Learning how to sing and play the guitar at the same time is one of those things you often feel like you will never be able to do.
There are some people that absolutely amaze me with their ability to sing and play guitar at the same time, complicated rhythms and difficult parts with absolute ease and perfection. It’s something I have always envied and put down to natural talent. If however you have read my article about natural talent then you know that I think this “gift” is more about luck than talent and in most cases everybody has the same chance of reaching those levels of musicianship, or at the very least, improve greatly.
Generally speaking, everybody has the same basic physical make up. We do however all have individual character and our own way of interpreting everything we learn in life. This by it’s very nature allows some people to adapt, or be more naturally suited to certain things than others. What makes a great guitarist doesn’t necessarily make a great drummer etc. You may go through your entire life never finding out that you was indeed the perfect candidate for becoming a drummer with ‘natural talent’ or a pianist, an athlete, writer or whatever. Because you never spend any time, or have interest in many of these things, you will never end up finding out.
The good thing is it has been proved many times that most people can be trained to a professional level in almost any subject. The only difference between you and the naturally talented person is what they do by way of their natural character. All you might need is a method to train yourself to do the same thing.
There seems to be a complete lack of study and lesson material available for teaching the art of singing and playing guitar (or any musical instrument) at the same time. In fact, I have never managed to find anything useful on the subject so what I intend to do here is put forward my own thoughts about it and give you some ideas to create exercises that will improve your ability to play guitar and sing at the same time.
Most of what we do naturally I think is a result of what gets fed to our minds regularly, not just music but everything from physical abilities to personal opinions. I doubt that you’ll find anybody that would think driving a car or even walking is a product of natural talent yet both require practice to do well. Walking is a very complicated process if you break it down and study it in detail, but none of us give it any thought, we learn as a child and never think about it again.
If you have kids then you are probably more fascinated by this then anyone else, watching your child learn to walk is an amazing experience. Once they can do it, they then put it to practice everyday almost constantly without conscious thought yet it still takes a long while before you could call them a truly confident walker. There are obviously other factors that complicates this even further because the child is still growing, hasn’t gained enough strength etc but the point is that no matter what you do or learn in life it still has to be mastered by practice.
So how do I learn to sing and play my guitar at the same time?
Unfortunately I have no definite answer to this question. What I do have though is a lot of confidence that everybody can improve by a huge amount in a reasonably short period of time.
The first thing you will need to do is forget about those musicians that seem to have a natural ability to sing and play effortlessly and instead take a look at the professionally trained musician. Have you ever noticed that the professionally trained musicians all seem to be able to talk flawlessly while they are playing and explaining something at the same time. You see this often in teaching videos. Talking in a naturally flowing voice is just as hard as singing at the same time.
Q. What is one of the biggest differences between the way an amateur and the professional practices their instrument?
A. The professionals learn to walk before they can run.
Having the ability to sing and play at the same time has a lot to do with the basic mastering of various rhythms against the main beat. This is something that all professional musicians spend a lot of time practicing. Very few amateurs do this, especially the self taught.
A perfect example of this might be tapping your foot. Virtually every book on music will tell you to tap quarter notes with your foot in time with what you practice. I’m willing to bet that everyone who has trouble singing and playing guitar simultaneously cannot tap their foot perfectly in quarter notes over a difficult syncopated patterns, with or without singing. Most amateurs, even if they do tap their foot, can only do it well over straight rhythms that are spread evenly.
This might not be the answer to being able to sing and play anything over any rhythm but I’m certain that if you have trouble doing this then you will have just as much trouble singing and playing at the same time. Try this experiment, find a rhythm that you can’t keep a straight quarter note going with your foot without messing up. Now try the same thing but instead of using your foot count one two three four. You’ll probably find that what you can’t do with your foot, you also can’t can’t count with your voice. If this proves anything at all it tells us that we are trying to walk before we can run.
I started learning to play drums not so long ago and unlike when I first took up guitar, I started out by doing everything the recommended way, just doing rhythm exercises. I have no plans to rush on the drums or run before I can walk like I did with the guitar.
When I first started learning guitar, I skipped all of the recommended exercises because I thought they were boring and unhelpful to me, and in all honesty, they just looked too simple. One of the most important things I have learnt since then (because of my drum practice) is these simple boring exercises help you in every way. Lets say for instance I want to learn (as a beginner) drum pattern W, X, Y and Z because they sound cool. Because I’m impatient, I skip patterns A through V because they are just boring exercises and go straight into learning some cool beats starting with pattern W. It’s difficult at first but I manage it. After this I spend a few months on pattern X and do the same thing through to Z until I can play reasonably well all four patterns.
