There are several different ways you can make use of the old time jam tracks, depending on the instrument you play, your level of expertise, and your familiarity with jamming.
Working up a new tune
The backup tracks can be a great aid in learning new tunes. Not only will playing along with them help you build speed, but it will also expose sections of a tune that are giving you trouble and need further attention or re-working. The general approach I use when working up a new tune is as follows:
1. Listen to the tune many times until it’s burned into your brain. Don’t start trying to play a new tune until you can hum or sing it completely through. Listening to the fiddle and banjo versions here are one way to do this, but I’d recommend listening to as many other versions of a tune as you can if possible (thank you, Internet...). This will help distill the tune down to its essence, so that you can work out an arrangement in your style. In fact, you can even play the guitar backup at this point and hum the tune along with it to make sure you’ve got it down.
2. Find the notes of the tune on your instrument, and work out your arrangement. (This applies to those learning by ear, which most old-time musicians do. The alternative is to learn the tune from a tablature arrangement)
3. Once you feel like you’ve got the tune “under your fingers”, play along with the slow guitar backup track.
4. Once you’re able to play with the slow guitar backup track cleanly and in time, practice along with the full speed guitar backup track.
5. Once you’re able to play with the full speed guitar backup track cleanly and in time, play along with the fiddle and guitar track if you’re on banjo or the guitar and banjo track if you’re on fiddle. You may find you need to tweak your arrangement a bit to fit in best with these versions, which is a great skill to work on as well. Eventually you’ll start being able to do so “on the fly”.
If you’ve successfully completed the above learning sequence, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to play the tune like you want to when it’s your time to play your new tune with live human beings. For those relatively new to jamming, practicing the above sequence will be a great way to boost your confidence prior to attending a jam session.
The backup tracks are also a great way to practice jamming. The playlists are organized by key, so simply choose a tune from the key you’d like to start in and start jamming along. As the player moves through the list, you may encounter tunes you’re less familiar with or ones you really don’t know at all...which is actually what will often happen at a jam! So this is a great time to practice what to do in this situation (find the chords and play accompaniment, work out a skeletal version of the melody, etc.). After all, figuring out how to fit in on a tune you don’t really know too well is part of the fun.
You could also put the player in random mode, but be prepared to change keys (i.e. - re-tune if you’re a banjoist or cross tuning fiddler) often (if you want to practice playing all your tunes out of a single tuning, this would be a good way to do so)!
The top 20
If you’re relatively new to old-time music and are looking for some initial tunes to learn, I’d suggest starting with the old-time top 20 playlist. This list was compiled from surveys at the banjo and fiddle hangouts, and from a survey several years ago from fiddler magazine. So you can rest easy knowing you can show up at an old-time jam just about anywhere and find folks who’ll know these tunes as well. You might also try to find out some of the common tunes at any of the jams near you, and put those on your list of tunes to learn.
Don’t forget to turn it up!
One thing to remember is to make sure your speakers are turned up loud enough for you to clearly hear the backup track over your instrument. If it’s too quiet, you may think there’s a problem with your rhythm or timing, when in reality the problem is you just can’t hear the other instruments well enough to find the beat.