by Scott Houston
In live workshops and on my weekly TV series, I repeat this phrase regularly when describing the non-classical playing. I teach: “Play chords with your left hand and the melody line with your right.”
However, it seems that many of my viewers get a bit confused when they then see me or other players actually playing tunes. They say, “I play the chords with my left hand and hold them down until I get to the next chord symbol, and it starts sounding kind of boring. When you play, your left hand is playing a lot more than one chord. What are you doing?”
The answer is we’re “comping.” Comping (which is derived from the word accompanying) means simply playing chords in an interesting rhythmic pattern instead of just holding them down for the prescribed length of time. There is no right or wrong pattern to play because you can improvise. Sometimes you can use a repetitive pattern, sometimes not—it depends on what you think sounds best.
The beauty of comping is that it gives you a huge “bang for your effort’s buck.” It makes your playing sound more professional with minimal effort. That’s because your left hand isn’t really doing anything different note-wise than it was before. You don’t have to physically change your left hand position at all.
Whatever chord (or voicing of the chord) you were using is still fine; it’s just that you now will be playing with short rhythmic patterns rather than holding the chord down for the whole measure.
Let me give you a few quick examples to show you how to comp on piano like a pro. We’ll move from no comping at all to fairly interesting comping in four easy steps. We’ll use “Jingle Bells” so you can visualize what I’m talking about, and I’ll notate the left hand in the bass clef, even though you would never find this in a lead sheet.
Lead sheet music for “Jingle Bells”
No comping – just holding down chords once per symbol
Playing a Steady Rhythm – Let’s play each chord in a steady pattern of quarter notes
A “Horn Section” pattern – let’s pick a rhythm that imitates a big band born section
Playing non-repeating “Stabs” – this is more like “comping” as played by pros