Are you fed up of being stuck singing along to your smartphone, or twiddling your thumbs at band practice until the other members rock up, or just would like to have the option to perform a song solo?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then it’s time to unlock the mystery and learn how to sing and play guitar at the same time!
Read on for some essential tips on playing guitar and singing at the same time – the next step in your journey as a musician:
Learn the basic chord shapes
In order to save yourself from having to snap your head away from the microphone to stare at your hands every other word, it’s important that you memorise the basic chord shapes before you try to play guitar and sing. We’re not only talking about remembering with your brain – we’re also talking about ‘muscle memory’.
Muscle memory, to put it plainly, is when parts of your body become so used to repeating certain actions that they feel natural, so it can perform them without too much input from your conscious brain. This ability is essential for any guitar player to master, as your hands will automatically know which shapes to form in order for you to strike certain chords – and you don’t even have to look down!
Some of the basic ‘essential’ guitar chord shapes you’ll need include: A major, A7, A minor, B7, C major, D major, D minor, E major, E7, E minor, F major, G major, G7.
Check out some of the shapes below to get started…
Start with an easy song
Choose a song that only uses a small number of chords, as this will be quicker and easier for you to learn and also won’t require any rapid or extreme chord changes.
Also try and choose a song with a simple melody that doesn’t have pages and pages of lyrics (we’re looking at you, Don McClean’s ‘American Pie’) – by all means work your way up to longer songs, but for now, let’s make things easy for ourselves. There are few things as satisfying as learning a new song and making it sound the way it should, so let’s bring that goal within reach!
Type ‘easy guitar songs’ or ‘beginner guitar songs’ into your search engine and you’ll find hundreds of great ideas to help get you started. Here’s our pick of easy songs for you to sing and play guitar to using just a few simple chords changes:
- Green Day – ‘Time of Your Life’
- Creedence Clearwater Revival – ‘Bad Moon Rising
- The Beatles – ‘Yellow Submarine’
- The Kingsmen – ‘Louie Louie’
- Deep Blue Something – ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’
- Oasis – ‘Songbird’
- Elvis Presley – ‘Hound Dog’
Memorise the chord changes and strumming pattern
Play the chord progression of your chosen easy song until you could play it in your sleep – what you’re actually aiming for is to be able to move your fretting hand unconsciously into the right positions, so it’s not actually that different!
The same goes for your strumming hand – keep the motion loose and natural, rather than rigid and forced, and the rhythm of the song will flow from your hand. You want to be able to basically ignore this hand so you can focus all your attention on singing!
Some guitarists prefer to strum constantly and mute the strings in between the notes they want to play, rather than only strumming on the notes themselves. Give this method a go and see if it works for you, as this takes even more of your attention away from your strumming hand which you can then take elsewhere.
As your understanding of this develops, you’ll be able to apply it to a more complex picking pattern. In essence, once you’ve committed all of the song’s guitar parts to memory, you’re ready to take the next few steps.
Hum the melody
If you’re still learning the lyrics, or are just getting used to how the tune you’ll be singing fits over those chords, you can settle in by just humming the melody.
Humming is also a great vocal warm up, so your voice will be in fine shape once you’re ready to add the lyrics.
Memorise the song lyrics
It’s no use undoing all that hard work you put into memorising all those chord shapes, only to have to keep squinting at your lyric sheet!
Focus on one line of lyrics at a time, and repeat it over and over again to yourself until you’re tired of hearing it. This is a good sign – it means it no longer sounds new to you, so it’s working its way into your brain!
Once the first line is safely secured in your memory bank, move on to the second, and repeat the process. Pay close attention to the rhythm and the melody of that particular line, and how it fits into the song as a whole.
When you’ve worked your way through the entire song in this way, it’s time to string all the parts together. Use the end of the preceding line to remind you of the start of the following line.
Time your breaths
Nothing ruins vocals like running out of air just before you hit (or miss) the high note. If you’re already a regular singer, you’ve probably had to examine your breathing technique already – but juggling your breathing technique with your guitar playing is a skill in and of itself.
As you grow more familiar with the song you’re learning to play and sing, you’ll work out where the gaps are. These gaps are opportunities to stock up on oxygen, so take full advantage of them!
In busier parts of the song, try to snatch your breaths a good couple of beats before you’re due to start singing again – don’t leave it until the last minute!
Playing Guitar and Singing
Use a capo
We all have a unique voice – wouldn’t the charts sound bland and repetitive if we didn’t! – which means that some of us will be more comfortable singing in the lower regions, and some of us will have voices better suited to higher registers.
If you’re finding the song you’ve chosen uncomfortable to sing, or finding you have to strain your voice a lot to hit certain notes, it could well be that it’s not in the best key for you.
Don’t panic, and definitely don’t give up – there’s a very easy solution. Buy a capo, the secret weapon in the arsenal of any self-respecting musician who wants to play guitar and sing!
A capo allows you to play in any key you want without having to re-tune your guitar – and the best part is, you can play the exact same chord shapes you’ve spent all this time memorising.
