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© 1999 James Walker

Most beginning and intermediate vibes players spend much more time working on soloing than on comping. This is a result of either ignorance (not realizing how much work it will take to develop chordal skills), or a choice to focus on soloing instead of comping. In truth, however, even a basic level of competence in chordal playing will allow one to participate in comping, and will augment what one can do as a soloist.

A significant challenge to vibes players is, given the limited range of the instrument, making voicings sound full and complete. There are several ways to meet this challenge, including:

Guide Tones - the 3rd and 7th of a chord, along with the root, will define the quality of a chord. (The root will usually be provided by the bass player, so it's common practice for comping instruments to omit the root from their voicings.) With just these guide tones, a chord will clearly be identifiable as major, minor, or dominant. Any voicing which contains these two chord tones will thus sound "complete."

Structures - a more advanced concept will allow one to omit either one (or both) of the guide tones from a voicing, so long as the voicing itself is structurally sound. This means that taken on its own, a voicing can be defined as some sort of valid structure, such as stacked fourths, or some sort of triad or seventh chord. An example: for a Gmin9 chord, one might play a voicing of the Dmin7 chord. While the 3rd of the Gmin9 is not present, the structure of the voicing is strong in its own right:

Strong vs. Weak Intervals - it is commonly accepted in music theory circles, that intervals can be ranked from strongest (most consonant) to weakest (most dissonant):

The combination of strong and weak intervals will define the "color" of a chord voicing. Depending what effect you are looking for, different blends of strong and weak intervals will yield different sounds for the same chord. The example here is a nice mix of strong intervals (perfect fifths) with more dissonant ones (seconds, sixths, etc.):


In addition to developing a strong harmonic (vertical) concept, one should also make use of other musical elements, especially melody and texture:

Voice Leading - while it is all well and good to develop nice individual chord voicings, it is just as important that one be able to move from one chord to another. Be aware of the natural tendencies for chord tones to move and resolve; chords are not isolated events, but vertical "snapshot" of moving lines.

Counterlines - harmony doesn't have to be spelled out vertically. Just as an improvised solo line may spell out the harmonic content of a song, a counterline can be used the same way in an accompanimental role. A texture which consists entirely of block chords will become boring and predictable; the melodic content of counterlines can do much to create musical interest and compliment what a soloist is playing.

Textures - Every instrument has idiomatic techniques which can be used to add variety to a performance, whether one is soloing or comping. Many players limit themselves to a combination of single melodic lines (solos) and block chords (comping), when with a little bit of thought and effort, their playing could become much more varied and interesting. Feel free to experiment with idiomatic techniques (the same way a guitarist may use finger-style techniques instead of picking) to explore the possibilities. (Please see my "Classical Techniques for Jazz Mallets" lesson, for some suggestions specific to vibraphone and marimba.)

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