Comping | meaning in jazz

Piano, drums, guitar - meaning of comping in jazz

‘Comping’ in jazz is creating an accompaniment with chords and rhythms. Comping is usually improvised.

What does ‘comping’ mean in jazz?

Comping means to create an accompaniment to a tune using chords and rhythms. It is one of the fundamental roles of the rhythm section, particularly guitar, piano/keyboard/organ, drums, vibraphone, and percussion.

Comping is usually improvised. Players create an interactive accompaniment, in real-time, to go with what everyone else in the band is playing moment-by-moment. Comping can be preplanned or might use variations on conventional patterns. For example, there are standard generic patterns guitarists might use to play chords in a bossa nova style. Cuban jazz styles have lots of different standard ‘montuno’ patterns that pianists, tres players, and percussionists commonly use.

Despite such standardised patterns, the main meaning implied by the term ‘comping’ involves improvising the accompaniment in real-time.

Comping with chords

For chordal instruments, comping involves playing various voicings, inversions, extensions, alterations, and substitutions. It can also include single-note and riff-style backgrounds, ostinato, and fills. Chordal comping will often involve a melodic aspect, using voice leading to connect chords in a way that is pleasing to the performer or appropriate to the style.

Another important technique in comping, but one that is often overlooked by students and seasoned professionals alike, is simply being silent, or ‘laying out’. Just because a musician can play chords does not mean that they always should. Sometimes music is enhanced by having no chordal accompaniment in places.

Comping for drummers & bass players

Drummers comp in more or less the same way as pianists etc. but using rhythms instead of chords. Comping on drums can use any part of the kit but most often is done on snare drum, bass drum, and tom toms. Drum comping might be improvised moment-by-moment in response to what is being played by a soloist, in the melody of a tune, or other parts of the rhythm section. This can create a ‘busy’ effect. However, drum comping can also follow a less frenetic pace, with simple repeating patterns that have the effect of ‘locking in’ the time. An example in a swing style would be playing a snare drum cross stick on beat 4 of each bar.

Very ‘busy’ drum comping and drum ‘fills’ can seem indistinguishable at times. As with chordal instruments, sometimes no drum comping is what the music needs. It might be that all a drummer needs to do is play ‘time’.

Bass players also can comp. They use rhythmic & harmonic variations to interact with soloists and the ensemble. Some examples can include pedalling, fills, and mirroring or echoing ideas played by others in the band. For bass players, comping is usually in addition to their traditional role of playing time. 

More information & other resources

This article gives a definition of comping. To learn more about some practical aspects of comping here are some other useful posts:

How to read jazz chords and interpret charts – all about chord families, extensions, and alterations for comping. Includes video link.

Improvisation for the Rhythm Section – ways of involving the rhythm section in improvisation lessons & rehearsals.

Jazz small ensemble skills – covers lots of comping and interactive skills needed for playing in improvising jazz bands.

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