Playing guitar isn’t just about mastering chords and scales – it’s also about learning to express yourself in a real musical situation. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the opportunity to play with a live band.
So how can we practice our chops in a musical context without other musicians around?
The answer is backing tracks – also known as ‘jam tracks’. They’re a key ingredient for building your improvisational and live performance skills.
This article will include
- Advice on choosing the right backing tracks
- Tips to improve your improvisation skills
- A selection of great jam tracks with guidance for each one
Strap on your guitar – it’s time to voyage into the vast expanse of the backing track universe 🌌
What are backing tracks?
Backing tracks are pre-recorded instrumental accompaniments. They provide an immersive environment for us to practice different skills in whatever genre, key, or tempo we need.
One of the great things about backing tracks is that there’s no pressure!
- You can make as many mistakes as you want without seeing a bunch of scrunched-up faces.
- If you need to practice a section 100 times in a row, you can.
- Backing tracks don’t get tired or bored, they’ll be there to jam whenever you need them!
Why should I practice to a backing track?
There are a huge number of reasons backing tracks are a godsend for guitarists, but here are a couple of important ones to consider:
- Tempo and timing: We often neglect this in our practice routine. Sometimes it can be a little uninspiring working to a metronome. Backing tracks are a fun way to make sure all your licks are on beat.
- Tonal center: If you want to really understand scales, you need a solid reference point. Each interval in a scale relates to the key or chord in a unique way. Without a tonal center, it’s much harder to internalize the relationships between notes.
Most popular types of backing tracks
Blues backing tracks
For most guitarists, improvisation begins with the blues.
- The minor pentatonic is the most user-friendly scale – it’s almost impossible to hit ‘wrong’ notes with it.
- Blues has a simple structure, usually based around a I-IV-V, 12-Bar progression.
Funk backing tracks
When you need to tighten up your rhythm chops, nothing beats funk.
- Many guitarists use funk backing tracks to practice getting ‘in the pocket’.
- Funk guitar focuses on the picking hand – less about the chords you’re playing and more about how you play them.
Here’s an article on funk guitar techniques if you want to learn more.
Jazz and neo-soul backing tracks
These are suitable for intermediate players who want more of a challenge.
- You need an awareness of chord tones and modes to improvise well over these tracks.
- Jazz progressions can be notoriously tricky to master at first, but it’s a rewarding endeavor.
How to choose the right guitar backing tracks for you
These days there’s an endless amount of backing tracks to choose from. Let’s break down the three main factors to consider when searching for the perfect jam track.
#1 – Musical genre and style
If there’s a certain genre you’re trying to master, then this will be your primary search term. Keep in mind that most genres will vary in style depending sub-genre, so you may need to get quite specific to find exactly what you’re looking for.
#2 – Skill level and learning goals
Getting this wrong will either result in frustrated beginner guitarists or bored intermediate/advanced guitarists.
- It’s vital to practice with tracks that match your skill level and support what you’re currently learning.
- For example, if you’ve just started learning about the Mixolydian mode, search for a backing track tailored to that.
- You can pick whichever key you’re most comfortable with and spend time exploring the nuances of the mode.
#3 – Keep it fresh
It’s very easy for us to find a couple of tracks we like and just jam over them endlessly – super satisfying, but not great for progress.
Challenge yourself by varying your selection in these ways:
- Tempo and time signature – melt your fingers with faster tempos, or melt your brain with odd time signatures.
- Different key or progression – don’t just stick to a I-VI-V because it’s comfy, and get out of the key of E or A once in a while!
A bit of what you don't like – there may be genres you’re not a fan of, but those are usually the ones that help you discover new ideas. Getting out of your comfort zone is vital to growing as a guitarist.
Drone backing tracks
We mentioned earlier the benefits of practicing scales over a tonal center – this is exactly what drone tracks are useful for.
- They are usually a single endless tone.
- Sometimes a perfect 5th is included to widen the sound.
- The 5th is a neutral interval and doesn’t change the quality – it’s neither major nor minor.
Drones are great for ear training too – you can practice internalizing each note of a scale either by singing or playing the intervals over the drone.
