As an organist, I am often in the classic jazz trio setting of organ, guitar, and drums with no bass player, and I’m usually playing chords with just my right hand, since my left (usually in tandem with the foot pedals) is playing bass lines. Even when there is a bass player, one-handed chordal playing is still the most attractive sound due to its uncluttered and transparent nature. How do we get the most variety out of this limited number of voices? How do we imply a lot of harmony, thus exploring a wide range of emotions? In general, the answer lies in excellent voice-leading and having a solid knowledge of harmony so as to see a variety of possibilities at any one given moment. This last one is a biggie—too often I hear players who seemingly have only one or two ways of navigating through a particular set of chord changes.

The following examples are all based on the first four bars of Irving Berlin’s classic song “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Let’s look at five different one-handed accompaniment approaches to it. I’ve included the bass lines for reference purposes.

1. Harmonizing a Melody

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More often than not, my comping ideas are led by my top note. In other words, I’m spontaneously harmonizing a melody, as seen in Ex. 1. This provides “glue” for my harmonic ideas. Hopefully, in a real-life playing situation, you’ll be reacting to or conversing with the soloist while your melodically-driven accompaniment adds emotion. Let me point out the Bbmin7(11/13) in bar 3; normally this would be a C minor chord with a Bb in the bass. The liberty I took here creates three consecutive parallel minor seventh chords (C, Bb, A), each with slightly different alterations. The extension notes on top give the minor chords different colors. 

2. Wide Open Chords

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Voicing chords in fourths is a powerful way of getting a more open, modal sound, as illustrated in Ex. 2. Some of these chords may be too big a stretch for some hands. In this case, try omitting the top note, or bringing the top note down the octave to tuck it in. Notice a few chord substitutions here: In bar 2, I wrote a D dominant seventh, instead of the half-diminished, which would be the more common ii chord when playing in a minor tonality. I use this device a lot, as it gives the resulting II-V-I a more bluesysound. Also note the parallel minor chords starting from bar 3 to the end of the example. The penultimate chord Abmin7(11), can be seen as a tri-tone substitution for a D7 chord. 

3. Clusters

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Clusters are a real friend when chording with one hand. The dissonance of a minor or major second will always create a warm buzz that makes even a three-note chord sound thicker than it actually is, and there’s no physical stretch involved. Note the clusters used in this example: a ninth next to a third (as in the first beat of both measures 1 and 2); a third next to a 13th (as in beat 3 of measure 1); a third next to a flat fifth (beat 3 of measure 2); a minor third next to the 11th (both chords, measure 3); and the 13th next to the 11th (final measure). Also, in bars 1 and 2, I have substituted the I-biii-bVI(maj7)-V for the normal I-VI-II-V, a device used by Thelonious Monk and many others since. 

4. Scalular Lines

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Ex. 4 can help provide clarity and drama to your comping, and is also a great exercise in spontaneously harmonizing an ascending (or descending) scalular top line. Notice the sparse and modal sound of the Cmin11 in bar 1. There is no third. If you invert this chord, it’s built in fourths. This more compact way of playing a fourth chord is extremely effective. Also take note of the next chord in measure 1; the natural ninthon the half-diminished chord is often overlooked, although in Brazilian bossa nova harmony it’s used all the time. In the second half of bar 2, I’m superimposing a Db triad over a G in the bass; a triad that’s a tri-tone away from the bass note is a commonly used upper-structure chord. Also, I took the following harmonic liberties: the minor/major seventh chord in bars 3 and 5, and the natural fifth in the Amin7 of bar 4—when in a minor key center, the minor ii chord would normally be half-diminished.

5. Two Voices with Inner Movement

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Sometimes you just want to thin out, as seen in Ex. 5. Given the organ’s ability for ongoing sustain, using just two notes with one or both in motion can create a beautiful and Bach-like effect. In this example, notice in bars 1 and 2 the voice moving in quarter-notes. I’m trying to be as melodic as possible while implying some interesting harmony: the ninth on beat 3 of bar 1; the natural fifth (instead of flat) on the 3rd beat of bar 2; and the A in beat 3 of bar 2, which is acting like a lower suspension of the subsequent third. For the second half of the passage, another highly effective device is used: melodic motion in sixths.

“Study the great arrangers and orchestrators for harmonic and textural ideas. As as accompanists, we’re like mini-orchestrators—arranging and providing color and texture on the spot,” says Grammy-nominated Hammond organist Larry Goldings. “Also, don’t neglect studying the great jazz guitarists, as they’re working within a similar set of limitations as organists who have to comp with one hand.” Goldings has played with James Taylor, John Scofield, Maceo Parker, and Jim Hall. His most recent recording with longtime collaborators Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart, Ramshackle Serenade,is out now. Find out more at