Most guitarists who want to learn how to play guitar and sing often prioritise the guitar part over the vocal part but this is a common mistake that will hold you back.
The reason why? Because it takes much longer that way. Spending too long perfecting the guitar part before adding singing can work against you.
Singing and playing the guitar is tough and does take a little time, but you can shorten that time by doing things in the correct order which I’ll show you.
How to Play the Guitar and Sing — What Not To Do
I had a student a few years ago, let’s call her Michelle. She really wanted to be a singer and guitarist and she spent ages trying learning how to sing and play the guitar, but with little success.
Before lessons with me she got into the habit of trying to play the guitar parts 100% perfectly well before adding the singing into it. She played a strum pattern to a piano song called Black Roses from Nashville that was similar to the Modern strum pattern.
Anyway, she found after many weeks of practice that she could strum the song really well — the chords were sounding slick, buzz free and generally really tidy.
When she tried adding the singing, it all fell apart — the strumming went out of the window and nothing sounded right.
After all this effort, she felt sick as this happened every time. She felt like she had wasted weeks. That’s why she came to me for advice and lessons.
What I did was take her back to basics and get her used to the method I have outlined below.
This is what I call ‘The reverse singing method’ and one that you really should try.
Follow these tips below and your playing and singing experience will be much better, faster and more enjoyable.
How to Sing and Play Guitar — The ‘Reverse Singing Method’
#1 Start with a simple song
Whenever a student asks me for some tips on playing and singing, they usually tell me how much they found it a struggle, how much they wanted to tear their hair out and stick the song up the original artist’s you know what as punishment for making it so darn hard.
I’ll usually chuckle at these comments, remembering how tough I found it and offer constructive advice. The thing I ask, is “What song are you trying to play and sing?”
They will tell me anything from a complex fingerpicking song such as ‘Fire and Rain’, an intricate strumming song such as ‘High and Dry’ or a big syncopated strum along such as ‘Stuck in the middle with you.’
I always say it’s a good idea to start off simple with playing and singing. Most people jump right in at the deep end.
Pick something with a strum pattern such as ‘Let It Be’ or at least simplify the strumming pattern if you can (more on this later).
If you have learnt the guitar parts in the past for the song you have chosen, pretend you don’t know how to play it on a guitar for now. (This pretence will serve you well and help you as you’ll see in a minute).
#2 Learn the song inside out
Make sure you know and learn the song inside out. Listen out for where the chord changes are, and listen to how the vocals fit in relation to the guitar parts and the beat.
The way the vocal line fits with the guitars and the beat in particular is called phrasing and is really important to get right.
Some singers start a vocal line just before a beat and some just after, but most will do both.
If you know a couple of lines in the verse, can sing the chorus, are comfortable playing the verse on guitar but find the chorus awkward you need to get more comfortable with the song.
Keep on listening to it, and keep on working on the vocal parts so you know all the words inside out.
Study where the words and syllables fall in comparison to the guitar parts and later steps will be easier.
#3 Get comfortable singing the song acapella
One of the best bits of advice I ever received for improving singing skills was to make sure you can sing the song acapella.
If you can’t sing the song to a high standard acapella you don’t really know the song.
So many musicians are comfortable singing along with recordings but as soon as the original vocalist isn’t there to guide them it all goes out the window.
Practice getting super comfortable singing the song with no backing track and no guitar.
When you can sing it acapella and it sounds good it means you know the melody and the words well enough for them not to be a distraction when you add the guitar part.
As for the guitar parts, learn the chords and play along with the song using a really simple strum pattern. Keep it as basic as possible, even just an occasional ‘one strum’ will work and you’ll see why this is important in the next step.
#4 Play with a ‘one strum’ on the chord changes
Okay, so you know all the words, can sing them really well acapella and you feel really comfortable playing all the guitar parts, you’re in business.
Remember to simplify the rhythm to the point where you just strum the chord on the first beat of each bar.
You don’t even have to do it at the beginning of each bar, you can do it whenever there is a chord change just to outline the change.
Which one of the above you choose depends on the song and what you are comfortable with, but I’d try them both.
Playing the complete rhythm while singing is hard to do. Playing a simple rhythm and singing is much easier and you can fill in the gaps with the strumming or picking as you go along.
There is no rule saying you must play the complete guitar part with all the subtle rhythm and notes while singing for it to count.
Keep it simple and fill in the blanks as you get comfortable.
Run through the song with the original recording to make sure your chord changes are in the correct places and everything sounds solid.
#5 Add in the singing while playing along with the song
Once you are able to play the song through with just the occasional strum on a chord change, add in the singing.
