A Minimalist Approach To Blues Comping

author: Brainpolice2 date: 01/23/2012 category: chords
rating: 9.9 / votes: 14 
This lesson is meant for those who have some basic familiarity with playing in a 12 bar blues format, at an approximately beginner to intermediate level. This is especially meant for those who are mostly used to playing pretty bulky (like 5 and 6 string) chord shapes when comping in a blues format, but it should also contain some useful information even for some of those who are fairly familiar voice leading with 4-note 7th chord shapes. For clarity and convenience, we'll be using a 12 bar blues in the guitar-friendly key of A as our framework. So for reference, a basic 12 bar blues chord progression in the key of A would look something like this: A7, D7, A7, A7, D7, D7, A7, A7, E7, D7, A7, A7. A technical note before beginning: Some of the chord shapes used here may require muting skipped strings (although if you're playing with your right hand's fingers assigned to individual strings, this shouldn't be necessary). Also, to avoid anyone being confused or mislead, none of the things tabbed out in the examples specify rythm, they are just guidelines for what notes to play as the chords come up. Eliminating Repeated Notes One of the first, shapes that some players may be inclined to use for an A7 would be a bulky root position shape such as:
|-0-
|-2-
|-0-
|-2-
|-0-
|---
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using such a shape. But it also isn't necessary to use such a shape. The idea here is to break things down to essentials or to be minimalistic. To that end, the first thing to notice about our example of an A7 is that it repeats the 5th: both the 2nd fret on the D string and the open E string are the 5th. So the first step towards minimalization would be to get rid of repeated notes, in this case one of the 5ths. We could get rid of either of them, which would yield two alternative ways of playing the A7. If we get rid of the high E, we get:
|---
|-2-
|-0-
|-2-
|-0-
|---
If we get rid of the lower E, we get:
|-0-
|-2-
|-0-
|---
|-0-
|---
The main advantage of using such shapes that don't have repeating notes is that you get good note separation/clarity. Things can potentially get muddy or overpowering with the bulkier shapes, especially with other instrumentation going on. These kind of chord shapes also easily lend themselves to inversion. For example, our root-position A7 on the middle four strings (x0202x) easily produces the rest of the standard dominant 7th chord inversions on the middle four strings: 1st inversion
|---
|-5-
|-2-
|-5-
|-4-
|---
2nd inversion
|---
|-8-
|-6-
|-7-
|-7-
|---
And 3rd inversion
|---
|-10
|-9-
|-11
|-10
|---
The same concept applies to shapes using the top and bottom four strings. Utilizing such shapes, you are now more easily open to voice-lead using inversions while comping over the 12 bar format. Instead of the awkwardness of jumping from A7 to D7 by doing something like this:
 A7 D7
|-0-5-
|-2-7-
|-0-5-
|-2-7-
|-0-5-
|-----
You could use both minimal movement and avoid unecessary note repetition by doing something like this instead:
 A7 D7
|-----
|-8-7-
|-6-5-
|-7-7-
|-7-5-
|-----
Applying this to the whole 12 bar format, I could make may way through it just using the middle 4 strings, and with minimal note movement between chords, with the following just being one possible example of a way to voice lead it:
 A7 D7 A7 A7 D7 Ao7 A7 A7 E7 D7 A7 A7
|-------------------------------------
|-8--7--8--8--7--7--8--8--9--10-10-10-
|-6--5--6--6--5--5--6--6--7--7--11-11-
|-7--7--7--7--7--7--7--7--9--10-9--9--
|-7--5--7--7--5--6--7--7--7--9--10-10-
|-------------------------------------
Note: Yes, I threw a diminished 7th in there where the D7 would normally repeat because I love that manuever; I couldn't help myself. This particular move may not be much of an epiphany for some, for those who already are used to those kind of 7th chord shapes. But it's an important step to take. For those who haven't yet, I would encourage them to learn all of their 7th chords in 4-note shapes, including all inversions. I can't comprehensively cover that in this lesson, which is just meant for the 12 bar blues using dominant 7th chords. Eliminating The 5th The next step in our minimalistic journey is to take our 4-note dominant 7th chord shapes and turn them into 3-note dominant 7th chord shapes by getting rid of the interval of the 5th. The 5th is commonly the first chord note to go because it's already a strong overtone of the root note, and because it's quite likely that the bass part is going to include it anyways. We could therefore say that it technically isn't necessary. The root, 3rd, and 7th are sufficient. So, to return to the root-position A7 we refered to before (x0202x), if we remove the 5th we get:
