BY ANDREW DUBROCK
Playing guitar and singing can be challenging enough on their own, so putting the two together may seem like a tall order—but it really doesn’t need to be that way. If you methodically approach “playing” and “singing” as independent parts, you can eventually bring them together into one interlocking unit fairly easily. In this lesson, we’ll develop a process for combining these two components into one multitasking activity, starting by playing simple strum patterns while singing and gradually building them until you can sing and play a whole song with any set of strum patterns you like.
Learn Each Part Separately
To sing and play a song well, you have to be able to perform the guitar and vocal parts on their own, so it’s good to master each one separately. And it helps to start with a song you’re familiar with—something you can “play” in your head from start to finish. In this lesson, we’ll use the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times Come Again No More.” You can also apply the following process to a song you know well; that familiarity will help you focus on blending your guitar and voice instead of learning a new song.
Example 1 shows the opening phrase of “Hard Times Come Again No More” with one strum on the downbeat of each measure. Before you start singing, play through the figure, counting as you use downstrokes for each strum. Next, sing the vocal part by itself. You can’t count aloud while you’re singing, but you can keep your rhythm steady by tapping your foot on the beats, visualizing the beats in your head, or using a metronome to click out the beats for you. Hold each of the half notes for two beats (the word pause and the second syllable of pleasures).Before putting the parts together, make sure you can sing or play each part individually without looking at the music. Now put the two parts together. If your rhythm gets off, keep tapping your foot and remember that a vocal syllable occurs on each beat, with the exception of the words pause and pleasures. Once you’ve mastered this example, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re now singing and playing at the same time.
Now let’s beef up the guitar part by adding three more strums to each measure (Example 2) so that you’re playing four downstroke strums per measure. You’re now strumming steadily on every beat, but since you’re also strumming more on your guitar than you are singing, this can take some getting used to. As with Example 1, get comfortable playing and singing the guitar and vocal parts individually before putting them together. If you were tapping your foot on each beat in Example 1, you can think of each guitar strum as taking the place of the foot taps—this is especially helpful if you had problems holding the pause and the second half of pleasures for two beats. You may feel an inclination to sing and play every note together, which means you’d either be shortening the vocal half notes by one beat or lengthening the strums. Neither is correct, so make sure you’re playing each part as it is written.
Eighth-Note Strum Patterns
Example 3 adds a driving rhythm to the strum pattern by adding eighth notes between all the quarter notes. The biggest change here is that you should now be playing upstrokes on the ands of the beats as well as downstrokes on the beats. Keep your hand moving constantly using the same up-and-down motion as in Example 2, but let your pick connect with the strings on every upstroke. When you have this down, add the vocal. At this point, you’re strumming at least one downstroke and one upstroke for each vocal note (and two pairs of strums for pause and the second half of pleasures). Tap your foot if it helps you keep in rhythm—if you’re doing it correctly, you’ll notice that your foot taps on every downstroke.
Now let’s mix up the strum patterns behind the vocal line. Most strum patterns are built using Example 3 as a foundation; just pare back the rhythm—leaving out an eighth note here and there—and you have a new strum pattern. Example 4 uses a half note, a quarter note, and two eighths to add variety at the end of each measure. Once again, strum this example on guitar first. Once you add the vocal, the trickiest part will be the second full measure, where the vocal sings a note on beat 2 by itself and the guitar strums by itself on beat 3.
Example 5 provides more propulsion with quarter notes at the beginning of the measure and a steady stream of eighth notes in the second half of the measure. It may help to think of this as a combination of Examples 2 and 3. Again, make sure you count along if you’re having trouble with these examples. Once you have the rhythm patterns in Examples 4 and 5 under your fingers and can sing along to each one, try mixing the two (Example 6). Next, try coming up with your own strumming patterns, and mix them up in ways that sound good to you.
Troubleshoot by Isolating and Breaking Down Parts
Sometimes a quick chord change or complicated rhythmic pattern will throw you off in the same place every time. When this happens, hone in on the problem area and practice it on its own. For instance, Example 7 shows a measure with a quick chord change from “Hard Times Come AgainNo More.” Notice that, unlike our previous examples in which the chords changed once every four or eight beats, the first two chords last for only two beats each. If this is difficult for you, play it slowly to isolate the problem. If the quick chord change is throwing you off, practice the guitar part by itself until you have it down. If you can play the guitar and vocal parts individually but have trouble putting them together, slow down and, using a metronome to click out the beats, find a tempo where you can play the parts together. It may help to subdivide the reference clicks by making the metronome click on every eighth note, so you hear a click on every upstroke as well as downstroke. Then slowly increase the tempo until you can play the problem section at normal speed. Example 8 shows another scenario that can cause problems: neither part is complicated on its own, but played together, the rhythms in measure 3 become a little tricky. As you did for Example 7, isolate and troubleshoot what’s going on, use a metronome, and build things back up to speed.
If these passages prove too difficult, try simplifying either your strum pattern or vocal part (as in the slightly altered vocal rhythm in Example 9) and tackle the more complicated patterns when you’re ready for them. Sometimes the simpler version will sound just as good or better.
You Can Do It!
If you haven’t tried singing before, don’t let it intimidate you. Everyone can sing, and you can too. It may help to remember that even the best singers had to start somewhere. So give it a try and don’t worry about how you sound. You can start by singing to your spouse, your kids, a pet, or even just the walls in your shower. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be singing, and the better you’ll sound.
When trying anything new, it helps to relax your whole body, and for singing this is especially true. As you sing, stand up straight and make sure your mouth, throat, and tongue are relaxed. A flexible soundboard provides more tone for your guitar, and a relaxed body provides more tone for your voice.
Don’t Let Mistakes Stop You
When you play a song—especially with other people—it’s important to make it through the song without stopping. Other people won’t wait for you to recover from your mistakes and catch up. If you miss a quick chord change, get your fingers ready for the next chord and come in when everyone reaches that point. Everybody makes mistakes, but the best musicians are good at covering up their mistakes. Of course, learning mistakes is never a good idea, but while you’re playing songs with other people, it’s the wrong time to troubleshoot rough spots. You can always work on your mistakes later.