Get Your Jam On!

Bob Marley jammin’ on his Gibson Les Paul!

Scales, chords, arpeggios, theory… these are all basic tools we use to improve our skills as musicians. The ultimate goal? To play music! With that in mind, applying this “book knowledge” to playing actual songs can be both fulfilling and improve your development as a guitarist. Here are a few ideas you can use to break free of the more academic side of your practice while still training for six string domination.

PRE-RECORDED JAM TRACKS: Otherwise known as backing tracks, these are pre-recorded songs minus the guitar track (lead, rhythm, or both) so you can fill in the missing part. Playing along with the actual songs is useful, but can often serve as a crutch. If you fumble, the parts you’re mimicking fill in the gaps and give you a false sense of security that your execution of the notes was fine; until you jam live with a band and it’s revealed that you don’t actually sound as good as the recording.

There are tons of resources for this, both paid and free, in the form of DVD’s, CD’s, downloadable MP3’s and MIDI files, YouTube videos, etc. A free online resource I use a lot is GuitarBackingTrack.com. Join the backing tracks discussion on the SMG forum. Post your favorites and learn about ones you may not know about:

http://sharemyguitar.com/forum

SELF-RECORDED TRACKS: If you don’t have access to, or don’t want to pay for pre-recorded tracks, record your own. Listen to the song and play/record backing material along with it. You can find free drum machines online that will let you create a beat and export a file you can incorporate into your track. Even if I’m just practicing scales or arpeggios rather than full blown songs, I’ll lay down chords as support. This can take an otherwise monotonous task and make it fun and musical.

TAB ‘n TOOLS: When it comes to learning new songs, there are a number of resources available. Several guitar magazines provide note-accurate transcriptions of popular songs from classic rock to metal to blues and beyond. A couple that come to mind include Guitar Edge and Guitar World, though there are certainly more out there including some cool mags out of the UK. Music Dispatch carries a great inventory of Guitar Edge back issues as well as a slew of guitar books in various forms. Guitar Instructor and Sheet Music Direct provide individual songs you can buy and print on the spot. Free TAB is available on sites like ultimateGuitar and 911TABS. These free-for-all community sites are hit and miss as songs can be uploaded by anyone. I’ve found some to be pretty good whereas others are way off. But they don’t cost anything and may help guide you as you transcribe songs on your own.

Speaking of transcribing, a handful of great utilities are available that allow you to loop sections of a song, adjust pitch without affecting tempo, adjust tempo without affecting pitch, and more. My favorite is Amazing Slow Downer by Roni Music – worth every penny.

LIVE JAMMING: There may be no better resource for absorbing new songs and improving as a musician than playing with others. For one, you have a responsibility to hold up your end of the music. This pressure (and by that I mean good pressure) can motivate you to focus on getting things right. When jamming live, the process is organic as everyone feeds off each other. This creates a situation in which more of your senses come to the party and you engage in a more interactive manner. This exercises aspects of playing you just don’t get in your apartment with headphones on. On top of that, you simply can’t beat the magic that comes with the collaboration of musicians plucking strings, hitting skins with sticks, and belting out vocals to create music that flows and energizes and makes us jump up and down like little kids at a theme park.

With guitar in hand and the incredible wealth of resources available, jamming possibilities are more accessible than ever. It can be overwhelming with so many choices so it’s important to find what works for you and stick with it. I’ve found that a combination of resources mentioned above allows me to jam in a variety of situations from home practice to staying in picking shape on the road to going jam crazy with my friends. To quote Bob Marley, “We’re jamming, jamming. I’m jammed, I hope you’re jamming too!”

Dan Coplan is senior staff writer at SMG. Dan is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and self-admitting guitar junkie. Email: dancoplan@sharemyguitar.com

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