For many people, myself included, the guitar is not just an instrument; it’s an accompaniment. I have always enjoyed expressing myself through music, in particular by singing. Not long after I really started getting interested in music in my teens, I decided to purchase an acoustic guitar at the age of 19. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to achieve. Naturally I started by learning basic chord shapes and progressions, mostly from my Oasis chord book (and still love a bit of Brit-pop today!).
Once I had a basic progression down, I would record it and then try to layer the lead sections over the top using my brother’s electric guitar – I was useless. My timing was always off and I couldn’t play quickly enough. Whilst this can be rectified in time through lots and lots of practice, it didn’t take long for me to realise that the most intriguing and ultimately satisfying part of playing guitar for me, was the ability to sing along with the chords I was strumming.
This was tough to master, and I would like to share with you five techniques which helped me learn how to play and sing simultaneously.
Try to Minimise the Pain
You can’t comfortably sing if you are struggling to play. Make sure that you keep your fingernails short and that the skin on the end of your fingers has toughened up. If you are in pain, you will more likely be concentrating on this than anything else, and I found that if there was something hampering my playing, my voice and timing would go to pot. Also, sometimes you need to step back and take a break. I was practicing for 4-5 hours at a time which was very intense on my fingers, posture and vocals.
Have a Conversation
What you need to do is separate your hand from your brain. When trying to sing and play at the same time, many people strum the guitar in emphasis along with what they are trying to sing. There needs to be a disconnect between your hand and your brain. To do this, start by just having a conversation with a friend whilst strumming. Concentrate on the conversation, not your playing. Don’t try to play anything in particular – just play what you know. This will help to sever that connection between your brain and your hand, meaning that neither is dependent on the other.
Get Your Playing Down
My timing naturally sucks, and this tip can be useful to all musicians – practice with a click track (metronome). If you never play with a drummer, there is a good chance that your playing is not consistent with anything other than itself. This isn’t good if you’re performing a solo song. Practice both playing and singing individually with a metronome, which will help to train your natural rhythm. This, in time, will make playing and singing simultaneously much easier.
Work on Your Vocals Independently
To complete the singer/guitarist package you need to be expressive in your singing. Strengthening your voice is a great way to improve vocal projection. Take in deep breaths and release slowly 10 times in a row. Do this in the shower to take in the steam and air out your lungs. Lie down on the couch with a weight (i.e. a large book or similar) on your diaphragm and take large breaths… in and out… this all helps to strengthen the muscles which control your voice. Obviously this is the tip of the iceberg, but I encourage you to look further into vocal training as this will make you a better all-round performer.
Jam With Others
Sometimes this can be hard to orchestrate and no, a drum machine or metronome is not the same! Find people to play with; guitarists, singers, bassists, drummers… Humans make mistakes and have ideas just like you, and having a jam session with other musicians can be a really good way to train your skills. You don’t need to be the best guitarist in the world; you just need to have a passion and desire to progress your skills. Who knows, you may even decide to form a band of your own some day!