Other Instruments

The use of other instruments, such as brass or woodwind instruments, as accompanying instruments is usually limited to a few background riffs, or repeated phrases. This type of accompaniment is popular in blues bands. Usually one horn player will play a simple line based on the blues scale, and other horn players will pick it up and repeat it.

Free jazz forms allow for less structured accompaniment. If you listen to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, or John Coltrane’s Ascension, you will notice that the horn players who are not soloing are free to play whatever background figures they want. The result is often cacophonous, but if that is the desired effect, then that is not bad in itself.

At the other end of the spectrum are big band arrangements, which often have intricate written out horn backgrounds for solos. Arranging for horn sections is similar to accompanying on piano in that the parts generally form voicings of chords and are used in a rhythmically interesting way. The parts are generally smoother and more melodic than a typical piano accompaniment, however, both because the piano part is usually improvised whereas the horn arrangement can be preplanned, and because it is easier for a horn section to play melodic lines voiced in chords than it is for a pianist. Horn section arrangements often emphasize articulation, or variations in attack and dynamics, more so than a piano is normally capable of. Commonly used devices in horn section arranging include the use of sforzando, or notes of sudden loudness; alternating staccato, or short note, and legato, or long note, passages; bent notes, or notes in which the player alters the pitch briefly while playing, and falloffs, or notes in which the player rapidly lowers the pitch, sometimes by an octave or more, usually to end a phrase.

You do not have to play in a big band or be an accomplished arranger to use horn section accompaniment. Often two or three horns are enough to play interesting background figures. Most of the same principles used in piano voicing can be used in horn section voicing. Drop voicings are especially effective. When there are only two horns, lines moving in parallel thirds often work well. Listen to Miles Davis’ The Birth Of The Cool, or any of Art Blakey’s recordings with the Jazz Messengers, for ideas on how one can arrange for relatively small ensembles. David Baker’s book Arranging And Composing can help get you started as well.


As with the bassist, one of the roles of the drummer in traditional forms of jazz is to play a steady beat in the style of the song. By steady, I mean with regards to tempo, and do not mean to imply that you should not be creative and vary your patterns. I cannot shed much light on the specifics of drum techniques, but I can describe some basic patterns and styles, and give you some hints on other aspects of the role of the drummer.

The basic 4/4 swing beat consists of two components: the ride pattern and the hi-hat pattern. The fundamental ride pattern is the “1, 2 and, 3, 4 and” or “ding ding-a ding ding-a” pattern played on the ride cymbal with swung eighth notes. The hi-hat is normally closed sharply on “two” and “four”. This is what most simple drum machines will play when the “swing” setting is selected. This pattern is appropriate for many jazz songs, especially medium or up-tempo standards or bebop tunes. Slower songs like ballads often call for the use of brushes on the snare drum rather than sticks on the cymbals as the main pattern. There are a few books that can help you in constructing patterns for other styles; one such book is Essential Styles For The Drummer And Bassist. The most important of the styles you may be expected to play are described below.

The basic shuffle beat consists of eighth notes on the ride cymbal and possibly snare. The second and fourth beats are usually more strongly emphasized as well. The basic jazz waltz or 3/4 swing pattern consists of “one, two, and-of-two, three” or “ding ding-a ding” on the ride cymbal, with the hi-hat on “two”. Other variations include using the hi-hat on “two” and “three”, or on all three beats; adding the snare on the “and-of-two” or on the “and-of-one” and on “three”.

Three forms of Latin jazz you should be able to play include the bossa nova, the samba, and the mambo. The essence of most forms of Latin jazz is the clave, which is a type of rhythmic pattern. The basic clave is two measures long, and consists of “one, and-of-two, four; two, three”. There is also an African clave or Rumba clave in which the third note is played on the “and-of-four” rather than on the beat. The bossa nova uses a variation of the basic clave in which the last note falls on the “and-of-three” rather than on the beat. These clave patterns can also be inverted, meaning the two measures are swapped. The clave would usually be played as hits on the rim of the snare on a traditional drum set, although it is often not played explicitly by the drummer at all, in which case an auxiliary percussionist may play it.

