How do I learn to play guitar and sing at the same time?
February 4, 2006 11:04 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to play guitar and sing at the same time?

I have been playing guitar on and off for a few years, and I would consider myself a fairly skilled guitar player. No matter how hard I try, however, I simply cannot teach myself to sing and play at the same time. All I want to do is play simple chord progressions while singing, but the two halves of my brain just refuse to work at the same time. If I focus on the words, my timing goes haywire and I miss the chords, but if I focus on the chords, I suddenly forget when to sing. I have tried whistling and humming the melody while strumming and still can't quite get the hang of it.

Does anyone know of any techniques to help me get past this mental block? Perhaps there is a song that is easier than most so I can get started. I really feel like once I can do it with one song, I'll be able to do it with most other songs.
posted by Paul KC to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Two suggestions:

1. Learn songs that were meant to be sung and played at the same time, such as singer-songwriter songs or praise songs. Praise songs are particularly good for this exercise because they are meant to be simple so the masses can sing them.

2. When learning a song, play it to the point that you can have a light conversation with someone else and still keep the rhythm. You have to train your brain not to think about the guitar chords you are playing.
posted by psychotic_venom at 11:13 AM on February 4, 2006

Do you play with others? Doing so - and learning not to stop the song when you make an error, but to play though and adapt to the input of others - can be very helpful.

I learned to play and sing partly that way and partly by picking some very simple material to start with. "Louie Louie" comes to mind.
posted by mwhybark at 11:20 AM on February 4, 2006

Well, diffrent people learn diffrently. If I were you I would do the following:

1) Learn to sing the song with some background music.

2) Learn to play the song very well.

3) Record yourself playing, and sing along to that

3) Sing with the recording while imagining yourself hitting the notes. Maybe do the finger movements

4) Sing with the recording while holding the guitar in your hands. strum the guitar, but "for real" you're trying to get yourself used to holding, strumming while singing. but concentrate on singing.

5) finally, practice the two at the same time.

This is based on the idea that for many tasks, imagining yourself practicing them can be almost as good as actually practicing them. In this case, you're trying to practice singing while thinking (a little) about the guitar in the background. Learning the guitar is more 'kinetic' memory, so you have to actually do it to get used to it, and once you get used to it, you'll be able to do it without thinking, just like how I can type this reply without even being aware of what my hands are doing. (It's kind of weird, actually :P)

But the more kinetic memory you build up for playing the guitar, the less of your 'conscious' mind will be used up trying to do the cords.

Adding the 'imagination training' in the above program will help you learn to be able to sing while holding the guitar and strumming, without the added pressure of getting everything right. Practicing and recording will help you build the kinetic memory.

Disclaimer: I've had 4 or 5 collage level psych classes, but I'm not a psychologist.
posted by delmoi at 11:24 AM on February 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

I used to have this exact problem. I overcame it by starting with songs where the strumming pattern is basically in lock step with the vocal rhythm. For me, that included songs like Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, No New Tale to Tell by Love and Rockets, pretty much every Neil Young song (most Pink Floyd songs, actually), and many others. Focus on songs by people who play and sing at the same time, and by people who aren't particularly great guitarists (which is not to imply that Daniel Ash or Dave Gilmour aren't great guitarists -- Neil Young, on the other hand . . . ) Basically, don't try to sing and play old Smiths songs when you start off.

What was tripping me up was the rhythmic dissonance between what I was singing and what my right hand was trying to do. Once you find some songs that make it easier, then practice, practice, practice. For me, it took years, but I'm great at it now, and I can even play and sing the old Smiths songs without thinking about it. Sure, I'm probably past my sell-by date in terms of rock stardom, but at least I can serenade my 2-year old and my wife without getting tongue tied ;-)

If you need suggestions on songs to start off with, drop me an email. I can talk/write about guitar 'til the cows come home.
posted by JekPorkins at 11:26 AM on February 4, 2006 [3 favorites]

When I was learning to play guitar, there were a few things that helped me. First, identify downbeats in the melody that you can use as contact points between your strumming and the melody. I'm not sure what kind of music you're playing, but I could probably offer some examples. Second, you could try singing with a CD recording and simply fingering the chord progressions without worrying about strumming. This requires you to get the harmonic rhythm in your fingers and that's one less point to worry about. As a bridge between no right hand (or left if you are a lefty ;) you can bring your strumming hand in by playing palm mutes. Again, identifying where the changes occur in relation to the lyrics/melody is key here. One last thing that helped me was playing and singing along with someone who can actually do it. This gives you a visual cue for the changes. I had a really hard time with this when I started playing, too, but playing with others was a real help and developing some stock strumming patterns helped get my mind off that even more.
posted by jxpx777 at 11:48 AM on February 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

I've never really practiced (as I can't sing) but friends who have learned say that when you're starting out, try speaking the words rhythmically while playing the song. Once you can speak the words with the beat, start adding the singing. You may or may not find a metronome helpful for this.
posted by baphomet at 12:28 PM on February 4, 2006

It took me at least two years of fairly obsessive practicing/playing to be able to do this well. I still can have some trouble with it if a vocal or guitar part gets complex. So, first note, be patient. :)

Second: like DelMoi said, you have to get the chords into your muscle memory where you don't have to think about them (much). Lots and lots of practice is mainly what does this, but specifically, I'd recommend making sure that you are practicing playing without looking at the fretboard. Preferably with your eyes shut, thinking about how it *feels* to move between the different patterns.

