What Does “Comping” Mean?

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“Hey, bass player, can you comp for me?”

Don’t let that word stump you. It simply means accompanying another musician so they can play something over the changes.

Sure thing!

What it means specifically is style-dependent.

  • If it’s a Swing Jazz tune: play a quarter note based walking bass, or half note based half-time feel
  • If its a bossa, samba, rock, pop, funk, etc: play the groove that fits the style/song

Comping is simply what you do as a bass player when others are soloing, playing/singing melodies.
Typically you are not the only one comping – it’s often associated with rhythm section instruments – you may share such duties with guitarists, keyboardists, vibes, drums…

  • It is usually short for “accompanying”;  some claim it’s short for “complementing”.
  • There usually is some element of improvisation involved as you are spontaneously creating a bass line.
  • The function of comping is to outline the changes in a stylistically fitting rhythm and to support the melody or soloist..

You have many options when “comping”

You shape the arc of the song when you comp and as a bass player you have a lot of power to do so effectively while enhancing the story of the music. Your choices require thought and careful creative consideration, but many of the devices you pick are fairly straightforward to actually do.

Here are a few considerations:

Give thought to the overall arrangement – what parts are there in the song?
What purpose does the verse fulfill? The chorus? The breaks? The solos?

Is there a verse that repeats that could benefit from a subtle change the second time around?

Once you have made a creative decision you can – for example – use the following parameters to great effect:

Dynamics (loud/soft)

For example: In Jazz and other improvised music, play softer when a new soloist takes their turn. It gives the soloist space to establish their sound and get a fresh start to build something.

Density (busy versus spacious)

Density refers to how many notes you play in relation to the rhythm of the song; how many rests there are and how fast the notes you play are (e.g. 1/4s vs 1/8ths vs 1/16ths). What is the smallest subdivision and how much of it do you play versus laying out?

For example: the least busy you can be is to lay out completely. Think of the verse of All Right Now by The Free. Andy Fraser opted to (almost) entirely lay out during the verses which raises the energy as soon as he comes (back) in for the chorus.

Range (which register – high/low)

Using the example of All Right Now again, Andy sure has some tasty shifts in the bass range as he comps for the guitar solo. You can break up the part between low and high octaves or you can play one chorus in one register and the next chorus in another. You can follow the soloist where they go (they go high, you go high) or you can compliment them and do the opposite. Listening and reacting is the ticket for creating an interesting and compelling bass line!!

Phrasing (how you connect the notes short/long)

Here, for example, take your cues from the drummer:
High hat? Shorter notes!
Ride cymbal? Let the notes ring!

Complement or Contrast

Whatever is happening in the song – figure out how you can best complement it.

Complementing does not necessarily mean mimicking. Take the kick drum pattern for example… you can complement it by copying some, but not all of its rhythms or contrast it by deliberately leaving many beats to the bass drum only (e.g whole notes against busy funk drums). 

Here is another example: In a blazing-fast swing tune it may be cool to play loud and furiously busy while the sax solo rips those runs – or, – you could do the opposite (discuss with the band/soloist beforehand!) and lay out completely at the height of the soloist’s energy, helping them eke out just one more peak. Because when you come back in after laying out you will undoubtedly help them bring it home successfully.

Comping is powerful…

We have barely scratched the surface here when it comes to the power of comping over the effect of a song. Reharmonization, pedaling, inside/outside playing, using different playing techniques, effects that change your sound (pedal boards)… the sky is the limit.

Take Aways

Take your responsibility seriously when you “comp” – you have the power to help underscore the story of the song/lyrics/melody.

And to be clear: comping is not the only thing a bassist does. When you aren’t comping you may be soloing, playing the melody or an arranged part, or laying out.

Comping. Now you know.

Comp with care!


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