Rock Technique - The Secrets of Accompaniment, reprinted from Keyboard, April 1984.
A number of people in recent months have asked me to do some columns on the subject of accompaniment. At first, I was puzzled by this, because in my five years writing for Keyboard, I have written several columns on various aspects of accompanying. You'll find a list of them below. After thinking about it further, I realized that I had never actually used the word "accompaniment" in a column title, though I have used "comping," which means the same thing, several times. So perhaps this is what threw some folks a curve. This month let's approach the topic head on.
The word "accompaniment" covers a lot of territory. Every time you perform a tune with another musicians, unless you're strictly a soloist, you're accompanying. Some types of accompaniment involve a more restrictive form of playing, while others give you more creative latitude. If the bandleader or the composer of a tune gives you a keyboard part which calls specifically for a synthesizer to play a straight eighth-note patter for a number of measures, as in Ex. 1, you're pretty much locked into playing just that and nothing more. This part looks pretty dull by itself, but it might be just what is needed to make the whole arrangement come alive. On other occasions you might be given a chord chart, as in Ex. 2, and asked to come up with your own part. Now you can use your creative keyboard ability to put together the accompaniment. Ex. 3 shows one of many possibilities. In order to come up with an effective part based on a chord chart, you need to be able to read chord symbols, and you need a knowledge of chord voicings and inversions.
If the tune is a "balls to the wall" rocker, with the entire group playing flat out, all you can do is probably grab fistfuls of notes and go for it! One the other hand, if the tune is more ballad-oriented, with more complex harmonies and change in dynamics, you'll have your work cut out for you. You'll have to follow the vocalist or instrumental soloist closely, and try to anticipate his or her every move. If there is a change in dynamics, musical energy, or emotion, you have to make those changes right along with the vocalist. You have to keep your ears open and stay alert.
One important rule for accompanying is do not overplay. You're part of a team, and it's more important for the group to sound like a cohesive unit than for your to show off your chops. Your job is to support the soloist musically, not to force him into a direction he doesn't want to go. Of course, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't be creative. There are many ways to be creative while accompanying, such as using new chord voicings, setting up smooth voice leading, or creating a pleasing countermelody that complements the main melody.
For example, let's say you're handed a chord chart with a repeated section, as in Ex. 4, and are asked to play the chords but also to provide a little motion. You might consider holding the chords as whole notes while playing a simple secondary melody that stays in a restricted range. At the repeat, you might move the secondary melody and change the voicings slightly as in Ex. 5. The result is an accompaniment that is internally cohesive but not too repetitive.
Accompaniment is a big subject, and we've just scratched the surface. So until next month, check out the columns I have listed below and stay happy!