|---
|-2-
|-0-
|---
|-0-
|---
The same concept of elimination would apply to our inversions as well. x4525x (1st inversion) becomes:
|---
|---
|-2-
|-5-
|-4-
|---
x7768x (2nd inversion) becomes:
|---
|-8-
|-6-
|-7-
|---
|---
x10 11 9 10x (3rd inversion) becomes:
|----
|-10-
|----
|-11-
|-10-
|----
That would just be the shapes that one finds by taking the standard inversions and removing the 5th. Other shapes can be found all across the neck just by trying to construct the chord on the neck with some combination its root, 3rd, and 7th. If we try to apply this to the 12 bar format, using 7th chords without any 5ths, I could come up with something like this (again, just as one possible example of voice leading within certain limits):
  A7 D7 A7 A7 D7 D7 A7 A7 E7 D7 A7 A7
|-------------------------------------
|-8--7--8--8--7--7--8--8--9--10-10-10-
|-6--7--6--6--7--7--6--6--7-----------
|-7--10-7--7--10-10-7--7-----10-11-11-
|-------------------------7--9--10-10-
|-------------------------------------
This approach is closer to the style of chord comping found in earlier jazz music, with 7th chord voicings that are mostly dense and focus on essential notes. While we won't be covering it in this lesson, it is also quite noteworthy that when one starts to eliminate notes like this, one is simultaneously opened up to potentially add additional, color notes or extensions (such as 9's, 11's and 13's), leading to a whole slew of other voicings. Eliminating The Root The next and final step that we're going to be taking is one that may intuitively seem the most bizarre: eliminating the root note in addition to eliminating the 5th. What's that you say? How can it sensibly be understood or heard as the chord that it is without the root note? Well, in musical settings in which there is an ensemble, the bass player (or the bass part) is quite likely going to be hitting the root notes anyways. So even if you don't hit the root note, the full chord is being spelled out in some way by all the parts at once (or by what parts create over time). We're just eliminating the unnecessary repetition of notes. We're basically playing dyads or double stops at this point. When we eliminate the root and 5th of a 7th chord, we're left with the two notes with the most character: the 3rd and the 7th. In the case of dominant 7th chords, this happens to spell out the interval of a tritone. And since a basic 12 bar blues includes nothing but dominant 7th chords, approaching it in this way leads us to basically just move around tritones. Just using 3rd and 7ths, one of the most simple, broken down ways to voice and play our 12 bar blues in A becomes something like this:
  A7 D7 A7 A7 D7 D7 A7 A7 E7 D7 A7 A7
|-------------------------------------
|-------------------------------------
|-6--5--6--6--5--5--6--6--7--5--6--6--
|-5--4--5--5--4--4--5--5--6--4--5--5--
|-------------------------------------
|-------------------------------------
Parallel tritones FTW! Replacing Chords With Double Stops We've just entered into the territory of double stops, which is basically a pair of two harmonized notes. In isolation, this may seem underwhelming, but it can get quite interesting when you start to move around with them melodically. And if we play around with double stops rather than full chords, we are freed up to try certain things, like comping melodically. The chord progression likely ends up being implied or followed by double stop melodies. This can also be a useful approach if there already is someone else who is playing full chords. To begin approaching things this way, we can forget about avoiding roots and 5ths, because we're not really thinking about playing chords anymore. Any combination of two notes that are included in the chords taking place (or the chords being implied) will work as a double stop, including playing nothing but the root and 5th. What we're really talking about here is writing or improvizing melodies utilizing 2-note harmonies, with the structure of the changes being kept in mind. Let's return to the first chord of our 12 bar blues in A: A7. Instead of thinking about ways of playing an A7 per se, let's think about two-note harmonies that are consonant with the chord. There are quite a few possibilities, which could manifest all across the neck. For just one example, we could just play A and E, which happen to be the root and 5th of A7, in a bunch of possible ways:
