Performing for the 2018 NYC Marathon  

If you invest enough time and effort to maximize your skills playing the guitar or any instrument, not only will you enjoy all the benefits of playing the instrument, you may also have some incredible opportunities come your way.  This happened to me when I was offered the opportunity to play electric guitar for the 2018 New York City Marathon, something that was unthinkable back when I started playing guitar at age 24.  This article describes how that opportunity came to fruition. 

Like many musicians, I started playing music in elementary school band class.  My instrument was the drums, which I played all the way through school then again after college.  Playing drums in rock bands after college exposed me to a lot of guitar playing, and eventually I became captivated by the idea of playing guitar.  It didn’t look that hard after all – the guys were just pressing on strings, right?  I bought an acoustic guitar and quickly discovered that playing a guitar a vastly more difficult than it looks. 

I spent a few years learning chords on the acoustic guitar and fumbling through some basic songs.  Then while in the car one day, The Sky is Crying by Stevie Ray Vaughn came on and suddenly I was convinced I needed to be able to play like that, specifically his guitar soloing.  Nobody can play guitar exactly like a legend such as SRV, but it gave me a clear goal to work towards. 

My attention immediately turned from the acoustic guitar to the electric guitar, where I started learning the fundamentals of guitar soloing, focusing of course on the minor pentatonic scale.  It didn’t take too long for my skills to peak, so I took some lessons from an extremely advanced guitarist who introduced me to other scales, arpeggios, intervals and many other advanced concepts.  Really though, it was blues guitar soloing that I wanted to do at a high level, which requires a ton of practice to learn all the various techniques used to maximize the limited number of notes in the minor pentatonic and blues scales. 

I discovered that practicing blues guitar solos is a lot more fun if you’re playing along with music, so I began scouring the web for blues guitar backing tracks.  I was disappointed to find that most of the backing tracks I found were lacking in at least one important aspect.  They were either too short, had a bad drum or keyboard sound, was the wrong tempo, or just weren’t produced to a very high standard of quality.  I decided to start creating my own backing tracks, and they turned out so well I created Best Backing Tracks as a way to share them with other aspiring lead guitarists. 

Playing along with my guitar backing tracks had a profound impact on my guitar soloing skills.  I improved rapidly and before too long I was good enough to perform in public.  In 2013 I offered to play guitar for a local 10K race called the Butte to Butte, which has around 4,000 participants.  I picked a spot along the route, set up a PA system, cranked up some backing tracks and played guitar solos along with them for 45 minutes as the runners ran by.  The runners seemed to love it and I had a ton of fun showcasing my new guitar soloing skills.  

In 2018, the Butte to Butte performance was so fun and went so well that I thought it sure would be fun to this for other races.  Then I thought why not try to perform for the biggest race in the world?  It turns out that the New York City Marathon is the largest marathon in the world, so I sent them an email with a link to a YouTube video of me playing for the Butte to Butte.  They responded quickly and enthusiastically, and invited me to come perform in 2018! 

It took a few days to figure out if I could pull off planning a musical performance from the other end of the country (Oregon), but I quickly realized this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.  I agreed to play and spend the two months prior to the marathon practicing guitar for two hours per day.  I generally practice guitar daily, but not two hours per day!  That extra practice took my guitar playing to a completely new level, which gave me more confidence that I could pull off the biggest gig of my life. 

On November 2nd 2018, I traveled to New York with my cousin who came along to take photos, videos and to help keep the event running smoothly.  I rented all the gear from SoundHouse in NYC and once they showed up, set up the gear and did the sound check, I relaxed a bit and focused on playing my best.  The race started and since I was at mile 12, it took a bit for the first runners to reach me.  The first runners to go by were the professionals, who were running so fast I’m not sure they heard me play.  After about 15 minutes, the masses started running by, and that’s when I realized I was playing for an incredibly massive audience. 

It’s hard to imagine 50,000 people running by in front of you over the span of 3.5 hours, but that’s what happened and I did my best to give them something good to listen to as they ran by.  I had planned to take breaks, but I was having so much fun and there were so many runners coming that I just couldn’t stop.  I ended up playing guitar solos non-stop for the entire 3.5 hours!  There was a lot of positive energy coming from the runners, which inspired me to keep playing to the best of my ability. 

When my allotted playing time finally ended, I was in a bit of shock that this huge event I had been planning for over two months was completed, and it had turned out so well.  To see the highlight video on YouTube just click here.

How to Use Backing Tracks 

Play Along with Professional Backing Tracks  – The Best Way to Learn Guitar, Bass and Drums 

Learn Guitar Soloing 

Becoming a better lead guitarist has never been so easy and fun! All you need to do is play along with a backing track and noodle around, and try inventing solos. This article is jam-packed with tips on how to create guitar solos. 