Often drone backing tracks are fairly ambient and don’t include rhythm, but you can find some that do (just add ‘BMP’ to your search).
Here’s a great track in the key of C. Play any scales or modes you know – just make sure you start the scale on a C and it’ll sound great!
As you learned earlier in the article, practicing to a tempo is vital for your rhythm skills, so here’s another C drone track at 120 BMP.
Jazz guitar backing tracks
Limitless options here! No genre comes close to jazz in terms of complexity – you need to put in some serious work to navigate the intricate progressions, chord voicings, and rhythms.
Instead of generic chord progressions, you can search for specific backing tracks to songs, or jazz standards.
Here’s an example of a classic standard: Autumn Leaves.
If that’s a little advanced you can opt for some more straightforward jazz progressions.
It’s good to be able to play the chords before you start improvising so here are the four shapes you’ll need for the following jam track.
- Once you’re comfortable playing the chords, try to pick individual notes from those shapes as you go through the progression.
- Avoid mindlessly playing one scale over all the changes, try to find the flavor notes for each chord.
Neo-soul backing tracks
Time for some vibes! Neo soul has been gaining a lot of popularity in recent years. Its combination of Jazz chords, hip hop beats, and soulful melodies has made neo soul a favorite among many budding guitarists.
You may have noticed many of the backing tracks so far have been made with sampled instruments – not this one! Here’s one of our own live-band jam tracks in the key of E minor.
Take a look at the chords before you start improvising.
Smooth, huh? If you can’t get enough of jamming with our band, here’s another slinky neo-soul backing track – this time in A minor.
Blues guitar backing tracks
If you’ve been playing guitar for any length of time, you’ve probably had a little jam over a blues track – it’s a right of passage for every electric guitar player.
Blues is often regarded as simple, or easy to play, but there’s a big difference between mindlessly playing the pentatonic box and making the guitar sing!
- When playing the blues, it’s important to focus on phrasing and feel.
- The scale shapes shouldn’t dictate what you play – your ear should.
- A useful exercise is to sing a lick, and then play it.
- This is much more musical and avoids letting your fingers repeat tired old licks.
Let’s take it slow with this 12-bar blues jam in the key of G major.
- The E minor pentatonic is the same shape as G major pentatonic.
- This is because E is the relative minor of G major – they have the same notes.
- Try switching between the two and see if you can hear the difference between major and minor.
For a deeper explanation check out our article on the major pentatonic scale.
Let’s pick up the pace a little and add some swing!
Try this Chicago shuffle in C major.
- You can use the same trick to switch between major and minor pentatonic scales.
- Take any C minor pentatonic shape and move it down 3 frets – instant C major pentatonic!
Funk backing tracks
We know you wanna have another jam with the live Pickup band – so let’s do it.
We’ll start off with a funk groove in A minor.
The chord names and recommended scales are included in the video – we've thought of everything 😉
- Remember to focus on keeping your rhythm as tight as possible throughout.
- Bonus points: See if you can figure out the little turnaround lick!
Here’s our final jam track – so let’s make it funky! It’s inspired by the godfather himself – James Brown, so don’t turn it loose.
This one is all on you. Do whatever feels right – strum, pluck, and slide your way through this ridiculously groovy backing track in the key of Eb.
Hopefully you’re feeling thoroughly inspired after all that.
Backing tracks are such a great way to level up your guitar playing, you just need to know how to make the most out of them.
So next time you’re on the hunt for a new jam track remember:
- Try new genres/styles for a fresh perspective.
- Choose progressions that are around your level.
- Don’t always choose a key you’re comfortable with.
If you want to learn how to improve your improvisation skills we’ve got just the thing.
The Soloing Learning Pathway led by Pickup Music founder Sam Blakelock is an absolute game-changer.
Over the course of 3 months, you’ll learn how to make your solos sing with
- Step-by-step lessons
- Daily guitar exercises
- Personalized feedback on your playing
Plus, we’re currently offering a 14-day free trial so there’s no excuse not to check it out! 🎁
Author: Richard Spooner
Soloing Learning Pathway
Learn to play guitar solos that sing.Learn more
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