Don’t Just Play Along – Be Your Own Guitar Hero!

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One of our talented guitar teachers, Jeff S. from New Jersey, sent us the following article with some ideas that helped one of his students practice guitar more effectively. Read on for Jeff’s tips on how to be your own Guitar Hero!

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I came up with the idea for this article in an effort to help one of my intermediate guitar students break out of a rut.  This particular student, a big fan of Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, would frequently put on classic songs by those artists and just jam along with them.  I can also recall doing the same thing during my first few years of playing guitar, but I stopped once I learned the chord changes and tinkered around with some lead guitar fills because I realized that I didn’t get much out of practicing this way.

There’s a very logical reason that this tends to happen.  The solo is already impeccably played and virtually all of the best and most obvious places to play fills in these recordings have perfectly placed riffs and licks.  So you’re left with a very limited canvas to work with.  On top of that, each time you listen to these often-virtuosic lead guitar solos and licks, all you’re really doing is further cementing your idol’s seminal lead guitar work in your head.  Now how can you be adventurous (or even hear yourself think, let alone play) in that setting?  With this conundrum to overcome, I set out to find the antidote for my student and for you.

Rather than subjecting yourself to this very limiting makeshift jam session, I would suggest seeking out fully produced rhythm tracks (aka “jam tracks”) in whatever style you prefer or want to improve in. Many are offered online, either for free or at pretty reasonable prices; however, the quality of the musicianship and recordings can drastically vary, so listen before buying.  In case you’ve never encountered these types of tracks, they are fully produced rhythm section replications of famous songs or styles without the lead guitar parts.  {Note: they make these types of tracks without other instruments as well, so be sure of what you’re buying!}  One site I thought had good quality jam tracks is datamusic.org, and my student thought so too; he purchased a wide variety of tracks from them and is quite happy.

When you work with tracks like these, they offer you a wide-open expanse in which to develop your improvising and lead guitar playing.  After you get comfortable playing along with these types of recordings, I would suggest “flying in” the rhythm track (i.e. drag the tracks into Garageband or whatever recording platform you use) and record several tracks of you playing lead guitar along with it.  Concentrate initially on developing a complete guitar solo first before recording “fills” or other embellishments and “window dressing.”  After you get a take of a solo you feel pretty good about, you should then analyze the results and determine what passages or licks could be stronger or played with more precision and confidence.  “Punch in” (i.e. re-play and re-record) parts as needed, but it’s a good idea to leave your previous takes intact until you’ve got replacement tracks you feel certain are better.

If you don’t like or can’t afford these “music minus one” rhythm track recordings, another option is to lay down your own rhythm tracks (without lead guitar).  This is a great way to go because you can make all decisions concerning key, tempo and style, rather than be stuck with what the rhythm track companies offer.  With the user-friendly editing tools in virtually all recording platforms, you don’t even need to record 5 minutes of a song.  You can often get away with recording 1-2 minutes of a song or pattern and then copy and paste it together to create a longer track. If you do decide to record your own tracks, you shouldn’t burden yourself to create perfect takes on each instrument. As long as you play to a click track and stay with it, you should emerge with a track that’s going to suit your purpose.

If you feel your lead guitar results are not satisfying your inner critic, then I would suggest creating one memorable and well played lick at a time and connecting them until you forage a complete solo.  Keep a firm grip on what’s most important; develop your own style, create your own licks and have fun!

-Jeff S.

Jeff S

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