Keeping It Interesting Over One Chord

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Let’s examine the art of comping over one-chord vamps. It’s always a challenge to create compelling musical parts while staying on just one chord. Remember to not be too busy in your playing—always leave some space for other musicians’ parts to seep through. This creates a way for all of the instruments in the band to blend together nicely. Also try to find subtle “variations on a theme” rather than completely changing up your patterns drastically. Developing catchy motifs or hooks and repeating them occasionally with different nuances will create familiarity and thus interest the listener even more. If you follow some of the ideas and techniques described here, I’m convinced that your comping will soon become more interesting and exciting—and your fellow musicians will love you for playing with good time and restraint. (Audio note: All the examples here were played on a Yamaha Motif XF8).

1.Rhythmic Right-Hand Comp

Ex. 1 illustrates is a way of using both hands together to create a pattern with most of the rhythmic activity taking place in the right hand. There is a slight “call and response” effect between the first and second motifs, which creates an overall hook to the comp. When developing this pattern further, you can make other subtle variations like tasty fills and well-positioned use of space and rests.

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2.Simple Pad Comp

In Ex. 2, we use a pad to create a bed of sound that can help connect the other instruments in a group together. I tried to make a little movement within the pad, going on top from the third to the ninth and then again from the seventh to the root. Letting certain common tones sustain while moving others creates a subtle complexity that often sounds more interesting than simple “footballs” (or held, static tones). I’m always using whatever notes are associated with each chord to choose from based on the whole seven-note mode. In this example, the chord is an Emin7, which is the Dorian mode or the D major scale.

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3.Rhythmic Sustain Comp

In Ex. 3 I use quick movement from the fourth to the fifth, and I add the ninth and fourthoccasionally for a richer sound. Note that when playing with bass and drums, you should always be careful not to interfere with those parts. If I were on a session playing something in this key with bass and drums, I’d close my eyes, listen, and let my hands start conversing with not only each other, but also with the other musicians’ parts in the mix.

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4.Two-Handed Block Voicings

I find “block voicings” incredibly effective for the more climactic moments of a song, as illustrated in Ex. 4. Many developing players get into the habit of simply using octaves in their left hands on the root of the chord. These two voicings help get you away from that, as they let the bass player handle the root. Always try to use notes from the corresponding mode in constructing your voicings, and try not using the root at the bottom of your chords. You can also use the chromatic interval below or above to add another dimension to this kind of comping pattern.

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5.Hand Syncopation

In Ex. 5, I demonstrate using staccato and syncopated rhythms between both hands. (This also works well on the Clavinet and organ.) Once again, space is essential. It draws the listener in and highlights the sounds of instruments such as drums, guitar, and bass. One of the rhythmic devices I’m using here is subtle displacement of where the pattern starts: from the last sixteenth-note of the bar to a downbeat somewhere else. This creates emphasis on different parts of the beat, drawing the listener further into the music.

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Give the Drummer Some . . . Attention

“Always practice with a metronome and focus on good, even timing. When playing with other musicians, listen to the drummer and rely on him or her as you would the metronome,” says David “Creatchy” Garfield, who has performed and recorded with George Benson, Van Morrison, and Smokey Robinson. Garfield also founded the influential jazz-fusion bands Karizma and Los Lobotomys. His latest release is Perfect Harmony by Karizma. Find out more at