|----------12-
|-------10-10-
|-----9-9-----
|---7-7-------
|-7-7---------
|-5-----------
And so on. We find a bunch of 5ths and 4ths. There are of course more ways to play those two notes than that. Perhaps one finds those double stops too power-chord-ish. What about playing just A's and C#'s? We find a bunch of 3rds and 6ths this way:
|-------5-9--
|---------10-
|-----6-6----
|---7-7------
|-4-4--------
|-5----------
And so on. Again, there are other ways to play these double stops on the neck, these are just some examples. Without exhaustively tabbing all possible double stops in this context, hopefully you get the idea. Any of these will work when an A7 is being played. Of course, the idea here is not necessarily to just play one double stop for each chord, as eventually we're going to want to be making melodies that move around with double stops (and utilize notes in passing that aren't chord tones), but it's a starting point. But if we were to try to construct a simple series of double stops that follows the changes, in which we associate one double stop per chord (or perhaps per bar), perhaps something like this would work as a basic example:
  A7 D7 A7 A7 D7 Ao7 A7 A7 E7 D7 A7 A7
|-------5---------------5--4--------5--
|-8--7-----7--7--7---8--------7--5-----
|-9--7--6--6--7--8---9--6--4--5--6--6--
|--------------------------------------
|--------------------------------------
|--------------------------------------
This is actually a very basic two-part counterpoint, as if you look at each of the two voices they create their own independent lines; sometimes one note goes up or down while the other remains static, or sometimes both notes move in opposite directions. While not all double-stop playing is going to involve counterpoint (a lot of it may very well just involve purely parallel voices, which is fine), the option is there. A more straightforward approach is to simply play little melodic lines around the changes moving around parallel intervals, like 3rds or 6ths. Note: dashes are being treated as an 8th note duration from here on. Choosing to work just with 6ths, one might make a part like this:
 A7       D7       A7       A7       D7       Ao7
|9875----|5432----|--------|--------|--------|---- ----|
|--------|--------|2-3-5-7-|8-75----|3567----|78910----|
|9876----|5432----|--------|--------|--------|---- ----|
|--------|--------|2-4-5-7-|9-75----|4567----|78910----|
|--------|--------|--------|--------|--------|---- ----|
|--------|--------|--------|--------|--------|---- ----|
  
 A7          A7       E7       D7       A7       A7
|9-10-12-10-|9-75----|4320----|210-----|--------|--------|
|--- -- -- -|--------|--------|---3----|-2--1-0-|--------|
|9-11-12-11-|9-76----|4321----|210-----|--------|2-------|
|--- -- -- -|--------|--------|---4----|2-2-1-0-|--------|
|--- -- -- -|--------|--------|--------|--------|4-------|
|--- -- -- -|--------|--------|--------|--------|--------|
If some of it reminded you a bit of Thelonious Monk, I don't blame you. +1. In either case, the idea here is to get used to playing double stops instead of chords. You could write or improv plenty of nice blues parts (unaccompanied even) without ever playing an actual dominant 7th chord, while the changes would simply be implied by your note selection with double stops. You can do a lot of cool things with this. Summary And so ends this lesson. Some of the ideas contained in here could be expanded on or applied to other contexts. Hopefully I have efficiently communicated it and some find this helpful. I may very well try to make some future lessons that refer back to what we got into here, as it's really useful stuff. If you have any questions relating to this lesson, please leave one in the comments and I'll be sure to answer it.
More Brainpolice2 lessons:
+ Getting Creative With Pentatonics Soloing 10/17/2011
+ Chromaticism In Blues Soloing 10/04/2011
+ Melodic Chromaticism Soloing 09/16/2011
+ Quartal Stacks And Their Inversions Chords 08/22/2011
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