Some additional tips for practicing along with guitar backing tracks: 

Practice scales along with the backing tracks, which is a lot more fun than playing with a metronome. 
Pick a form of the minor pentatonic scale that you are least comfortable with, and play an entire solo using only that form. 
See how many different riffs you can create with only three strings, limiting yourself to one small section of a scale. 
Record yourself soloing to a backing track, then critique it. 
Invite a friend over to jam with you and teach each other riffs. 
Listen to some blues songs from well-known artists, listen carefully to the guitar solos, then play along with a blues backing track and try to incorporate some of those riffs into your playing. 

Learn to Play Bass Guitar and Drums 

Bass and drums are the backbone of any band and as such, need to be able to lock into the tempo of a song and play as a unit. To challenge bass players and drummers, each backing track contains extremely entertaining guitar solos. The solos not only simulate a live jamming situation, but will present you with the challenge of not allowing yourself to be distracted by the solos. 

Bass players will need to listen carefully to the track to try figure out the chord progression of the song, the general feel of it, and to assemble a bass line that works – all things you must do in a jam situation. If you get stuck, you can visit the page on the website for that album to listen to a sample, see the chord progression, and view the tablature. 

Drummers will have the challenge of listening carefully to the bass line to lock in with the tempo, and to listen to the overall song to develop the appropriate drum beat. There is no click track, because live jams don’t have click tracks. It’s up to you to play in sync with the bass guitar, and other instruments that establish the rhythm. We recommend you use sound isolating headphones, so you can hear the backing track music and to protect your hearing during long practice sessions. 

Learn to be a Drummer - The Three "P"s 

Part 1. Pride 

by Brian West 

This article will help you learn to be a drummer. You will be the first one to load into a gig, and the last one to leave. During the set up time, you are meticulous—taking inventory of parts, and instruments, fine tuning your drums, and adapting as needed for the music to come. You pull a few cymbals out, place them delicately on their stands while thinking ahead of which tunes may be complimented by your collection of precious metals. Turning your attention to the bass drum, you focus on tuning and muffling that will work best with both the music style and the room sound. Then, you begin to take special precautions with your snare drum sound. Unfortunately, the tuning you used in the studio last week seems to match an ugly overtone in the box shaped room and rings loudly. Your time is running out as the other musicians plug in, so the best you can do for now is to detune one of the snare lugs and muffle the head a bit more so it won’t drive everyone crazy. Briefly warming up on the new stage you discover that the room is too bright and brash sounding for the cymbals you selected. You quickly reach in and take out some darker sounding cymbals so you don’t overpower the room, the band, and most importantly the ears of people waiting on the other side of the club entrance. The sound man shows up and you start hitting your drums for several minutes, one at a time, until he (hopefully) matches your sound to the venue. Finally, after a long sound check with the band members, the concert begins. If you have practiced the material enough, and play with all of the passion in your soul, you will “turn on” some new fans over the next couple of hours that will spread the word about your group. After a hard earned encore and then talking with some fans during the sweep up, it is time to take the equipment down. You will spend a good half hour putting your instruments in their cases, taking stock of which sticks and drum heads you may need to purchase before the next gig, while having a chat with the opening band’s’ drummer. You will “talk shop” about cymbals, custom drums, and musical influences. You are both sharing in the pride inherited in your art form. 

After a few years you find that you have moved from playing pubs, to small theaters. Your new album sells well among your regional fan base, but your group decides it is time to attempt to get signed by a record label and “go national.” The money doesn’t always compliment all the hard work you put in, and you realize that only the songwriter of the group may have a chance of earning much in the way of record royalties. The band goes on long tours, which can be full of great experiences, but also full of, uh…surprises. You show up to a club in phoenix and realize that you are playing to the staff. On the way to Denver your van breaks down on the interstate. Oh, and don’t forget that promoter in Dallas that short-changed the band four hundred bucks at the end of the night. These aren’t just stories you read about in rock star biographies. 

So what is it that keeps drummers coming back to the practice room and the stage, time and time again, despite the well-known hardships of being in the music business? Of course there are many great musicians who keep their day jobs and play music on the weekends. For many of us though, our passion takes over and we yearn to delve deeper. Some drummers work the big city recording studio sessions, some teach students and give clinics, and others work on products to improve the industry. No matter what your drumming day job is, what surfaces in our minds after that recording or teaching session is that next show or tour that looms around the corner. 

