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Recently I've been practicing scales by improvising over backing tracks. I've noticed that at times that my timing is good, it flows with the music, and at other times it's horrible, seemingly going against the music.

Since I'm improvising and soloing it's not always a constant flow of notes, that makes it hard since I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing next, which makes it pretty hard to keep with the timing.

I get the idea that the more familiar I am with the backing track and the more comfortable I get improvising the better it will get.

However, I'm curious whether there are other things I need to keep in mind and/or exercises of some kind?

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Ah, I remember this phenomenon – or at least I think what I'm remembering is what you're describing – from learning to improvise.

What I recall is that the bad rhythm moments happened when I was trying to just throw a whole bunch of notes out there really fast. Maybe it was because I was nervous, and I was just throwing a bunch of pitches at the wall to see what stuck, or maybe it was because I had decided I wanted to do something that sounded busy and flashy.

The correct solution for me rested on the venerable principle of "SLOW THE @#%! DOWN". Simply not trying to play so many notes per unit of time helped greatly. I calmed down and was able to focus enough of my attention on the feeling of the rhythm to join with it. And that's crucial: instead of flailing at my instrument to make a bunch of pitches, I needed to think about what I wanted to do rhythmically, and make some deliberate artistic decisions about how I wanted to relate to the rhythm.

And I learned the trick to putting in flashy fast stuff is that it's got to be conceived of -- and mastered through practice as -- licks/figures/gorgias/whatever you call them: little chunks of sparkly stuff that you have trained into your hands/mouth as a spinal reflex, and can fire off at any moment, and, crucially, you think of not as a series of notes, but as a single thing. If you can think "Mordent here!" instead of "really fast I'll go up then down!", you've radically reduced your cognitive load -- by 2/3rd actually.

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If you wish to improve your timing (and subsequently, your internal ability to distinguish and think ahead in terms of time signatures) you should practice with a metronome.

Sometimes, the backing tracks can confuse the ear because there is so much going on in them. A simple click metronome may not be as exciting as playing with a backing track but it makes you more aware of your timing and precision as you play. A backing track might even mask badly executed form and once you learn how to do things the wrong way, it is VERY hard to (in the words of Grand Master Yoda) "unlearn what you have learned".

  • That's fine for timing, but what would he be improvising over - there'd be no sequence to follow or inspire. – Tim Sep 19 '14 at 22:16
  • @Tim As I said... it may not be as exciting but it will improve his timing which is what the OP actually asked for. – MikeV Sep 21 '14 at 20:54
  • true, it will improve timing, but not necessarily make a better musician. We need a lot more than playing to ticks. Playing in time is important, but so is interaction.Last night, I played a gig with a vocalist who missed beats several times. The whole band reacted, professionally and subtly, and I'm certain that no-one in the audience noticed. So, I wonder, is timing actually so important? Yes, the question is about timing, true. – Tim Sep 21 '14 at 21:20

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