Third: You might also do some musical cross-training. Even something as simple as trying to hum the bass line to songs while you're listening to them could help... and then slightly more complex things, like trying think of both the bass line and melody at the same time... and then trying to suss a reasonable approximation of the chord structure by ear. This is the other half of the equation: training your musical brain as well as your hands.

Fourth: Even though you mainly talked about chords, I just wanted to mention that until my third year of playing, I didn't realize what a distraction rhythm was for me when strumming because I hadn't really trained myself to automate it well. I could do a descent rolling pick without thinking about it, and a few other things, but of all things, my strumming technique was awful. I was often only crossing the strings when I wanted to strum -- while this sounds intuitively correct, it's not the best technique. I had to learn to cultivate a steady movement where your hand is constantly moving up and down (just a tad of elbow movement, but the motion is more from a rolling in the forearm), *constantly* crossing the strings, down on the downbeat, up on the offbeat, with your fingers only touching the strings on the beats that you want to play on, and without that, I think I would have been doomed as a player-singer, because it's the main thing that helped me get to the point where the rhythm was in my lizard brain and no longer a distraction. Once I got the idea, it really only took me a few weeks to really improve. And the first week I was wandering around Hawaii without my guitar, strumming my thigh or hip for practice. I'm sure people were thinking palsy or brain damage. :)

The other thing that I think helped a little with rhythm was doing some polyrhythm exercises. I can't do anything more complex than 2 or 4 against 3, but even the process of getting that far loosened some of the linkages in my brain.
posted by weston at 12:37 PM on February 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

but the two halves of my brain just refuse to work at the same time

In my experience, they never do. You just get relaxed enough at one than it no longer requires any thought to do it, and then you can put all your concentration into the other.
posted by scottreynen at 12:37 PM on February 4, 2006

Allow yourself to screw up the guitar strumming and just keep going. It simply takes practice, and if you stop yourself from singing because it's screwing up your perfect rhythm, you won't get that practice. Just keep going, allow mistakes, and eventually it comes together. There are still plenty of more complicated songs I can't sing and play well together, but the simple to medium difficulty ones are now easy for me.
posted by knave at 1:19 PM on February 4, 2006

This may seem counterintuitive, but you could try focusing on neither. Pick a song you know how to both play and sing pretty easily. Strum the song a few times through while watching TV on mute, or reading the sports page, or something, then start humming along, then add the words, all while still halfway attending to the TV or paper. Maybe even have a drink or two beforehand (assuming you're not in recovery, pregnant, etc.). The idea is to let the parts of your brain and body that know how to do the respective activities unconsciously take over.

Also, definitely what weston said about strumming technique. Take the "Bo Diddley beat," for example ("bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp bomp"). If you're playing it down, up-down-up, down-up, that's no good. Instead, you should do this (hitting on the bolded ones):


That way you can not only sing along much more easily, but enhance the pattern by hitting on some of the other beats if desired. Apologies if you're way beyond this stage, but I have run into a few people who have been playing guitar for years without really getting how strumming is supposed to work.
posted by staggernation at 1:27 PM on February 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Find a music book that has a bunch of songs in it that you like. Make sure that it has easy, 1st position chords. This is crucial. Start learning them. It's how I got started on guitar thirty-something years ago.
posted by wsg at 3:25 PM on February 4, 2006

There's been a lot of good advice on this thread, and really were all saying the same thing. Start with a simple, repetitive strumming pattern. Even if it is one strum on each beat that's better than nothing. As you get more comfortable you add more to the strumming pattern.

Another technique which has helped me more than I could easily quantify is the 10 minute practice marathon. This is something I learned from a few different great musicians - Tony Williams, John McLaughlin (link has popup but seems pretty cool), and Robert Fripp. I read interviews (I googled and couldn't find the interviews) with all three where they talked about repetitive practice as a way to truly learn something. Pertinent Fripp quote: "It is difficult to exaggerate the power of habit." Remember that everything a musician does (singing, playing, drumming, etc) stems from muscle memory. The exercise: Strum a single pattern for 10 minutes, with as little variation as you can possibly allow. Ideally, for your situation, you don't even change chords; you focus all of your energy on what your right hand is doing. A metronome is a good idea to help keep the tempo stable. You want to be a machine whose sole purpose is replicating the same pattern over and over for 10 minutes. You will not believe how hard it is to do the exact same thing for 10 minutes. I had to start off with 5 minute sessions cause 10 was too much for me to handle. But, after you have done it, you'll discover you can strum that pattern effortlessly. Now, all you have to worry about is changing chords and singing.

