A masterclass from the October 2014 issue of KEYBOARD

A keyboard “comping” (short for accompanying) part can really determine the character of a song. A dash of harmonic color here, a bit of movement there, and some added chordal tension can really bring a song to life. Here are a few devices I use regularly that are sure to help you add some flavor to your music.

1. Generic Progression

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Ex. 1 is a fairly generic pop chord progression, played as triads in quarter notes. This pattern exists in thousands of well-known songs, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Sometimes, simpler is actually better. But read on to find out how to spice this up a bit.

2. Basic Colors

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Ex. 2 shows the evolution of our chord progression. Adding the ninth is a nice way to give a voicing more weight without drastically altering its basic character. The same can be said of adding the flatted seventh on a minor chord. Experiment with leaving out the thirds of chords altogether, especially if they're already being played by others in your ensemble.

3. Diatonic Passing Chords

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Ex. 3 employs diatonic passing chords to create interest and movement in a track without playing single note lines, which often times impart too much of a melodic identity. Tip: Practice scales in diatonic triads to develop this kind of tonal vocabulary. Play major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales in all three inversions in all 12 keys.

4. Blues It Up

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In Ex. 4 we get down and dirty by adding some blues extensions to our voicings. This really adds character to a song—if the melody will allow it. The diatonic passing chord technique is employed here again as well.

5. Pedal Tones

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A repeated figure or voicing is a great way to introduce extended chord tones into a simple progression, as seen in Ex. 5. Here, we end up with a G11, an

Amin11/9, an Faug11/9, as well as the C 7/9 that starts us off. These may seem like fairly exotic chords for pop, but the repeated pedal tones make them work.

6. Upper-Structure Triads and Suspensions

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Ex. 6 expands our comping choices even further, adding upper-structure harmony and suspensions to the mix. This example is actually an extension of Ex. 3, where playing scales in triads diatonically will reveal many of the possibilities here. To use this technique in your comping, examine the chords of a song to determine which triads exist in the upper note structure of each chord. Now use one of those triads, rather than the fundamental one, as the foundation of your voicing. For example, in bar 1, the G triad is from the fifth degree of C major. The Amin triad in bar 2 is from the second degree of G major. In bar 3, the G triad is from the seventh degree of A minor. In bar 4, the C triad is from the fifth degree of F major, and the Dmin triad is from the sixth degree of F major. Delaying the resolution of these triads back to chord tones creates additional tension as well. Finally, remember always to be mindful of the melody!


Practice Tip: “I learned many of these techniques from checking out guys like Chuck Leavell and Bruce Hornsby, as well as Blue Weaver’s work on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Also, Paul Meany of MuteMath deserves honorable mention as a champion of the pedal tone,” says Brooklyn, New York-based pianist and composer Ben Stivers, who has toured and recorded with artists like Gregg Allman, Patti Austin, the Bee Gees, Groove Collective, and Matchbox Twenty. Stivers is currently playing with Robin Mckelle and the Flytones, as well as with an upcoming organ project with jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi