Some thoughts on bop
The guitar didn’t
figure very prominently in the development of bebop, probably because the
guitar had formerly been so heavily associated with the swing/big band rhythm
section. The heavy “four-on-the-floor” feel most guitarists were
accustomed to providing was the antithesis of what boppers wanted. Most
influential bop groups had a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.
As a result, when we as
guitarists are faced with the necessity of filling the accompaniment role in a
bop setting, we’re often at a loss. We have few models on which to base
our approach… unless we listen to piano players. Once we pull out a few
Charlie Parker records and listen to what pianists such as Bud Powell and Duke
Jordan played behind Bird and Diz, we begin to get some ideas about how to comp
in that style. Here are a few observations I’ve made through listening:
- Space is everything! In bop playing,
“chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk” is simply not appropriate. Think of
the chords you play as being more like interjections during a
Soloist: “I went to Jack’s party last
Soloist: “I’ve never seen so many gorgeous
girls in my life.”
Comper: “Oh, really?”
- Big five-and-six-string barre chords with lots
of doubling are totally wrong for this music. Bud Powell, arguably the
greatest bop pianist, would often strip a chord voicing down to just two
notes! Put in the right place at the right time, two notes can sound huge.
- Pay special attention to the note you put on
top of a chord voicing. Once you get familiar with enough voicings, your
“top line” can become a very simple form of counter-melody.
Its rises and falls can create interest in their own way.
- Avoid putting a melody note on top of your
voicing; that tends to clutter up the sound and invites intonational
clashes with the soloist.
- Bop compers often avoid playing on the
downbeat, preferring to let the soloist have the opportunity to
“lead”. (This is especially so on uptempo tunes.)
- The root and the fifth are two tones which can
often be omitted from voicings, especially if they’re omitted in
favor of “color tones” like the 13th or 9th or
alterations (b9, #9, +5).
- Be careful in your use of alterations on
dominant chords. Listen to the soloist; different players have different
approaches to dominant harmony. Some like to alter heavily; others
don’t. If your soloist is “laying on” a natural 9th
and you’re “laying on” a 7#9 chord, that’s not
going to sound too good! Also, if the soloist is playing a lot of altered
9ths, maybe you don’t need to be playing those tones and could avoid
- The overall feel of good bop comping is light
and propulsive, never heavy or sluggish. Make your attacks focused and
decisive… without excessive volume. Nothing kills the feel of a bop
groove like overly loud, insensitive playing.
- Interaction is a crucial part of your job when
you’re comping. Listen to the overall sound of the band, not just
what you’re playing. Find things to do which add something
worthwhile to the music. Often, the thing the music needs most is for you
not to play! I’ve analyzed some examples of the comping of famous
bop pianists and found that the amount of silence in a chorus can be
80%…or even as much as 100%!