Playing Over Backing Tracks

  • 03/15/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
One of the best tools I have ever used in my ongoing guitar learning experience has been backing tracks. Playing over well designed backing tracks has helped every aspect of my playing in amazing ways. In this article, I will share with you a few ideas I use to make the most of your practice.

Mapping Out the Track
The first step you should take when getting ready to work with a backing track is to write down all the information you know about the track on a sheet of paper. This will be used as a guideline when playing. It will help you focus on the important sections of the track while focusing on making music. Depending on the track you are working with, your guide will be more or less complex. Following are the categories you should try to include in your guide.

General Info
This section should include some general information giving you a quick resume of what this track is about. I recommend keeping a standard format for your guidelines and keeping the general info tab structure the same all the time. This will help you decide which track you want to work with. The general info section will include the name of the track, tempo, and key(s).

Chord Progression
Once the general information of the track figured out, listen to the track several times and get comfortable with its structure. Asking yourself the following questions will help you organize your chord progression:
- Can the backing track be divided in several sections?
- How many sections are found?
- Are there more than one key?
The answers to the previous questions should be reflected in your chord chart. You don't need to write down the whole chart for the whole backing track, but make sure to map out each sections. If more than one key is used, take note of it on your chart.

Scale Diagrams
This section of your guideline is very important. This is where you will write down all the scale charts you will be using to improvise. This section will be more or less complex depending on your level of comfort with scale positions.

I personally like to write a single diagram covering the full fretboard for each scales used. This helps me sound a bit more musical as I am not tied to conventional fingerings. However, using more than one diagram is also a valid option if you are not yet at ease with your positions:

Example of an A Dorian covering the full fretboard:

Exercise 1

This section should include all the scales found in the backing track. You will use the diagrams as you improvise. Having the diagrams in front of you will free you from trying to remember your scale shapes. You will sound more musical and develop new ideas a lot faster that way.

First Run-Through
Once all the preliminary work done, have a first run-through using the scale diagrams you mapped out in the previous section of your guideline. This is when you should take note of anything happening that requires special attention. Following are are a few examples of things that you might want to write down.
- Is there a key change?
- Does the track include a measure of silence?
- Did you find a particular note or lick that works particularly well somewhere?
Getting in a habit of taking this kind of notes will help you target your improvisation and develop your skills as musician.

Targeted Run Through
Although it is important to keep an element of spontaneity in your improvisations, your leads will benefit greatly from preparing your work using targeted run through. The principle is simple: determine prior to your playing an element you will focus on during your lead. Whether you focus on a specific note, a technique or a rhythm motif, this will help you develop new ideas on your instrument.

When working with a new backing track, I like to target specific notes. This helps me familiarize myself with the color of the key I am working with. Let's consider a backing track in the key of A Dorian. In order to get more comfortable with the sound of that scale, I might target some notes of that scale such as the third, the fifth, or any other notes found in the Dorian mode.

Following are a few diagrams I might use to help me target specific notes in my improvisation. Focus on the minor 3rd:
Exercise 2

Focus on the 2nd:
Exercise 3

Focus on the minor 7th:
Exercise 4

Rivers and Rocks
Mastering the art of improvisation is much like learning a new language. The key to proper improvisation is to hear what you are about to play before actually moving your fingers. Using specific scale positions can help you reach that goal, however limiting yourself to conventional shapes can limit your ability to express yourself efficiently. The following analogy might help you develop your skills.

Imagine a river that needs to be crossed. Now visualize some rocks in that river that will help you cross it. You are safe and dry as long as you stay on the rocks. Your goal is to stay in one of these safe zones until you can reach the other end of the water.

The backing track is represented here by the river. The rocks are all the notes you can safely use without sounding outside of the key.

If you keep the previous ideas in mind while working on developing your improvisational skills, you will find new phrasing concepts. Always remember that your guitar and the scales available to you are tools that serve a much bigger picture: communicating with others in an audible way who you are.

Practice well!

Backing Track Map


Chord progression:

Scale diagrams: Scale Diagram
Scale Diagram
Scale Diagram