your responsibility to keep out of the way when you’re not required. It’s not uncommon for a sensitive accompanist to stay tacet (play nothing) for the first few choruses of a solo, only joining in when it’s appropriate to do so. Like so many aspects of music, this is much easier to experience by keeping your eyes and ears open, and by taking in as much music as you possibly can, both recorded and in the flesh, rather than from the printed page only. Learning a musical style can be compared to an actor analysing the intricacies of a regional dialect. They’re never going to get the full picture from reading about it; they need to hear real people using it and then experience it first-hand by giving it a go themselves.