Comping With Fourths

Guitarists sometimes fall into “plateaus” or “ruts” as they advance in their playing. One such common “rut” is that of becoming stagnant when playing rhythm parts. (You remember rhythm parts, don’t you? They are the times before and after your solo, right?)

Guitarists often want to know how to grow beyond standard barre chords when they expand their playing outside of rock/blues into jazz or other alternative styles. In this series of lessons, we’ll explore a cool approach to accompanying (often called “comping”) jazzy chord progressions. This approach can be called “harmonizing in fourths” because that is exactly how you derive the chords.

Barre chords are very “heavy” on roots and fifths. These can be the least harmonically “interesting” notes in a chord, and are typically being played by a bassist or other accompanist. With the “fourths” approach, you provide a broader harmonic “space” to other musicians. Your rhythm part supports their solos.

I – Chord Construction:

In this first installment, we’ll learn how to construct the chords and find them on the guitar. In the next installment, we’ll have a look at putting them to use.

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As an exercise, try doing this on your own to find chords harmonized in fourths in other keys.

II – Finding these chords on the fretboard:

For our first exploration, we’ll play all the chords we created from the C major scale using only the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings (B, G, and D strings in standard tuning).

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Play each of these chords and let them ring out. Listen to their unique quality. Compare the sound of these chords to the standard chords (harmonized in thirds) from C major scale. Do you notice the increase in harmonic complexity? They create tension and color when compared to a major or minor chord. These chords might seem a little (or a lot) “off” to you if you are not familiar with extended chord voicings, but in time, your ears will come to hear them as natural and interesting and maybe even preferable.

Now move back and forth among these chords to get a feel for how they create movement. Don’t use a very busy rhythmic pattern yet, just appreciate the motion generated by the harmonic changes.

Lastly (for now), use the open A string as a bass “pedal” or “drone” note and move the chord forms around in an improvised rhythmic “vamp.” This low tone sets the “key” as A minor (the relative minor of C major). The harmonized chords (from the above chart) work nicely to establish an interesting backdrop for soloists.

If you can, record yourself playing this vamp. When you play it back, you can solo over it to get a feel for how much extra “space” this comping style creates. Next time you jam with a friend, try it out and watch their eyes bug out because they didn’t know they could play “jazz.”

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As an exercise, try to find these same chords using only the G, B, and E strings.

Next time we’ll use these chords as replacements for traditional ones in chord changes.

Also check out… Comping With Fourths Part 2