Too often advice about how to ‘comp’ on drums offers up patterns, patterns and more patterns. Rarely does the advice point to musical phrasing or how other musicians approach comping (e.g. piano or guitar). So let’s abandon the idea of tossing in a few memorized patterns on the snare drum with the hope that it will somehow fit the music. What you usually end up with is what I call scrambled eggs. (And to be honest, I’ve scrambled plenty of eggs in my time.)
Tunes are built on the concept of a phrase or statement, and musical statements typically are short: two bars. The reason for this is quite practical -- a singer or horn player can usually muster up enough lung power for about two bars. Song structures have evolved to take advantage of this two-bar ‘limit’ by adding another two bars (for taking a breath and perhaps a bit of meditation) following the musical statement or idea. So the four-bar phrase is your basic music building block.
Consider this well-known blues:
Every day, every day I have the blues [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ]Notice that it takes two bars to say or sing each line. The 12-bar blues structure adds another two bars -- represented by [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ] -- to make each line a four-bar phrase. Three sets of 4 bars = 12 … very tidy.
Oh every day, every day I have the blues [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ]
When you see me worryin' baby, yeah it's you I hate to lose [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ]
So, how would a drummer ‘comp’ effectively to this sort of pattern?
K.I.S.S.One approach to comping (i.e. complementing) is to simply play time, perhaps adding some snare on 2 or 4 or both. You stay out of the way but add some impetus with a back-beat.
Another technique is to interpret the rhythm of the phrases. Once you’ve learned the tune, see if you can play the phrases on the drums. Don’t try for a literal rendition. Just, play some of the major ‘shots’ -- the notes that stand out in each phrase -- being careful not to crowd the lead instrument.
Call & Response
An even more liberal technique of comping is to ‘play in the spaces’ … counterpunching, if you will. For example, after the phrase is sung or played, you have the better part of two bars -- the [ 2,3,4 | 1,2,3,4 ] -- where you might fit in something that complements (compliments?) the preceding line. This is neither as simple nor as difficult as it sounds. Your patterns can and should be drawn from the phrasing of the tune. Just be sure to pare it down so you don’t come across as too busy. And above all, listen to how your patterns sound within the music.
The most advanced method, and the one that some of the greatest players use, is to play alongside the soloist. These players create lines and patterns to the point that it can’t really be called comping any more. I like to compare it to traditional or Dixieland jazz when the band does ‘group improvisation’, with each lead instrument improvising at the same time. A great practitioner of this is Elvin Jones. Elvin doesn’t exactly comp the soloist; he seems to be playing his own complementary tune alongside.