You’ve probably seen some of your heroes playing guitar and singing at the same time.
It looks cool, but it’s harder than you might think and there are several reasons why this can present a challenge.
First, singing requires you to remain relaxed, take breaths at the appropriate time, move air from your diaphragm, enunciate and stay on pitch while projecting.
There are a lot of things going on simultaneously.
Second, while playing the guitar, you must be mindful of the song’s arrangement, changes and whatever chords, riffs or lead parts you need to transition between. All while you’re singing.
Finally, your vocal lines and guitar parts won’t necessarily be rhythmically aligned and that can feel awkward.
The point is that you may be required to sing melodies or harmonies that feel unnatural while playing certain rhythmic patterns or riffs.
But now that we know it can take a while to get the hang of this (it’s going to take patience), we can begin developing the skills necessary to master singing and playing at the same time.
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Understanding Progression – This Will Help You Know What Level You’re At
Before we get into the meat of it, understanding the concept that follows will allow you to see what level you’re at and what level you’ll need to get to so you can reach the degree of competence you desire.
There are basically four levels and they are as follows:
- Unconscious incompetence. At this level, you don’t know what you don’t know. Since you’ve already started thinking about singing while playing the guitar, you can’t be at this level. At the very least, you know that it's possible.
- Conscious incompetence. At this level, you know that you suck. You know what to do, and what it should sound like (probably because you’ve heard/seen someone else do it), but you can’t do it yet.
- Conscious competence. At this level, you can do what you want to do so long as you are paying attention to what you’re doing. So, you might need to think about it as you’re doing it or look at sheet music to pull it off, but you’ve practiced enough that you can make it happen if you need to.
- Unconscious competence. At this level, you don’t even need to think about it anymore. You’ve practiced the song long and hard enough that whatever you’ve been learning is now like second nature.
Like it or not, as you’re practicing, you will progress through each of these stages. There’s no way around it.
Knowing this can help you avoid unnecessary frustration. The knowledge that it may take a while for you to get to where you want to go is therefore valuable.
Now that you understand the four levels of learning, we’re ready to get to work!
Start With A Simple “Meat & Potatoes” Arrangement
Have a listen to Extreme’s “Decadence Dance”. This song is ridiculous – not just because of its length or the technical ability required to be able to play it, but because of the sheer number of riffs the song is made up of.
Even guitarist and songwriter Nuno Bettencourt has cautioned against writing a song with so many riffs.
The song you’re working on right now may not be that complex. But it may not be as basic as you think either.
Think of a song like “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. A lot of beginners end up learning this song. And, when they do, they often mindlessly strum through G, C, G, D, etc.
But if you listen carefully to the song, you’ll hear that’s not what’s going on with the guitar at all. Yes, the acoustic guitarist is strumming (though it is a weird strumming pattern), but there’s also an electric guitar that’s riffing and adding color throughout.
So, it’s important to identify what it means to play the song up to snuff.
Still, if you were working on “Brown Eyed Girl” right now, you’d want to go with the “mindless” version, and you may even want to simplify it further.
If you were trying to sing along, you might even try strumming once for each change, instead of trying to learn the strumming pattern.
In the same way, we can simplify any song, and boil the accompaniment down to the “meat and potatoes” version. That allows us to focus on the singing without having to put too much thought into the strumming side of things.
You can take any song, capture 80% of its essence and develop an arrangement that doesn’t throw your signing off. Once you can do this well, you’re ready to move onto the next level.
At the conscious incompetence level, we want to focus on the meat and potatoes arrangement until we feel completely comfortable with it.
Practice Your Parts Separately
This step (and the next) is how we’re going to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.
The meat and potatoes arrangement might offer some gratification early on, but most students want to progress beyond.
So, your next mission is to practice the parts separately. That’s right – you want to work on your guitar playing and your signing independently.
At the conscious incompetence level, you know that you suck (and, it’s okay!). And, even if you’re able to play a meat and potatoes arrangement, you know that you’ve got a way to go before you can master the skill of playing and singing at the same time.
But it’s okay if you can only play or sing the parts slowly. I would even encourage you to practice slowly at first.
Put the metronome on at a comfortable tempo, like 80bpm, and work on your guitar part. Be willing to put in your hours.
Likewise, put the metronome on at a comfortable tempo, and work on your singing. Since you don’t want to damage your voice, I would not suggest singing for hours on end while you’re practicing. Spend maybe 30 to 60 minutes per day.
I won’t lie – this can be a long and grueling process.
Although you will transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence if you keep up your practice regime, you won’t necessarily know when this shift has occurred.
Sometimes, even when you think you can play or sing a part effortlessly, you don’t realize just how far you off you are from mastering it.
This isn’t a problem, however, if you trust the process and keep practicing.
As you get better, you can gradually increase the tempo on your metronome (maybe by 5bpm at a time), until you’re up to full speed with both parts.
Now you can…
Practice Your Parts Together
You knew we would get to this point sooner or later, right?
If you've spent time practicing the parts separately, you can begin to bring the parts together.
This isn’t necessarily the organic process you may have been expecting, though.
Sometimes, you play the parts together and it just happens. You’ve practiced long and hard enough that you barely even need to think about either part. It’s possible you’ve reached a point of unconscious competence without even realizing it.
But it doesn’t always come together that easily.
Fortunately, there are a couple of things we can do to make sure we get to where we need to go.
The first is to slow everything down. Yes, I know, you’ve already practiced your guitar and vocal parts separately at ridiculously slow tempos.
But sometimes when you’re putting the two parts together, you will need to go through the same process.
Grind it out if necessary. You’re trying to teach yourself to do something new. No judgments.
The second strategy is to tie every note you’re singing to every movement you’re making on the guitar (note: it’s much easier to demonstrate than explain).
This will seem counterintuitive at first. After all, you may not be strumming when you need to be singing a certain note, and you may not be signing when need to be playing a chord on the guitar. That’s usually what makes singing and playing at the same time difficult.
But with this method, you can ingrain hand movements and vocal parts, place every note where it needs to be placed, and create synchronicity between the two parts.
While you’re doing this, you don’t even necessarily need to be singing notes. You could just chant the lyrics until you feel like you can make the necessary mouth movements along with the necessary hand movements on your guitar.
It doesn’t matter which method you pick. You could use both. The goal is to get to the point of unconscious competence.
You can’t truly master singing and playing guitar at the same time without reaching this level.
At first, you’ll only be able to do this one song at a time. But if you keep at it, like John Mayer, Jimi Hendrix, Matt Bellamy, Eric Johnson, or whoever else you admire, you’ll learn to pick up songs relatively quickly and be able to sing and play just about anything you want.
How To Play Guitar And Sing At The Same Time, Final Thoughts
Anyone who’s ever thought about self-accompanying themselves on the guitar must practice and level up their skills.
To what degree depends on the individual.
Not every guitarist wishes to be able to play incredibly complex parts while singing.
For many, being able to strum out a few chords is more than enough and more than they ever hope to accomplish. Getting to that level shouldn’t take too long.
But you can still follow the above process to get to where you want to go – start with a meat and potatoes arrangement, practice the parts separately, and finally, bring it all together.
It’s a surefire way of achieving what you want to achieve through this process.
Side note, do you want to learn to play guitar songs the easy way? Learn how here – results are guaranteed!