This week I’m going to be talking about the difference between driving the bus and riding the bus – but don’t worry, we aren’t taking a detour into public transport.

By focusing your ears on the tricks used by great musicians to seamlessly shift attention between different instruments we will unravel some of the mysteries of arranging and find common ground between such diverse genres as jazz, soul and hard rock.

Hail To The Bus Driver

Way back when I was still at university I attended a jazz gig put on by some students of the Birmingham Conservatoire. Now there was no doubt the band was cooking; the pianist in particular had a ferocious style, dropping Bach-influenced baroque flourishes into jazz standards. Despite the virtuosity on display something was amiss that as a jazz novice I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When they played their interpretation of the wonderful Miles Davis track “So What” it seemed crowded and claustrophobic, where the original was airy and free.

“They didn’t know who was driving the bus” interjected a stranger as we discussed it in the bar afterwards. I was confused; but he looked every bit the finger clicking, Jean Paul Sartre reading hep cat so I asked him to explain.

“They know how to solo, but they don’t know how to comp. You’ve always gotta know who’s driving the bus, and who’s riding the bus.”

I must confess this didn’t make a great deal of sense to me either, but I made mental note to unravel the mysteries of “comping” and “riding the bus”…

The Complex art of Comping

What is the Dorian Mode?

If you aren’t familiar with “modes” you can think of the Dorian Mode as the white notes of a piano played from D to D, or a Natural Minor with a Major 6th. And if that doesn’t help listen to pretty much any Carlos Santana solo (but rather you than me).

“Comping” it turns out is short for accompanying, but it might just as well be short for complementing. When a jazz musician solos, a chordal instrument (usually a piano or guitar) will play chords under the melody, setting a harmonic context for the improvisation. The true skill of comping is to learn how to listen while you play, matching the chords to the melody.

  • Example Track: Miles Davis – So What

Take a track like “So What”: it has no tightly defined chord sequence and is based around the Eb and D Dorian modes. When the structured introductory section gives way to Miles’ lyrical solo at 1:30 Bill Evans masterfully improvises clipped piano chords, setting the mood without stepping on the trumpet’s toes. Piano players aren’t the only ones who comp; listen to the way drummer Jimmy Cobb accents beats to emphasize the boisterous and carefree saxophone melody from 5:45 onwards.

Magic Bus?

Booker T & The MGs

When skilled musicians play together a lot they develop something almost akin to a psychic link. One of the greatest examples in the history of popular music is Booker T and the MGs, the house band of Stax Records. They played on dozens of hit records for the likes of Sam & Dave (the line “Play it Steve” in Soul Man refers to Cropper) and Otis Reading, but are best known for the instrumental tracks “Green Onions” and “Soul Limbo” – or “the BBC cricket music” as it is known in Britain!

The origin of the phrase “Driving the bus” took me a little longer, but a spell playing guitar in a funk/soul band was just the education I needed. In an 8-piece band with keys and horns it’s very easy for the music to become a mess, and musical clutter seldom gets bums off seats or backs off the wall. In a funk band it is essential that every musician understands who is “driving the bus”: that is, the musician who is acting as a focal point for the audience. It’s often the vocalist or a player taking a solo, but it equally could be a great guitar riff or keyboard hook. A professional musician knows that when they are riding the bus their job is to ditch the ego and use their ears to make the bus driver sound good. You should expect nothing less in return when the roles are reversed!

  • Example Track: Booker T. & The MGs – Green Onions (Single/LP Version)

Soul musicians comp in much the same way as jazz musicians, albeit usually around simpler repeating chord structures. Listen to the first 30 seconds of Booker T & the MGs’ classic 12 bar blues instrumental “Green Onions” and you will hear guitarist Steve Cropper playing tight staccato chords (not unlike Bill Evans part in “So What”) leaving plenty of room for the organ of Booker T Jones to take centre stage. He then drops back further to double the bass line an octave up during the organ solo, then moves into the foreground for the solo (1:10).

Songwriting Nirvana

So far the music we have considered has been instrumental. With vocal music the singer is (almost by default) driving the bus whenever they are singing. The easiest way for a drummer to blow an audition is to drop a busy fill over a lyric, but what if the singer wants to ride the bus while a killer riff takes the wheel?

One way is using a linear melody: one wh