Critical Practicing and Listening with Backing Tracks

  • 07/20/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Perhaps part of your practice routine looks like this: You log on to JamPlay, search through the vast sea of backing tracks and find a few that catch your ear. You download them and put them in an iTunes or Windows Media playlist. Next you plug in to your amp, crank your computer speakers and jam along to your track for the day.

What's the problem with practicing this way? You have absolutely no way of measuring your effectiveness in your practicing to the track. Using the above method usually results in a few minutes of noodling, followed by a few minutes of boredom and ultimately, moving on or stopping altogether. Even if you are able to stay on task long enough to really dig in to the track, you have no way of reviewing what you did so you can see if you even like it from a listeners perspective.

One of the best ways to improve your playing is to listen back to it with a critical ear and make adjustments accordingly. It’s pretty easy to get set up for the basic recording of your practices. In fact, some of you may already do this routinely or at least have dabbled in it and seen some of the benefits.

This article focuses on maximizing practice and musical development through the use of recording as a critical listening tool. There is a lot of subjectivity that comes along with this type of thinking/practicing/listening. There will be no nailing something down with music theory or going over techniques specifically. We'll be wading into the murky waters of artistic evaluation, which can be dangerous. It is however, one of the most valuable things you can learn to do with your own playing!

There are four areas of playing that we're going to put our ears to. Critical listening to guitar playing is not limited to these four areas, but if you regularly ask yourself these questions when evaluating your own playing, you'll find yourself steadily improving. You'll even get to the point where you gain substantial ground simply by listening to other guitarists' playing.

The four questions to consider are: How's my pocket? How's my phrasing? How's my technique? How's my tone? Let's unpack each question:

1. How’s my pocket?
One of the main things that separates the players from the posers is the ability to not just play in time, but really groove within time. Whether your playing rhythm or lead, really pay attention to where your notes or chords land on any given beat. Are you generally keeping with the tempo of the song but maybe rushing or pushing the beat too much? If you are, you might get an uneasy feeling when listening back to certain passages that lay too ahead of the beat. Maybe you are dragging a little bit and you get a sense that your playing feels floppy.

It is okay to push or drag, but it must be done intentionally and attached to the emotion of the playing. For example, slightly dragging part of a melody at the climax of the song can make everything sound larger than life for that particular moment. Slightly pushing a fast run and then backing off right at the end of the phrase can evoke a sense of urgency to the line you are playing. It's all about the feel! Recording and listening back for this is the ONLY way to develop this sense in your playing. You must learn to play AROUND THE BEAT, not just play to a metronome.

2. How's my phrasing?
It's all too easy when playing with backing tracks to blaze through scales, arpeggios, comfortable licks, familiar chord positions, and other programmed, muscle memory-dependent crutches. While backing tracks can be very valuable in developing technique, you must be intentional about developing your phrasing and melodic interest in your playing.

One quick listen to your lead playing over any particular track will reveal areas you need to improve with regards to phrasing. Does your playing sound like a guitar vomiting notes and gasping for breath? Perhaps you have unintentionally repeated the same thing too many times and it begins to grate on you like a dull cheese slicer. Most of us have heard the motto: "Play a guitar solo like an inspirational speaker gives a message." This means that there are highs and lows. There is intentionality and purpose behind every sound. This doesn't mean you need to 'compose' or plan out everything you do in a solo, rather just step back and evaluate your playing and make sure that you are putting an element of human connection in your music... and lots of variety!

Here are some good guidelines to follow as you further develop your phrasing:
- Come up with a sing-able melody for the track before blowing through scales or licks.

- When you do play a run or series of licks, pick a target note to land on that strengthens the melody you've come up with. Both Jimmy Page's classic "Stairway to Heaven" solo and Steve Vai's arrangement of "Christmas Time Is Here" are great examples of target note placement. This is one of the main reasons they are so memorable and pleasant to listen to.

- Never spend too much time in one area of the neck. Remember the huge range that is at your beck and call with the guitar!

- Mix up playing techniques. Legato, alternate picking, hybrid or finger picking, two-hand tapping, sweeping and bends all have the ability to support or communicate an emotion with in a lead guitar context. Being intentional about placing these techniques with variety and melody in mind will spice up your playing and help with your phrasing.
3. How's my technique?
When listening back to yourself, is there anything annoying that you seem to frequently do? Is your vibrato too fast? Are your bends in tune? Is your legato playing consistent and authoritative or does it trail off and lose steam? If it does lose steam, did you mean for it to do so? Is your picking hand sync'd with your fretting hand?

When playing live, or even practicing without recording, it is easy to get sloppy and not know it. Recording your practice, even if you're not playing to a track is a great way to expose areas (especially with regards to technique) that you may have never known you need to improve in.

4. How's my tone?
Do you find yourself always using the same old comfortable sounds? Perhaps one's that cover up sloppy playing? Maybe ones that make you feel good during practice. Take a step back and listen to the melodies and lines you are creating with respect to the kind of track you are playing over and experiment with using different sounds. Then adapt your playing technique to get the most out of that sound. You may have to pick harder or more often. You might have to be more aware of rogue string noise or feedback for example.

It is amazing how tone can affect both technique and phrasing. In addition, the use of effects can make or break your tone, which can add to or take away from phrasing and technique. As a general rule of thumb, unless your effects are 'part of the line,' for example, a whammy pedal adding dynamic pitch shifting to a solo, or a delay part that loops back to form a constant feedback effect, your effects should be kept dryer than you might think. Adding too much reverb to a sound, or overusing effects like chorus and flangers can kill an otherwise very musical tone. Like other aspects of guitar playing, using effects is all about being strategic and intentional.

Listening back to your guitar's tone over a recorded track will help you see if the sound itself fits with the music. If the tone isn't right, it can cramp all the other aspects of tasty playing.

