Guitar Comping - Part 1: Chunking

Comping, which is short for accompanying, is a term used to describe playing an improvised, chordal accompaniment part in the context of a jazz performance.

While a lot of the elements of a successful comping part are improvised by the performer, there is usually a harmonic and rhythmic context which fits the song and style being performed. In this lesson, we’ll cover one of the most common rhythms that jazz guitarists use to comp for swing grooves.

Technique #1 - “Chunking” 

“Chunking” is a term used to describe a style of strumming where a guitarist plays a steady quarter note groove with emphasis placed on note length and dynamic contrast. This style of playing has been used for decades by many different guitarists, but it is most often credited to Freddie Green (0:21) who is widely known for playing with the Count Basie Orchestra. 

The most important features of the swing guitar chunk (0:24) are the shortness of the notes—achieved by gently lifting the left hand between strums—and the accents on beats 2 and 4, which should be significantly louder than beats 1 and 3.

Another very important element is that the strings which are not being held down should be muted with the fingers on your left hand. This allows you to strum four or more strings to create a loud percussive sound while only sounding two or three notes. A wonderful example of this can be found in the online lesson with Staff Sgt. Jonathan Epley (0:30), the first four bars of which are shown here:  

You may notice the use of shell voicings in the examples above—this is very typical when playing in this style. This keeps the emphasis on the 3rd and 7th of the chords and thins out the texture to allow for maximum rhythmic power without adding too much harmonic information. 

Close examination of Freddie Green’s style shows that he often played on only the D or D and G strings while comping. One reason for this is that on an archtop guitar the tension is highest on the D and G strings, and higher tension produces more volume. Freddie Green performed without an amp for the majority of his career.

Here is an example of the “chunking” technique on a 12 bar blues in the key of Bb.

Remember to use a full strum and mute the strings you are not holding down so that you get a big, percussive sound that locks with the bass to drive the music forward. You might also notice that the hand movements from chord to chord are pretty close, this is intentional and will be discussed in more detail in future lessons.

“Playing good changes should be just as rewarding as playing a solo.” - Joe Pass

“Keep some continuity in your voicings, don’t play chords that aren't connected in some way, either through a pedal tone or through close voice leading.” - Joe Pass

Both of these quotes come from a wonderful instructional video by the legendary jazz guitarist Joe Pass. Check it out to hear this technique as well as extensive use of shell voicings on the 12 bar blues.