The clave is supplemented with other patterns on other drums. The bass drum may play on “one” and “three” with eighth note pickups. The hi-hat is closed on “two” and “four”. Other patterns may be played on a cymbal or on a cowbell. Typical mambo patterns include “one, two, three, and-of-three, and-of-four; one, two, and-of-two, and-of-three, and-of-four” or “one, two, three, and-of-three; one, and-of-one, and-of-two, and-of-three, four”. A simple pattern consisting of “two, four, and-of-four” is played on the snare rim and the mounted tom instead of a clave. Bossa novas may use a pattern consisting of straight eighth notes on the ride cymbal. Sambas have a double-time feel. The cymbal pattern is usually straight eighth notes, and is often played on a closed hi-hat. The snare drum may be simply hit on “four” instead of playing the clave.

Certain compositions, such as Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” or Tony Williams’ “Sister Cheryl”, have unique drum patterns that are indelibly associated with the particular song. Listening to recordings of a song to be performed before trying to play it is probably more helpful for drummers than for any other musicians, since fakebooks generally do not provide many hints for the drummer.

A good drummer will not simply play the same pattern over and over for an entire song. For one thing, you may vary the pattern, perhaps by playing only quarter notes on the ride cymbal, or occasionally varying the rhythm to “ding-a ding ding-a ding”. Or, you could play the hi-hat on every beat. You may also want to use the other drums, such as the toms, as part of your basic beat for a song. Tony Williams is a master at varying his patterns in this way.

Often, a drummer will play a simple two-beat during the head, and switch to straight four for the solos. One of the easiest ways to change the feel of a piece is to simply switch cymbals for the ride pattern, for instance when there is a change in soloist, or to mark the bridge of a song. Marking the form of a tune is another important role of the drummer. Most typical song forms have 4 or 8 bar phrases. At the end of each phrase, the drummer often plays a more complex pattern or fill to lead into the next phrase. Another tactic is to change the basic beat from phrase to phrase. As a drummer, you should always be conscious of the form of the song, and know where any breaks, special introductions, or codas are. You should be able to sing to the melody to yourself during solos if necessary, so that you can outline the form for the soloist. This will help the soloist keep his place, by allowing him to recognize when you have reached the bridge, for example. Also, the soloist is usually structuring his own phrases along the lines of the original form. By adhering to that form yourself, you will usually be supporting the development of his ideas. Art Blakey is a master of playing the form and supporting soloists in this way.

During a solo, an instrumentalist may leave deliberate breaks in his phrases. As with the pianist and bassist, the drummer may decide to fill those spaces with some sort of answering phrase or counterrhythm. Drummers may also create tension through the use of polyrhythm, which is two or more different rhythms superimposed on each other; for instance, three against four. A drummer can either try to play two different rhythms himself, or work with the bassist or another accompanist, or the soloist, to create a polyrhythm between them. As with the use of counterpoint in bass lines, however, you need to balance the desire for rhythmic variation with the realization that clutter or chaos can result if you go too far.

Since everyone depends on the drummer to keep accurate time, rhythmic stability is essential. However, the rhythmic interest of the drum part is also important, and it is vital during drum solos. Percussion is not only about rhythm, either. As a drummer, you cannot play lines that are interesting in a traditional melodic or harmonic sense, but you can vary the timbre of your lines by playing across drums or cymbals of different pitches. You should still think melodically when playing the drums.


The function of the bass in a traditional rhythm section is somewhat different than that of a chordal instrument. Like a pianist, a bassist must normally outline the chord changes, but the bass usually emphasizes the roots, thirds, and fifths rather than any extensions or alterations. In traditional jazz forms, the bass player also has a very important role as a timekeeper; as much as a drummer, if not more so. That is why bass players so often play walking bass lines that consist almost exclusively of quarter notes or rhythms that strongly emphasize the beat.

In this respect, learning to play bass lines is often easier than learning to solo or play voicings. You do not have to worry much about what rhythms to play, and your note choices are more limited as well. When you listen to great bass players like Ray Brown or Paul Chambers, you will see that a large part of their playing is quarter notes and scale based lines.

When a pianist plays in a solo setting, he must often provide his own bass line accompaniment, so pianists should learn how to construct good bass lines as well.

