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.