Practicing guitar chords to backing tracks is one of the best ways to learn to play guitar chords. Besides being a lot of fun, it's a great way to build a sense of timing and rhythm. Timing and rhythm are something guitar players are notorious for lacking, at least compared to other musicians.
The biggest problem I've seen with beginner guitar players practicing to backing tracks is they're simply not ready. They have a hard time going from one chord to another, and the backing track makes it even harder. So I've created a step-by-step process that will help you get over this hurdle and tighten up your chord changes.
How To Practice Chords With Backing Tracks
Here are a few ways to tighten up your chord changes so you can play along to backing tracks more successfully.
Practice Your Chord Fingering Speed
Before you start to play to a backing track, you'll want to make sure you can quickly finger the chord. This sounds pretty obvious, but it's all too common for guitar players to breeze by this step. When you play along to a backing track you need to be able to change chords quickly, a microsecond before you need to play it. If you can't, you'll end up falling behind.
Here's how I test my students on this. Put your left hand on your knee (I'm assuming you're sitting down...). Count to 4 and play the chord you're practicing. Put your hand back on your knee and count to 3, then play the chord. Then 2, and then 1. Make sure you can cleanly play the chord after the 4 count before moving to 3, and so on. This will help your muscle memory and speed develop. You'll eventually get to the point where you can play the chord without thinking about how to play it. Your fingers will naturally go to the right places. How long does "soon" mean? Do this a little each day to build this over time, it won't happen overnight!
Practice Changing Related Chords
By 'related chords' I'm referring to chords in the same key in common progressions. Practicing your G chord with a C chord makes way more sense than practicing a G chord with Bb. Playing G to C and C to G is extremely common. So you might practice a progression like this
If one of those changes is particularly challenging, like D to G, spend more time on that.
Practice Chords In Tempo
Now you're ready to practice guitar chords in tempo, and with rhythm. The key here is to start slow. We all naturally want to go faster then we're actually able to. I'm the exact same way! But start slow and make sure you nail those changes. Start with an easy strumming pattern, like a single strum on each beat. If that's still too difficult you can strum on the 1, 2, and 3 and leave the 4 blank to give yourself more time for the chord change. Then add in a strum on 4 and get that change down.
Once you're comfortable with the chord changes you can add in a strumming rhythm. Start with your metronome at a slow tempo. Here's the one of the best pieces of advice I've come across:
Anything you can do slow you can do fast.
Speed will be built over time, and only once you're proficient at something at a slow tempo. So start with 40bpm (Beats Per Minute) and see how that feels. Then start adding 3-5bpm at a time when you're building speed. I like to use the 80% mark as a guide to increase tempo. Once you're 80% of the way there, move onto the next tempo.
Play Along With The Backing Track
Playing guitar to backing tracks is much different than playing to a metronome. Backing tracks can feel faster, even though they're not. And there are additional instruments in there that can be distracting and throw you off. That's why it's a good idea to be as prepared as you can be before playing along. Remember that this is new to you, and it can take days or weeks to feel comfortable playing along to the backing tracks.
One thing that is helpful is to tap along to beat. Over time you'll develop a good sense of rhythm and an internal metronome, but to start it's a challenge. Most software you'd use to play these backing tracks will have the option to slow it down, and YouTube has had this feature for a long time if you're using a backing track there. This is a wonderful tool to use.
Start by using a simple strum and build off of that. Go through it a time or two using a simple pattern, then add in the strum pattern you're aiming to play.
This all is laid out in a natural progression, but you'll find that you may wake up one day and need to go back a step. This is just how it goes with guitar and is all part of the process. You'll feel great about something on a Thursday, and struggle to play it the very next day, So don't be afraid to go back to a previous step to nail things down.
If you want more backing tracks to practice to, and more approachable and encouraging lessons, you're a perfect candidate for my Real Guitar Success program. You'll get access to hundreds of lessons, structured lesson plans that change monthly, and yes, backing tracks!