When most people think of bossa nova music, they seem to think of paradise: relaxing in front of a beach with a nice drink in hand. Can you blame them?
The music certainly lends itself to relaxation with its lush harmony, beautiful melodies, and relaxed, grooving rhythms.
Bossa nova is a style of music from Brazil that was created in the 1950s fusing Brazilian samba and incorporating elements of American jazz. Composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto brought the sound to light with classic tunes such as "Girl from Ipanema", "Corcovado", "Waters of March", and many more.
In this lesson, we will teach you how you, too, can play some really nice bossa nova comping in a few easy steps!
Our Guide On Reading Rhythms
Before we get started, I would like to point out that there will be audio examples at the end of each section, but if you would like to be able to read these rhythms, you can check out our Reading Rhythms 101 here.
Bossa Nova Comping: Right Hand Technique
As this style relies heavily on the player's articulation, good right hand technique is essential. Brazilian guitarists often play fingerstyle, using their thumb for bass notes and their index, middle, and ring fingers for the chordal stuff.
Once in a while they might use the pinky as well, but it is not common. And if you're anything like me, you might like to use hybrid picking (pick & fingers).
Bossa Nova Comping: Harmonic Approach
The harmonic approach to bossa nova is every bit as intricate as that of American jazz. Composers in the genre use the full range of harmonic devices and extensions.
As far as chord shapes on guitar are concerned, many like to use shell voicings with extensions and drop 2/drop 3 shapes. We have a great resource with all of this information here, but let's go over a few shapes that you can use over the first few bars of "Corcovado" AKA "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars."
If you have gone through some of our comping lessons, you will have seen most or all of these.
Here are the changes for the first few bars:
*Note: Some charts have this as D7/A, but from versions I have heard, it is more of an A-6. The notes are mostly the same except there is no D in A-6.
Bossa Nova Comping: Central Rhythm
This will probably be the most important consideration here. The rhythm in bossa nova is very specific and they take their stylistic considerations very seriously. In fact, if you throw anything Afro-Cuban in there, you might get a dirty look. I have seen this on more than one occasion!
Some players like to leave more space in their comping while others like to have more going on. Whatever the case, the core bossa nova groove must remain.
To my understanding, what is known as the bossa nova guide pattern - something like the "clave" in Afro-Cuban music - is not meant to be a clave at all. It is simply a motif. With that said, there is no denying that plenty of Brazilian music has made use of this motif or some variation of it.
Let's go ahead and discuss what that is for a moment.
The rhythm is often played using a cross stick on a snare drum by a percussionist. Even if you are only a guitar with vocals, however, it is still used as a base for your comping. If you listen to players like Joao Gilberto, you will see that the basic rhythm stays the same, although there are variations.
Bossa Nova Comping: Comping Patterns
Now, let's get into the meat and potatoes of the lesson! We will be providing you with some comping patterns that you can use right away in a bossa nova setting.
Note: These patterns use the Am6 from "Corcovado" as mentioned previously.
The syncopation is the most important thing to note here. Once again, if you need a primer on reading rhythms, you can check out our Reading Rhythms 101 lesson. With that said, I have included audio for each example, but I encourage you to really work on your reading!
When I was first beginning to learn about bossa nova, this was the first pattern I learned. Some players prefer to use more space, but this is a good starting point.
This next pattern is one that I picked up from a live version of "Estate" played by Joao Gilberto. This is a much simpler pattern with more space, but it really makes room for those beautiful Brazilian melodies.
Here, I am only giving you the comping pattern itself. Joao adds a simple little bass line that really makes this come to life. More on that in a moment!
Here is a great pattern that really lends itself to slightly faster tempos. In this pattern, where you see an eighth rest, many players will sort of "scratch" the strings or just kind of smack down to create a percussive effect.
Bossa Nova Comping: Adding Bass Lines
Now let's go ahead and add some bass to some of the previous examples.
In bossa nova, the bass primarily makes use of the root and the 5th of the chord. Rhythmically, it generally tends to stick to half notes with the occasional "pickup" eighth note preceding it.
Adding bass lines to our bossa nova comping really makes the syncopation stand out. This can be tricky at first, so be sure to take things slowly. Rhythmic accuracy is key here!
Here is pattern 1 with some bass added. Notice how sometimes the bass line and the chord land on the same beat, while other times they are separated.
Next, we have pattern 2 with bass. When Joao does this, he keeps it very simple sticking to the root notes in the bass. The simplicity of this pattern really makes his vocal melody stand out.
You probably noticed that I mostly stick to roots here. If you are feeling adventurous, you can try adding some 5ths in there to create some variety. The main principle here is to alternate between the two, playing one beat each.
This might be too much to think about at first, but with some practice it can create some nice bass movement. Always remember, as with anything, use discretion when applying these concepts. Too much of anything can get boring or predictable after a while.
If you're having trouble understanding any of the language used here, we've got you covered with our Comping 101 course here.
From the editor: last edited on August 2, 2019. Fixed grammar/syntax, adjusted headers, added tags, revised meta description. Replaced blurry images with sharper ones.
Jonathan Orriols is a guitar player out of Miami, Florida with 20 years of experience. He writes and performs music in several groups spanning different genres such as jazz, blues, and rock. He also studied composition for film, tv, and games through Berklee’s online program.