At some point we all need to feel like we are playing music as opposed to just running exercises. Good old fashioned metronomes are still a standard for many teachers but I have “tricked” many metronome-wary students into practicing with a steady tempo by using backing tracks. YouTube is the greatest practice resource of the last 10+ years and high quality drum loops and backing tracks are uploaded daily. It might take a little trial and error to find the right backing track for your needs but they can add excitement to all areas of practice.
Let’s start with warming up – You can use a drum loop that has the speed listed and this will make you feel like you are jamming with a drummer friend and you don’t have to worry about being in a particular key because there are only drums in the backing track. This works well for those chromatic warm up exercises.
Scale practice – So you just learned a new scale fingering or position and now you want to work on the muscle memory. Pull up a backing track that would be for the type of scale you learned and pick a key. You can even search with the scale name and key of your choice, like “D mixolydian backing track” or “A minor pentatonic backing track”. Speed can be an issue so look for a variety of slow, medium and fast backing tracks.
I like to start by just going up and down the scale in order to get a feel for the scale at the tempo of the track and start to listen to how the notes “feel” or “sound” against the chords of the track. Once you are comfortable, you can now start to improvise with the scale and don’t worry if it isn’t the most creative solo ever and just use this as scale practice. This not only will increase your fretboard knowledge but will increase your knowledge of the “sound” of the scale which makes practicing more human and less robotic.
If you are more advanced, you can search for backing tracks that list the chord progression and practice targeting chord tones and this works great for anyone who is working on arpeggios. A simple arpeggio exercise with a few chords using a backing track can make you feel like you are playing a song or written lead guitar part.
Rhythm practice -Backing tracks are great for rhythm guitar practice as well. You can search for various styles and pick one that has the chord progression listed and see if you can follow along. You can try different voicings and try any new chord shape or inversion that you just learned to really get it into your muscle memory. Sometimes students only want to play an exercise a couple of times but the backing track makes it more exciting and they end up playing for longer stretches.
There are also many popular songs that have backing tracks for you to practice along with. You can search for backing tracks with or without vocals, guitar or bass depending on the instrument you are practicing. I have found that a backing track without vocals can really test your knowledge of the arrangement because you don’t have the vocal cues to rely on when switching from verse to chorus or to a bridge.
The real benefit is hearing what you are playing with the added harmony and rhythm of the backing track. Metronomes can simplify the beat and be less distracting but if you want to eventually play with other musicians, backing tracks can simulate the experience of hearing all of the blended sounds of a band while you keep your place in the music. Spend some time searching for backing tracks for your next practice session and have FUN!