Jazz Guitar Comping

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Voice leading is the stepwise movement of notes from one chord to the next within a chord progression. This motion creates a sound of inevitable resolution between chords, and is an integral part of western music. It should also be an integral part of comping. Voice leading is what makes comping sound like music, as opposed to a series of random chord voicings.

Based on the way most guitarists learn chords, and the unique layout of the neck, voice leading is not the most obvious thing to do on the guitar. Guitarists traditionally learn that chords are made up of a combination of fingers, frets and strings. Voice leading, on the other hand, requires looking at chords as a specific group of notes played simultaneously, rather than “grips.” These notes then connect to notes in the succeeding voicing, etc. For this reason, voice leading necessitates being able to play chords in the same area of the neck, without, for instance, having to jump from the third fret to the tenth and back.

To learn voice leading, start with familiar chord forms and move the notes within them in stepwise motion to notes in corresponding forms. This is more easily accomplished at first with three-note chords than with four or more notes present.

With this in mind, it is often advantageous to leave out the root at the bottom of the voicing. Also, since most group situations involve a bass player taking care of the root function, it’s not necessary for you to play it, especially in the lower register. If the absence of the root makes some of the chord voicings unrecognizable or difficult to hear when practicing, add it to the voicing where possible. When playing in a group context however, try leaving it out.

Moving Notes — An Overview

When voice leading through a ii-7 V7 I Maj7 progression, the most common in Jazz, the notes follow a pattern of motion from chord to chord. (The skill gained from working with this basic progression can be applied to all progressions.) For most chords, the 3rd and 7th provide the necessary information to make the sound recognizable; adding the 5th creates another path of resolution. In the following examples, each of the three voices is first isolated, then shown in context of the voicing. The roots are omitted.

The 7th of A-7 moves down a half step to the 3rd of D7, which becomes the 7th of GMaj7:

The 3rd of A-7 becomes the 7th of D7, then moves down a half step to the 3rd of GMaj7:

To create a stronger resolution, tension is increased by altering the Dominant chord. The 5th of A-7 moves down a half step to the b9 of D7, then moves down another half step to the 5th of GMaj7:

The top note in a voicing tends to be prominent, and the movement of that voice creates the “melody” of the comp.