Put away dem backing tracks…

by | Sep 11, 2017 | Articles | 7 comments

Last week I was editing together the recent interview I conducted with jazz guitar superstar Howard Alden, when something he said really stuck out at me:

“Spend some time playing without backing tracks, without even a metronome. Do this even if you’re just doing some single line soloing or playing a melody. This will build your internal sense of rhythm.”

I think this is one of the best pieces of advice you are ever going to hear to improve your jazz playing.

Too often, players get into the trap of using some sort of backing track any time they go to practice.

In a way, logically it makes sense. Unless you’re trying to play jazz guitar solo, having some sort of backing track to play along with would help prepare you for playing with other musicians at a gig.

Here’s the thing though:

There’s a problem with this approach.

You see, backing tracks are kind of like a ‘crutch’. It’s the same kind of thing as driving a couple of blocks down to your local store to pick up a few things, instead of walking. Sure, you’ll get the thing you were looking for, but in terms of your fitness? Not that good.

Similarly, if you use backing tracks to practice along with all the time, your ears will always subtly be responding to the cues of the chord changes on the track, rather than hearing them internally.

Likewise, your rhythm feel will be propped up by the backing track as well, and your internal sense of rhythm will never develop.

So, put away dem backing tracks for a little while.

If you’ve used backing tracks a lot up till now, it can feel strange and kind of… ‘naked’ to do this.

But naked is good.

Practicing single line soloing or melodies by yourself, and on your own, can do wonders for developing your inner sense of the music.

The result?

Once you have a strong internal feel for the changes, you can then start to be much more creative with both your phrasing and rhythm. You’ll no longer be responding to cues from backing tracks – your own creative impulses will be the driving force.

If you haven’t already, check out my interview with Howard Alden at the link below as today’s tip was just one of a truckload of practice techniques he talks about that every jazz guitarist should be aware of:

Click here to listen to the interview with Howard Alden now.

And while you’re at it, leave a comment below to let me know what you thought about this simple, but incredibly important practice tip I’ve shared with you today.

Now the exciting bit:

If you're keen to have a structured, step-by-step approach to learning jazz guitar, it might be worth checking out my online learning system, the FretDojo Jazz Guitar Academy.

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  • Detailed step-by-step video lessons on new classic jazz tunes and essential jazz guitar skills added to the club website each month. Includes listening recommendations, demonstrations of the melody, analysis of the harmony, and detailed explanations on how to solo over the tune.
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Greg O’Rourke


Greg O’Rourke,
Founder, Fret Dojo
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  1. Ken Niehoff

    I guess it all depends how one usually practices. I never got in the habit of practicing using backing tracks and now think that was a mistake. Without the backing track I can fudge on the timing and imagine I’m embellishing the cords and playing the solo ideas in time. In your classes, I start learning the piece without the backing track until I think I have it. Then I work with the backing track and it’s not the same. I need to modify things to make it fit. Also, the backing track pushes me along so I can’t go back and immediately correct a mistake and imagine I could pull it off in real time.

    • Manodj Brouwn

      That counts for me too; too little practice with metronome/ backing tracks tends to get my playing sloppy while having the Idea it’s all still fine untill I am met with this restriction of having to play against a specific chord progression.

      Than again when I started playing I noticed the use of a backing track gave me the Idea all was Fine untill I had to come up with something that went beyond that same old track.

      So I guess IT Worms Both ways. Also, I van be realy impressed hearing someone playing single note lines/ solo’s with niet accompany whatsoever. And guess what? It’ always seems to be those well trained jazz guitarists who seem to be so damn good, so much so I struggle not to envy that and instead use of as An inspiration for my own improvements.

      Oh man, internet/YouTube so much changed my perception of the incredible talent and competence allover this planet. Forcing me to dig deeper into myself , creating those circumstances that will help/ support to release the best version of myself!

  2. Bernard mcGlynn

    I have the opposite problem, I don’t spend nearly enough time playing to a click, so when I have to play to one I’m invariably not on the beat, I listened back to some stuff I recorded and can hear that I’m constantly chasing the beat, more metronome time for me I think till I can sit comfortably on it without worrying where Im at.

    • David Shore

      I agree with you.

  3. Helmut Drüke

    Hi Greg, I totally agree with the warning to depend too strongly on written solos praticed with using backing tracks. I had a gig last week and fell apart as the group around me changed the rhythm and the tempo. I got stuck since I lost the timing during the tune was played compared to the tune how I prepared it note for note using the written out solo (K. Burrell: There will never be another you). I saved myself by using arpeggios what was getting boring and not really inspired after the second chorus!!! I decided to get back to my ideas while using some of the inspiration of the big players.

  4. dbs

    It is important to get feedback from the metronome and from backing tracks. It teaches to listen and groove as part of something other than yourself. On the occasions when I would play my part in the studio with only a click track, the hours I spent practicing with the metronome on 2 and 4 helped me make my part swing, even though it was just me and the click track in my ears.

  5. Lou

    Hi Greg
    Thanks for that interview with Howard, and thank you to Howard for your hard won insights. The standout points for me were the importance of internalising the songs rather than depending on charts, the concept of using the bass note and melody note as the skeleton of a chord melody, and especially to practice within time frames. That’s easier said than done, but obviously vital to progress rapidly.
    Well done !!


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