A step by step guide to playing and singing at the same time
When we ask our students which workshops they would like us to include, the most requested is how to play and sing. We never like saying no to any workshop request (unless it’s Ed Sheeran themed) but this is one we’re reluctant to teach because singing while playing is not something you can learn in an hour. It’s something that requires a lot of time spent alone with you, your guitar, your ears, and if you’re Thomas, your collection of childhood teddy bears.
That’s not to say we don’t have lots of tips. As someone who started playing guitar 4 years ago, I can easily remember the frustrating process of learning to play a song, getting the strumming and chords perfect, then finding my rhythm went to pot as soon as I started singing over the top. But because I can remember that time so vividly, I can remember the process I had to go through to get past it.
I’ve also spent a lot of time speaking to beginners about how they’re working towards playing and singing and I’ve made note of every single lightbulb moment that I’ve been a part of while teaching or sitting in on sessions, when a student suddenly goes – holy sh*t, I can sing this.
(Disclaimer….this list has also been created by researching the methods used by other musicians and guitar tutors – which probably makes this the best of all ‘How to’ blogs there is).
Top tip….. Separate the two challenges –you only have one brain, probably, so you need to have your one brain working on only one challenge at a time. You do this by getting to know both parts: the guitar playing and the singing, really well.
Step 1. Start with probably the most fun, but for many, the most difficult part – active listening. By this I don’t mean sticking the song on while you go for a walk or make spreadsheets, I mean sitting down and doing nothing but listening to the song you want to play. Sit with a pen and paper and write out the song structure. Write down the different instruments you can hear. Make a note of whether the chorus chords are higher or lower in pitch than the verse. Actively listen. You need to know the song you’re about to play.
If the song you’re trying to sing along to is your own then drop this step.
Step 2. It’s time to work on the guitar part so that you can play it completely from muscle memory. Start by halving the speed that you want to play the song at (do this by using a metronome) and then slowly build up the speed, ideally to about 10bmp faster than your intended speed. Work on the chord shapes and work on the chord changes until you’re at a point where you can play while having a conversation over the top of the chord changes. If you find that your conversation stops and starts and takes on a rhythm that is the same as your chord changes, you’re not ready to move on yet. Sorry.
Step 3. Now we work on adding the vocals. Take the lyrics to your song, whether it’s one you’ve written yourself, or a cover, and write it out, or copy paste the lyrics into an editable document. Now highlight or bolden every syllable that has a chord change on it. Or, if the chord change happens between words, create some sort of ___ visual marking. This will help remove some of the brain power that is needed to remember when to change chords.
Step 4. Time to add in strumming.
Whatever your strumming pattern is…..simplify it. Play down strums on the beat and try singing your song (with the recording if available) while playing just down strums. You don’t need to be changing chords at this stage so just mute the strings. If your song requires chord changes on the off beat then try a rhythm of 8ths, still all on down strums. You should be a full tempo while doing this.
Step 5. Add your strumming pattern in, but take your chord changes out (do this by muting your strings). Sing with the recording (or just sing if this is your own song) and keep your strumming pattern going as you sing. If you find that your singing is starting to wrongly match up with the rhythm of the strumming, then go back to step 4 and spend more time on that. You want to commit this strumming pattern to muscle memory, so that you’re at a point where you’re not having to say in your head down down down up down up.
Ideally, moving forward with your playing and singing endeavours, what you want is a bank of about 5 strumming patterns that are within you. That flow through your soul. That are so connected to your being that when you’re stirring your soup its with a down down down up down up motion.
Step 6. We go back to the simplified strumming pattern that we used in step 4 but now with full chords and the proper chord changes. Keep your eye on those highlighted or boldened words on your song sheet to help save some of that one brain brain power.
Step 7. Finish by adding the strumming pattern from step 5 in and sing my pretties! Sing!
One final piece of advice I’d like to give is that strumming patterns do not have to be exact. So long as you’re getting emphasis on the correct beat, you could play an entire song using only down strums and it will still sound good. So, if you’re finding that steps 5 and 7 just aren’t working for you yet, just play and sing with down strums. But play and sing with gusto. A song sung with love will sound much better than a perfectly strummed song that lacks heart and emphasis. And as for whether your vocals are good enough….they are. End of story.