Chord Communication, Comping, Voice-Leading, and Some Theory

Chord Communication

Whenever you’re in a situation where you need to spell out a specific chord voicing to another musician, you always want to spell out the notes from lowest to highest in order.

This might seem “common sense”, yet it’s interesting how often I hear musicians spell the notes out of order (or from high to low) in a specific chord they would like another musician to play.

Always spell out chord notes from lowest to highest note.

Communicating chord inversions

I never ever use the terminology “1st, 2nd, 3rd etc… inversion”

I instead always communicate chord inversions by saying:

Play this Cmaj7 (or whatever) chord from the 3rd (or I say: “with the 3rd in the bass)
Play this Dm7 chord from the 5th (or I say: with the 5th in the bass)

Rather than saying:

Play this Cmaj7 chord 2nd inversion or 3rd inversion.

I always use the language that is the most direct, the simplest, and the clearest.

Calling something “2nd inversion” is much less clear, and conceptually much more abstract than simply saying “with the 5th in the bass”

The clarity in terminology makes communication clearer and more simple.
It leaves less room for miscommunications, costs less time, and speeds up workflow and productivity.

All that being said, you do want to know that there is no “6th inversion” or “7th inversion”
I’ve heard students say “7th inversion” when they meant “7th in the bass”.
There are not enough notes in a chord for 7 inversions to be possible.

You want to memorize following though:

Root in the bass = root position
3d in bass = 1st inversion
5th in bass = 2nd inversion
7th in bass = 3rd inversion

Comping Styles

Let’s say you have this chord progression:

Cmaj7 | Am7 | Dm7 | G7

You can play through this chord progression 2 ways

  1. You can voice lead all the chords.

    You are weaving a tapestry of sound, only moving the notes that need to move from chord to chord.
    You can learn more about voice leading here:

  2. You can move around/play more freely, playing x number of inversions per bar/measure

    With this comping approach, your chords sound less connected (no longer voice-led), but your comping sounds more rhythmic and more colorful.
    It sounds more colorful because you are moving around more (between inversions)

    The way this works:

    In the first bar, you play 2 or more Cmaj7 chord inversions
    In the 2nd bar, you play 2 or more Am7 chord inversions
    In the 3rd bar, you play 2 or more Dm7 chord inversions
    In the 4th bar, you play 2 or more G7 chord inversions

This is more challenging: you really need to know all your chord inversion well to be able to do this.
After all: you only have the space of 4 beats to fit in a couple of inversions, before the music moves on to the next chord.

Jazz guys use the term “comping” a lot.
It means: jazz rhythm playing.
It’s short for: “accompanying”

Approach Chords

You approach a chord you wanted to play,

  1. Starting the shape from 1 fret below, and then sliding it up a fret. (This of course doesn’t work with open string chords)
  2. You could also do this from 1 fret above the chord (sliding down a fret)
  3. You could also combine: above below into it, or below above into it
  4. You could also approach a chord from 2 frets above or below

This adds more motion and color to a chord progression. It also helps the groove or swing feel.

Approach chords are usually played at the end of the beat preceding the beat that the target chord is on.
For example, if you need to hit a G chord on beat 1 of the following bar, first play F# on the “and” of beat 4 and move up a half step to G on the following beat.

Next week we’ll cover how to use chords you already know, to create maj9, 9 and m9 chords.


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