How To Be A Great Accompanist

Focus on the other player (s)

It doesn’t matter how many chords you know. You focus on the other player. Some people like it when you give them the basic chord, some like it when you mess around with the harmony, some like it when you react to what they do, some like it when you anticipate what they may or may not do, some like it when you take an antagonistic approach to playing together, some like to be pushed, some like it when they don’t like it, some like going into strange places, some like it to sound correct, some like it when you leave gaps, some like it when you play in the gaps, some like whatever you do, some like it when you don’t divide things up like this as they think it’s an unnatural way of looking at a complex process, etc., etc., etc.

How do you know?

You listen. You listen to the other player (s). You listen, and you give up trying to impose anything other than focusing on the other player and then playing what feels right.

And it may or may not work.

The point is, if you do it that way, you learn stuff about the people that you play with. If you play your ‘hot shit’ you learn nothing; you’ll already know what you’re going to sound like because you worked all day on drop-2 voicings, or something.

Picture this

You’re lined up to play 10 duos with different people. One approach, quite common, is maybe for you to have been refining some harmonic system, or a linear approach, whatever, and when you get the chance to play you can try it out. Another approach is to just put all your attention on the other player – listen and respond. You do this with all the duo partners. At the end of the first approach, you’ve tried all your stuff out and probably gotten a bit better at it. At the end of the second approach, if you’ve really listened, you’ve stolen everything the other player did – or maybe you heard one thing in each of the duos. One thing is enough to spark a hundred ideas, maybe you heard two things, maybe you heard things you’d like to avoid. Point being, you get tons of ideas, you get better at listening, the music is better, the other person enjoys it more (who doesn’t like to be listened to?), and it’s exciting. That’s the selfish argument for putting all your attention on the other player :)

This is the reason I hate backing tracks so much – they train you to just listen to yourself you band-in-a-box-ireal-dr-bass self-loving ego maniac ;)

Also, the question, ‘what’s your strategy for improvising?’, or ‘what scales do you use?’, etc. Same thing. Bit like saying, let’s go to the pub to hang out, and someone asking, ‘what’s your strategy for the conversation?’ and ‘what words will you use?’. How the hell do I know?? We haven’t even spoken yet.

Ranting. Sorry. Anyway, back to the business…

How do you focus on the other player?

One way is to literally focus on the other player. Using a visual connection can focus your listening and attention, as well as providing important visual clues as to what’s happening musically. Some people like to close their eyes. Maybe one eye open is the answer ;)

If you know someone pretty well, try to lock eye contact when you play. It can be quite weird to do that as it feels so intrusive, but try it.

Say you want to lock in with the time-feel – maybe look at the drummer’s hi-hat or ride-cymbal beat, or maybe the bass player’s fingers. Maybe if you’re playing duo, look at each other’s fingers. Just try stuff, see what happens.

Also try this kind of thing when you’re soloing. It can get you out of that ‘Stand Back – I Am Emoting’ vibe. Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional messianic moment (read – entire gig) of glory-laden fretboard heroics.

Yeah, actually forget everything I just said. Turn that wind machine on and deploy the licks of doom…