Walking Bass Lines

There are some simple guidelines you can use to produce good sounding bass lines. First, you generally should play the root of the chord on the first beat of that chord. The previous beat should be a note a step away. For instance, if the chord F7 appears on beat “one” of a measure, then you would normally play F on that beat. You would normally play E, Eb, G, or Gb on the last beat of the previous measure, depending on the chord. If the chord was C7, then you might play either E or G, since they are in the associated mixolydian scale. Or, you might think HW diminished or altered scale for the C7 and play the Eb or Gb. The Gb is also the root of the dominant chord a tritone away, which has already been described as a good substitution, so Gb makes a particularly good choice. The note does not necessarily have to be justifiable in the context of the chord; it can be thought of as a passing tone to reach the first beat (the downbeat) of the next measure.

These first two guidelines take care of two beats for each chord. In some tunes, such as any song based on the rhythm changes, that is all you get for most chords, so your bass line can be almost completely determined by the chord progression. Of course, you will probably want to vary your lines. You are not required to play the root on the one, nor are you required to approach it by step. Remember, these are only guidelines to get you started.

If you have more than two beats to fill for a particular chord, one way to fill the remaining beats is to simply choose notes from any associated scale in mostly stepwise motion. For instance, if your chord progression is C7 to F7, and you have already decided to play “C, x, x, Gb” for the C7 chord, then you can fill in the x’s with D and E, implying the lydian dominant scale, or Bb and Ab, implying the altered scale. Either of these choices might also imply the whole tone scale. Another popular pattern would be “C, D, Eb, E”, where the Eb is used as passing tone between the D and the E. You will probably discover other patterns that you will tend to use a lot. Playing patterns is generally frowned upon when soloing, where you are expected to be as creative as possible. When accompanying, however, patterns, like those given for voicings, can be an effective way to outline the harmony consistently. As a bass player, you are expected to play virtually every beat of every measure for the entire piece. It is usually more important to be solid and dependable than to be as inventive as possible.

Pedal Point

The term pedal point, often shortened to simply pedal, refers to a bass line that stays on one note over a changing harmony. Certain songs, such as John Coltrane’s “Naima”, from the album “Giant Steps”, are written with explicit pedal point, either with the notation “Eb pedal” over the first four measures, or through the notation of the chords as

| Dbma7/Eb | Ebm7  | Amaj7#11/Eb Gmaj7#11/Eb | Abmaj7/Eb |.

When you see a song explicitly call for pedal point, that is usually an indication to stop walking and instead play only whole notes.

You can also find your own opportunities to use pedal point. In a ii-V-I progression, the fifth can often be used as a pedal note. For example, you can play G under the progression | Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |, or just under the first two bars. Under the Dm7 chord, the G in the bass makes the chord function as a G7sus chord. The resolution to the G7 chord then mimics the traditional classical use of suspensions, which always resolve in this manner. This is also commonly done in progressions that alternate between the ii and the V, as in | Dm7 | G7 | Dm7 | G7 | Dm7 | G7 | Dm7 | G7 |.


Scott LaFaro started a small revolution in jazz bass playing in the early 1960’s through his use of counterpoint. His bass lines had almost as much rhythmic and melodic interest as the melody or solo he was accompanying. This can be distracting to some soloists, and to some audiences, but many find the effect exciting.

One opportunity to use counterpoint is in ballads or medium tempo swing tunes where the melody has long notes or rests. One of the most famous examples of Scott LaFaro’s counterpoint is on the version of “Solar” recorded by Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian on the album Sunday At The Village Vanguard. The melody is mostly quarter notes, with whole notes at the end of each phrase. Scott plays long notes while the melody is moving, and moving parts where the melody is staying still.

Bob Hurst has a different approach to counterpoint. Rather than playing lines that sustain their own melodic or rhythmic interest, he plays lines that create rhythmic tension in their interaction with the beat. One technique he uses often is playing six notes against four beats, or two quarter note triplets per measure. It sounds like he is playing in three while the rest of the band is in four. This type of rhythmic counterpoint is difficult to sustain for any length of time, and may confuse inexperienced musicians.

When experimenting with counterpoint, remember your role is usually still that of an accompanist. Your goal is to support the musicians you are accompanying. If they are being thrown off by the resultant complexity, or are producing enough rhythmic tension on their own, then this may not be a good technique to use. You will have to use your own judgement to decide when the music will benefit from the use of counterpoint.

