Jazz Comping using three note voicings on Guitar

Introducing the meat and potato voicings.

Charlie Christian

I thought I would share with you a true Swiss army knife of comping chords. Decades ago, when I first started learning jazz, these were the first voicings I learned. I still use them today. These chords come in 2 variations, open and closed. Learning these movable voicings is easy, so the real task here is getting them integrated into your playing.

For learning purposes I will show both open and closed voicings with roots on the E and A strings.
We will look first at the 4 types of chords. Major7, Minor7, Dominant7 and what I like to call the worlds largest 3 note voicing, the minor7♭5 or half diminished chord (which has 4 notes in it). The major, minor and dom7 chord types have no 5th in the voicing. We do however need the 5th to accurately represent the min7♭5… thus the 4 note voicing.

The Raw Materials

3 Note Voicings

C Major7 Scale Harmonized

C Major7 Scale Harmonized with 3 Note Voicings

Here are a few advantages of 3 note voicings:

  • quick to grab, awesome for fast tempos, well, awesome at any tempo I guess.
  • a good starting place for someone just getting into jazz
  • bare bones construction that doesn’t get in the way of the soloist or when playing with a piano player (note: be aware that rhythmic clashes may occur when playing with a piano player).
  • Sound great.
  • They can be used as a base for more complex harmony Ex.

    Extending 3 note voicings

    Extending 3 note voicings

  • Perfect for walking bass lines while comping Ex.
    Walking Bass Lines

    Walking Bass Lines

And now its time to get them into your playing.

  • Memorize the voicings. (both open and closed for all 4 qualities of chords)
  • Play in time and don’t stop. Use a metronome. For Swing tunes your metronome should be on 2 and 4. Latin tunes works best with metronome on 1 and 3.
  • Sitting in front of a computer with a guitar doesn’t really prepare you for performance. Stand up (if you usually play standing up), imagine you are on stage and work through some tunes. Recording yourself is a great way to add real-time pressure. Get away from the computer!
  • Work on specific rhythms over tunes. Play a standard with a static rhythm pattern. A great source that I use is: Jerry Bergonzi: Melodic Rhythms Book-Inside Improvisation Vol. 4
  • When comping in a swing style, be sure to play a lot of off beats and anticipate chord changes by an eighth note now and then. Ex.
    Anticipate Chord by 8th note

    Anticipate Chord by 8th note

  • Try comping and leaving out the bass note. (this note is redundant when playing with a bass player)
  • You don’t have to play every single chord in a tune. Leaving out the odd chord or 2 will add more space. Perhaps be more sparing during first part of a solo. Always Listen to the soloist or melody.
  • Open a fake book to any page. Put on the metronome and comp through the tune. Ignore the alterations on the chord and play only the vanilla base harmony. Ex. You see D7♭9. Play just D7.
  • Comp for X number of bars and solo for X number. Alternate
  • Comp musically. Sometimes slide into the chords. Let some chords ring. Play some staccato(short). Play chord notes separately. Use you imagination. Listen to the greats and hear how they comp. Get a notebook and transcribe rhythms they use. Sometimes don’t play a single chord for the entire first chorus of solos.
  • Identify your own weaknesses and target them. Make up your own exercises.
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