We plan to start a series about play-a-longs and divide it into parts. Today, we begin with part one of this series: the definition of a play-a-long, and examples of popular play-a-longs.
First, it's good to get clear what a play-a-long is. A play-a-long is a recording that you can use as accompaniment for when you practice (some musicians use it when performing, as well). Play-a-longs usually provide the following accompaniment: piano, bass, and drums; or just bass and drums, for a particular tune. It's great for soloists, since it helps them learn how to play with a band without actually having to hire musicians and/or form a jam session. Typically, you can get play-a-longs on a mobile device or play them as a CD on a CD player.
Here's a good example of a play-a-long. In this case, the play-a-long is for the jazz standard "Tune Up":
Play-a-longs like this one are nowadays usually done by a machine, and not real people; but there are exceptions, like Jamey Aebersold's play-a-longs. These have a real pianist (sometimes Aebersold himself, or Kenny Baron), a real bassist (like Tyrone Wheeler), and a real drummer (like Steve Davis). Aebersold's play-a-longs are often purchased in CD format, and included with each CD is a book with corresponding chord sequences and tunes written as sheet music. Each Aebersold play-a-long has between 40 and 80 minutes of play-a-long music, and since each play-a-long book + CD costs about $20 (USD - currency converter), the total cost of the play-a-long is 25-50 cents (USD) per minute of play-a-long music.
For a better price but somewhat poorer musical quality is iReal Pro. In our article For Musicians Only: the Top Five Apps for Jazz Musicians, we covered iRealPro as being the best iOS app for musicians. The downside to the iRealPro application is that, while it can create a play-a-long for every chord sequence imaginable, it is automated and therefore the rhythm section simply doesn't swing. (Of course, that may be good practice when it comes to playing with other jazz musicians, depending on how good they are.) iRealPro costs about $13 (again, USD) and is a one-time purchase unless you get add-ons later.
There are also play-a-longs on YouTube, which are free. Here's a pretty typical example of a play-a-long on YouTube for the tune "Just Friends": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFoKMeL1uHY. It's not terrible but not outstanding either. You can put something like "[name of tune] Play a long" into YouTube's search and, in most cases for jazz standards, you should be able to find a play-a-long.
So that's the full definition of a play-a-long and the types in which play-a-longs come. More information about play-a-longs will come in a future post (or, perhaps, future posts, plural) in this series.