Other Bass Patterns

The techniques described above are applicable to most styles of jazz. Some particular styles impose their own particular requirements on the bassist, however. A two-beat or half-time feel means playing only on beats one and three in 4/4 time. A two-beat feel is often used on the head for standards. When playing in 3/4 time, you may either play walking lines or just play on the first beat of each measure. Many of the Latin Jazz styles use a simple pattern usually based on alternating roots and fifths. The bossa nova, a Brazilian derived style, uses the root on “one” and the fifth on “three”, with an eighth note pickup on the “and-of-two” and either another pickup on the “and-of-four” or a quarter note on “four”. The samba, another Brazilian derived style, is similar, but is played with a double-time feel, meaning it sounds as if the basic beat is twice as fast as it really is. The root is played on “one” and “three” while the fifth is played on “two” and “four”, with a sixteenth note pickup before each beat. The mambo and other Cuban derived styles use the rhythm “and-of-two, four”. The latter beat is tied over to the “one” of the following measure.

A full description of all the different styles is beyond the scope of this primer. There are a few books that can help you in constructing patterns for various styles; one such book is Essential Styles For The Drummer And Bassist. For now, all I can do is repeat Clark Terry’s advice, “imitate, assimilate, innovate”. Listen to as many different styles as you can and learn from what you hear.

Other Scale-Based Voicings

There are other logical ways of constructing voicings; too many to describe individually here.  Most approaches are similar in that they they associate a scale with each chord and construct the voicing from notes in that scale. By using a scale approach, you can devise your own patterns for voicings. For instance, a second with a third stacked on top is a somewhat dissonant but not too cluttered sound that many pianists use extensively.  For a chord such as Fmaj7, you can apply this format at any position in the associated F lydian or F major scale.  Since the F major scale contains an avoid note (Bb) in this context, one would normally opt for the lydian scale and the B natural, so that none of the generated voicings would contain any avoid notes.  The particular pattern described above yields “F G B”, “G A C”, “A B D”, “B C E”, “C D F”, “D E G”, and “E F A” over the F lydian scale.

Most of these voicings are very ambiguous, in the sense that they do not readily identify the chord.  As with the 3/7 and quartal voicings, however, you will find that the presence of a bass player, or just the context of the chord progression being played, will allow almost any combination of notes from a given scale to make an acceptable voicing for the associated chord.

You may wish to experiment with different patterns and different scales to see if you can find any voicings you particularly like.  Often, the goal is not to find a voicing that completely describes a given chord, but rather to find a voicing that conveys a particular sound without seriously corrupting the chord.  You may find that at a given point in the music, you may wish to hear the characteristic authority of a perfect fifth, or the characteristic dissonance of a minor ninth or of a cluster of several notes a second apart, but without the characteristic wrong note sound of a completely random selection of notes.  Thinking of the associated scale and putting your sound into that context gives you a logical and reliable way to get the sound you want without compromising the harmony.

Close Position and Drop Voicings

The simplest voicing for a four note chord is the close position voicing, in which all the notes in the chord are arranged as close together as possible.  For example, a C7 chord might be voiced in close position as “C E G Bb”.  This is referred to as root position, since the root, C, is at the bottom.  The chord might also be voiced in close position as “E G Bb C”, which is also called the first inversion, since the bottom note has been inverted to the top.  The second inversion is “G Bb C E” and the third “Bb C E G”.

A drop voicing is created from a close position voicing by dropping one of the notes down an octave.  If the second note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 2 voicing; if the third note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 3 voicing.  For a C7 chord in root position, “C E G Bb”, the corresponding drop 2 voicing is “G C E Bb”.  The second note from the top, G, has been dropped down an octave.  The corresponding drop 3 voicing would be “E C G Bb”.  Drop 2 and drop 3 voicings can be constructed from any of the inversions of the chord as well.  On the piano, the dropped note must normally be played in the left hand, so these are almost always two handed voicings.  The intervals in these voicings make them perfectly suited for guitar.

Close position and drop voicings are effective when used to harmonize a melody, particularly in a solo setting.  Each melody note may be harmonized by a different drop voicing, with the melody note on top.  Pianists and guitarists often use this type of approach in their own solos.  A phrase in which every note is accompanied by close position or drop voicings is said to be harmonized with block chords.  Red Garland, Dave Brubeck, and Wes Montgomery all regularly played block chord solos.

