9 December 2013

The Column: Terry Pack – The View From The Bottom

Comping bass solos: some suggestions for pianists, guitarists and drummers


    Something that rarely gets discussed (until after the first set on a gig, occasionally) is what kind of accompaniment the bass player would like behind his/her solos. When it  comes to accompanying singers and soloists, pianists and guitarists usually have the support of a bass player (and often a drummer), so that they can be harmonically and rhythmically sparse if they choose to be so. The harmony and the pulse will be taken care of, since the bass player will usually state the root notes and chord tones, and play a regular rhythmic pattern. This is also the case when they solo in a duo or trio format, with the bass player stating the time and the harmony.

    When the bassist takes a solo, however, many pianists, guitarists and drummers are uncertain as to how to provide accompaniment. This is understandable: the bass is 'quiet', it doesn't project as a treble instrument does, and its tone is dark, especially in its lower registers, so that there's a risk of the piano or guitar masking the bass player's ideas if his/her comping is too loud, or his/her chord voicings are too low or too 'dense'. Then there's the question of what, when and even whether or not to play: some pianists and guitarists take the option of not playing at all. Some bass players like this, but I don't find this approach very helpful. I like to hear the sound of the chords, and I like to react to the 'comments' of the accompanist(s), so that my 'solo' is more of a duet or trio. With no chords or rhythm to react to, I find myself explicitly stating both the time and the harmony when I'd like to be free to focus on melody.

    When and what to play? Some chord players like to play on beat one, so that the harmony is stated and the soloist can react to the sound. I like this approach, since I like to respond to the sound I hear, though it can sound a little flat, rhythmically, if this is their only approach. Others prefer to punctuate and react to the soloist's ideas. I like this, too, as long as the punctuations are rhythmically clear and the 'comments' apposite and supportive. If not, such interventions can be very off-putting, a bit like someone interrupting in the middle of a sentence!

    In addition to the rhythmic and harmonic information provided by the accompanists, there is the question of relative volume. Bass solos are, by their nature, a lot quieter than those of horn players. The challenge for the accompanist(s) of a bass solo is to play quietly enough for the bass to be heard, without losing energy and focus. This is difficult for all players, and is a particular problem for drummers. I've encountered several ways of dealing with this: some drummers just stop. Thanks! There are better options: some continue to click their hi-hats on 2 and 4, while changing from sticks to brushes. Some play lightly with one stick whilst swapping to brushes and some continue playing with sticks, and others play with their hands or fingers. I don't mind which approach is used, the important things for me are that the comping should be quiet enough for me to project above, that it should be rhythmically clear, and that it should have the same intensity as the rest of the tune.

    In short, then, what I want from drummers, pianists and guitarists by way of accompaniment to my solos is the same as I try to provide behind theirs: rhythmic (and harmonic) clarity, sensitive interaction and a level of energy and focus which makes it easy for them to play. For my part, as the soloist, I try to give them melodic ideas which are clear in terms of rhythmic and harmonic content, and a narrative thread: something coherent to respond to, and not just a series of licks or poorly-executed phrases which are hard to interpret.

    Comping is an art, and comping behind a bass solo requires great skill and sensitivity, which is what we all aspire to.


Thanks for reading,



(depping for Eddy)

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