So you just downloaded a few guitar backing tracks and are ready to jam? Great! Backing tracks can be one of the most effective ways to improve as a musician. They give the musician a chance to explore new musical concepts and techniques in a very practical way. However, a few guidelines need to be followed in order to make the most of them.
First, make sure that the track you will be working on is in the right key. Tons of backing tracks are available online, but depending on where you have downloaded them, some can be labeled the wrong way misleading the learning guitarist. Make sure that you get your tracks from a trustworthy source. I have seen too many students develop bad habits because they were playing a G Major scale over a mislabeled backing track in F Major. If you are unsure of what scale to use, just ask someone you trust. If you don't know of anyone, just search online for a reputable musician and ask him for help. Most of the ones I know are always happy to do so
Secondly, focus on a specific aspect of your playing. Whether you are working on a particular technique or a new scale, concentrate on that particular subject. This will maximize your learning time and help you remember what you have learned. Having a plan is one of the most important things when learning something new.
Another important thing while using backing tracks is to listen to what other players are doing over them. Even though there are certain rules set by the backings such as the key it is written in, each musician has his own personality when playing. New ideas and new directions can be found when listening to what someone else creates over the track you are working on.
If you are able to do so, I strongly recommend that you record your work. This will help you be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and point you in the right direction next time you grab your instrument. Make sure to be very analytical of your playing and willing to work hard on fixing whatever problems you hear. Having someone else listen to your recordings can also be very effective. Ask for constructive criticism and be ready to take action regarding the feedback received.
Finally, remember to make time for improvisation. After a focused practice reward yourself by making music. Some of the concepts and techniques you worked on should come out naturally in your playing over time. Remember to build your improvisations. Don't just throw on the table all the licks you have learned. Instead, focus on telling a story with your instrument. Be creative. Use the backing track you are playing over as a canvas. You're the painter, develop something unique and tasteful. There's no need to use all the colors you have, just the ones that will tell what you have in mind at the moment.