I got this question from a student:
"I am struggling to comp rhythmically & unpredictably while improvising or playing from a lead sheet. I can comp chords in my left hand to a pattern (i.e., 4 to the floor or on the 1 & 3, etc) but I struggle to mix up the comping especially when improvising. I have used some of your comping patterns from the Blues Lessons as a start and then try to mix & match different patterns, but I find it very difficult to comp without being locked to a fixed pattern or combination of patterns. Any suggestions for helping to overcome this problem?" - Adam K.
This is definitely one of the more complicated aspects of playing the piano. It is relatively "easy" to play a chord in the left hand, hold it down, and improvise with the right hand. However, as soon as you try adding any type of rhythm to that left hand chord, the time seems to fall apart. So, let's go through some ideas that will help loosen up your left hand.
First, keep control of where you are in the measure. For this example, let's say that we are in 4/4 time...four beats per measure. It is extremely important that while comping, you do not add or remove beats from the measure. This is where a metronome or play-along track is helpful. I've heard students rush the time or drag because they were overly focused on comping. The lesson...the time comes first!
Second, keep your chords simple to start. Try starting with only the root and seventh of the chord, a R7 chord. Or, just the root and third, a R3 chord. So, for C7, this would be C--Bb or C--E. Simple chords allow you to focus on what is important...the time.
Now is a good point to pause and discuss "concept breakdown". You do not have to go far to find difficult-to-understand concepts in jazz piano. Comping is a perfect example. It seems easy, but it is not. Worst yet, it is the "seems easy" concepts that make it frustrating to learn and often cause students to throw their arms up in disgust. But, there is a solution!
Concept Breakdown is just that, a breakdown of difficult concepts in to easy to handle and easier to understand parts. To break down the concept of comping, I would consider its parts:
- Chord voicing - the notes of the chord and how they are arranged
- Number of chords per measure
- Tempo of the song
- Interaction with the right hand / soloist
- Rhythmic spontaneity
So, if we were to focus on each of these sections of the larger concept, we can more easily practice them. Here we go...
Chord voicing - as I said earlier, create simpler versions of your chord voicings for now. After you become more comfortable with the chords and comping, you can more easily add tensions and notes to your chord.
Number of chords per measure - if the section has more than two chords per measure, try only hitting the chords on beats 1 and 3. Now, this doesn't always work, but depending on the tempo and complexity of the chord progression, it might just get you through the section till you have more time to practice it and get it right.
Tempo of the song - this should be obvious, but...slow down! I'm always amazed when I ask a student to slow down and they play at exactly the same tempo. A good way to slow yourself down is to pay attention to a clock ticking or your heart beat for a moment. then, try to mimic that tempo. It should be around 60-80 beats per minute.
Interaction with the right hand / soloist - this is the heart of comping. Comping is ALL about supporting the melodic line. This is usually either a soloist or a melody instrument (like a vocalist, trumpet or your right hand, etc.) Good comping ADDS to the piece. It ADDS to what the soloist is playing. It ADDS to melody, and so on. So when practicing comping, it is essential to listen. Listen for "holes" in the line. Take a look at the example below. Notice that the line has places in which there is space. These are prime areas to fill with some tasty comping.
You might be asking yourself "Where are these spaces?" Well, look for rests and notes tied into one another. Also remember, that you can play each new chord toward the beginning of the measure. So, there are four chords, and at least four opportunities to play a chord in the left hand. There are also spaces in the line where you have long notes and rests. But, comping does not have to only fill in the "cracks". You can play a chord simultaneously with a melody note in the right hand.
Let's go through six comping variations on this line and you'll see how to put this into practice.
1) Chords on beat one. In this example you see that we are simply playing each new chord on the first beat of the measure. This is a good place to start learning how to "comp" because if you can not do this exercise in time, you will not be able to do the rest! So, make sure that you are comfortable with this exercise before moving on.
**NOTE** If you are learning this line for the first time, you might notice that you miss the chord on the first beat. If it is difficult to play chords on beat one while improvising in the right hand, this is a good indication that you need to become more comfortable with your right hand soloing before trying any fancier comping rhythms. Moral here, stick to a simple whole-note rhythm until this becomes fluid for you.
2) Short "stabs" on beats 1 and 3. The next step is to change those whole-note chords into short stabs. A "stab" is just a short rhythm applied to a chord. It is often used with horns. For example, "The horn stabs happen behind the soloist." This exercise is important because it will help you change between long chords and short chords. Long chords are those held for a quarter note or longer and short chords are those held shorter than a quarter note (this is my definition).
3) Short "stabs" on beats 1 and the "+" of 3. The "+" of beat three is the upbeat. This exercise will help you begin feeling off-the-beat rhythms. This also adds syncopation to your line. I cover syncopation in my lesson Mastering Rhythms Volumes 1 and 2.
4) Look for opportunities to anticipate. Do you see the last eighth note in measure one, tied into measure two? This is an anticipation. The melody is anticipating the strong beat resolution of beat one. Guess what? We can also anticipate the chord in the left hand. However, watch out that you don't drop beats. It is easy to get confused and rush the measure when anticipating chords. So, make sure you feel where the beat is! If you can't feel it just yet, stick with step 3 for a few more practice sessions.
5) Look for opportunities to support the melody. In the last measure we can "highlight" the notes of the solo/melody by comping chords along with them. As your solo gains in intensity, this is a great way to accent your solo notes.
6) Use both long and short chord rhythms. If you play all of your chords short or long, your comping will sound predictable. Be sure to vary your comping rhythms between short/long rhythms...and...rhythms that fall on/off the beat.
Lastly, we come to Rhythmic Spontaneity. The goal of comping chords is to be able to create interesting chordal rhythms on-the-spot. Now, the only way to do this is to start with easy rhythms and then gradually build them up. Basically, you want to create a vocabulary of rhythms that you can apply to your chords. This means you need to be comfortable with one- and two-handed rhythms.