Learning to play the guitar is not necessarily very difficult in itself, but it requires patience, concentration and hours of training to get the correct sound. If you are happy to strum a few guitar chords, and you are happy to do away with music theory, guitar solos, and more advanced guitar skills, you can be playing well in no time.
On the other hand, singing is a completely different activity with its own techniques and methods. Knowing how to play guitar is one thing, but having the dexterity to navigate the fretboard whilst singing away is a little different.
Singing and playing the guitar at the same time is not as easy as it sounds. It's a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, as your mouth and hands are doing different things - different pitches and rhythms - simultaneously.
You will have to learn to synchronize the vocals and the guitar, which presupposes that you already have some basis in both areas (and have followed some guitar lessons).
You will need substantial vocal ability, and be comfortable covering several octaves.
Similarly, to sing while playing the guitar, you have to master the basics of the guitar, to play rhythm chords and be able to hold a rhythm for vocals.
If your rhythmic base and your guitar playing are unstable, your singing will be wobbly and the results will not be what you are after.
Before Playing Guitar and Singing at the Same Time
To play well and to sing along well, your choice of song is crucial; it should be easy to play on guitar (metre: 4/4) and easy to sing along at a normal speed, with an accessible melodic line (the Beatles or Stealers Wheel are excellent example).
Do not push yourself too far to begin with, or make things too complicated, because you risk putting yourself off.
Of course, playing guitar can be difficult.
Your brain and your fingers will need to know the tune by heart.
Working on the Guitar and Vocals Separately
There is no real method for learning to playing the guitar and singing simultaneously. If we can give any advice, it would be to work on both skills separately before combining them when you feel at ease (maybe after following guitar lessons). Start with your weaker skill; if you're a singer, start with the guitar and vice versa.
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Listen Carefully to the Song (Before Playing and Singing)
This seems obvious, but many people neglect this stage.
Having listened to a song dozens of times and feeling like you know it does not mean you have really listened to it carefully. Train your ear to spot highlights, toned accents, chord changes, and different tones. Do not hesitate to ask your guitar teacher for help. No guitar teacher? Find one for guitar lessons in London or Oxford.
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Find out if some phrases are longer than others, which will mean varying the tempo as well as changing the melody.
You have to listen to the song as if you were playing it yourself, which will train your ear and give you a new outlook on the piece.
Being able to play the guitar and sing at the same time is a question of listening.
When you play the guitar and sing at the same time, the sound of your voice is very important.
Singing has a set rhythm and it is made up of the syllables you play your melody over. It is key that changing the rhythm of these syllables does not destabilize the piece as a whole.
The guitar does not have such restrictions on rhythm, you can play fast or slow, run notes together, and add or remove some riffs, but singing is much more difficult.
Help from Tablatures
Start by choosing a part of the song to learn, just one verse, for example, and look for where the syllables are in relation to the rhythm.
Tabs make this easier if they can show you where the words are in relation to the rhythm and notes.
Next, start by warming up your voice by doing a few vocal exercises, and when you're ready, sing a cappella, without using your guitar.
Use a metronome to check the rhythm and figure out if the words and syllables fall as they should according to the tempo.
Base the Vocals on the Rhythm of the Guitar
Once you feel you have everything in hand, you can try a little on your guitar.
Plan the movements first with your left hand and then play with your right hand.
Avoid playing with one hand only. By doing this little preparatory exercise, you will learn to sing your song at the appropriate rhythm which will serve as a reference for the rest.
The difficulty lies in keeping your singing consistent with chord changes (again your guitar teacher will be able to help you).
If you enjoy this step you can progress to the next; establishing the rhythm and practicing on the guitar.
Practicing the Guitar
The guitar does not only serve as grounding for your song, you will need to develop your skill so that your chosen piece is the pinnacle of your musical achievement.
Always choose a simple rhythm to begin with and play the chords in rhythm focusing on your guitar.
Do not try to simplify your playing by strumming using the back and forth technique as it will lessen the interest of the piece.
If you want a more gradual approach to playing guitar, this is how it’s done: take the rhythm of the piece in its simplest form and repeat this exercise until its final form.
Understanding the rhythm on your guitar is essential if you want to be able to sing along while you play your instrument. The greater your command of the rhythm, the easier it will be for you to play and sing in time without having to stop and think about it later on.
Once you have the guitar part down, start singing in your head without making a sound. You should already notice a slight difference in the level of concentration required to continue playing at the right rhythm.
Continue this exercise until everything becomes natural.
Being able to remain focused is vital to being able to play and sing at the same time.
Rhythm is the main issue faced when playing and singing simultaneously. You need to learn to play the guitar quickly. If you are not in rhythm you will fall out of time and your song will fall apart, it’s that simple.
Breaking Down Syllables
Once you have got the rhythm of the guitar and the rhythm of the song, you will need to combine them so that they synchronize. This is the first step covered in guitar lessons for beginners. Break down the lyrics by syllables and work out which note or stroke they correspond to.
This method is academic, but it works very well to help you understand each step of the piece, and to memorize the different phases of the song and the score.
Another method would be to pick out the important syllables, those that coincide with the main chords on the guitar.
As soon as you hit a more accentuated note, find out what syllable it corresponds to, and use this as a method to keep time.
This method gives you reliable benchmarks without adopting a strict, analytical methodology.
Both this latter method or the former, more academic one, are phases you will have to work through as you learn your piece.
The more you play the better and more natural your guitar and vocal skills will become. Eventually you can learn to improvise on the guitar.
Alternate Between Vocals and Guitar
Getting your priorities straight is an important concern when you want to play the guitar and sing at the same time: you may have a better grasp on the guitar part or the vocals, to the detriment of the other. If you misplay a note it may impact the way you sing.
The aim is to keep the intensity of your voice and your playing in tune to form a harmonious and coherent whole.
Practice to Develop Coherent Singing and Playing
Once you have mastered the vocal and guitar parts separately, try playing the guitar and singing with the same intensity, almost monotonously.
Repeat the same thing singing and playing more intensely, and then again slowly.
Finally, try varying intensities progressively: play and sing softly then go crescendo playing and singing at maximum intensity. Repeat this exercise in the opposite direction until playing and singing almost at a whisper. By performing these little exercises, you get a feel for the different phrases and nuances of the piece.
You can also mix it up by singing softly while playing hard and vice versa. You will discover new effects that will enrich both your guitar playing and your song.
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