Polychord and Upper Structure Voicings

The basis of a polychord voicing is to play two different chords at the same time, such as one in the left hand and one in the right on a piano. The relationship between the two chords determines the quality of the resultant chord.  These are always two handed voicings on a piano, or five or six string voicings on the guitar.  They produce a very rich, complex sound compared to the voicings presented so far.

The simplest style of polychord voicing is to play two triads; for instance, a C major triad in the left hand on a piano, and a D major triad in the right.  This will be notated D/C.  This notation is overloaded in that it is usually interpreted as meaning a D triad over the single note C in the bass; it is not always clear when a polychord is intended. Polychords are seldom explicitly called for in written music, so there is no standard way to notate them.  You must normally find your own opportunities to play polychords.

If you take all the notes in this D/C voicing and lay them in a row, you will see that this describes either the C lydian or C lydian dominant scales.  Therefore, this voicing can be used over any chord for which those scales are appropriate.  If you experiment with other triads over a C major triad, you will find several combinations that sound good and describe well known scales.  However, many of these combinations involve doubled notes, which can be avoided as described below.  Among the polychords that do not involve doubled notes are Gb/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, Bb/C, which produces a C mixolydian scale, Dm/C, which produces a C major or C mixolydian scale, Ebm/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, F#m/C, which also produces a C HW diminished scale, and Bm/C, which produces a C lydian scale.  These polychords may be used as voicings for any chords that fit the corresponding scales.

You may have noticed that Db/C, Abm/C, Bbm/C, and B/C also involve no doubled notes and sound very interesting, although they do not obviously describe any standard scales.  There are no rules for when these polychords may be played as voicings.  When your ear becomes accustomed to the particular nuances and dissonances of each, you may find situations in which you can use them.  For example, the last polychord listed, B/C, sounds good when used as a substitute for Cmaj7, particularly in the context of a ii-V-I progression, and especially at the end of a song.  You may resolve it to a normal Cmaj7 voicing if you wish.

You can construct similar polychords with a minor triad at the bottom. Db/Cm produces a C phrygian scale; F/Cm produces a C dorian scale; Fm/Cm produces a C minor scale; A/Cm produces a C HW diminished scale; Bb/Cm produces a C dorian scale; and Bbm/Cm produces a C phrygian scale.  In addition, D/Cm produces an interesting, bluesy sounding scale.

I mentioned before the desire to avoid doubled notes.  One way to construct polychords that avoid doubled notes is to replace the triad at the bottom with either the third and seventh, the root and seventh, or the root and third of a dominant chord.  Voicings constructed in this fashion are also called upper structures.  They always imply some sort of dominant chord.

For example, there are several possible C7 upper structures.  A Dbm triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9#5 chord.  A D triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#11 chord.  An Eb triad over “C E” yields a C7#9 chord.  An F# triad over “C E” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An F#m triad over “E Bb” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An Ab triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#9#5 chord.  An A triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9 chord.

You will find it takes a lot of practice to become familiar enough with these voicings to be able to play them on demand.  You may wish to choose a few tunes and plan ahead of time where you will use these voicings.  It is well worth the effort.  The richness and variety introduced by these voicings can add a lot to your harmonic vocabulary.

Quartal Voicings

A style of voicing made popular by McCoy Tyner is based on the interval of the fourth.  This type of voicing is used most often in modal music.  To construct a quartal voicing, simply take any note in the scale associated with the chord, and add the note a fourth above, and a fourth above that. Use perfect fourths or augmented fourths depending on which note is in the scale.  For instance, quartal voicings for Cm7 are “C F Bb”, “D G C”, “Eb A D” (note the augmented fourth), “F Bb Eb”, “G C F”, “A D G”, and “Bb Eb A”. This type of voicing seems to work especially well for minor chords (dorian mode), or dominant chords where a suspended or pentatonic sound is being used.

These voicings are even more ambiguous, in that a given three note quartal voicing can sound like a voicing for any number of different chords.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, if you wish to reinforce the particular chord/scale you are playing, one way to do this is to move the voicing around the scale in parallel motion.  If there are eight beats of a given chord, you may play one of these voicings for the first few beats, then move it up a step for a few more beats.  The technique of alternating the voicing with the root in the bass, or the root and fifth, works well here, too.  On a long Cm7 chord, for instance, you might play “C G” on the first beat, then play some quartal voicings in parallel motion for the duration of the chord.

