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Jazz Studies With Bill Harrison: The Next Best Thing: Using Play Along Tracks

Meet Bill Harrison –

Some musical skills are best learned alone – technique, scales and arpeggios, the layout of your fingerboard and so on. Bass Musician Magazine offers some great lessons to help you with slapping, tapping, left hand gymnastics, etc; and we all need to put our time in to get ourselves ready to perform physically.

Then there are all the other skills that can only be acquired in the context of playing with other musicians, namely: listening, dynamics, groove, accompanying a singer or soloist; in other words, all of the intangible aspects usually referred to as “ensemble”. Great word, that – it signifies “all the parts of a thing considered together”, which is about the best definition of a musical group I’ve come across.

So, its simple: musicians get together and play. We go to music school, join or create a group, jam informally with our friends or rehearse with various professional ensembles. But what can we do when there aren’t any other like-minded peers available for any of these activities? And, how can a lesser experienced player get ready to play with other people on their own and at their own pace?

We can opt for the next best thing: play along or backing tracks. Every jazz musician I know has used Jamey Aebersold’s infamous play along recordings. I’ve still got LP and cassette (!) versions of some of the first albums I used to figure out what a 12 bar blues or an “I Got Rhythm” form is.

For most of my career I’ve been helping my students get comfortable with playing in an ensemble by developing the specific skills necessary to become accompanists and soloists. It is crucial that bass players know how to play various grooves (including walking), interpret chord changes, internalize song forms, etc. A few years ago I became aware of the fact that if you’re not in school, or are a little bit past your 20’s, or don’t live in a larger urban area it can be very challenging to find appropriate people to play with.

So I went on the hunt for good backing tracks. I bought a ton of book/CD sets and unearthed some of the recordings I’d used as a young player. I became quite frustrated, because the material I found, including the Aebersold recordings, was lacking in so many ways. The tracks were either poorly played or recorded, they were only available in limited keys and tempos and many of them didn’t have a way to “turn off” the bass track so a student could really hear and feel what it might be like to be the bass player in that particular setting.

After much consideration, I bit the bullet and started creating my own sets of play along tracks, which I now sell at PlayJazzNow.com. Since this is not an infomercial, I won’t go into the details, but you can check out the site if you’re interested. There’s all kinds of cool stuff there (and not just for us bassists, either!).

I’ve been invited to write a regular column on using play along tracks to improve your skills, and that is exactly what I’ll start zeroing in on next time. Meanwhile you can view these videos to see how I explain some elementary walking techniques:

Here’s the same lesson on ebass:

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