How to Spice Up Your Accompaniment

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How to Spice Up Your Accompaniment

I remember when I was young and started to play, I always used to sit around and play songs that I learned from a real book or something and would just play the straight chords. If there was a D minor chord, I played the one D minor shape I knew over and over again but, after a while, I found this pretty boring. I noticed how jazz guitarists move around, play a lot of chords and always sound interesting when they play accompaniment. I didn’t know how to play that interesting accompaniment that was so nice and beautiful to my ears.

So, now, I want to show you, in this lesson, some short and cool guidelines for moving around with chords when you play accompaniment. We’ll take two songs, Bei Mir Bist Du Schein and Django’s waltz, Montagne Saint Genevieve. Instead of playing just one chord, you can vary it. Add a lot of sounds and bass lines that keep your accompaniment interesting so you can sit alone in your house and just play accompaniment, enjoying the rich sound of the full chords and tensions you create in your harmony.

Your first tool is a simple thing that pianists use all the time – inversions. This just means placing a degree of the chord other than the root in the bass. To make it simple, start with just one inversion.

The first chord in Bei Mir Bist Du Schein is D minor, so instead of playing it from the root, D on the fifth fret of the fifth string (a very common chord), I will play an inversion starting from the flattened third degree (F on the eighth fret of the fifth string, the notes A and D – both with the index finger on the seventh fret of the 3rd and 4th strings and A with the pinky on the tenth fret of the second string). Now, practice moving back and forth between the other minor chord you know, starting on the root, and the inversion as an exercise.

The second chord is Bb – so play BbM7 on the sixth fret (index, ring, pinky, middle finger). Then play an inversion on the third degree (D on the tenth fret of the sixth string, Bb on the fourth string with your index finger, F with your ring finger on the 3rd string and A – the major 7th, with your pinky or with the ring finger on the 2nd string; it may be easier to visualize this chord by putting the D on the first string, but do play it on the sixth string as the bass note). Again, go back and forth between the two Bb chords as an exercise. Then try playing the beginning of Bei Mir Bist Du Shein alternating between the simple chord and the inversion with these two chords and see how much richer it sounds. You can hear that you start to have movement between your chords and it sounds great.

Now for Em7b5, let’s do something different; instead of going to the third degree of the chord, we’ll go to the flattened fifth degree (Bb on the sixth fret of the sixth string, G with the index finger on the 4th string, D with the pinky on the 3rd string and E with the index finger again in a barre on the 2nd string). Once again, treat this as an exercise and practice going back and forth between the regular chord (with the bass on E on the seventh fret of the fifth string) and the inversion (with the bass on Bb on the sixth fret of the sixth string).

Then it goes to A7, and we’ll move to the third degree, but I’ll give you another shape, so you’ll have more shapes under your fingers. I’ll go to C# on the fifth string (the middle finger on the fourth fret, index finger on the second fret of the third string – you can also press on the fourth string if you like- and pinky on E on the fifth fret of the second string). Practice going back and forth between a standard A7 chord with the bass on A on the sixth string and this inversion.

Now you have the whole A part of the song. Play it using the inversions. You can end with a turnaround (Am, C, Bb, A7).

You just learned only one inversion for each chord and your accompaniment suddenly sounds incomparably richer. Try playing just the standard chords and then adding the inversions and listen to the huge difference. If you are accompanying someone, it will be very inspiring for the soloist to play when you accompany like that. You can also create bass lines by emphasizing the bass note and resting on the string below it. Then you can play the bass by yourself when you don’t have a bass player. Imagine how much fun it could be just sitting alone and playing the accompaniment with these varied chords and sometimes emphasizing the bass! And this is only the tip of the iceberg of inversions. There are many inversions, with all kind of tensions, but just learning one for each chord can really improve your playing.

Let me give you another example, over the song, Montagne Saint Genevieve. It’s a beautiful waltz that Django Reinhardt wrote. The chords are Em, Am and B7 – just three chords in the whole A part. I want to make the three simple chords sound fantastic.

So for Em, you can use a simple Em chord with the root on the fifth string and then use the same shape I taught you before for the inversion of Dm, but one tone higher. You can also use the open Em in the first position.
For Am, you have open Am in the first position and the inversion of Am, in the same shape.

For B7, you can use the B7 chord with the root on the sixth string and then use the inversion we talked about for A7 in Bei Mir Bist Du Schein (the third degree on the fifth string). You can also use the old standard rock and roll B7, but start it from the fifth degree on the fifth string. Practice alternating the various B7 chords.
Emphasize the sound of the bass. You can also alternate the bass note some of the positions.

Play it through. How does that compare to just repeating the same chord shape over and over again? It’s a different world and with just a few inversions, you can create that sound.

So you see that playing accompaniment is really like improvisation. It’s not just keeping the rhythm. It’s like you have a few chords in your pocket and you need to pull out something new each time to inspire yourself, so if you have a few different inversions for each chord, you can play with it placing one chord after another and then changing the order and then you emphasize the bass, and then you don’t emphasize the bass – you create a full, rich accompaniment.

Now, I would love to read your comments about this concept of chord inversions.
Did it help you when you just tried it now?

How do you think it will change the way you play accompaniment if you take one month to learn many chord inversions and start using them in your playing?

I’m sure that your comments and my answers will be very helpful for others too, so go ahead and leave a comment below.

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3 Comments
  • Dave Davies
    Posted at 06:36h, 27 September Reply

    Great stuff Yakov! That really opens up the chordal accompaniment to any song…

  • Julian Gurr
    Posted at 15:08h, 29 September Reply

    A great lesson Yaakov. I would love to see you produce a complete, in-depth course on this whole style of accompaniment.

  • Bill P
    Posted at 23:27h, 05 November Reply

    Yaakov, this was the first lesson of yours I saw on your old site. The lesson was simple but effective and introduced me to your engaging style of teaching. I still enjoy reviewing it today and am already plotting how I can add these inversions to my current playing repertoire.

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