If you’ve learned a song in the key of A, for example, but are finding it slightly too low for you to sing comfortably and would prefer to sing it in the key of C, clip on your capo on the third fret of your guitar and hey presto – you’re playing in the key of C. Each fret you go up on the neck of your guitar is equivalent to one semitone, so if you go up three frets from 0 (1, 2, 3), you’re going up three semitones from A (A?, B, C).
Play to a metronome
Even if you can usually keep time pretty well, you may find you take a step or two backward once you add singing to the mix – but don’t let that throw you off, your guitar skills are not on trial here! All you need to do is figure out how each separate guitar part and vocal part fit together – and the one thing they’ll definitely have in common is that they’ll be following the same ‘pulse’.
The pulse of the song is essentially the beating heart of it, with all the rhythm’s complexities and nuances stripped away. In most popular songs, the time signature will be ‘4/4’ – 4 beats in a bar – so find where that constant ‘1,2,3,4’ fits underneath the more complex or ‘syncopated’ (off-beat) rhythms on the song’s surface and ground yourself.
You can either purchase a metronome or download a metronome app onto your smartphone or device – either way, this will help you focus on keeping time without speeding up or slowing down. You may also benefit from counting the rhythm out loud over the song, so you’ll have the song’s pulse ingrained into your memory.
As with everything, start slow and work your way up. Set your metronome to a lower tempo and make sure you can play and sing at that speed, then gradually increase the tempo until you match the tempo of the original song. You might even want to challenge yourself and play the song even faster!
Tap your foot
Who knew – you’ve got a natural metronome built into your body!
As we mentioned above, finding the pulse of the song you’re learning is the key to mastering its rhythm – so when you’re listening to it, tap along to the music and see if you can find its pulse.
You may well find that many of the words and syllables are not sung at the same time as your taps, but as long as you’ve got a firm grip of the pulse, you’ll find that everything else fits around it.
For example, let’s look at a classic Christmas song.
When you break down the rhythm to ‘Jingle Bells’, you’ll find that the bouncy on-beat and off-beat rhythm can be explained by a count of ‘1 and 2 and’, with the stress – in this case, demonstrated by your tapping toes – falling on the ‘1s’ and ‘2s’.
We can see that the first syllable is sung on the beat, but the second is sung on the off-beat – so you’d tap your foot on ‘jin’, marked below by ‘1’, but not on ‘gle’, marked below by ‘x’ (you’d have a very tired leg if you tapped on both for the song’s duration).
|1 x||2 x||3 x||4 x|
|Jin gle||bells x||Jin gle||bells x|
Things get even more interesting in the next section, because the ‘the’ in ‘all the way’ doesn’t fall on an off-beat eighth note – it’s quicker, and closer to the ‘way’ that follows it. This means we need to divide our eighth notes even further, into ‘sixteenth’ notes.
As you can see below, while you’d still tap your foot on the ‘1’ and ‘2’, you sing ‘the’ between where you’d be counting ‘2 and’ and ‘3’.
|1 x x x||2 x x x||3 x x x||4 x x x|
|Jin x gle x||all x x the||way x x x||X x x x|
Making sense so far? Let’s look at the next section.
Here, we have two instances of sixteenth notes, making this the most complex part of the rhythm. Then, to finish, the rhythm goes back to being much straighter – meaning you can put a proper stamp on it for a strong ending!
|1 x x x||2 x x x||3 x x x||4 x x x|
|Oh x what x||Fun x x it||Is x to x||ride x on a|
|1 x x x||2 x x x||3 x x x||4 x x x|
|One x horse x||O x pen x||Sleigh x x x||x x x x|
Strap on your gee-tar and get to your feet! While sitting down is fine for practising, and many performers prefer to bring a chair or stool to the stage, there’s a lot to be said for standing while you play and sing.
Not only will standing give you more room for mobility, but it will also enable you to properly fill your lungs, making it easier for you to sing louder and for longer – which are both vital for a singer. Plus, when you’re ready to perform your new skill in public, you’ll command more stage presence if you’re standing – and you’ll be easier to see for the people at the back!
How to dance and play guitar
Once you’ve got the hang of singing and playing guitar simultaneously, it’s time to liven up your performance with some choice moves! Once you’ve figured out how to dance and play guitar, you’ll be hopping along with the Chuck Berrys, the Angus Youngs and other larger than life characters of the music world.
But before you get to that stage, here are some easier moves for you to try out. You might prefer to practise in front of a mirror before you bust them out in front of an audience, but that’s in your hands!
- Bob your head. You can move it from side to side, you can nod in appreciation of the awesome sounds you’re creating, or you can full on head bang – whatever you feel!
- Sway from side to side. As most popular songs will have a number of bars which is multiple of 4, you can sway left for one bar, sway right for the next, and end up with a nice even number of sways!
- Move around. Fill the space the stage gives you. If you’re playing in a band, you may find you’re drawn towards the drummer between vocal duties. If not, duck away from the microphone when you’re not singing to give more impact when you return to it.
- Smile! Above all else, your audience will enjoy your performance more if you look like you’re enjoying it yourself.
Those are all our tips on singing and playing guitar. We hope our approach has given you a better understanding of what playing and singing actually involves – which, as with most things you’ll encounter as a musician, is mostly practice!