How to Play Along to Songs on Guitar (6 Tips That 100% Work)
The best way to pick out the parts of a song recording so you can have fun and improve your guitar playing
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"How do I play along with a song on guitar? I find it hard to pick the pattern out of all the instruments playing at the same time."
Many guitarists struggle to sync what they're playing with a song recording or backing track. If that's you, stick around because, in this post, I give you 6 tips you can put into action today to help you get the hang of playing along with songs on your guitar.
(The bonus tip at the end of tip number 6 is worth its weight in gold.)
Tip 1 - Work on your timing
If you don't make the effort to practice you guitar with a metronome, you'll find playing along to a song recording challenging until you change things up.
Start simple; try this 3-step exercise:
Step 1: Put a metronome on 90 bpm and tap the top of your guitar in time to the beat. Once you have done this for a while move to step 2.
Step 2: Play down strums in time with each metronome beat for 60 second intervals.
Step 3: Put the song on you want to learn and play down strums on each beat of the bar. If you find it tricky to find the timing, stop playing and tap your guitar on the beat for a minute, then try with the song again.
Here's the game changer; pop your phone on record for 30 seconds and listen back. Notice your tendency to speed up?
It's easy to convince yourself your timing is good if you never listen to yourself playing.
Don't beat yourself up if you listen back and your timing is all over the place. Poor timing is the foremost bad habit guitarists have. Keep at it.The more you practise this simple metronome exercise, the better your feel for staying in time will be when you play along to an actual song.
Tip 2 - Listen to the song on repeat
To make playing along to music on your guitar more straightforward, you need to know the song inside out. Listen to the song over and over to get familiar with the melodies, structure and rhythm (see tip 5 and tip 6 also).
Your ear is like any muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
This tip may seem obvious, but not getting to know the song is the downfall of the guitarist who says they battle to learn a song by ear.
When you try to jump straight in without listening to the song properly, or worse still - don't even listen to the piece once, you're setting yourself up to fail.
Pro Tip: Just because you're learning to play your favourite song you've known for years doesn't mean you can skip this step. You'll be surprised at what your ear will notice once you focus on learning to play a song rather than just listening to it.
Tip 3 - Don't be a lone wolf
Many of my guitar students struggle to pinpoint the patterns in songs at first (be it the strumming or picking pattern). To help them develop the skill, I show them what to do step by step with practical help.
With that in mind, this brings us to tip number two for how you learn to play along to a song recording: get a highly rated guitar tutor to help you.
Most self-taught guitarists find working out parts in a song by ear a nightmare because they're going it alone. Make your life easier and get a teacher to walk you through the steps with in-person demonstrations and feedback.
If you're not in the position to take guitar lessons, carry on reading; I have more tips that'll help you out.
Tip 4 - The fewer chords, the better
To start with, choose a song with just a few chords. It doesn't matter if you've been playing for 15 days or 15 years - if you've never been able to play along to a song recording, it's best to start simple.
Three simple chord song ideas include, Knocking on Heavens Door by Bob Dylan, Wild Thing by The Troggs, and Let it Be by The Beatles.
Related reading: Check out this post for an idea of some easy beginner guitar riffs to learn.
You can also make the process easier and choose a song with a prominent guitar part to work on. Some songs you may want to learn don't have a guitar on the recording, or they do, but it's low in the mix.
As a session guitarist, many of the pop artists I've played for have songs with no guitar on. In that case, I would listen to the music first, work out the key, pinpoint the chords the other instruments are playing (typically the bass, piano or synths) and develop a suitable guitar part with matching chords or notes.
Talking of key signatures, let's check out the next tip.
Tip 5 - Work out the song key
To play along to song recordings and hear the different parts, you'll cut down the leg work when you work out the song key.
For those of you who think you can learn to play songs on the guitar without knowing some basic music theory (i.e. how to work out the key of a song), I'm going to burst your bubble; you can't.
Okay, I may be a little dramatic there - you can learn to play some stuff on the guitar with zero theory knowledge by following videos or reading from chord sheets and TAB.
However, just like that pile of laundry left on your bedroom floor, there's only so long you can ignore the theory essentials before you trip up.
The deal is, being able to work out the key signature of a song will dramatically help you learn to play along to a recording. How? A key signature is like a recipe. It tells you which chords and notes sound good together.
So instead of getting frustrated and having a wild guess at the chords, you can quickly work them out because you've narrowed it down to just a few that belong in the key.
Could you do with brushing up on the music theory basics? Check out my book Easy Peasy Guitar Music Theory: For Beginners, and you'll be right as rain.
Tip 6 - Break the song down into sections
Pinpoint the song's different sections - intro, verse, bridge and chorus, etc. Use the song lyrics, melody and arrangement as anchor points to help you.
For example, the verse of a song usually has more space and less instrumentation, whilst the chorus typically features the song title in the lyrics and sounds musically fuller.
Next what you do is work on each song section, starting from the beginning. It makes no sense to try and work out what the chords are in the chorus if you haven't figured out the intro chords yet.
BONUS TIP: Make sure you turn the music up loud enough that your guitar doesn't drown it out when you play along. Your speakers make a difference too.
The frequency response on your phone or laptop won't cut it - you need to hear plenty of bottom end (bass) to help you hear the different instruments. There are lots of decent bluetooth speakers on the market to choose from.
Take it slowly and enjoy the fact you're developing another invaluable musical skill.
Pro Tip: Don't ditch the song recording too soon. Only the best musicians can listen to a song recording once and play the exact chords, notes and rhythm. Play with the song until you have it licked and record yourself.
Summing it upIt doesn't matter if you have to rewind each song section 50 times; you'll get better (and quicker) at hearing the parts in a piece of music the more you practice.
Above all, set aside 10-20 minutes a day dedicated to ear training and timing exercises - ideally longer for maximum gains.
Keep doing what you love and get those ears and fingers to work.