The confidence to sing and play guitar
January 1, 2015 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I've got a decent voice. I've got a mechanical understanding of acoustic guitar playing. But I can't sing a simple folk song (even if I'm alone in the house), though I want to. How do I start?

I took guitar lessons with a great teacher a few years ago. Half-learned hundreds of bits of tunes and a variety of styles. Haven't played for a couple of years, so I have to get the callouses back and some of the muscle memory too. I'm a bit more together than I was when I took lessons, so I may even be able to focus now.

My voice is okay, with a slightly odd range: Pete Seeger-style split tenor. I used to sing choir in high school, but put it aside.

Nothing would make me happier than being able to sing simple folk ballads and songs (think Henry Lee). Every time I start, though, I either get the chord timing wrong, or my voice clams up, or I just get nervous (for what, I don't know) and stop. How might I get over these hurdles and actually enjoy singing and playing?
posted by A Friend of Dug [sock] to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! Same thing with learning to play and sing at the same time. It's difficult at first, like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, but sheer weight of minutes makes it easy. Make sure the songs are in a key that's easy for you to sing (the capo is your friend) and sing like nobody's listening. Do this for, say, 30 minutes daily and you'll see results quicker than you think.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:48 PM on January 1, 2015

Don't mean to threadsit, but: I tried what Johnny Wallflower suggested for more than two years straight. I'd still clam up/flub it every time. It was discouraging.
posted by A Friend of Dug [sock] at 8:57 PM on January 1, 2015

Yeah, I can see how that would put you off practice. Do you know any other musicians at your proficiency level? Playing with others who also make mistakes might help you relax.

Maybe try playing to a very slow metronome until the chords and vocals are smooth, then speed up in steps until you're at normal speed? Apologies if you've already tried this.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:28 PM on January 1, 2015

It is hard, and I had pretty much the same problem. Here's what I did over a matter of a few weeks:
  1. Pick one song. Just one, something with maybe three simple chords. For me, it was "Four Wet Pigs", which is a bit of a tongue-twister but worked for me because I learned it cold as a kid.
  2. Play the chords. Don't try to sing it yet; just think the words as you play it. Think about where they go.
  3. Play the chords again. Don't try to sing it yet; just speak or whisper what words you can. "HERE'S... SONG... FOUR... PIGS," in my case. If all you can get out at first is just the equivalent of "HERE'S," that's fine. You're on your way. The trick, really, is to start learning to make any kind of noise with your mouth in appropriate rhythm while your hands are going. Be prepared to slow way, way down and feel like an idiot. This too shall pass.
  4. Start singing that song often while you're away from the guitar. (I believe the traditional venue for this is at the kitchen sink while you're doing dishes.) While you're singing, feel in the song where the chords would go. Imagine yourself playing that guitar.
  5. Play those chords slowly and this time, see if you can get all the words in where you want them to be. If you can't, sometimes it's easier to pull back a little and lip-synch them while you play. Eventually you'll be making all the required mouth movements at the right time.
  6. Now, finally, start to move those words from a speaking voice to a singing voice. You don't have to do this all at once -- you might just drone them at first, or (as I did) start by singing only the words on the downbeats. Mess around with it a little, and break down this last part of the problem in a way that works for you. Take it phrase by phrase.
  7. Congratulations! You can now sing and play at the same time! Once you get over the hurdle with one song, all the rest are a whole lot easier. It may sound pretty rudimentary to you right now, but getting started was in many ways the hardest part.
  8. Life being what it is, you may get caught up in other things and get rusty at singing and playing. This song is your friend. Go back to it.
As usual in learning something musical, the secret here is a combination of practice, rhythm, and low initial expectations.
posted by sculpin at 9:45 PM on January 1, 2015 [17 favorites]

You need to get your guitar chops up to par. I couldn't sing and play at the same time until I could play through a song without consciously thinking about my hands. Especially practice getting several different strumming patterns committed to your muscle memory. It also helps if you know the lyrics down pat and can sing well enough without having to really concentrate. Basically, either your singing or your playing needs to reach a certain level of proficiency before you can start putting the two together, and as you get more proficient with each, learning to sing and play songs will come faster and easier.

