By Dave Fox, Pianist
In this article Dave Fox gives us jazz guitarists some insight into how to play with a piano player:
I am a small-group leader who likes a rhythm section to consist of guitar, bass and drums. What’s unusual about that, you ask? Nothing – except for the fact that I play piano. Pianists are supposed to like playing with horn players, not guitar players. The reason for this is that, since the piano and the guitar are both chord-playing instruments, there is a real danger that there can be too many chords at the same time, resulting in too thick a sound that takes away from the melody and the solo. Or, so goes the thinking of many players I know.
But, I can’t help it. I like guitar players – I like the fact that they can rhythmically groove in a way that horn players just cannot do. This may be due to the fact that a guitar has a built-in capacity for being strummed. Things that can be strummed usually groove well with the beat, because of all the different possible ways that they can be strummed. Both guitarists and pianists are practiced in the art of strumming and, consequently, groove in a kindred way. Because of all this, I like to play in quartet situations with a guitar player.
However, before all you guitarists go out and form hornless bands, you should be aware of a certain problem that will present itself : Two chordal instruments in one band can produce a sound that should normally be avoided, a sound I call middle register density. What I mean by this is that in a quartet situation, each member of the group usually operates in a distinct and separate registral zone, or timbral zone. These are not purely registral zones, nor are they purely timbral zones. They are zones of location, i.e. when a listener hears four instruments he is able to distinguish where the separate sounds are in relation to one another. The listener can keep track of a lot of musical information if these zones are properly placed. For example, the upright bass, naturally, occupies the lowest registral zone. The drums cymbals (and perhaps the snare drum) are in the highest zone, and the bass drum and other drums are somewhere near the upper end of the lower register (in the case of the floor tom) or the lower end of the high register (in the case of the other toms.) The pianist is usually right in the middle of this registral timbre, as is the guitar, although they can both play in extremely wide variants of the middle.
If the pianist and the guitarist are both playing chords, there is usually too much of the middle registral timbre for human ears to take. (There are times when a creative musician may want that specific sound, so to have two chordal instruments play chords at the same time is not strictly verboten. It’s just recommended that you avoid it if you want to keep getting paying gigs.)
The challenge, then, is that while I desperately want the sound of a guitar to complement my playing, I also want the guitarist to be sensitive and discrete in their use of chords. I am sure they want the same thing from me as well. And the solution is very simple: both the pianist and the guitarist should stop thinking of themselves as just chordal instruments. We should think of ourselves as one-note instruments who can occasionally play some other notes at the same time. The music we make if we adopt that attitude will be much more interesting for both us as musicians and for our audiences. It will be more contrapuntal.
It is easy to think how we might apply this philosophy to the head of a typical jazz tune. Here are some suggestions:
- The guitarist plays the melody, while the pianist plays the chord changes
- The pianist plays the melody, while the guitarist plays the melody
- The pianist is tacet, letting the guitarist play both the melody and chords
- The pianist plays the chords in the left hand, while doubling the guitar melody with their right hand
- The A section is comped by the guitarist, while the B section is comped by the pianist
All of these solutions, and others that can be thought of by creative musicians, help to make the individual voices of the musicians more intelligible to the listener, and less cluttered. The resulting sound is akin to chamber music – each person has their part to play, and each part contributes to the whole. In such cases, a quartet is giving listeners four distinct parts to comprehend. There is no sense in complicating things aurally by introducing sixteen notes from guitar/piano chords. (There may be sometimes when that is the sound you are looking for, in which case – go for it!)
But what about the solo section? Usually the inexperienced player, be they guitarist or pianist, will lapse back into their traditional role of comping and simply start playing chords behind the soloist. (Unfortunately, oftentimes experienced players do the same thing.) There is nothing wrong with this, of course, in the proper context. But we can all agree that this is what everybody does. The resulting sound will therefore resemble everybody else. It will be, in a word, clichÃ©d.
I want to offer one simple solution to the problem of comping behind a pianist, called the one-note comping method. Of course, this comping method will work in any context, but it is especially suited for accompanying a pianist because it leaves the pianist free to play chords with their left hand. Sometimes it is best to let the comping chords and the solo come from the same source – the pianist’s brain. (Of course, you want your pianist to have a good brain. Determining this is beyond the scope of this article.)
However, just because it might be ideal to let the pianist provide chords to comp his own melody does not mean that the guitarist has to unplug his guitar and leave the stage. On the contrary, the creative guitarist might be able to provide a non-chordal accompaniment that contributes greatly to the overall sound. The one-note comping method is one such way.
Here is how this works. Suppose these are the chord changes for a solo section, one four-count measure for each chord:
Four-Note Chords Dm7 – G7 – Dm7 – Db7 – Cmaj7 – Bbmaj7 – Ebmaj7 – A7
Arbitrarily choosing one note of the first chord, the seventh, a guitarist might play the following one-note accompaniment, all whole notes played in a conjunct manner:
Individual Notes C – B – A – Ab – G – A – Bb – C#
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that if a guitarist plays something like this one-note method instead of the four-note chords (really it would be six notes in most cases, some of the chord tones being doubled) while I am soloing I experience a freedom to go places in my solo that traditional chordal comping simply does not allow. This is called giving the soloist some space – one note leaves me much more space than six notes!
To do this effectively, the guitarist needs to know the chords and the chord progression so well that choosing individual notes poses no technical threat. This is easier said than done, and will require some practice – the guitarist will have to physically and mentally learn how to do it (not so hard) and they will have to psychologically learn that it is ok to just play one note (the hardest part for a chord-playing musician.) It is easier for our minds to think of a Dm7 chord as one entity (which it is) than as four different notes (which it also is.) We simply have to re-train our minds to be able to think either way, depending on the situation.
At first, the guitarist might have to notate a one-note accompaniment and rehearse in the solitude of their practice room. With enough time, this method can become just as much a part of your second-nature as chordal playing. Then, you can move on to another comping method – playing two individual notes per chord.
To paraphrase King Solomon, of the making of many ways to comp, there is no end.
About the Author
Dave Fox is a pianist and composer who resides in Greensboro, N.C. He is an Associate Professor of Music at Greensboro College, where he has taught piano, piano proficiency, music theory, and music appreciation since 1995. He composes and performs music jazz, creative avant/garde, and classical styles. He is classically-trained and has played in many group settings, ranging from rock and pop bands, to big bands, and chamber groups. Fox curates the Improvising Music series of Greensboro College, hosting local, national, and international musicians every semester. Some of the notable performers he has hosted include Martin Klapper, Frank Gratkowski, The Antasten Duo, Eugene /Chadbourne, Jessica Pavone and Mary Halvorson. In addition to his recordings with The Dave Fox Group, Dave Fox has recorded with Eugene Chadbourne (The Foxbourne Chronicles, three stars from Downbeat in July of 2007), Frank Gratkowski (ORM) and has recorded a solo piano album of classical and jazz pieces titled Dedication Suite. For the past four years Fox has been researching the use of active learning/composition with regards to the typical college music appreciation class. His dissertation, titled “Musicing Appreciation: The Conception, Development, and Implementation of a MU-SI-C Course,” is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2008 through the music department of Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.