Creative Use Of Guitar Backing Tracks
No matter what our chosen style or current level, we guitarists are a generally recluse bunch; spending hours locked in a room perfecting our art before revealing it to the world. We all know that structuring our practise time and giving it as much value as possible is the key to success. One of the most overlooked, and essential tools in our practise routine are the use of backing tracks. Wether you’re working on your improvisation, a multi part shred metal overture or a three chord pop song, context and timing are absolutely key to reaching your musical goals. The truth is; we should be playing to some kind of musical backing for the majority of the time we spend holding the guitar - this music not a solo sport! Right? Here’s a short guide and some tips for making the most of backing tracks within your practise and, ultimately have more fun in the process. Why use backing tracks?
This seems obvious, but unless what you have learnt is in perfect time, with a good sense of pulse, then a key ingredient is missing. The simplest things sound great when played with good rhythm and groove. Conversely, even the most technically ambitious parts can lose their impact when delivered out of time.
2. Sound like the end product
With all the difficulties and distractions of learning a song or technique, it is easy to lose sight of the end goal - musical context. Hearing your guitar part fit perfectly with band as if you are onstage jamming with the real legends is what its all about, and the reason we all began our journey as guitarists.
This is a vital point and nothing else will have such a dramatic impact on the overall musicality of your playing! Consistent use of backing tracks will cause you to match the vide or feel of the musical backdrop; if the track is loud and aggressive you’ll learn to match that with the dynamics of your playing. Equally when things drop down and become more gentle and slow paced you will learn to adapt your playing to suit the music making you a more more rounded musician.
4. Preparation for the stage
Regardless of your ambitions or if you already perform as part of a gigging band; backing tracks provide the ultimate band replacement. Performing to the original songs is great and can give us a buzz, but the original guitar parts can give us a false feeling of safety and confidence - they provide reminders of the song structure and can, at times, forgivingly cover our mistakes. These luxuries disappear when it comes to performing with a live band. Backing tracks are a great way to hear your guitar part in all its glory - mistakes and all! Giving you an honest impression of how things will sound when you take to the stage or studio. You’ll also learn how to interact with and listen to the other instruments; a pro level skill, overlooked by many players!
1. You don’t have to know the full song/part before playing to the track
As a teacher, I’ve found this to be the single most important realisation in helping students nail a song faster and having more fun doing so.
If you’re working on a riff - try and get the first part down (the chances are you’ll be learning it on sections anyway), even if its just the first few notes. Then, put the backing track on - play your part and leave a space where the rest of the riff would be. A repeating riff means you will be playing your part on a loop to the song. This this a form of immediate reward which we all need when learning something new.
If you’re working on the solo section, the chances are the song and solo are in the same key or the solo takes place over a verse/chorus. Why not take the part of the solo on which you are working and loop it over the whole track. It can be frustrating when that first big lick of the solo is over in the blink of an eye and you have to scroll back to try it again. This approach will avoid this and help you feel more relaxed when the biog moment comes.
This will give you the opportunity and satisfaction of almost instantly hearing your part in the context of the song. Because you are performing in bite sized chunks, it will sound great straight away and keep you motivated to learn the rest of the song. This is much better than slaving away over a riff/piece for hours before trying to make it fit.
Ultimately, this is about giving yourself short term results and feel good moments whilst working on the long term goal of perfecting the whole song.
2. Use other tracks
Why not find a jamtrack which matches the key of the song on which you’re working? This is particularly useful if you can find a slower track, affording you the chance to practise at a more gentle tempo. Again, this is all about looping the riff/part within a musical context and developing its timing and dynamics.
If you’re working on your improvisation; try the reverse - solo over a well known song backing track and use the familiar vocal melody to influence your phrasing.
Be aware of the balance of your guitar against the track. It is tempting to set things so your guitar sounds as if it is sitting flat in the mix with the other instruments. This is great when it comes to performing, but when practising a loud track can easily cover up your mistakes, giving you a false sense of achievement. Be honest and check that you can hear the full range of noises you are making - from scrape to squeaks and missed strings!
Equally be sure you are not so loud that you are unable to hear and react to the track! Experiment with a happy balance.
4. Limit yourself and use the track wisely
When improvising to any track it’s good to start by getting a feel for things first before jumping straight into solo land - the same applies when practising a song or riff. Try playing the track through once without your guitar first and listen carefully. Imagine hearing your part in time or improvise in your head (better still - sing a melody line!)
Take a steady approach when improvising. Try to limit your playing to half, quarter or eighth notes on the first run through. This will give you the opportunity to experiment and develop your ideas whilst getting a feel for the track.
As mentioned before, react to the other instruments on the track - listen to the accents, melodies and drum grooves which are taking place under your solo. Matching these parts will give the listener the feeling that your lead lines fit, almost like a written part itself.
Remember - the most essential aspect of your time with the guitar is your enjoyment. Making music and seeing real progress each time you sit down to practise will guarantee to keep you motivated. This, in turn, will give you a more rewarding playing experience and, simply, make you want to play more.