I still can’t play patterns A to V nor can I play A1 to Z1 or anything else. What I have done here is skipped the most important elements to timing, rhythm and plain natural ‘feel’. Had I learnt the building blocks first then I would have gone through patterns W to Z with ease and then moved on to the next level ready and armed with all the basic requirements for mastering the more difficult things. Everything I do from now on becomes easier to learn, not necessarily easy to play, but certainly be prepared and ready in every respect necessary to progress properly.
So how does this relate to singing and playing the guitar at the same time?. I believe the simple and basic building blocks that are part of all professional level training programs is where the problem lies for the rest of us… we don’t learn them!
When I first started singing and playing in a band there were a lot of songs I couldn’t sing while playing, although after many years of doing it I certainly improved. Still I have to be somewhat choosy over my choice of song. The ones that give me most trouble are those that have non symmetrical syncopated rhythms.
One thing I have learned from playing a lot with a metronome over the years, and even more so with drumming, is there’s a big difference between playing a rhythm in time and actually ‘feeling’ time. I can think of no way of explaining this but maybe you have experienced it yourself. It is that point you reach when you are playing to a click and all of a sudden everything locks into one unit, the click suddenly stops serving as a guide for time keeping but becomes the pulse, the drive, heartbeat or whatever you want to call it and you can feel it pushing and pulling your rhythm like the two are locked together.
This is the “feel” I believe we need to achieve in singing and playing. The singing should not be locking onto the rhythm or vice versa but both the guitar and the singing need to be locking independently onto the feel of straight time, the actual pulse of the beat. There are many exercises you can do to help with this and they don’t necessarily have to include singing, in fact I think the singing practice should not even be started until you can at least count in time with a lot of these syncopated rhythms.
Over the course of time I will post up a few exercise ideas. I can’t guarantee they will make you a master at singing and playing at the same time but I can guarantee if you do them properly, you will improve this ability by a huge amount.
I would love to see some good examples of timing excercises i.e. syncopated rhthyms, difficult patterns, non symettrical rhthyms. the works. I could make my own, but I am not sure how well I’d be targeting my playing deficiencies efficiently.
Sebastian Cas says
You narrowed it down, it’s a coordination task that can be improved greatly with metronome practice.
Playing the instrument must become absolutely natural to the player, that way nothing can interfere or disrupt the playing while you sing, speak or do everything else.
Jakc Wright says
Thanks this really helped, although i also would quite like to see synchronised pattern exercises
Martin George says
You’re spot on – there does appear to be very little in way of training material regarding what is essentailly a ‘must-have’ skill for anyone hoping to play live. And like yourself, i’m self taught and when (rare) i’ve viewed professional training material (electric guitar) i’ve usually thought ‘this is well boring’ or ‘i’m way past that’ and skipped. After reading your page i intend to revisit some of the material and work my way through. I’m in the throws of assembling what i hope will be a gigging band with myself lead vocal/rhythm-lead guitar so yep, time to knuckle down. Thanks for the posting.
Thanks for the reply Martin.
I really should update this section with some exercises! Since I wrote this article I have done a bit of experimenting (not as much as I should be) and I can confirm that the ideas I spoke about in here definitely work. At the very least you can improve your sing / play simultaneous ability, noticeably.
I found something else out as well, this might not affect everybody depending on how you play but…
I started to realise that my up / down picking patterns make a BIG difference. Again, something that a lot of self taught’s overlook. Pick direction isn’t a hard and fast rule but we are kind of wired to pick / strum down on the beat and up on the ‘And’. A lot of the things I play, I do so by habit and it doesn’t always relate to this rule. Example..
I have been trying to think of something reasonably difficult to play and sing at the same time so that I can update this article with an example song that most people will know. So far I’ve come up with Daytripper by the Beatles, this should be a slightly difficult challenge. I can sing with this just about, but I looked at my pick pattern and I am playing (out of habit) some up strokes on the beat and some down strokes on the ‘and’.
I spent ten minutes trying to correct this and the result was quite a big difference. I’ve not explored this enough to be conclusive but it looks very promising. Certainly worth mentioning!
I did the same thing you did im self taught on guitar and i was about an average player i could play complicated songs but i never took time to learn the simple stuff because i thought i was way past that
i started taking guitar lessons in college and they had me start out with rele simple stuf that i flew through but wile i was learning the simple stuf my speed and accuracy skyrocketed I started being able to play songs i wudnt have dreamed of playing before its all about takeing the time to walk before you run
Thanks for the comment Patrick. I think we all learn the hard way unfortunately. It seems to be the hardest message to get across, but I was exactly the same so I understand how easy it is to ignore the fundamentals.
Wow!! this is such a great article. Ive been playing guitar for over 15 years and everything you say makes sense. Growing up I had a really good ear and skipped alot of things now Im stuck with singing and playing at the same time, haha. Im curently having trouble singing Roxanne while playing ( i know its pathetic) Anyways I really enjoyed the article.
