Backing tracks vs. Actual Recordings

I ran into a slightly unexpected issue recently. I have a handful of songs I play with backing tracks from UG, songs I know thouroughly and rarely if ever need to reference the tab while playing along.

I decided to play along to official recordings from albums. It was a disaster. For some reason, I felt thrown off. Kept losing my place, timing, or hitting wrong notes. It was a real mess. I have some thoughts as to why that may be.

  1. The vocals add enough fo a difference that it tricks my muscle memory of the song. I’ve memorized it without vocals, so having them in there was screwing with my brain.
  2. Similar to above, the difference of the digitalized and “fake” backing track instruments vs real ones from an album. Most of the backing tracks sound pretty good, but you can still tell it is synthesized in some way. Just different enough to again throw off my brain and what I thought I knew.
  3. I still had the tab scrolling as a reference. I did my absoulute best to start both at same time but by end of song, the scrolling tab and recording were way out of sync. Further brain farts ensued.

Good news is, the shock wore off after a few repetitions, and it got better. Not great, but better. Like anything new, just takes some time. As a bonus, I got some practice recovering froom little oopsy moments. I am sure I would have similar issues first time I play with other musicians. Anyone else go through this adjustment? Other than repetition, how did you solve the issue?


This is a great point.
I watched this happen with a singer who was performing with a band I was leading. It was a Cure song (Close To Me) and the band had it down pretty well.
But she couldn’t navigate the change from singing-to-the-record to having a band playing it live.
But by the 3rd time, it was good.

Every time some element changes, you’ll have to re-adjust. It’s great to get a chance to try the same song in different ways, because you’ll figure out what you’re leaning on.
If you’re leaning on the synced tab with the backing track, when there’s a vocalist and the tabs get out of sync, there’s bound to be problems.

Congrats on working through it.

To get the most solid approach to this, I’d recommend trying to memorize the bass line. If you have it memorized, it will allow you to play to what you’re hearing much better than reading along with a tab. The equivalent of - in theater - getting ‘off-book’ with your lines. You’re much more responsive and open to what’s happening around you when the bass part is internalized.

Also recommend - if you have the option to do a listen through before you play, put the record version on and just listen through it and make sure you can hear your way through the song on bass. If you can navigate it with your ears, you’ll be much more able to tackle it with the instrument.


I always learn songs from the isolated bass track. It’s the best way to actually hear what’s being played and you will catch a lot more detail from the song by doing it that way.

Music fits together quite nicely, and I think it’s crucial to have every element present while learning. A lot of times I use the vocals to help me remember what part of the song comes next, so I would recommend ditching these “backing tracks” you’ve been using and start learning from the studio recordings.


I often start with just bass line and drums. Add in other instruments as I get a handle on the bassline. While I won’t be abandoning the backing tracks as a starting point for learning a song, I will definitely be incorporating playing along to the real deal as i learn a song. Call it a final exam per song. or just stick with instrumentals, those sound great :smiley:

Memorization is a good point to. The songs I attmepted I have memorized, i don’t even use the reference anymore, not sure why I felt I wanted it playing along to album, but it did me NO favors. Gonna have to trust myself and go with the flow.

This is how I cover songs, except instead of adding backing bits, I first lay down the drum track via drum plugin or drum machine programming, and then play the bassline; then I either send that to my bandmate or start adding other instruments myself (or both), depending on the song.

I often talk about this at work, how changing a small thing in your routine can cause you to start making mistakes. Routines rely on “procedural memory”, which stores well-learned skills and habits. When you change a step, it disrupts the familiar sequence and can lead to errors.

Adding a new element or changing a familiar action also requires more mental effort, this can take away processing power from other tasks, making it easier to screw up things you would normally do without even having to think much.

The study of human factors in aviation is really interesting, things like startle response , task saturation and different cognitive biases.


Procedural memory applies perfectly to what I was feeling. One small thing changed (regardless of I’ve listen to this music since I was a child) and at first felt like it was first time hearing it. Stupid brain doing goofy things lol.


