A while back I was playing a monthly gig at a jazz club here in New York City, and afterwards the pianist came up to me (I’m a guitarist) and said: “Man, we’re really able to play well together, and even when you comp when I’m comping, it works!”

What a compliment! I’m not telling you this to stroke my ego, but rather because I know that it took me a while to get to that point. It wasn’t always so graceful!

The thing is, if you’re a guitarist or pianist (or another main accompaniment instrument), you know that playing together can be tough. Especially when it comes to comping, guitarists and pianists notoriously step on each others toes, creating a big muddy mess of a sound, which in fact, defeats the purpose of accompanying the soloist entirely!

I’ve witnessed many a gig or jam session where the pianist and guitarist were clearly annoying each other to no bounds; playing over top of each other, comping at the same time…etc. Oh, the nasty looks I’ve seen exchanged!

In fact, years ago I was at a jam session and after I was done taking my solo I had a “wise idea”. I was going to comp for the pianist! Wouldn’t that be fun, new and creative! But as soon as the pianist heard me start to comp for his solo, he stopped playing, gave me a nasty scowl, and yelled over the bass and drums: STOP COMPING! “That entitled piano-playing bastard!” I thought to myself. But I certainly learned my lesson that day.

I learned how to play jazz from piano players and with piano players. My first jazz mentor was a piano player, and one of my closest friends when I started playing jazz was a piano player. I used to play a weekly duo gig with a pianist, and for some reason I’ve always kept my piano playing friends close. I love playing with them!

I don’t see the piano and the guitar as each others arch-nemesis. I see them as two instruments that can sound really great together, as long both are willing to accept the fact that they aren’t the boss.

I’m going to list out some musical scenarios where a pianist and guitarist can either fight each other or allow beautiful music to be created. Let’s dive in:

1. A horn player is taking a solo and there is a piano and guitar player in the band.

Both are chordal comping instruments, but does that mean that both instruments should be comping at the same time? No!

Now guitar players, you’re not going to like this, and this might make some of you upset. But remember, I’m a guitar player so it’s not like I’m being biased. Here’s my rule:

When a piano player is in the band, let him/her be the default comper.

I can already hear the screams of rage. But the truth is, the piano is a very full, bright instrument. It was practically made for playing luscious chords, and its timbre cuts through the band so well. Personally, when a piano player is in the band I prefer to hear them comp! There is a time and a place to be an accompanist, and a time and a place to be a soloist.

Guitar players: allow yourselves to be horn players for the night.

Now that doesn’t mean guitarists can’t comp at all. Try playing some counterpoint, single note lines during the melody. You can do small ornamental things without stepping on the piano players toes and creating a big muddy sound.

Sometimes stylistically, it can be appropriate for both instruments to comp at the same time. Think about Herb Ellis in the Ray Brown Trio. Playing “Freddie Green” style is a more repetitive rhythmic way of playing that won’t clash with the piano. But of course, it’s not always appropriate to play that style!

Piano players: let the guitar players comp sometimes!

Every once in a while at my monthly gig I was mentioning before, the piano player will give me a little nod and I know what that means: he wants me to take over accompaniment for the next soloist. Great! That can add a different texture to the music, and change things up a bit. The bottom line is: serve the music, not yourself. If you think the music needs something different, and that requires you to stop playing, than do it. In fact sometimes no one should be comping at all! Or maybe if you notice the guitar player is itching to comp a bit, be generous.

Guitarists and pianists can comp at the same time, but at their own discretion. If it does happen, one needs to take a primary accompaniment role, and the other needs to be more ornamental and sparse.

2. The piano player is taking a solo.

Guitar players: in general, pianists want to accompany themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. Again, the piano is made for playing chords and melody at the same time. It’s completely natural. Pianists also sometimes like to take liberties with the harmony, but it’s not going to work if you are layering your guitar voicings on top of it. Of course it always depends on the stylistic context, but in general just don’t play! It’s a tough one to swallow, but they don’t need you.

Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t do some ornamental, or rhythmic figures from time to time. Use your ear, and listen for what the music needs. If it doesn’t need it, don’t play it.

Piano players: Have you ever considered having a guitar player comp for your solo and just use single note lines? It could help you approach your solo a bit differently. Just a thought…

3. The guitar player is taking a solo.

Piano players: Since most of you believe you are the Kings and Queens of chordal instruments, you just assume the guitar player wants you to comp for them. But hold on one second! Many guitarists are used to playing in trios just as much as you are. Guitarists technically don’t need you to comp for them either! They are completely capable of taking care of themselves despite only having one hand to make chord and note choices.

Often, guitarists will want you to comp for them, because they just like to take advantage of having a piano player around. But use your ears. If a guitarist starts comping for his or herself, stop playing, otherwise you could be standing in their way. If a guitarist reaches a point in the solo where he or she starts playing chords, use your ears. It could mean you play sparsely and more rhythmically, or it could mean you stop playing altogether. Just remember, guitarists are chordal instruments too.

Guitar players: If there is a piano player present, it means you should be playing differently than if you were the only comping instrument. Take advantage of having the piano there and try to act more like a horn player if it is appropriate. Playing with piano players is fun! Playing from the perspective of a horn player can have a very liberating effect on your playing.

In conclusion:

Guitarists and pianists are not enemies! They can work really well together, but it takes some compromise between the two. As a rule of thumb, just serve the music and not yourself. If you are doing that, you will have tossed out your ego and will be willing to do whatever makes the band sound best.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

5 COMMENTS

  1. Nice article, Brent. In my neck of the woods, the guitar players and piano players seem to have no clue about this: they both comp away and it usually just sounds like mud. I'm a trumpet player but learning to play jazz piano.

  2. Thanks for your great blog. Several years ago at Stanford Jazz Workshop, Peter Bernstein and pianist Bennett Pastor demonstrated playing together in a rhythm section. I made a comment that as a pianist, I would sometimes rather play with a singer than a guitarist to which Peter said that was such a cold harsh thing to say. I elaborated my issues touching on many of the same things in your blog but also my frustration with volume/dynamics which extends to all instruments and basically comes down to listening to the group. Needless to say, every time Peter would see me, he'd laugh because of my initial comment. With piano & guitar, less is more.

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