To speed your progress, try to learn simplified versions of songs with simple strumming rhythms and chord progressions. Don't be afraid to restructure a song to fit your needs. Strum the intro bars in place of the complicated picking pattern, cut out that solo, play the rhythm portion instead of following the lead. Next, I've found it helps me to kind of mark out a song first - figure out where the chord changes are, then sing the song strumming only the first beat of each bar. Next, sing the song, as slowly as you need, while strumming a constant rhythm in a simple pattern, concentrating on keeping time evenly with both voice and instrument. Once this feels comfortably easy, you can speed up your tempo to match the recording, and begin adding in fancier bits, starting with more complex strumming patterns, riffs, fills, etc.

Come to terms with feeling and sounding awfully awkward. It will sound bad in the beginning, and this doesn't matter. This is a hard thing for perfectionists, but remind yourself that you won't go from nothing to Van Morrison in zero flat, and it's not reasonable to expect that of yourself. If you make a mistake, don't stop! Keep going. Let yourself muck up, it's all part of the process. If it's just not coming together and you're feeling discouraged, take a break to practice just singing, or just playing - maybe you need more of one or the other or both before it's going to work. Eventually things will start clicking and you'll have moments where it actually sounds kind of right. Trust that your body will learn how to reproduce these moments more often and more consistently as you practice.
posted by keep it under cover at 9:49 PM on January 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

sculpin put the mechanics of it better than I was starting to on preview. Also wanted to add that it can help to play with a friend or in a group if that's possible. Even if you don't know anyone else who play the guitar, maybe you know someone who can come and sing along with you (after practicing with sculpin's steps) until you're feeling secure enough to sing on your own. I learned in a group class, and sometimes it made it easier to lean on each other until we were ready to go without training wheels.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:51 PM on January 1, 2015

There's a ton of 3-chord and 4-chord songbooks available cheaply.
These books are your boon companions in your Fellowship of the Sing.
posted by Chitownfats at 2:51 AM on January 2, 2015

Yes, practice is the key! It helps to think of this as involving two different types of thinking: first, you have to think about how a song is put together, how the guitar and chords and vocals and lyrics and melody, etc., all fit together. When you think about all these components from note to note, it can be confusing at first, and the different parts can get in the ay of each other. But then you have to practice-practice-practice how these fit together until you almost become bored with it, and then it becomes sort of automatic. Then you have the second type of thinking, in which you sort of do it without really thinking about it.

I'm not sure if you drive a manual shift car, but it's a bit like how you first learn to drive (jerky) and now it's almost second nature. Or learning to swim, and then doing laps until you are bored and thinking of other stuff, and so on.

So the key is to find situations where you can practice regularly. I used to busk tin whistle, and got really good at this just by going out and playing for hours. But there's many other ways as well. If you got familiar with the chords, for example, you could mime/practice the chords anywhere (without a guitar) and then practice fitting the lyrics in as well. You could do this while commuting, walking down the street, etc.

It's probably going to take a while, but it's worth it!
posted by carter at 5:23 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Some good advice so far but here's my two bits. There are two things going on here: mental and technical.

On the mental side: I'm an overly self-conscious, anal, perfectionist-getting-in-the-way-of-the-good type. Playing guitar is what I do to challenge those tendencies of my character. In brief, I gave myself permission to make mistakes. The goal is to make a joyful noise! If this resonates for you, when you hit a moment in which you get a little frustrated or experience performance anxiety, just (humorously) remind yourself that "it's okay to suck." The universe being perverse (or maybe it's just me), I've discovered that I play better when I allow myself to be less-than-perfect.

On the technical side: Go slow, use a metronome. Find (and keep) the "groove" of a tune you are playing. That is, play through the mistakes to keep things musical and don't let a mistake halt you in your tracks. And repetition. To sum up, slow, repetitive playing which puts the groove of a tune above the individual notes will help you play better and better over time.

Here is a two part discussion on warming up which I think may be useful. (1 2) It's helped the fellow play like this.

