You’ve been working on your instrumental chops for a while but now find that you are longing to add another element to your musical life—accompanying yourself on guitar while you sing. Maybe you’ve written some personal lyrics that only you can deliver, or you want to share the message of someone else’s song, but in your own voice and style. At first, doing both at once can seem daunting, but the simple steps outlined in this lesson can make the process of learning how to play and sing at the same time much easier and more enjoyable.
1. Don’t Chase Two Rabbits at Once
Begin by separating the two elements of singing and playing, working on only one thing at a time. First, track your accompaniment and sing along to the recording, so your focus can be entirely on your vocals. Then reverse that—record your vocal a cappella and play your guitar along with the vocal track. (A metronome or basic percussion beat can really help with this process.) You don’t need to make high-quality studio recordings; a simple voice memo on your smartphone will suffice.
2. Think Like an Accompanist
The main rule of accompaniment is to avoid overpowering the voice and lyrics of a song. The vocal part should be the focus, with the guitar serving to enhance the lyrics and the message. There may be a solo between verses, or an instrumental interlude where the spotlight is on your playing, but while you are singing, let the guitar serve the song rather than draw attention to itself.
3. Keep It Simple and Think Rhythmically
Leaving space for the lyrics can greatly enhance the impact of a song. For example, where you might have played full arpeggios when doing a particular song as an instrumental, now you might only need to play a simple bass line. There needn’t be a chord or even a note on every beat in every measure. Instead of a flurry of eighths or 16ths, try picking or strumming some whole notes and letting them ring, underscoring the vocal line. The melody of your vocal will stand out, much as it would if you were mixing it in a studio recording.
The guitar part can also function as a rhythm track underneath the vocal. You can dampen (palm mute) the bass strings as you play, creating a steady foundation that complements the melody that you are singing. A simple swing, rock, or Latin beat can go a long way toward creating a powerful feeling underneath the vocal line. You might find it surprising and enjoyable how little you need to play while accompanying yourself. Taking that pressure off yourself to fill every space can also help you relax and stay present with your audience.
4. Practice Slowly
Start with a fairly simple tune. Eventually you may want to play a more complex guitar part, like an intricate fingerpicking pattern, while singing. Whatever the case, get that guitar part into your bones such that it feels almost unconscious to play it. The best way to achieve this is through regular repetition, until the pattern becomes ingrained in your fingers.
Set yourself a regular time of day when you practice your guitar part slowlyand accurately, gradually bringing it up to tempo. Short, daily sessions are much more effective at creating muscle memory than longer sittings once or twice a week. Again, do all this separately from singing. Once you have the guitar part under your fingers, then you can add the next layer of complexity—your vocal part.
5. Focus on Interplay
After you’ve found the best key for your voice and feel confident with your guitar part, look for opportunities to create interplay between your voice and guitar. Play more softly underneath certain vocal passages and build in volume underneath others. Shifting from soft fingerpicking on a verse to full strumming for the chorus is a good example of how you can create dynamic variety and interest in a song. You might also try keeping a steady tempo on your guitar, while singing a bit ahead or behind the beat, for rhythmic variety and expressiveness.
If you follow these steps, you may discover that rather than being overwhelmed by doing two things at once, your guitar playing flows quite easily. Putting your focus on accompanying your voice and delivering the message of the song can help take some of the pressure off of you to hit all the notes perfectly. Whether you are a solo performer or working with a full band, singing and playing at the same time can take you to new areas of creativity in your playing and widen the range of musical colors you bring to your performances.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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