I've just recently started trying to learn to play guitar. My early experiences with music would be best described as making a bad noise,on the recorder. Still, I've decided to give it another go. One thing I've found early on that playing along to a metronome really helps with keeping time, but it isn't the most interesting thing to listen to. To liven things up a little, I've been playing around with Garageband on my Mac. This is an application that comes with the iLife suite and is preinstalled on most mac's. I suspect many owners don't use it for much, other than maybe making the odd iPhone ringtone (you can make them for free with Garageband, rather than paying money to get them in iTunes). Garageband also comes with several free lessons built in that are useful, if a bit limited. I've been using it mostly to record my practices and provide backing rhythm for my practice time.
Instead of playing along to the metronome, I've been making up click tracks to play to. These are simple drum loops that I use as a backing beat. It is easy to change the tempo of the drum beat and make it loop indefinitely. I've found free loops and there are also several vanilla loops that ship with GarageBand that are useful for click tracks (such as Straight Up Beat 01). I just choose the one that has the closest feel to the rhythm I'm trying to play, then drag the loop into the main display. You can extend the loop by dragging the top right hand corner of the track out to the right. After that is done, set a cycle region to loop over the number of bars that you want it to play for and play along.
One of the nicest features of Garageband is the ability to retime any of the loops to a given tempo, so I can start out slow and build to a faster beat, without having to change the basic arrangements of backing tracks. I can add more software instruments as I go, but for now I've been keeping things quite simple. I have played some of the melodies on the musical score editor, so that I can hear how things should sound and have that playing quietly under the track as I play along. You can also drag in tunes straight from iTunes and have those as backing tracks as well. These can also be retimed and slowed down (control-option-G is the secret undocumented shortcut you'll need)
This has been helpful so far. I've also started recording my attempts on a separate track (I've got an acoustic-electric guitar, so I can hook it straight into the computer). Listening to it I can hear the mistakes, but I can also pull up waveforms and visually see just where and when I was off beat. That's helped me start to tighten things up. I've been impressed by the features available in this free suite of tools. Certainly not as all encompassing as Logic Studio or Pro Tools, but more than I need to be able to help me learn more quickly.
After a few days of this, I realised the biggest problem was having to hit a key to start things recording, then quickly grab the guitar and get ready to play. Garageband will provide a 4 beat count in, but that isn't really enough for me to get ready and away from the keyboard. I found an interesting solution, where I worked out how to use my iPhone to remotely control GarageBand, using the Open Sound Control protocol and some free GUI creation tools and a bit of python scripting. More about that later.
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