Good luck and keep it groovy!
posted by CincyBlues at 6:12 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Start with a simple three chord song-- open chords, nothing barred-- that you can play without looking at your left hand. Then just hum along first in a monotone, then getting close to the actual notes. Then sing along without lyrics, just using one nonsense word-- mine is "meow". Finally add the real lyrics.
posted by travertina at 6:48 AM on January 2, 2015

The analogy to stick shift driving is a good one. No one is incapable of developing this ability, but a lot of people are put off by the high initial barrier of simple coordination of independent but simultaneous tasks. Bunch of good nuts and bolts answers above, especially from sculpin. Being more philosophical and less mechanical, I can remember when I first began to play guitar and sing (around age 12 or so) and how hard it was initially. Nearly 40 years later, having devoted huge amounts of time to it, it's the most natural thing in the world and I am able to attend simultaneously both to fairly complex guitar work (I'm a fingerstyle country and country-blues player) and to very fine grained aspects of vocal phrasing, timbre, and expression . . . heck I can do both while thinking about how I'd like another beer the next time the waitress comes around and reminding myself to make an insurance payment tomorrow and pondering what I'll be playing next or whether I should add another chorus because the steel player is ripping it up on the ride. I've certainly got Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours in (and then some, by a lot) and that's all it takes, in a linear progression, is that you keep at it. First you take it apart, then you put it back together, over and over, song by song, jam by jam, until one day you're operating at the next level, and then the next.

Now if what is stopping you is truly *anxiety* and not just lack of practice (they are in a feedback loop, of course, since feeling anxious prevents you from practicing) you somehow need to reorient philosophically to the process. You're by yourself, nothing is at stake, what's to fear other than not liking how you sound yourself, and you already knew that anyway, which is why you are practicing (practicing gets much more fun as you start to like how you sound, by the way, so there's a positive feedback effect too once you get past the opening challenges).

A lot of suggestions here prioritize the guitar side, and there's some logic to that. Most people I've heard struggle with this tend to be singers first, guitarists (or whatevers) second, and to conceptualize their problem of "how do I play this thing while I am singing," rather than "how do I sing this thing while I am playing." But it sounds to me like your issues are just as much with not feeling you are singing in your own voice, not owning the song vocally. I would suggest something a lot of people don't bother with, which is to practice SINGING on its own, no guitar, similar to sculpin's guitar advice above, but doing exercises like holding long notes and varying the tone, singing scales, etc. The guitar is the focus because it seems like it's more complicated what with being external to your body and involving two hands. But as someone who has spent a lifetime studying singers and singing, I think that's wrong. If you are not afraid to sing out (to pick up your Seeger reference) then you will be over the part about using the clutch and then just need to worry about how to find the gears on the shifter.
posted by spitbull at 6:54 AM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

For the developing comfort with singing part - sing in a resonant space like a bathroom or stairwell, so you get a nice reverby payoff for what you do. Close your eyes. Shut everything else out, and mentally "dive in" to the experience of sound vibrations moving through you. Sometimes, play with what you hear back, just experiment a bit to get a sense of what different things sound and feel like. Other times, throw your heart into it and just give her. Sing for yourself first.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:32 PM on January 2, 2015

Great advice, and totally agree with spitbull above that overcoming the singing hurdle first will help you overcome the playing prblem, but let me add one suggestion that helped me that I did not yet see.

I used to play and sing along to a tape of the songs I wanted to learn, it was just a crummy old tape recorder and nothing fancy or too loud. I would put the number on repeat and just do it over and over again all afternoon until I felt confident to do it on my own (or my roommate came home, whichever was first). For this to work you most likely need to tune your guitar to match the recording, but hey, learning how to tune your guitar is useful too.

Also, make sure that you are playing in a key that matches your singing voice. Try until you find it.
posted by 15L06 at 1:22 PM on January 2, 2015

Do you have trouble singing without guitar?
posted by bunderful at 6:23 PM on January 2, 2015

Thanks, all! A lot to chew on.

I guess I should rethink simple. With C, G, D, E and A, I can bash away at Roadrunner, I Like Birds and a couple of dangerously catchy Barry Louis Polisar songs.
posted by A Friend of Dug [sock] at 6:17 PM on January 11, 2015

Yeah, starting even simpler than that couldn't hurt. With kids I always started in the key of D, with D and A, and the occasional G.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:21 PM on January 11, 2015

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