Whichever way you do it I always have the track on a playlist so when I’m not practicing I can listen on loop, say on the way to work in the car and I often hum the bass line or sometimes practice my fingering on the steering wheel. That helps me with syncopation and changes and I also pick up on cues from drums, guitar, vocals etc. Its also surprising how many songs where the base line isn’t what you actually thought it was.


Yes, all this sounds very similar to what Ive experienced after learning a few songs at home (practicing with the originals) and then showing up for the first couple of times to try playing them at rehearsals with my cover band. Everything would be going great, but then the drummers tempo might be drifting too fast or too slow, a guitarist might extend a solo too long, or a vocalist might not come in at the right moment after a bridge, etc. Any and all of those things would fry my brain since so much of my practice relied on a ton of clues from the original song. But after a few rehearsals I was able to relax and if something got off track, I was normally able to eventually get synced back up. Except in those cases where everyone started crashing and we had to reset. So just keep at it. I do agree it helps to practice with different versions if you can so that you don’t get to comfortable to one style and tempo and more easily deal with a variables such as different vocals, etc.


We have a YouTube play list, we all agree which version of the songs we are going to learn, we even write the songs out (4 bars of this, then 4 bars of that…). We start, it sounds great….then it goes to sh!t! :rofl:

We all know the song, we all know our parts, yet we still scr3w it up!

We back in the rehearsal room next week with a new drummer (maaan, it’s hard trying to find a decent drummer!), so we’ll probably be all over the place :rofl:

At the end of the day, it’s practice, practice and then some more practice!

Note: it’s a drum machine in the video :rofl:


That is the essence of everything fun!

PS Is that Debbie Harry singing?

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Sh!t, I was supposed to be keeping under wraps that Debbie was joining us!! :wink:


Tell here I was totally in love with here beginning of the 80s! :slight_smile:


I think we all were, @chris_van_hoven!


Something that I do may help. (or not)

Once I’ve learned the various sections of the song, I play along with the record.

Then when I feel comfortable I’ll look up live versions of the same song and play along. I know it’ll be slightly different but I don’t know where. I play along and adapt as best I can.

I’ve found this has given me the mental bandwidth to cope when I play once a week with others and it starts to drift. If the singer forgets where they are I can keep playing and maybe mouth the words or the chord progression to one of the guitarists.


Works for me as well! Often times live versions are played at faster tempos or maybe with other slightly different differences so it helps to try to adapt. Also fun to find posted covers of the same song to play along with since those can vary even more. (Especially acoustic versions with no bass)

Sundog- you guys sound awesome. Your singer sounds like someone I’ve spent 2 years trying to find! My 90s alternative rock band has been through probably 6 vocalists so far. Same with trying to find and keep a good drummer! My first drummer was excellent- he unfortunately passed away. I knew he was good but really had no idea until after working with probably 5 or 6 more over the last couple of years. Currently in limbo- our last rehearsal was October 2023, we’ve split up except for me and the rythm guitarist and I’ve grown a bit weary of trying to keep it all going. Have not given up yet but still deciding what genre of music to focus on next. I would say: hang on to that singer… she’s a keeper! Find a good drummer and you guys will be in business.:grin:

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At this rate, she’s going to be demanding a rider for rehearsals! :wink:


Next step is to start recording covers with the band and stop using backing tracks :slight_smile:

Seriously it’s much more fun. And you don’t even ever need to be in the same room at the same time; my bandmate is on a different continent, in fact.

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That has gone through my mind; we’re going to experiment with recording next week…

That said, I’m on a mission with the (with backing track) covers, a voyage of musical discovery and rediscovery! I won’t be giving those up just yet! :sunglasses:

BTW, to the main point on this topic, I don’t use ‘artificial’ backing tracks to learn a song. I typically go to iTunes or YouTube to find the song itself. Split the individual tracks using Moises, hunt out a tab for guidance, if the the line is a bit more complicated, listen to the isolated track and then play, again and again, with the bass track removed, until I get it.