It took me ages to master singing and playing at the same time, but I love this website – it really helped! You’re right about tapping your foot and using a metronome, it helps immensely. Natural talent is such an amazing thing – I envy those out there who can do all that stuff!
sonam pelden says
wow that shows u r so interested in guitar a lot
that is the soul spirit
I am working on learning this myself, but my uncle told me to make up some simple story to tell, like walking the dog or getting groceries, and just tell the story without singing over a simple progression, and work my way up from there. it’s working so far, though I still can’t play anything too complex, it really has boosted my efforts somewhat.
Bob Burger says
After 40 years of playing(Country, Old rock and Blues), I had the humility to realize that I was a strummer,singer and entertainer and not a very good guitar player.I stopped playing the songs I memorized for years and studied with an experienced player who played on the road for many years. The keys to my improvement on guitar was listening to constructive criticism.I learned practical music theory, more complex chords and the mathematical formulas for constructing pretty chords to accompany my vocals.My teacher made me Comp(lay down the chords) using all down strokes to maintain a strict beat.Then he made me read music,learn scales and arpeggios to play and improvise on the melody side of tunes from the STANDARDS.Next I learned how to read simple and intermediate classical music on the nylon string.I am working on my solo guitar on classical and CHORD-MELODY now and have made my living teaching for the past twenty years.I love what I do!!! Ps This is the first time I ever made a comment on this site!
Mat Ke says
I’ve read the article and I must say it’s of great help. I really have big problems with this even though i play for about 2 years now. I can play and sing songs that have simple rhytm patterns but whenever the musician sings something that’s not directly in the guitar rhytm it’s an enigma to me (sorry for my english, i can’t really find good expresions).
This is one of the most interesting things on this matter I’ve seen, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjT86g9gTKk
I’m glad to hear i’m not the only one with this problem. I am also self-taught and hve bypassed the easy boring mechanics. I can also see and hear how this affects my over-all playing…..hopefully this helps me learn to sing and play better. I’m currently working on a difficult…(to me anway) song from alice in chains called….I stay away….the music by itself is not difficult, nor is the singing, but together it is one of the most challenging songs i have ever taken on, i practiced for just a lil while, unable to master it, but when i went back to some of the easier songs that i had been struggling with, they were much easier. Thank you for your article on playing and singing at the same time, from now on i will….tap before I talk and talk before I sing…..you hit it right on the head, it is hard to even talk while playing guitar, much less sing,,,
well i do hope that, as iget to work i’ll not just be good but the best in my playing
I learned to play the guitar by singing with it! My book was full of old music (think folk songs) I wasn’t really familiar with. So to avoid the chords sounding like a mass of meaningless noise, I was forced to sing along. Unorthodox method, but it worked really well, aside from some frustration the first couple of weeks.
Yes, Lee’s article is insightful with angles of observation that contain several
nice teaching points. I also liked the commentary, the responses to the article, its like a song
being written. Gestalt theory points out that you can enter a field of learning from any doorway,
any point but that if you want to attain mastery you have to travel the “planet” of that field.
Whether some of the folks who have written here feel as if they might have come backwards in through the door of music, I find your experiences refreshing and inspirational like the article.
Indeed, rhythm is key. I have learned this myself after years of struggling to get to grips with playing guitar and singing at the same time. Needless to say, I have given up on several occasions.
I firmly believe there is merit in recording yourself as you go along – I personally found this particularly useful as I could use my own playing singing as backing tracks to perform the other part over. (This is an idea I discovered in a book on Amazon, which teaches you the process from start to finish: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008JYCW0K/)
If you haven’t got one, it’s certainly worth investing in a metronome and also some kind of recording app if you’ve got a smartphone.
Sorry to be a bit nit-picky, but I’m an avid foot-tapper. I’ve been playing music and taking lessons since I was very young, and grew up learning to tap out the quarter notes with my foot. So playing complex rhythms while tapping my foot doesn’t faze me. Unfortunately, years later, I still can’t seem to get this to translate vocally. I can say “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and” out loud while I’m playing a syncopated rhythm, but as soon as I try to sing in a different rhythm than what I’m playing (or even just carry on a conversation for that matter- I suddenly find that I can’t even pronounce words correctly), I can’t seem sing in tune OR play in rhythm. As of yet, I can only sing while I’m playing very simple quarter note rhythms. And that’s something that I’ve been able to do for years now. So I guess what I’m asking, is how do I make the transition from doing the simple basics to being able to sing and play syncopated rhythms? I can’t seem to shut the part of my brain off that pays attention to what I’m playing no matter how well I know my part.