As with the 3/7 voicings, these voicings are convenient left hand voicings on the piano or three or four string voicings on the guitar. They can also be made into two handed or five or six string voicings by stacking more fourths, fifths or octaves on top.  For instance, the Cm7 chord can be voiced as “D G C” in the left hand and “F Bb Eb” in the right, or “Eb A D” in the left and “G C G” in the right.  The tune “So What” from the album Kind Of Blue used voicings consisting of three fourths and a major third. On a Dm7 chord, the voicings used were “E A D G B” and “D G C F A”.

3/7 Voicings

It is somewhat of a shame that the most common type of voicing used by most pianists since the 1950’s has no well established name.  I have seen these type of voicings called Category A and Category B voicings, Bill Evans voicings, or simply left hand voicings.  Because they are based on the third and seventh of the associated chord, I call them 3/7 voicings.

The basis of these voicings is that they contain both the third and seventh of the chord, usually with at least one or two other notes as well, and either the third or the seventh is at the bottom.  Because the third and the seventh are the most important notes that define the quality of a chord, these rules almost always produce good sounding results.  Also, these voicings can automatically produce good voice leading, meaning that when they are used in a chord progression, there is very little movement between voicings.  Often, the same notes can be preserved from one voicing to the next, or at most, a note may have to move by step.

For instance, consider a ii-V-I progression in C major.  The chords are Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7.  The simplest form of the 3/7 voicing on this progression would be to play the Dm7 as “F C”, the G7 as “F B”, and the Cmaj7 as “E B”.  Note that in the first chord, the third is at the bottom; in the second chord, the seventh is at the bottom; in the third chord, the third is at the bottom.  Also note that, when moving from one voicing to the next, only one note changes; the other notes stay constant.  This is an important characteristic of 3/7 voicings: when they are used in a ii-V-I progression, or any progression in which root movement is by fourth or fifth, you alternate between the third and the seventh at the bottom.  An analogous set of voicings is obtained by starting with the seventh at the bottom: “C F”, “B F”, “B E”.

Normally, you would use more than just the third and seventh.  Often, the added notes are the sixth (or thirteenth) and ninth.  For example, the C major ii-V-I could be played as “F C E”, “F B E”, “E B D”, or as “F A C E”, “F A B E”, “E A B D”.  The added notes are all sixths or ninths, except for a fifth in the first chord of the second example.  When playing these four note voicings on guitar, any added notes will usually be added above the third and the seventh, or else your voicing may end up containing several small intervals, which is usually possible to play only with difficult hand contortions.  Thus, the C major ii-V-I might be played with four note voicings on guitar as “F C E A”, “F B E A”, “E B D A”.

Note that none of these voicings contain the roots of their respective chords.  It is assumed that the bass player will play the root at some time.  In the absence of a bassist, pianists will often play the root in their left hand on the first beat, and then one of these voicings on the second or third beats.  Actually, you can often get away with not playing the root at all; in many situations, the ear anticipates the chord progression and provides the proper context for the voicing even without the root.  It is not forbidden to play the roots in these voicings, but it is neither required nor necessarily better to do so.

These basic voicings can be modified in several ways.  Sometimes, you may wish to omit either the third or the seventh.  Often, a minor of major chord that is serving as a tonic will be voiced with the third, sixth, and ninth, and these voicings might be interspersed with regular 3/7 voicings. Also, voicings with the fifth or some other note at the bottom can be interspersed with true 3/7 voicings.  This might done for any of several reasons.  For one thing, when played on the piano, note the voicings described thus far all tend to slide down the keyboard as the roots resolve downward by fifth.  The normal range for these voicings is in the two octaves from the C below middle C on the piano to the C above middle C.  As the voicings settle downward, they will start to sound muddy, at which time you might want to jump up.  For instance, if you have ended up on a Dm7 as “C F A B” below middle C, and need to resolve to G7 and then Cmaj7, you might want to play these two chords as “D F G B” and “E A B D” respectively to move the voicing upward while preserving good voice leading.  Also, roots do not always move by fifths; in a progression such as Cmaj7 to A7, you might want to voice this as “G B C E” to “G B C# F#” to preserve good voice leading.