You will show the world the creation you have started in your rehearsal space with your band mates, and your music will evolve as you become more comfortable performing it over a twenty-six day run. You will play your set each night, even if you have the flu. You and your fellow musicians have a heated debate on day 14 of the tour concerning switching out the opening song and whether to finally add the album’s ballad to the set. Just as the band seems like it will implode from the exhaustion of being on the road, you hear a song from the new album on the radio. As your van pulls into the theatre parking lot, you notice a long line of fans waiting to get tickets. Suddenly you come back to life as you feel that familiar nervous energy that will launch you into another great performance. 

Finally the tour ends and you spend a couple of days catching up on some rest. During the next few weeks the group plays some local shows and begins writing some new material for the next album and tour. Even if the fans loved the set list on the last tour, you and your comrades know better than to repeat it. Your music is an ever-changing artful expression that words have a hard time explaining. It reflects the passion and trends of the music industry, the fans, your emotions, and your world outlook, as you grow older and wiser. The music and camaraderie you create with other musicians with that common passion is truly one of a kind. Checking your voicemail one morning, you find that your tour manager has just booked a small tour of Europe. You feel that weird nervous energy again, imagining what that theatre in Valencia might look and sound like. You daydream of another long line of fans around the block to see the band in Copenhagen. You are road-wise enough now that you don’t let your expectations get out of control. First things first – time to get to rehearsal on time to shape up the new songs, and then downtown to renew that passport. 

Meanwhile your musical influences constantly surround your thought processes as you tap rhythms on the steering wheel along with the stereo on the way to rehearsal. Before the rehearsal begins you “high five” your band mates upon the news that the record entered the Japanese Billboard charts. A few new dates have been added to the tour including Tokyo and Osaka. With renewed excitement and vigor, it feels like you are starting all over again—only this time the wretched band van stays at home. 

by Brian West – Sticks West

Learning the Bass Guitar – “Listen for the Feeling”  

By Cal Coleman 

Let your ear, your instinct, and your soul be your guide. 

I am going to talk about some of the intangible parts of music in this article rather than just mechanics. I want to focus on how to create the “feel” when learning to play bass. The bass guitar is a rhythm instrument, and you need to have an understanding of emotion to avoid sounding robotic when you play. Mastering this feeling will launch you to new places faster than just knowing where to put your fingers. I have noticed that bass guitar players seem to have an instant friendship when we meet. I think we all understand that we have a special role we play in music that we cherish. 

A few weeks ago the drummer on our gig called me, as a bassist, the “warm blanket” wrapped around his guitar melodies. My bass amp was going bad during sound check, and while the band played, I tried to problem solve. He spent this time saying that he missed that feeling of comfort that comes from the bass. He described exactly what I want to do for people when I play the bass. I hope that people feel like my playing is satisfying, so solid, and yet with such feeling, that it literally gives them comfort. 

The bass guitar is the low tone, with big, slow-moving sound waves. It is kind of warm to the body and ears, so I actually try to play the bass that way. Listen to some reggae: notice how there is really no treble or much mid range to the tone. Just a pillowy, bump bump sound. 
Listen to other genres of music. Notice the subtle differences in the tone of the bass guitar. Once, at a Tom Petty concert I noticed the bass player generated a mid-rangy plucky tone. On one particular song, he was using a pick which really brought out that sound. This is how straight ahead roots rock music sounds. It gives the music a certain feeling. 

Then there is the feel of how the other musicians are playing. Bass players adjust to the requirements of the song’s feel but they don’t go with the flow in the same way on every song. When we play “Stayin’ Alive” in our disco band, Satin Love Orchestra, I play on top of the beat. I almost push the tempo, as that is the total vibe of that song. It really bounces along. But when I play bass for “Is this Love,” a rock ballad by Whitesnake in our ‘80s band, Shelley James Musicbox, I lay back and pump the notes trying to be totally inside the drummer’s beat. In those songs, I really don’t ever want to sound like I am rushing. It kills the flow. 
Another consideration when you are playing the bass: connect with your drummer. All drummers have slightly different ways they feel the music. I tend to lock in on the high hat as my guide for where to place my notes. It is also very helpful to play your patterns in accordance with the drummer’s kick drum pattern. You will notice that two different drummers will play different kick patterns on the same song. I feel that I do better if I make adjustments to the drummer. I like to position myself to the drummer’s left. That way I can turn to him, and we can make eye contact easily. The friendship is powerful, and if you are giving each other nonverbal cues of approval, smiles, nods, etc, you will get into a tighter and tighter rhythmic relationship with each other. You, as a rhythm section, will be supporting your band in the best way possible, and will enjoy the experience. 

