Guitar Rhythm and Comping Chords
Have you ever tried to learn chords for a jazz tune but gotten lost in chord diagrams. Just trying to learn the new chords is hard enough, but trying to remember them when you are playing through the tune can be overwhelming at first.
Jazz guitar harmony (aka chords) can be a never ending pursuit with almost infinite possibilities. It can be as complex as astrophysics if you want it to be. But you can also get quite far by focusing on getting the most out of a few simple elements.
If you can play cowboy chords, then I can show you how to play jazz guitar harmony all over the guitar neck in weeks not years.
Harmony on the bus
One day I was on the bus coming home from Jazz college. I sat down and noticed someone sitting across from me also holding a jazz guitar case. Of course we started chatting and I found out that he had lots of experience. I start telling him about the fact I was struggling a bit with all the different chord voicings and how do use them all. I will never forget his answer. “It’s not how many chord voicings you know, but how you use the ones that you do know.” And it’s true. I have yet had anyone say to me on the bandstand, “don’t you know any more chord voicings than that?” You either play in the pocket and out-of-the-way, or you play bad rhythm and step on the soloists toes. Few people notice a subtle grooving rhythm section. Everybody notices one that is getting in the way.
Chord playing styles
There are two main styles of chordal playing in jazz.
The first is called “rhythm playing.” This usually consists of four strums to the bar. It is also known as Freddy green style.
Freddy green was the long standing guitar player for the count Basie orchestra. All he did for all the decades he played with count Basie was strum for beats to the bar. No solos, no melodies, just four strums to bar. That’s a whole lotta strums.
Rhythm playing can also have more complex strumming rhythms, although this is not very common in jazz. Usually this style uses lower chords on the top and middle strings. We will call these chords “drop 3’s. ” I couldn’t be bothered to explain why they are called “drop 3’s” because it doesn’t help you to play better. If you care: Google it.
The other style is called “comping.” It consists of more irregular, sparse rhythms. Usually this style uses higher chords on the bottom strings. We will call these chords “drop 2’s. ” I couldn’t be bothered to explain why they are called “drop 2’s” because I am lazy. However, if you care: Google it.
For your information: there is not yet a law on the books that say you can’t play rhythm with drop 2’s or comp with drop 3’s, but this is usually not how it is done.
Jazz guitar harmony (aka chords) can be played all over the guitar neck with variations on just two chord shapes.
These two chord shapes will give you freedom to play rhythm or comp over the entire guitar neck. If jazz is not necessarily your only focus, then these are all you need to play convincing jazz. However if you want to get into more complex jazz harmony, these are a great foundation to build on.
We will look at the first chord shape. You don’t need to memorize the shapes yet, but this will help you understand how they are connected.
The easiest to use fingering is notated on each chord. The dot with the “1” in it should be held with the index finger, “2” with the middle finger, “3” with the ring finger, And “4” with the pinky.
Chord Type 1 : Root in the bass
This is a Gmaj7 chord.
By changing one note (the 7th note of the major scale to the b7 if you absolutely want to know) get a G7 chord.
One more note (the 3 to the b3) and you get a Gm7 chord.
And finally, one more note (the 5 to the b5) and you get a Gm7b5 chord.
Now to easily change any one of these low rhythm chords, to a high comping chord, take the note from the top thick E string (6th string) and replace it with the note of the same fret on the bottom thin E string (1st string). This will give you a high comping chord on the bottom four strings. You may have to re-arrange your fingers for the switch.
Chord Type 2 : Fifth in the bass
Now lets move up the neck to look at the second shape. For our purposes; When it says Gmaj7 in a song, you can pick which way you want to play it and with which bass note you would like to use.
This is a Gmaj7/D chord. The same chord, just a different way to play it. It is used the same way, it just has a different note than the root in the bass and is a different place on the guitar neck. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but I’ll give you an easier option later.
By changing one note (the 7th note of the major scale to the b7 if you absolutely want to know) you get a G7/D chord.
One more note (the 3 to the b3) and you get a Gm7/D chord.
And finally, one more note (the 5 to the b5) and you get a Gm7b5/Db chord.
Now to easily change any one of these low rhythm chords, to a high comping chord, by taking the note from the top thick E string (6th string) and replace it with the note of the same fret on the bottom thin E string (1st string). This will give you a high comping chord on the bottom four strings. You may have to re-arrange your fingers for the switch.
Now as you can see, we modified these two chord shapes to give you 8 rhythm chords, and 8 comping chords which is … Carry the two… 16 chords. Enough to play rhythm or comp over the whole guitar neck. I will also give you a couple of options that are easier than the stretchy ones, and a couple of options with 9’s or 13’s for some more colour. (More on this later)
Diminished chords – These chords are not nearly as common, but you will come across them in jazz so I thought I should mention them. Take any 7 chord (like G7 etc.) and raise the root one fret. Presto : Diminished chord.
In this case: G#dim7, or with the 5th in the bass: G#dim7/D.
Hey, wait a minute. These two chords look the same. Hey, they also look the same as a 7b9 chord. Not something you need to understand now, but an interesting observation. We will use some diminished chords in later songs.
Don’t think about each chord as a separate thing. Practice the way your fingers move while switching from one chord to another. I like to call it finger tai chi. Slow perfect movement teaches your fingers how to change chords much quicker than fast uncertain movements. Don’t lift the fingers that don’t need to move from one chord to the next. And the fingers that do need to move travel in a straight line to their next destination (note). Remember to use the fingers I notated.
Once you get some of these shapes under your fingers, practice the first line or two of a song. Start with one strum per chord. Then you can move on to four even strums per bar. Try practicing these along with the backing track on the website. Along with these chords listed in group 1 are some options to help spice things up, or some that are a bit easier to finger (colour options in colom 3).
Once you got those down, you can either move on to group 2, work on the drop 2’s, try the colour options or move on to a new song.
Group 2 is just a different way to play the same chords. (Still based on those same two chord shapes).
If you want to move on the comping chords (high chords on the lower 4 strings) then it might be appropriate to talk about comping rhythms. As I said before, comping rhythms consists of more irregular, sparse rhythms. I’ll give you a standard rhythm as an example. An easy way to explain rhythms is to use the rhythm of a sentence. If you say this sentence evenly, you get seven even beats followed by a short breath. Try it.
I like you and you like me (breath).
Now try playing a chord when you say “I” and when you say “and”. This will give you an example of a standard comping rhythm. No really; try it.
There are of course an infinite number of rhythms you can use, but this will get you started.
You can also try sliding into a chord from a fret above or below for some extra pizazz.
Putting these two chord shapes to use
We are now going to use these chords in context of some different jazz songs, also called standards.
Beside each song there are diagrams of the chords you need in order. I know it looks like a lot of chords but don’t freak out.
All the chords are on the charts as well, just in miniature, as a reminder while you play. The alternate options (colour chords) are notated in brackets by each applicable chord, but not diagrammed on the chart. If you know them, use them.
Here is a sample of the chord diagrams and chart for Autumn Leaves so you know what they look like.
Chord Group 1 is where you start. Again: all the chords are based on the same two shapes. I suggest you start with the low chords on the upper strings (drop 3’s). Start by practicing the movement between each chord.