One thing to note about these voicings in the context of a diatonic ii-V-I is that, because the chords imply modes of the same scale (D dorian is the same as G mixolydian is the same as C major), a given voicing can sometimes be ambiguous.  For example, “F A B E” might be either a Dm7 with the seventh omitted, or a G7.  In the context of a modal tune like “So What”, it clearly defines the Dm7 or D dorian sound.  In the context of a ii-V progression, it probably sounds more like a G7.  You can use this ambiguity to your advantage by making one voicing stretch over several chords.  This technique is especially useful when applied to the more general scale based voicings discussed later.

Another thing you can do with 3/7 voicings is alter them with raised or lowered fifths or ninths.  For instance, if the G7 chord is altered to a G7b9 chord, then it might be voiced as “F Ab B E”.  In general, the notes in the voicing should come from the scale implied by the chord.

These voicings are well suited on the piano for playing in the left hand while the right hand is soloing.  They can also be played with two hands, or with all strings on a guitar, by adding more notes.  This provides a fuller sound when accompanying other soloists.  One way to add more notes is to choose a note from the scale not already in the basic voicing and play it in octaves above the basic voicing.  For instance, on piano, for Dm7 with “F A C E” in the left hand, you might play “D D” or “G G” in the right.  In general, it is a good idea to avoid doubling notes in voicings, since the fullest sound is usually achieved by playing as many different notes as possible, but the right hand octave sounds good in this context. The note a fourth or fifth above the bottom of the octave can often be added as well.  For example, with the same left hand as before, you might play “D G D” or “G D G” in the right hand.

The 3/7 voicings are perhaps the most important family of voicings, and many variations are possible.  You should try to practice many permutations of each in many different keys.

Chordal Instruments

The main concerns for polyphonic instruments, or instruments that can easily play more than one note at time, such as piano, organ, guitar, and the various mallet instruments, are voicing chords, reharmonizing, and playing rhythms.

Chord Voicings

In jazz, when the music calls for a Cmaj7 chord, this almost never implies a pianist should play “C E G B”. Usually, the pianist will choose some other way of playing the chord, even if it is simply an inversion of the basic root position chord. There have been entire books written on the subject of chord voicings. The discussion here only scratches at the surface of the possibilities. I have loosely categorized the voicings described here as 3/7 voicings, quartal voicings, polychord voicings, close position and drop voicings, and other scale based voicings.


An accompanist may occasionally reharmonize a chord progression to sustain interest, introduce contrast, or create tension. This involves replacing some of the written or expected chords with other unexpected chords. Substitutions such as the tritone substitution are one type of reharmonization.

Some musicians spend a lot of time trying different reharmonizations when working on a tune. However, unless they tell the soloist what they doing beforehand, many of the reharmonizations they may come up with are not suitable for use in accompanying, since the soloist will be playing from a different set of changes. There are some simple reharmonizations that can be used without disturbing the soloist too much. The tritone substitutionis one example; at any time a dominant seventh chord is called for, the accompanist may substitute the dominant seventh chord a tritone away. This creates exactly the same type of tension that is created when the soloist performs the substitution. Another simple reharmonization is to change the chord quality. That is, play a D7alt in place of a Dm, and so forth.

Another common reharmonization is to replace a dominant chord with a ii-V progression. This was already demonstrated when discussing the blues progression; one of the progressions replaced the F7 chord in bar 4 with a Cm7 – F7. This is especially common at the end of a phrase, leading to the tonic at the start of the next phrase. Most of the scale choices the soloist may have been using over the F7 chord will also work over the Cm7 chord, so this reharmonization doesn’t usually create too much tension. This technique can be combined with the tritone substitution to create a more complex reharmonization. Rather than replace the V with a ii-V, first replace the V with its tritone substitution, and then replace that with a ii-V. For example, in bar 4 of the F blues, first replace the F7 with B7, and then replace that with F#m7 – B7.

Another type of reharmonization involves the use of alternation. Rather than play several measures of a given chord, the accompanist may alternate between it and the chord a half step above or below, or a dominant chord a fifth below. For instance, on a G7 chord, you might alternate between G7 and Ab7, or between G7 and F#7, or between G7 and D7. This is especially common in rock based styles, where the alternation is performed in rhythm. If the alternation is performed regularly, such as throughout an entire chorus, or even the whole tune, the soloist should be able to pick up on it and control the amount of tension produced by playing along with the reharmonization or by playing against it. That is, the soloist can lessen the tension by changing scales as you change chords, or increase tension by keeping to the original scale.

