RHyTHm & GROOVES
Wheels Within Wheels
When it comes to comping, we guitarists can learn a lot from B- 3 and electric
piano players. I’ve always been inspired by
how ace keyboardists use inversions and
subtle substitutions to create harmonic and
rhythmic motion inside the tune’s basic
changes. You hear this wheels-within-wheels
approach in old-school R&B, blues, and
For example, imagine a band is vamping
on a dominant 7th chord for two measures,
marking time until the next chord change.
To spur harmonic momentum, a B- 3 player
might play a series of secondary chords
that color the primary dominant 7th chord.
Though the essential harmony is static during this two-bar section, we hear chordal
movement. What’s going on?
Walk the Line
These secondary voicings are often constructed around a melodic line that’s
related to the chord of the moment. One
classic line that shows up time and again
in groovin’ music from New Orleans funk
to Memphis soul derives from boogie-woogie piano and incorporates two chord
tones—the 5 and 7—of whatever dominant
7th chord the band is playing at that time,
plus the 6, which acts as a stepping stone
between the 5 and 7 chord tones. Typically,
the line ascends and descends in a 5–6–% 7–
6 pattern and is harmonized with several
other notes. As we’ll see in a moment, this
harmony may be located above or below
the 5–6–% 7–6 line.
Fig. 1 shows three chord voicings we’ll
use to start exploring line-based comping.
As you fret these grips, notice how they
each occur on the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings.
By staying on these strings, we keep the
chords in the guitar’s middle register, an
area that grants singers or soloists melodic
In Fig. 2, we put these voicings to work to
create an A7 comping pattern, which typically occurs over an A pedal tone established
by the bassist. Cycle through this phrase
several times at a moderate tempo, listening
78 PREMIER GUITAR NOVEMBER 2010
Fig. 1 Fig. 1
to the harmonic movement and feeling the
syncopation in the middle of each measure.
There are several things to consider about
this passage. For starters, the 5–6–% 7–6 line—
which, in this case, is E–F#–G–F#—ascends and
descends on the 5th string. Another is that
both the A7 and A9 grips are rootless. As long
as the root—A—is implied by the bassist or
another instrument, you won’t miss it. If you’re
flying solo, with no one to pump out a pedal
tone below you, you can keep these changes
focused within the overarching A7 tonality by
simply plucking a low A from time to time.
Unlike its companions, the D chord has a
root (it’s located on the 3rd string). But in
this context—sandwiched between A7 and
A9—the D chord isn’t functioning as a full-on
change. Rather, it simply provides momentary tension and release within the comping
pattern. This quick, superimposed IV chord is
a staple of gospel and blues piano.
One more thing: If you’re into music theory,
you’ll notice that our A9 chord is also a
first-inversion Em triad, as well as a partial
G6. When comping, it’s often the case that
you can name a particular cluster of notes
Fig. 3 Fig. 3
several ways, depending on the context.
Because we’re comping against an A7,
we hear these three notes as a partial A9
chord. In another setting, we might identify
You can transpose this A7–D–A9–D comping pattern up and down the fretboard.
For instance, shift the whole operation
up to D7 in the 10th position, and you
get a D7–G–D9–G phrase. Start two frets
higher in the 12th position and you’ll have
an E7–A–E9–A move that sounds great
against E7. With a little imagination, you
can create a soulful I–IV–V comping pattern to fill out an entire 12-bar blues progression in the key of A. Try it.
Next, let’s rework the 5–6–% 7–6 line so it
becomes the top voice in an A7 comping
pattern. Fig. 3 gives you the grips, and Fig.
4 illustrates one of the many ways you can
move through them. This particular phrase
comes straight out of ’60s organ-driven jazz
by the likes of Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack
McDuff, Shirley Scott, Lonnie Smith, Jimmy
McGriff, and Groove Holmes. As you wrangle this phrase, notice how our E–F#–G–F#