By Desi Serna

There’s only so much you can accomplish as a guitarist sitting at home alone and playing unaccompanied. Without a point of reference to keep you on pace, your time and tempo are likely to fluctuate, probably without your even realizing it. Without chord changes and song structures, you’re like to wander aimlessly during your practice sessions.

The need for accompaniment is especially apparent when you’re learning to play styles of music that depend on interplay between band members. Playing with other musicians is your ultimate goal, but you probably need to develop your skills on your own before you’re ready for a jam session. Plus, playing in a group setting isn’t always an available option, so you need an alternative at times.

To get the most enjoyment and benefit out of your practice time, and to best prepare you to play with others, make playing along with accompaniment a regular exercise. Playing along with accompaniment serves three main purposes:

  • You don’t have to play alone when no one is available to join you.

  • You’re forced to play in time and up to tempo.

  • You can book performances when a full lineup of musicians is not available or practical.

Accompaniment for use in practice can be any of the following:

  • A regular song recording

  • A specially recorded backing track

  • A self-made recording

  • Various electronic devices and software programs

Before you’re ready to ride the bike without training wheels, so to speak, practice songs by playing along with the actual song recordings themselves. If you can’t play along with song recordings, you need to work toward that end, or choose different songs that are better suited to your ability. If you can follow along with a recording, you’re ready to play over a track where your part has been removed.

Play-along tracks, backing tracks, jam tracks, band tracks, minus-one tracks, whatever you call them, are recorded music tracks that feature instrumentation for you to use as accompaniment. Tracks for guitarists to use usually feature drums, bass, keys, and sometimes, if the track is to be used primarily for lead-guitar playing, rhythm guitars. You can find generic tracks featuring typical chord progressions and grooves common to rock, blues, country, funk, and jazz, and tracks based on specific songs like Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” and B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Some tracks are professionally recorded using real instruments, and others are programmed using software. Some tracks are put on CD and paired with an instructional book that features tab and other details useful for playing along. Many MP3 and MIDI tracks are posted for free and shared online. Many apps for cellphones and portable devices are made for practicing with accompaniment.

Search for tracks, purchase and/or download ones in styles that you’re capable of playing, and load them onto some type of playback device that you can keep on hand for regular practice. In order for the accompaniment to be heard over the sound of your guitar, you may need to have a stereo system or amplifier with an audio input. Depending on the size and amount of power, some portable device MP3 speaker systems work. Of course, you can always plug into a PA system if you have one.

Connecting your guitar and tracks to a small audio mixer and then monitoring both with a pair of headphones is another option. At the very least, put in some ear buds to listen to your tracks, and then play along with either an acoustic guitar or an amplified electric.

Creating your own tracks is another option. You can create full band tracks, either by playing and recording separate instruments yourself or by enlisting the help of other musicians. Many music-recording programs allow you to cut and paste together prerecorded segments of instrumentation.

If none of these options is available to you, you can at the very least record yourself using your computer, phone, or some type of recording device. Put together tracks of you strumming the chord changes to songs, and then play it back as you practice playing another part. When practicing, you can rehearse other parts from the song, compose your own parts, or improvise. If you want to get really creative and have lots of fun, layer multiple parts over one another. You can accomplish this by using a multi-track app, software, or recording device, or a guitar effects pedal that is designed for looping, like a BOSS RC-3.