Practising: the woes of the lone guitarist
Today’s guest article comes from Craig Lind, who has written about practising and the tech that exists to help you make things more creative, constructive and fun!
Turn it down!!
Whether from the lips of flatmates, parents, neighbours, or the grooves of the late, and great, Frank Zappa’s 1979 Joe’s Garage, these three words ring familiar with any practising guitarist. For the sake of pride, we’re going to assume that your listeners would be more impressed by your playing if they didn’t have to listen to a lone guitar playing the same old song all night long. So how can you spice up your practice time, turn aggrieved neighbours into potential fans, switch on parental pride, and become a better, more responsive musician all at the same time?
Of course, practising with a band is great, but that won’t help when you need to practise or indulge in creative noodling between rehearsals and gigs. I mean, it’s fairly impractical to have your band pop over for a quick practice before I’m a Celebrity comes on at 9pm. Anyway, I have tried practising with a full band at home; I don’t recommend it! Thankfully there are alternatives…
Jammin’ with my tunes
Most of us will have turned to our music collections for learning and/or accompaniment for practising. This used to mean digging out a tape or an LP, turning the stereo way up, and going for it. Thankfully, these days, MP3 players, smartphones, laptops and the internet make it far easier to get the music you want and to skip through a track to the part you want to practise.
Professional recordings are a great practice tool; they let us learn from and play along with other musicians, and they feature a stable tempo, so they offer an excellent way to improve timing and respond to other instruments in a band while making practice more fun. Because many modern amplifiers – like the BOSS Katana, Blackstar’s ID range, or Fender’s Mustang amps – now feature AUX inputs designed to get music from electronic devices nicely balanced with your guitar, it’s never been easier to play along with your favourite tracks and musicians. All good, no?
Well, not entirely; there are some downsides to using professional recordings. When we practise or learn something new, it is important to listen to and to be honest about our progress, accuracy, and timing. Playing along with pro recordings can make this harder. It is far too tempting to ignore mistakes and inaccuracies when the likes of Jimmy Page kindly picks up our dropped notes or when David Gilmour gets that finger-splitting, one and a half tone string bend up to pitch for us! In short, having a professional guitarist cover the same guitar part you are trying to practise can be a little too forgiving.
Space to be heard
Ideally we need a space where our playing can be heard clearly without competing with perfectly recorded guitars. Backing tracks – the ones without guitar parts – provide all the space we need to hear our playing. Better yet, if care is taken when constructing or sourcing backing tracks, they can even be used in live performances. The advantages over a pro recording are clear: backings give us a “band” to play with, they provide a steady tempo, and – best of all – you can hear yourself and anything you need to work on properly. Backing tracks allow you to become the guitar player in the “band”, so you get all of the benefits of playing along with a recording, without the distraction of having another guitarist play your part!
I can’t get no (instant) satisfaction
OK, backing tracks are great, but they take time to make, they can be pricey to buy, or difficult to source for free. Let’s be honest: for the most part, when we practise, we want something that we can use without fuss. We just want to pick up a guitar and play!
Thankfully, modern technology has made it possible to practise with an accompaniment almost instantly! If you haven’t tried a looper pedal, then you’re missing out on a fantastic practise tool. We all know that loopers make incredible performance tools, as people like KT Tunstall and Ed Sheeran have shown, but they can also provide almost instant backing. A basic looper, like the Boss RC1, will let you lay down a backing guitar part, layer it with a few inventive additions, before practising, or inventing new parts for your arrangements!
More advanced loopers, like the Boss RC30 LoopStation, allow you to save and recall hours worth of loops, so that you can record a beat, add a bass, and/or guitar backing, which you can use time after time for practice, or even performance. With many modern loopers, the sky’s the limit in terms of how many parts you can lay down on the fly, and/or save for later playback. But more importantly, loopers let us move away from practising cover versions; they allow us to develop and practise our own music.
I want a band and I want it now!
OK, so looping requires a level of invention, perhaps also a drum machine, samples, and any other instrumentation you would like to add. Hey! That’s not instant enough! I have ten minutes to spare for a quick practice, but I still want a band to play with!
Well, devices like Digitech’s Trio step in to fill this desire with their instant bass and drum backing; just plug into the Trio, play a chord sequence, stomp on the button and, boom! You are rewarded with an instant drum and bass backing track that reacts to your playing. The more advanced Trio Plus even has a looper so you can add instrumentation to the rhythm section the device provides, before practising a tricky part, improvising around a scale, or even inventing and finessing a song you are working on. The Trio even allows you to save and recall three sequences from the footswitch, so you can practise, compose, and play through entire songs if you want to do that.
We have come a long way from cranking the family stereo for accompaniment; there are now so many ways to spice up your practice, improve your timing, play with other instruments, and make your practice more interesting that you never have to play the same song alone all night long again.
Turn it up!
Craig Lind has played guitar for 35year and taught for 20yrs. He regularly plays with a local function band, Miles Apart. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org