Comping Rhythms

Once you have decided what notes you want to play, you must decide when to play them. You do not want to simply play whole notes or half notes; your accompanying generally should be rhythmically interesting, although not distracting to the soloist or listener.

There are few guidelines that can be given for playing comping rhythms. Because there is very little theory to fall back on, the first piece of advice I can give is to listen to other accompanists. Too often we tend to ignore everyone but the soloist anyhow. Be sure to choose albums that have solo instrumentalists other than the accompanist on them. Pianists to listen to include Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner. Pianists should also listen to guitarists and mallet players; often the constraints of those instruments can lead to ideas you might not have thought of otherwise.

Guitarists should listen to pianists, but also to guitarists such as Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, and Wes Montgomery. Often, guitarists work in tandem with pianists, and their style when there is a pianist in the group may differ from how they play when they are the only chordal accompanists. For instance, some guitarists play only short chords on every beat if there is a pianist providing most of the rhythmic interest. Others will lay out (stop playing) entirely. For this reason, it is especially important to listen to guitarists in several different types of settings.

You should also listen to recordings that do not have any chordal accompaniment, such as any of several Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, or even Ornette Coleman quartet albums. Try to play along with these. This will often be difficult, since the music was recorded with the knowledge that there was no chordal accompaniment, so the soloist and other accompanists generally left little room for a piano or guitar. Practicing accompanying in this type of situation can help you avoid over-playing. Most beginning accompanists, like many beginning soloists, tend to play too much. Just as space can be an effective tool while soloing, it can be even more so when accompanying. Let the soloist work with only the bassist and drummer for a few measures, or longer, every so often. Laying out and leaving the soloist with no chordal accompaniment is sometimes called strolling. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Thelonious Monk often laid out for entire solos.

Sometimes it helps to imagine yourself as a background part in a big band arrangement. When you are comfortable with a particular chord progression, and no longer are having to concentrate fully just on playing the “right” notes, you can concentrate on the rhythmic and even melodic content of your comping. Listen to the horn backings in some big band recordings, such as those of Count Basie, to see how melodic accompaniment can be.

Certain styles of music call for particular rhythmic patterns. For instance, many forms of music before the bebop era used the stride left hand pattern, which consists of alternating a bass note on one and three with a chord voicing on two and four. Many rock based styles also depend on rhythmic patterns, often specific to the individual song. While the Brazilian derived styles such as the bossa nova and samba, as played by most jazz musicians, do not have well-defined comping patterns, other Latin jazz styles, particularly the Afro-Cuban forms sometimes collectively referred to as salsa, use a two measure repeating motif called a montuno. A typical rhythmic pattern is “and-of-one, and-of-two, and-of-three, and-of-four; one, two, and-of-two, and-of-three, and-of-four”. These two measures may be reversed if the underlying drum pattern (see below) is reversed as well. A full description of the role of the piano in Latin jazz and other styles is beyond the scope of this primer. A good discussion can be found in Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book.

The most important aspect of accompanying in most styles is to communicate with the soloist. There are several forms this communication can take. For instance, there is call and response, in which you essentially try to echo back or answer what the soloist has played. This is particularly effective if the soloist seems to be playing short, simple phrases, with pauses between them. If the soloist is working on a repeated rhythmic motif, you can often anticipate the echo and actually play right along with the soloist. Sometimes you can also lead the soloist in directions he might not have tried otherwise. For instance, you might start a repeated rhythmic motif, which might encourage the soloist to echo you. Some soloists like this type of aggressive comping, and others do not. You will have to work out with each soloist how far you may take him.


Accompanying, or comping as pianists often call it, is a vital skill for rhythm section players, because they usually spend more time comping than soloing. An understanding of accompanying is also useful for other instrumentalists, because it can foster better musical communication between the soloist and the accompanists. Pianists are in the unique position of providing much of their own accompaniment, which allows especially tight interaction. Some of the musical devices used by accompanists can also be adapted to be used more directly in solos by any instrumentalist.