And there are lots of ways to practice.
- Playing along with a metronome
- Learning scales and theory like on my page about pentatonic scales
- Learning positions like the B.B. King blues box
- Playing along with and copping licks off of recordings
- Learning by watching YouTube videos
- Watching blues bands play (perhaps at a concert)
- Playing along with backing tracks that don’t have a lead on them
All of these techniques are important. You should vary your practice and do all of the above to keep getting better. After all, this learning blues guitar thing is a lifelong process.
My favorite way is to play along with some good backing tracks. For me, this comes closest to being able to actually build “real world” leads and to practice my scales and theory in a context that’s most realistic.
It’s especially good when you’ve been working on some specific licks and want to work them into a real song, perhaps along with other licks you’ve learned or already know.
But if you’ve been out looking for backing tracks online, you know it’s a hit or miss proposition. Some tracks are good. But many tracks lack the subtlety and sound that gives you that inspiration to play well. I know because I’ve been looking for them for years.
And even today, with all the online resources out there, if you go to search for “blues backing tracks” you get a range of websites that are still pretty poor.
What About The MIDI Route
If you have a MIDI setup, then sometimes it’s easier to find MIDI tracks that are pretty good. Plus the benefit of a MIDI track is you can easily change the key and speed it up or slow it down.
But unless you have a pretty good sounding synth, these tracks can sound pretty lame.That may not be a deal breaker just for practicing but sometimes it makes them less inspiring. It’s up to you.
And I must confess, I’ve had mixed luck getting my MIDI setups to work well. Maybe I’m just not technical enough to wrangle with the equipment. If anyone, can help me I’m still open to giving that route a try.
Band In A Box
If you don’t know Band In A Box, you might want to take a look. If you have a good soundcard, or a good SYNTH, this might be a good way to go, especially of you like to have control or have some specific chord changes you’d like to play over.
With BIAB you can build songs on the fly using their “spreadsheet” builder. You enter the chords to the song and pick a groove and it builds the song automatically. And again it’s easy to change keys and tempos. Plus you will find a good supply of BIAB songs out there that you can get for free. It’s worth a look at this website to see how it all works. And it’s pretty cheap for what you get.
Here’s a video that explains the program…
Audio Backing Tracks
But if you don’t want to go through all the work of building your own tracks, a better way to go may be to just find some good audio tracks that you can play along with. The only problem is finding ones that are a bit more sophisticated or have grooves that are a little more interesting than the typical Chicago suffles or Stevie Ray Vaughan grooves. I want some old blues grooves and some funk and some swing/jump tunes myself.
One of the best free sets I’ve found are the ones on the Guitar Center’s “King of The Blues” contest site. You’ll find some very well-done, actual recording by some great musicians there sans any lead or vocal parts.
These tracks were put together by great roots/blues/country guitarist Pete Anderson. This is really first class stuff. Pete was long-time guitarist for Dwight Yoakam but he really knows the blues as well. The tracks come from studio recordings he made especially for the contest for 2010 and 2011.
You can play along online or you can download the MP3 and save them. I sometimes bring them into my ProTools setup and slice and dice them into actual songs, or stretch them out a little longer.
Here’s a couple of examples of some of my favorite tracks…
Slow Blues in C
Talk To Your Daughter Shuffle in G
Scratch My Back in F
Guitar Center’s New Version
For 2012 and 2013 Guitar Center has changed their contest. Now Joe Bonamassa is involved and the backing tracks are coming directly from his songs. They lost me on this one because they switched to “shred blues” ala Joe Bonamassa style which I’m not a fan of. Perhaps you feel differently. You can go here if you want to learn about the new contest which is being called, Blues Masters Featuring Joe Bonamassa. I never could find the backing tracks for it. Perhaps you will have better luck.
But whatever tracks you choose, I’m sure you will find the concept of playing along with good tracks more satisfying than just sitting in a room practicing. It’s a bit more like really playing along with a band. But of course it’s still not as good as playing in a band or going to a good blues jam.