Jazz piano players face a double challenge during improvisation.
On the one hand (the right hand) we are to come up with an endless
flow of improvised melodic lines on the spot, and on the other hand
(the left hand) we are expected to accompany our own solo with
appropriate chord notes.
When I first started to learn jazz piano improvisation, I was hopelessly overwhelmed.
Each hand has an incredibly difficult task to master on its own. How on earth would I ever be able to do both things simultaneously?
The good news is that left hand (LH) comping does not have to be very complicated at all to be effective!
Today, I will discuss my favorite left hand comping technique that you can use as a beginner. It is not only simple and easy to play, but also rather beautiful.
As a prerequisite, make sure to brush up on how to identify the root, 3rd, and 7th of a chord. This is the only piece of music theory we need for this.
If you're ready, let's get started!
What is the role of the LH anyways?
While your RH works on improvising melodies over chord changes, what should be the role of your LH?
As an example, let’s look at the following lick over a common chord progression:
I just played the RH here. While I like this little bebop melody a lot, It sounds rather “naked” when played alone.
This is where your LH comes in.
The job of your LH is to accompany your RH. We call this process
comping in short, and we refer to the notes and chords you play as
LH voicings give depth and context to the melody in your RH. The goal is to help the listener understand the chord progression and harmony that underlies a melody.
Thus, whenever you play an improvised melody or lick over a series of chords. You have a chance to embellish the phrase with your LH.
If done right, this will add a new dimension to your solo that makes for a more complete and satisfying musical experience, something like this:
I played a lot of notes in the LH there, maybe even too many!
To keep things simple, we will focus today on the absolute minimum that is required by your LH to add enough context to make your solo sound like a full-fledged piece of music.
To get there, we will build a LH accompaniment from the bottom up by adding in, one after another, the ingredients that build the harmonic context of a chord progression.
If you like, sit down at your piano and follow what I am doing here.
All begins with the root
One of the most important pieces of harmonic context is the root of each chord in the chord progression. This is the letter that is actually written in the lead sheet.
In our case the root notes would be A - D - G - C. Let’s play the roots in the LH:
When you play the bass notes, you start hearing the essential harmonic progression over which our lick is built.
This still seems rather "naked", though. And it doesn’t sound very much like jazz.
We can do better.
Make it jazz: root + 7th
The next harmonic ingredient would be the 7th.
The 7th notes present in most chords are a key element that make music sound “jazzy”.
In our specific example, we would play the following notes:
AG - DC - GF - CBb
A neat trick to create an even more “jazzy” sound is to play the 7th first, followed by the root.
G A - C D - F G - Bb C
Playing only the root and the 7th gives us a lot of harmonic context already.
However, we are still missing some information.
We can do better still!
The secret sauce: root + 7th + 3rd
If we only play the root and the 7th, we can’t tell whether we are playing a minor chord or a major chord.
This is determined by the 3rd, and it is the last piece of harmonic information we need to paint the complete harmonic picture.
At this point, we could play the root, the 7th and the 3rd all together in your LH.
ACG - DF#C - GBbF - CEBb
Let’s try this:
You may notice that this sounds rather awful.
Playing too many notes at once in a narrow range usually sounds
“swampy” and rather unpleasant in lower registers.
It also sounds too thick. Too many notes in the LH take the attention away from the RH!
To cure this, the minimalist approach mandates to play more sparsely.
Less is more!
Since we can’t play all 3 notes at once, the trick is to alternate between the 7th and the 3rd.
In our example, play the 7th for the first chord (Am7) then the 3rd for the second chord (D7), the 7th again for the fourth chord (G7) and the 3rd again for the last chord (C7).
AG - DF# - GF - CE
This has the following result:
And if you play the notes in a top-down sequence like before, you end up with a particularly nice bass line:
G A - F# D - F G - E C
The reason why this sounds a whole lot better is that the alternating 7ths and 3rds create a continuous melody line that walks chromatically downward.
G - F# - F - E
This is the comping recipe I would like you to remember!
The ultimate minimalist comping technique is to alternate root + 7th
and root + 3rd
That’s right, two notes out of each chord do all the magic. This is why we call it a minimalist approach.
Practice how to do this LH line. It works especially well for our example above or for any 2-5-1 chord progressions, which are extremely common!
What to do if there’s a bass player?
If you play in a band, it will be the job of the bass player to hit the root notes of the chords, not your job!
To avoid bringing the bass player’s wrath upon you, a good rule of
thumb is to avoid root notes like the plague.
Fortunately, there is also a rootless minimalist approach that is worth learning.
Here, you only ever use the 7th and 3rd of each chord, which makes this comping technique even simpler!
CG - CF# - BbF - BbE
Here is how this sounds:
And once again, you can make a chromatic downward scale stand out by playing the notes in sequence, this time bottom-up:
G C - F# C - F Bb - E Bb
Less is more
This is the take home message for today.
LH comping does not have to be complicated. On the contrary!
Nowhere is it written that left hand voicings need to be difficult or
overly sophisticated to sound great. Some of the best jazz piano
players of all time have been known to work with extremely minimalist
Of course, there is a plethora of other LH comping techniques that you will eventually learn about. Here are a few you can look up:
- Walking bass
- Stride piano
- Shell voicings
- Rootless voicings
The 3-note minimalist technique we looked into today is ideal for you if you are just starting out on your journey to becoming a jazz piano player.
Whenever you pick up a new lick or a piece of musical vocabulary, learn to play it "naked" first in your RH, and once you have the melody nailed down, add a minimal LH line.
You will get more comfortable with this over time, and at some point your LH will be able to play a minimalist comping line without thinking.
Remember that all you ever have to play in the LH are 2 chord notes. Easy!
From there on, you will be in a great position to make real progress.
Your LH will be automated, however minimally, and you can focus more of your mental energy on mastering your RH skills, like improvisation.
Keep it simple and have fun playing!