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How to Comp Like Ed Bickert

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JGT contributor Zakk Jones provides a lesson on what he believes is some of the greatest guitar comping you’ll ever find.

Getting hip to Ed Bickert (1932 – 2019) was one of the greatest things that happened to me musically. I’ll never forget one night when a gaggle of us jazz students were hanging and some of the older cats were going on and on about this Canadian guitarist that played a telecaster. They were going back and forth, arguing their case as to what part of the neck he was actually playing on or which notes were in what voicings. Catching wind that I had never heard this guy in my life, they berated me and sent me home with some serious listening to do. The first record I was told to check out was “Pure Desmond”, with Paul Desmond, Ed Bickert, Connie Kay and Ron Carter. The album starts right out of the gate with Ed’s signature lush voicings and within minutes I was hooked for life.

While Ed might not be a household name for every jazz fan, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t love his playing–lush chord voicings, perfectly sculpted solos, a relaxed and unwavering swing feel…he has it all, and then some. Besides his great work with Paul Desmond in the mid 70’s, he had a decades long musical relationship with valve trombonist and big band leader Rob McConnell. There’s one album that’s always stuck with me, “Trio Sketches” featuring Ed, Rob McConnell and Neil Swainson on bass. This unassuming trio record from 1993 is chock-full of incredibly spirited improvisations, hip arrangements of under-the-radar standards, and some of the greatest guitar comping you’ll ever find. Ed’s ability to support any musician is unparalleled, and in this lesson video I use three examples from this record to highlight the three elements of his comping that I think set him apart. It’s incredibly important to spend more time actively working on becoming a better accompanist (or, complementor), because what are you going to be doing 80% of the time on the bandstand? Not soloing, that’s for sure! 

Melody

There’s a great anecdote that I’ll probably butcher but it basically goes like this:

Ed legitimately knew thousands of tunes, so calling something he didn’t know was quite rare. Apparently, so the tale goes, a saxophonist happened to want to play a song he didn’t know. So he writes the changes out so they can play the tune, and after the saxophonist takes his solo he looks to Ed who declines to take a chorus. Afterwards the sax player asked Ed “how come you didn’t blow?”. Ed’s reply was simply “well, how can I take a solo if I don’t know the melody”?

Nothing was more important than melody to Ed, and it’s quite clear from his playing that this is the case. Not only does he have an incredible way of playing melodies, he is always comping with melody in mind. One of the biggest things that sets his chordal playing apart is that it is incredibly singable. No matter what degree of complexity is happening with the harmony, his approach to comping is simply playing melodies that support and interact with the soloist. The timbre of his telecaster in combination with a hybrid-picking approach really makes the top note sing. Of course, the way he harmonizes these chordal passages are incredibly deep, but at the end of the day it’s his never-ceasing attention to melody that makes his comping so memorable and effective. Hell, he even had a record called “I Like to Recognize the Tune”

Rhythmic Variety

In my opinion the biggest difference between good comping and great comping is a rhythmic variety. It’s easy to forget that we are providing a rhythmic backdrop for soloists, in addition to conveying harmonic information. And of course, no matter how hip your voicings are, if they aren’t in time, what’s the point! Ed is no slouch with his rhythmic abilities, and he uses a wonderful mix of longer pads, syncopations, triplets, rhythmic motifs and much more. You’ll find many small group recordings without drums or bass, and Ed has no problem driving the bus with his indefatigable time feel. If Ed’s voicings are hard to pick out (they often can be), just transcribe the rhythms and you’ll have a gold mine of fantastic material to apply in any setting you’re comfortable with. 

Harmonic Density

Of course, those that know Ed’s playing really go nuts over his incredible harmonic palette. While I plan to do some lessons covering his voice leading approaches, there’s something bigger that makes his playing undeniably “Ed”. He always had a masterful command of dense harmonic content, while also not being afraid to use “basic” triads and smaller voicings. This element of his approach made sure that there wasn’t TOO much information all the time, which is an important consideration when you’re comping for someone. Oddly enough, some of the most difficult passages I’ve transcribed from Ed ended up being seemingly simple triads and voicings I already knew well. As I mentioned before, the timbre of his guitar and the extraordinary way he played the instrument really does produce so much color and harmonics that you could swear there’s about 4 more notes than he’s actually playing! In addition, his note choice in each voicing is extremely deliberate, often switching between stretchy closed-voicing “grips” (as he called them), triads, various drop 2 or drop 2/4 chords or any other number of possibilities. His usage of the entire range of the instrument is also a huge part of his ability to blend and support anyone whether it’s Frank Rosolino, Rosemary Clooney, Rob McConnell or Paul Desmond. 


There is a lot more I can say, but I hope this lesson gives you some insight into his comping, and the elements that I believe make it so darn perfect. I’ll leave you with three great records to listen to that feature the one and only Ed Bickert:

Trio Sketches – Rob McConnell, Ed Bickert, Neil Swainson (1993)

Thinking About You – Frank Rosolino (1976)

Song In My Heart – Ed Bickert and Jane Hall (1985)

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