How To Sing And Play At The Same Time

I'm just back from the NAMM show in California, and I got to meet loads of people, many of which mentioned they read GT Mag and a few suggested I do an article on singing and playing the guitar at the same time. I wasn't gifted with a great voice, but I found singing while playing wasn't difficult – but I had figured out a plan which I use, and I'll share it with you here. There is a video lesson on this topic on my website if you'd like to hear the exercises, just type sing into the search box at the top!

Start With An Easy Song
I'm not including this in my ten steps, but it's really important to find a nice easy song to get going with. Trying to do a hard song when you start is only going to leave you feeling frustrated and deflated. Start easy and build it up.
Simple songs you might like to start with are Knockin On Heaven Door, Three Little Birds, Feelin Alright, Blowin In The Wind, Brown Eyed Girl... simple chords, simple melodies and very memorable.

1. Listen to the song a lot.
Like a LOT, at least ten times in a row, and focus. Try and get inside the track, not just scratch the surface. Try to ABSORB it. For some reason, headphones seem to work best for me for doing the focused listening.

2. Learn the guitar part
This should require listening, practice, and possibly playing along with the original recording. If you struggle with any particular bit, then work on that bit until you get it right.

3. Play it while having a conversation
You'll easily be able to tell if you have it automated enough!! It's the best test I know of, and I use it myself. If I can play it and think about something completely different, I know I'm there and ready to think about singing!

4. Listen to the song – vocal focus.
This time, really listen to the vocal, the melody, how it's sung, how it feels on the beat.

5. Write out the lyrics and study them.
The better you know the lyrics (preferably memorised them), the easier it will be!

6. Sing along with the original recording.
No playing yet, just work on your vocal and make sure you are ok with your pitching and phrasing.

7. Know the syllables when the chords change.
Not just what word, but which syllable within a word the chords change on. Often people write this above the lyrics with a> sign.

8. Sing along and play muted strums on each beat.
No playing chords yet!!! Just keep the fretting hand loosely on the strings, so you just get a muted click sound. This will help you feel the rhythm of the melody which you will be singing. If you have listened enough, the melody should be in your ear, but for most people, the rhythm of the melody takes a little more work! If you struggle with the lyrics at this point, you can try humming along with the melody, but really you want to get those lyrics into your memory bank!

9. Add in the chords but keep the rhythm simple.
This will usually mean four strums per bar (will be 3 in 3:4 time), keep them all down strums and tap your foot with the beat too if you can (you should be working on getting that foot tapping automatically anyways!).

10. Play it, fo' real.
Now add in a strumming pattern, and you are playing the song. If you struggle a bit, don't be afraid to slow it down, things are nearly always easier slower.

If you are struggling with any of the stuff above, you might find some of the extra hints helpful!

• The 5-minute habit (playing the same thing over and over for 5 minutes)
Doing the same thing over and over for 5 minutes every day for a week is a really good way to create a habit!! So if you struggle with a bit of a song then do just that bit, be it a chorus or just one line of a verse, just work on that one bit. Five minutes is a LONG time and will sort out most problems very quickly!

• Learning to keep playing when you make a mistake
Rhythm has been with our species since we were making tools out of stones... it's built in, so most likely nobody will notice if you mix up words or play the wrong chords (unless you make a right pig's ear of it) if you stop or let the rhythm fall apart, almost everyone will notice. So work on keeping on going even if you make a fluff or two!

• Understanding Rhythms can be very helpful
Many of my students have reported that understanding and playing rhythms has helped every aspect of their playing including singing and playing at the same time... so it might be worth checking out my book Understanding Rhythmic Notation if you think that is your weak point.

• Fingerstyle (or strumming) patterns must be 100% automated 
If you are still making mistakes in a fingerstyle pattern or strumming pattern, you are most likely really going to struggle to sing too. So nail the guitar parts first before you even try!

• Switching your focus between the vocal and the guitar
In some songs, there are tricky bits and fills between the vocal lines. For this kind of stuff, you will need to learn to switch your focus from the vocal to the guitar and back. Not that tricky really, but like everything else, will take some practice!

• Harder stuff, like playing over riffs, requires more practice and a solid foundation. If you want to get into singing over more complex riffs, then you are going to have to work extra hard on them to get them automated. It's just going to take a lot more hours of practice and a lot more intense concentration.

Hope that gets you going and see you for more real soon! Safe travels!

Food For Thought