The Chord Doctor: Comping Class

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By David Cook

Whether you’re playing in a stadium for a platinum artist, or in an intimate jazz club with a singer, it’s important to have a deep reservoir of comping choices to draw from. Comping (short for accompaniment) is the glue that holds a musical situation together and propels it forward. Choosing when to be a calming influence versus a driving force can be the thing that people remember about you, and the reason that your phone keeps ringing.

Let’s take a simple four-chord progression of Bb minor, Db major, Gb major, and F7 (it or ones like it have been used for decades in popular songs like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”) and create different comping approaches. Before we begin, keep in mind what artists like Herbie Hancock, Kenny Kirkland, James Poyser, Wynton Kelly, Floyd Cramer, Larry Goldings, Mulgrew Miller, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder have in common: Each has the chops and ideas to impress, but the taste to know when not to do so.
Photo by Sarah Sloboda

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1. Singer/Songwriter Comping

Keeping chord voicings simple doesn’t have to mean making them boring. In Ex. 1, I’m adding fourths along with thirds to inject color and variation into my chords. A great device to develop your chord movement and voice leading is to think of the top note of your chord as a melody note, and move from chord to chord in a way that makes melodic sense. If you have a bass player, also experiment with playing different non-root notes on the bottom of your chords.

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2. Fast Jazz

My teacher Ellen Rowe taught me how the pianist in a jazz group can be the glue between the rhythm section and soloist. Ex. 2 illustrates comping patterns that can help a jazz pianist lock a band together. Notice how I’m varying my voicings with a mix of clusters and quartal structures (chords built on fourths), playing them rhythmically to help spur a musical conversation amongst the band.

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3. R&B Rhodes

Ex 3. takes our progression into R&B territory, with pulsing, repetitive Rhodes chords that strike a groove as hard as any other member of the band. Play these by pushing and pulling around the beat, or swinging the eighth-notes even if the main groove is straight. Add delay or tremolo to sweeten the sound even more.

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4. Rolling Re-Harmonization
In Ex. 4, I’m keeping the bass notes of our progression the same while changing quality of the chords. Remember that any chord can substitute

for any other chord in the right circumstance. Instead of Bb minor, try a suspended, major, or compound “slash chord” such as Gb/Bb. Re-harmonizing parts of a familiar chord progression is a great way to explore new sonic turf.

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Gear Note: All audio examples for this lesson were played on the Nord Electro 3 HP for piano and Rhodes sounds. For my gig with Taylor Swift, I use the Nord Stage 2 and C2, along with Dave Smith’s Prophet ’08 triggering Apple’s MainStage running on a MacBook Pro.--David Cook

New York-based keyboardist David Cook is the musical director for four time Grammy winner Taylor Swift. Cook has also accompanied Jennifer Hudson, Natasha Bedingfield, ’NSync, and Marianne Faithfull. His debut album as a leader, Pathway, is available now. Find out more at

***Audio examples recorded by the author.