When I was single and had more time to myself, I used to listen to my favorite albums over and over. Every Friday after class during my freshman year of college, I would hole up in my dorm room and listen to Tower of Power’s “Back to Oakland” and Weather Report’s “Black Market” front to back. It caused me to learn every note on both records. It was my Friday celebration, and I didn’t realize that it was embedding amazing bass playing into my soul which I would use for years to come. The bass players on these records are two of the greatest: Francis Rocco Prestia, and Jaco Pastorious, respectively. 
I find this to be so valuable! Learn what the notes are doing. Hear the song. Hear the scales. Hear the licks. Get them into your soul and mind. Then when you strap on the bass guitar, you will find that as you explore the process of recreating those sounds, the bass lines are already familiar. It is the same as a great skier imagining the course before the race, or the golfer seeing the flight and landing of the ball before the shot. Internalize what your body will do. You will develop elements in the quantum realm to engage the flow you want to achieve in music. Visualization is key to music. So is the mindset. If you take the time to place your mind and heart in the music, your body will follow. 

Final nuggets of wisdom to help you learn to play the bass guitar: Learn scales, master the basics. Learn to read music. Learn to be really good at easy before you tackle complex. Be simple. Bands will love you if you hold down the simple groove more than a fancy player who does not keep time. After all, they want you to be their warm blanket. 

Links to helpful articles and lessons for all bass players: 

Abe Laboriel Bass Guitar Lesson on YouTube I had the pleasure of having dinner with him at PF Chang’s in Sherman Oaks, CA. He is an awesome guy, and I love the way he teaches. We later had the pleasure of watching him perform with his band at the Baked Potato on Ventura BLVD. It was an awesome night. 

Bass Player Magazine 

A wealth of information about gear, lessons, and interviews with the greats. I have subscribed for years. 

How to Play Guitar Solos to Virtually Any Song 

by Bob Clayton

Soloing on guitar is a blast, but when presented with a new song or guitar backing track, how do you know what to play? The purpose of this article is to explain how you can start soloing to just about any song within seconds. 

The assumption here is that you have learned to play chords on the guitar and are at least familiar with all of the major and minor chords. Being able to play the major and minor guitar chords will help you understand and identify chord progressions, and will help you figure out the rhythm guitar parts to songs, which is pretty important when it comes to playing lead guitar. 

Virtually every blues and rock song has a “home” chord, the chord that defines the overall feel of the song. The home chord is the gravitational center of the song – the chord progression wants to keep bringing you back to the home chord. 

As a lead guitarist presented with a new song or guitar backing track, your first task is to identify the home chord. The vast majority of the time, the first chord of the main chord progression of the song is the home chord. If a song has an intro, skip over that and zero in on the first chord following the intro. Another way to identify the home chord of a song is to examine the key of the song. If a song is in “E Minor”, then it is highly likely that E Minor is the home chord. Some of our guitar backing tracks are in a particular mode of a key, such as E Minor Dorian, in which case, E Minor is still the home chord. If a song is in A Mixoylydian, then the home chord is A. 

Once you have identified the home chord, you will know if it is a major chord or minor chord. If the home chord is a minor chord, you can definitely build a guitar solo using the minor pentatonic scale. If the home chord is a major chord, then the major pentatonic scale can be used to build a guitar solo. 

One great way to practice identifying the home chord of songs is to put some of our guitar backing tracks on without looking at the track names and try to identify the chord that begins the chord progression. If that chord is A Minor, try noodling around using the A Minor Pentatonic Scale and listen carefully. Is it starting to sound like a guitar solo that fits the song? 

If you know the major and minor pentatonic scales, especially the diagonal form of those scales, and you have a good enough ear to pick out the home chord of a tune, you can solo to nearly anything in the rock and blues genres. Of course soloing can get more complicated by adding notes from the blues guitar scale or the major guitar scale, but that will be addressed in other articles. For now, as long as you can identify the home chord and start noodling around in the appropriate pentatonic scale, you will be creating guitar solos before you know it! 

Let’s talk about “noodling around” in one of the pentatonic scales. By that, I mean put on a guitar backing track and try simply playing the scale. It will sound like you are doing a scale exercise, but you will hear that what you are playing fits with the song, assuming you correctly identified the home chord and are playing the correct pentatonic scale. The backing track will repeat the chord progression, which is extremely helpful for those wanting to learn guitar, because you’ll get many chances to try creating something to play with that chord progression. Once you are comfortable just playing the scale, try adding a few pauses. Play the first two notes of the scale, pause one beat, then play the next note of the scale, pause, then play the next two notes. Try variations of that, then try playing a note twice, pause, play the next scale note once, etc… There are endless variations, and even just adding a pause or two will suddenly make it start to sound more like a solo than a scale exercise. Keep trying every variation you can think of as the backing track plays. This is how you can begin to become a lead guitarist!