Now... to applied critical listening. I have included two different solos over two different tracks to analyze and pick apart using the four questions detailed above. These solos are in the "lets listen" phase. In other words, the tracks were jammed to a number of times, ideas were formulated and executed and now we're sitting back, and asking the questions that could make the playing better. Then, by changing and/or correcting some of the issues, we train our ear and improve our musical standard.

One quick note: This process is not meant to downplay straight improvisation, but rather a way to improve your improv skills through critical listening.

Here is the first track excerpt without any lead guitar:

This is a pretty straight -forward track. It's only two chords and it's at nice driving tempo. It is a little rhythmically complex in that there are quite a few anticipated beats. Theory-wise, you could approach this track as being from a minor tonal center or a Major tonal center. Minor probably makes more sense because it starts and ends on the minor chord, but that doesn't mean the tonal center can't shift now and then to make things interesting.

It is also important to pay attention to instrumentation. This track really is designed to have a raging lead as part of the sound but not every track works that way. You always want to make sure that, you're functioning as part of the band and not just slapping something over the top of a tune. This means paying attention to rhythmic nuances and other instrument melodies.

Before moving on to listening to the lead, take a moment to jam over this short track if you feel so inclined so that you get a feel for what it's doing. It is in the Key of C# minor.

Here is the same track with lead guitar:

It is time to dive in to the questions. When I do this type of critique, I always try to start with a few positive things, followed by areas to improve, and then some more positive things. I don't want to ever get in to the mode where I'm always downing my playing, or anyone else’s for that matter. The point in all this is to improve, and improvement happens best when the overall vibe is positive.

1. How's my pocket?
The primary "hook" or melody present in the solo capitalizes on the groove of the song. The notes emphasized or accented in the melody hit right with major rhythmic statements made by the track. If you played along with the track, you'll notice how un-natural it was to create a melody that follows the rhythmic aspects of so closely.

There are a couple points where I pushed the beat without meaning to, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. The two times I heard were at 2 seconds and at 34 seconds. Take a moment to listen to the track again. Do you hear it? There is a sense of uneasiness in those sections that shouldn't be there!

There are several places where I pushed or pulled intentionally to drive a particular note into the forehead of the listener. Starting at 16 seconds, the two notes before the descending sweep line are intentionally slightly behind the beat, and the sweep is pushed a bit. This creates a "teetering on the edge of the cliff and then falling off" feeling that wouldn't be there if everything was perfectly in time. The unison bends following the sweep sequence (at 20 seconds) are played considerably behind the beat to create a release or a deflating period between the sweeps and the fast picking line just ahead.

2. How's my phrasing?
In general, I think the phrasing turned out very well with this solo. There is a clear, established melody. There are target notes at the beginnings and ends of the faster sequences to create an intentional and authoritative feel to the playing. There are also quite a few defined sections, or "sentences" with a variety of techniques utilized to create a conversational or story-telling feel. There are peaks and valleys both in pitch and in rhythmic ideas.

I feel like the weakest part of this solo is the end two-handed tapping line that ends the solo. It feels like it was just slapped on the end to fill up the last couple seconds. It would be nice to draw from some of the other ideas in the solo and more closely tie them all together for the end. It might even be a good idea to just end with a slightly embellished form of the melody.

It might have also been nice, during the beginning section, if I were to have done some more embellishment in and out of the melody. I could keep the melody there and up in front, but making room for some tasty licks here and there might make it a little more engaging.

The fact that you can sing or whistle parts of the solo helps it be memorable and accessible to the "everyday listener."

3. How's my technique?
There are quite a few techniques used in this solo. I tried to spread things around so that there wasn't too much picking all in once place or too much legato piled in one section.

Are there flubbed notes? ... yes, quite a few! The first descending sweep line at 16 seconds is sloppy. I'm sure that if one were to slow it down, it would be pretty obvious that some of the notes just aren’t there. So, I need to spend some more time working with that particular pattern so that when I want to pull it out of my bag of tricks, I can deliver! There is also some string noise at the end of the ascending picking line. (29 seconds). The target note at the end of that run was just a little flat. The vibrato speeds seem to fit the pace of the song, and for the most part, the technique enhances, not takes away from the musicality of the solo.

4. How's my tone?
There's not too much distortion, yet it's still dirty enough to be bold and aggressive. This tone would be quite lousy if I needed lots of sustain, but this solo is about groove and is fast-paced. I've also got a little delay on it to smooth out the sound just a bit.

I think the tone fits pretty well, but upon listening back I realized that the rhythm sounds are quite a bit higher gain than the lead guitar. If I added just a bit more gain, the lead sound might fit better in the mix with the rhythm guitar. Also, the entire solo was done on my neck pickup. As I re-take this solo, I'm going to experiment with using the bridge pickup for the melody section, and the middle unison bend portion. I think the bridge pickup works really well for the sweeps and the ascending picked line.

So there we go! Time to re-track and listen again! With drills like this, it is less about getting the perfect solo, and more about learning you shine and how you need to improve. The more times you track and re-track while critically listening along the way, the more seasoned and trained you will become.

Here is the 2nd track excerpt:

Here is the same track with a lead played over it:

Having read through the critique of the last track and solo, it is now your turn to try with this example. Feel free to use the comment section at the end of the article to get a discussion going about what you are hearing. See if you can pull out where the beat was intentionally pushed or pulled. See if you can identify certain passages or sentences within the solo. For example, "from opening to about 5 seconds sounds like a complete sentence". There are more! Try pointing out where there may be room for improvement within the context of the track (unintentional pocket problems, sloppiness etc...

When you are done, venture on over to the backing tracks section of the site and spend some time with your own playing!

And... Have Fun!!