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Using backing tracks

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When teaching your students to improvise it is necessary to encourage them to practice against some sort of backing.

Of course you should spend some lesson time listening to them jam over your playing rhythm guitar - but the problem is that they can't take you home with them!

There are several options to consider:

You can suggest they play over records. Trouble is that they will be 'competing for space' with the lead vocalist or guitarist on the record. So although there is much to be gained from copying bits and pieces off records, jamming along does not work quite so well.

They can access commercially available backing tracks, either on CD from their local music store, or downloaded from any of several online sources. There are a range of these available, but mostl seem to suffer from one or more of three basic faults:

  1. The tracks are too short - just when you are getting a few ideas sorted out the track ends and you have to break off to rewind.
  2. They are over-produced - why this happens is a mystery! People make a backing track for you to solo over and then fill it with harmonica, piano and sax solos! Perhaps this works for more advanced musicians who can weave their playing in and out of the other soloists, but its not much use for your average beginner.
  3. The chord sequences are too complex - again this may be great for the advanced player, but simple repetitive chord sequences are much more useful to the beginner.

So my answer is to make your own backing tracks.The recording quality doesn't have to be over special and the simpler the tracks the better. Acoustic guitar rhythm tracks are fine if you only have single-track recording facilities.

If you have multi-track then lay down bass, drums and rhythm guitar, but I wouldn't bother using a live drum kit for this unless you have some experience with mic-ing up a kit for recording - its a black art! Unless you know what you are doing you will get something that sounds like you are banging around with the pots and pans in your kitchen! So I suggest swallowing your artistic pride and using a drum machine or the midi kit that comes bundled with your recording software.

Make each track 5 minutes long and avoid over-complicating it! Record a variety of sequences in different styles to suit the students you teach. Before the final mixdown play along with the backing yourself to make sure you have the right balance of tempo, orchestration and levels - if you're not finding it easy to play to, then nor will your students!

Final advice: SELL the end product (CD or download URL) to your students. If you give it away there's less chance they'll use it!

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