I've been playing for 20 years, and the 10 minute sessions are easily the most powerful practice tool I've found. Lately I've been building a jazz vocabulary by simply choosing a phrase and playing it for ten minutes. I'm not Tal Farlow yet, but I've made more progress in the last year than I've made in the last ten years because of this technique.
posted by tcobretti at 3:43 PM on February 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

That John Mclaughlin link does have some interesting info, but has an irritating audio news feed that runs in the background.

Sorry about that.
posted by tcobretti at 3:58 PM on February 4, 2006

whatever you do. dont practice.
posted by Satapher at 6:40 PM on February 4, 2006

Slow it right down. As slow as is comfortable, and then build the speed up gradually as you become more comfortable with it. If it's slow enough, your brain has plenty of time to process both parts and put them together. Pick simple songs, with simple strum patterns. Start with, say, a 4/4 beat, a downstrum on each beat. I'm sure you can sing along with that. After that it's just a matter of speeding up and adding syncopations as you become more comfortable with it. And yes, learn the guitar part so well that you don't need to think about it anymore, to allow yourself to concentrate on the singing. But the key is to start slow and simple and build up. Be patient with yourself - it's a gradual process, but if I can do it, I'm sure you can too!
posted by questionmark at 8:24 PM on February 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Asked previously.

You need to build rhythmic independence. The way that this is taught in some university music programs is with Dalcroze Eurhythmics. It may interest you to read about it. Even though I hated it, taking a eurhythmics class really helped me to understand rhythmic concepts and develop rhythmic independence.

The thing is, rhythmic independence is a specific and difficult skill. For many people, it doesn't just "come naturally," although we often believe that it should. So if you're having trouble with it, you need to approach it like any other musical technique; isolate it and drill it. You won't progress nearly as well if you just sort of wing it and hope it comes together eventually.

An important and oft-neglected part of learning to execute a rhythm is understanding how it falls in relation to the beat. Think of all the rhythms which would sound exactly the same if performed in isolation, but when performed in meter will feel completely different. The most basic example would be playing on every downbeat in a measure of 4/4 versus playing on every upbeat. In isolation, these rhythms sound exactly the same: 4 equal notes. But played against the beat, they sound opposite.

So you should study the rhythm of each part, paying special attention to how the movements of the part align with the beats. Are you changing chords on the downbeat of 2? On the upbeat of 4? Etc. Write down the rhythm of each part on paper if you can. Learn and practice each part in isolation, using your foot as a metronome to tap a constant downbeat. If you can do this with each part accurately without your tempo wavering, you should have little trouble putting them together. To add an intermediate step, after you've got the vocal rhythm down, try to perform it along with a simplified strum pattern, i.e. strumming only on every beat, or only once per measure.

For me, understanding that the two rhythms I'm executing don't just hang separately in space, but in fact share a common framework (the meter in which I'm playing) helped me bring the two together smoothly.

Slowing things down is good advice, but if you're doing it slowly but not in a steady meter, you aren't helping yourself.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:19 AM on February 5, 2006 [3 favorites]

Everybody has this same problem starting out. You just need to keep drilling your right hand rhythms until they become automatic. As psychotic_venom suggested, you should be able to carry on casual conversation while strumming your way through the song.

Start out with simpler songs that keep the same right-hand rhythm pattern for the entire song. It's also a good idea to start with songs you can play using just easy first position chords. The folk and country genres offer plenty of choices.

If you still have trouble, oversimplify the rhythm part to begin with. You can tap your foot while singing can't you? Try strumming one downstroke per beat, along with your tapping foot. (Alternately you can strum just on the 1 & 3, or just on the 1.) Use a metronome to ensure that you're consistently on the beat. Practice this pattern through the song without singing until you're sick of it, then try adding the singing. Once you can handle that consistently, add an upstroke on the "and" of 2 and 4. Now you've got a standard BOOM-Chukka rhythm which you can use in hundreds of songs. When you get comfortable with that, you can start gradually adding sophistication and complexity to your playing.

Just remember that each time you add something new to your rhythm playing, you'll need to "overlearn" it to the point where your hands know how to do their job on their own. (Much like an experienced driver can drive the car the store while carrying on a conversation with a passenger.) If your hands know how to do their part, your conscious mind can work on putting the proper feeling and interpretation into your singing.
posted by tdismukes at 1:14 PM on February 5, 2006

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