I'm back in a small jazz ensemble this quarter, and I'm once again finding it incredibly difficult to come up with guitar parts that fit into an ensemble context without stepping on the toes of other players in the group. It always seems that when I play with a quintet (piano, guitar, drums, bass, tenor sax), I'm sort of a fifth wheel that isn't quite necessary. The piano is comping chords, the sax has the melody, the bass has the low end. I've tried comping higher chord voicings to stay out of the piano's range and still add some rhythmic variety, but it seems that when I get into a little groove, my instructor says that I'm being too repetitious and should add some variety or play off the soloist more. However, when I try not to play the same rhythmic pattern all the time, I feel like I'm just floating around a bit, adding a little accent chord here and there - basically sticking out like a sore thumb that doesn't know its place on the hand.

I've also tried doing some non-chord work, like little riffs and octave lines, but my band members have told me that when I do that, I draw too much focus to myself and turn the tune into a riff-based one rather than a chord-based one. My instructor tends to have either one of two criticisms, depending on the song we're playing:

1. I'm not playing a "concrete" enough part, and haven't found my "niche" within the group, so as to add something special and blend in at the same time.


2. I'm not playing with enough variety, and I'm just repeating the same part over and over again.

Thus, you see the peculiar nature of my situation. I have to have more variety, but also be consistent. My teacher has suggested that I learn more comping patterns in regard to rhythm. I tend to do things where I accent the following beats:

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

Does anyone have some other interesting ideas for comping in a swing context? Keep in mind the bass and piano will have most of the obvious parts taken already.

I'd also appreciate it if anyone had examples of guitarists playing in groups where they weren't the main instrument, and thus didn't just play the head of the tune. It seems that most of the guitarists I listen to are always bandleaders, and don't really make any attempts at blending in with the rhythm section.

Also, feel free to talk/rant about your experiences as a guitarist in a jazz ensemble.
Last edited by Glen'sHeroicAct at Mar 29, 2012,
Try to get together with the piano player outside of the ensemble. Piano players love playing 3 octave wide voicings and taking up all your space, while dropping chords in really retarded places. If you can find an understanding with the piano player in terms of range and where you want to stab the chords it can make a pretty big difference.

In an ensemble like that I would stick almost exclusively to the GBE string set and do really simple voicings and just concentrate on playing off of the drummer. You're in the mud if you're playing your typical drop2-3 jazz guitar voicings. GET OUT OF THERE!

You should learn all of the heads as well and try doubling with the sax. Guitar + sax is a pretty classic NICE sound. You just need to match your articulations and stay away from bending or vibratoing stuff. That might be a better option for you during heads...and then just comp during solos or lay out entirely (everyone doesn't need to be playing all the time).

Also, remember...you don't have to play every chord...and you also don't have to only play the written chords. Superimpose stuff that makes sense between changes and use it to fill in empty space in the head or something.

I'm not gonna lie...I went to school for Jazz guitar, and I never felt like I totally found my place in an ensemble like that. IT's always a challenge, and you're always at the whim of the piano player. I much preferred bass-guitar-drums-keys, so I could take all the heads and stuff...but, hey, you gotta find a way to make it work. And remember, the key to Jazz is listening. React to the soloist...react to everyone. If you hear the drummer do a cool little accent then play off that, and he will hear it, and come back with something else.
Last edited by chronowarp at Mar 29, 2012,
In addition to what he said, try watching videos of some of the great jazz guitarists. Notice how they interact with the rest of the group and try to use some of their ideas. I'm currently taking jazz lessons and I feel your pain.
Probably sounds stupid (not the guitar sound, my suggestion) but I'd say (from a guitarists point of view) just let it flow, ''lock in'' to the bassist and the drums and just let the chords play themselves, while you add accents and add nice little (melody based) bits of interest, in appropriate places... basically feel the music and just let your guitar do the talking. I'm a jazz bassist (primarily)/guitarist (when I need to be) so I understand where you're coming from, my advice from a bassists point of view is very similar: just take a walk.
talk to your piano player, and ask him if he wants to alternate comping, everyone doesn't have to play all the time. comping when someone else is (especially if your piano player is doing the stereotypical piano douche thing and using 6-7 note chords) comping can be really hard, even if your very familiar with their playing. also, on the heads, double them or alternate playing them (if its a ballad or standard with room to phrase it more) with the sax player. also, get out of your specific rhythmic patterns, try to play off the soloists ideas (develop them more, don't just repeat them). also, think of comping as improvising a few countermolodies that are very, very much inside the changes (try to always have a third and/or a seventh), not as trying to deliniate every single chord change the lead sheet tells your to. you dont have to comp every single change, if you are helping the soloist get through the tune (which shouldn't be your responsibility, but can be) and helping build something.
all the best.
(insert self-aggrandizing quote here)
I also play in a quintet with a piano player, in Latin tunes i comp with the piano because the guitar in latin holds a steady constant rhythm which does not clash with the piano. swing tunes where the comping is much more rhythmically free that's a problem so on may swing tunes I don't comp and wait for my improvisation.
Take ques from other players. Look up Lenny Breau and his use of jazz and harmonics. Wes Montgomery used octaves (which is pretty distinctive even with a piano). Use your volume knob to swell to your advantage... well the songs advantage but you know what I mean.

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Quote by Glen'sHeroicAct
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &

Does anyone have some other interesting ideas for comping in a swing context?

Place emphasis on beats 2 and 4. What you've accented above is basically everything but... and Latin is the opposite, beats 1 and 3.

I'm sure you know that, I just felt at liberty to say, cuz of what you highlighted. Knowing which beats to accent regarding styles (swing, Latin) was one of the first things my teacher talked to me about. Rhythm.

Also, what chronowarp mentions about playing off the drummer, is good. Listen to the snare.
Last edited by mdc at Mar 30, 2012,
First thing I would try would be to talk to the pianist and ask him to use more sparse chords, typically comping on a piano, you would want it to be all thirds and sevenths, not even the root since the bass will hit it.
That way you can go all freddy green on the band and just chug away all four beats and it will sound nice. (Especially in swing jazz)

Or lock in with the bassist and set up some nice substitutions / turn arounds / whatever tickles your fancy
I can definitely relate to what you're struggling with - particularly when it comes to a piano player being in the mix. Piano players in general have the potential to take up a lot of space - they have the whole range at their disposal, and pianistic music often involves taking multiple parts at once, anything from the bassline to the melody to chords. Therefore there are times in which a guitar player may feel like "what do I do? The piano player already has everything covered".

As others have said, it may be fruitful to try to work with the piano player independently to come up with a way to not step on each other's toes, or maybe you can come up with some arrangements. Perhaps in some cases that may mean playing the exact same voicings as the piano player. Or it may mean them backing off and giving you the space to comp more freely. Or it may mean that you should just play double stops, or spare chord voicings.