It shouldn’t be too hard if you know the words and melody really well. Remember, the guitar part is really minimal here so it shouldn’t be getting in the way too much.
It might take a few attempts but hopefully you have now made it through the whole song with the singing while keeping the guitar parts minimal.
Remember, you should know the song inside out. If you do this step, it will be a little easier.
Pay close attention to where the different syllables come in and how these work with the chord changes.
Keep playing the song over and over with the recording and when you feel your guitar is in time and sounding good, and your vocal is in time and in tune, press stop and give it a go on your own.
You may have to go back and forth between playing it on your own and playing it along with the recording.
If you struggle with it, then take a step back and work your way back up to this step.
#6 Build up the guitar part
If you’re happy with how the vocals are sounding alongside the guitar part, now it’s time to start building up the guitar part to a fuller state.
If it’s a strumming song, start by adding downstrums on each beat. If that is too much just do downstrums on the first beat of each bar.
Once you are able to do downstrums on each beat, add some upstrums in.
Ask yourself, “what strumming pattern would I play to this song if I weren’t singing?”
Then, aim to build up to that over time while singing.
If the song if a fingerpicking song, start adding a couple of extra picks here and there until you reach the full part but keep it as simple as you need to at first so it doesn’t affect your vocals.
If you find that by adding a strum or pick affects or takes away from your vocals, take a step back and minimise the guitar part again before building back up.
Keep on playing the song over and over in this simple way and when you are not thinking about it too much try adding in some more parts or the odd extra strum.
When fingerpicking or strumming some notes you pluck or strum will be a little more important than others. These are the little melody parts or accented bits of guitar work that stand out.
Aim to get these plucks or strums in only once you have the absolute basic strum in as we discussed in step 4.
The order in which you should be building up the guitar part is as follows:
- Start with the minimal guitar part – the ‘one strum’
- Add in any accented parts, melody or otherwise important notes
- Bring in any additional ‘fill’ notes.
# 7 Go back to a previous step if you struggle
If you get stuck at any point in the song, take a step back.
“Am I unsure of the words, where the words fall in relation to the guitar parts?
“Do I know the melody?”
“Are the outlined chords on the guitar in the correct place? Is my timing okay between vocals and guitar?”
If you can’t say a big, firm yes to the above questions, then it’s a good idea to take a few steps back and work your way up.
Remember, most songs tend to use to stock strumming patterns or even stock fingerpicking patterns.
I have found once you are able to sing a song that uses one of these stock patterns, learning to play and sing another song that uses the same pattern is actually not that difficult.
Therefore, keep going and get practising — it will get easier.
One Powerful Tip That Can Save You Loads of Time When Learning How to Play and Sing
Work on one section of the song at a time
I’ve found that if a song is a tough nut to crack, breaking it up into sections makes it loads easier for me.
The reason why is, as a guitarist, especially when playing rhythm, we tend to play consistently throughout a song and we tend to use a constant rhythm throughout.
There aren’t that many pop songs (strumming songs especially) where the guitar part changes drastically throughout.
The vocal part does often change throughout, though, whereas the guitar part will be steady for the most part.
The vocals often fall and rise in pitch and they often have rhythmic changes.
For example, some songs have a slow drawn out vocal line in the verse and a faster chorus (or vice versa). Think of R.E.M.’s ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’ for an example of this.
If a song has a slow vocal verse over a steady guitar part, this will feel different in comparison to singing a vocal section that has a fast part over the same sort of guitar part.
Therefore, it’s really useful to break up a song into sections when learning to play and sing.
Master singing and playing the verses first, then do the chorus and then learn other sections such as the middle 8.
It is often far easier this way as paying particular attention to one part of the song before trying another will save you time.
Get the vocal part sounding great first and minimise the guitar parts.
Build up the guitar part little by little and you’ll find this to be a natural method of getting comfortable playing and singing with the guitar at the same time.
You may even find while building up the guitar part in this manner you end up creating your own stunning version of the song that is unique to you.
Best of all, The Reverse Singing Method will allow you to get comfortable with both the guitar and vocal parts together and then when comfortable you can go all the way and play the complete guitar part if you want to.
Remember, just because you can sing and just because you can play guitar, it doesn’t mean you automatically can do both.
Learning to sing is a skill that takes time, learning to play guitar is a skill that takes time, learning to sing AND play a guitar is also another skill that takes time.
Use the above method and you’ll save yourself a fair old chunk of time and frustration.
Let me know your thoughts on this by leaving a comment below and feel free to share your tips on learning how to play and sing at the same time.