We’ve all been there:
You’re on stage singing your most heartfelt song when all of a sudden you feel your heart stop as you realize you’re playing the wrong chord.
A little stunned, you look down at your hands to see where you went wrong.
But by then it’s too late; the chords, lyrics, and rhythm are all gone.
And your confidence goes with them!
The truth is that learning to sing and play guitar at the same time is one of the hardest things to learn as a developing musician.
It’s also one of the biggest differences between a professional performer and someone who’s just starting out.
That’s because you can’t connect with your audience if you’re looking down at your hands while you play.
And when you’re playing your most heartfelt songs, you want to connect with every person in the audience.
So, let’s make sure you can sing and play at the same time.
You may feel that you’ve been trying to learn to sing and play for a while.
But after having taught more than 500 students (many of them singer-songwriters), I can promise you this:
You can learn to sing and play guitar at the same time.
All it takes are some simple practice techniques.
And I promise if you can sing and play at the same time, you’ll be amazed at how well your audience responds to you.
So today, I’m going to share 10 of my favorite hacks for learning to sing and play guitar at the same time.
Ready to get started?
Hack #1: Start with a Simple Song
Here’s the truth:
Playing and singing is difficult for everyone at first.
Even the best performers sometimes forget lyrics and chords when they’re performing.
That’s why it’s so much easier to choose a simple song when you’re first learning.
Not only will you be able to play the song well, but you’ll also be able to focus more on your singing.
Here are some things to look for when choosing a song:
Simple guitar songs will have:
⦁ Open chords,
⦁ Basic rhythm
⦁ Easy riffs
When you’re choosing your song, you also want to make sure that the song is easy to sing.
Simple vocal songs will have:
⦁ Limited vocal range (the distance from the lowest to the highest note in the song)
⦁ Repetitive lyrics
⦁ Vocal melody similar to the guitar rhythm
Let’s take a look at the song Wagon Wheel for example.
It’s four chords on guitar, the rhythm never changes and it doesn’t have any riffs.
As far as singing, the lyrics are repetitive, they match the rhythm of the guitar and the vocal range is pretty limited.
That’s why so many singer/songwriters perform Wagon Wheel!
When you find your own simple song, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to sing and play guitar at the same time.
Hack #2: Surround Yourself with the Song
Here’s the bottom line:
The best way to learn to sing and play a song is to memorize it completely.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours looking over chords and lyrics until it’s committed to memory.
Instead, surround yourself with the song and your mind will memorize it for you!
So put the song on your phone and play it when you wake up.
Listen to it in the shower, while you cook breakfast and even when you’re driving around town.
You want to be able to play the song front to back in your mind just from memory.
So, spend a lot of time listening to the song before you even get near a microphone or guitar.
You’ll find that once you have the song memorized, it’ll be way easier to remember the chords, melody, and lyrics.
Hack #3: Play the Chords Until They’re Muscle Memory
The truth is its way easier to sing and play at the same time if you learn the vocal and guitar parts separately.
And the best way to learn the guitar parts is to play the chords over and over.
So, print out a copy of the chords and play the song along with the recording.
You’re not trying to play it perfectly just yet. You’re just trying to teach your hands where to go.
A good rule of thumb is to play the song 10 times start to finish to memorize the chords.
If you do this right, you’ll find you won’t even think about the chords after a while!
Hack #4: Play the Song in Front of a Mirror
There are tons of great performers out there.
And almost all of them have something in common:
They never look down at their hands when they’re singing.
That’s because they’ve spent so much time practicing the song, that their hands know exactly where to go.
So, make sure to practice the song without looking down at your hands.
One trick to play without looking at your hands is to practice in front of a mirror.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Sit or stand in front of a large mirror so that you can see your hands on your guitar.
2. Next, play the chords along with the recording of the song but instead of looking down, watch your hands in the mirror.
3. Keep your neck and chin straight so that you’re not slouching over your guitar as you play.
This posture will put you in the position that you’ll eventually want to sing in. Having this good posture is one of the best ways to learn to sing.
Now that you can see your hands in the mirror as you play, you’ll be much less tempted to look at your hands when you perform.
Hack #5: Hum While You Play
Now that you’ve got the chords memorized, let’s add in some singing.
One of the best ways to start singing and playing at the same time is to hum while you play the chords.
That way you can sing and play without having to worry about the lyrics.
So, for the moment, focus on playing the chords while you hum the melody.
*There’s a good chance that humming will be enough to make you want to start looking down at your hands again.
But try to resist that temptation by focusing more on your playing than on your humming.
Singing the lyrics will definitely come, but for now, just keep your focus on your guitar playing at this point.
If you start forgetting the chords, don’t worry.
Just go back to watching yourself play in the mirror.
Hack #6: Memorize the Lyrics
Let’s face it, performing is tough!
Not only do you have to play the guitar and sing, but you also have to memorize every word of your songs.
Even some of the most famous performers forget the lyrics to their songs.
Don’t make this mistake!
So now that you’ve got the chords and melody memorized, it’s time to learn the lyrics.
There are lots of ways that you can memorize the lyrics to the song you’re singing.
One of my favorite tricks for memorizing lyrics is to make a story out of the song.
Fortunately, most song lyrics are linear; they have a clear start and end.
Stories work in the same way. So, if you’re able to figure out the story in the lyrics you’re singing, you’ll remember the order you need to sing them in.
Here’s how you can memorize lyrics by creating a story from the song:
1) Print out the lyrics of the song you chose.
2) Take a look at the lyrics and try to figure out what story the lyrics are trying to tell.
3) Then in the margins, write a simple one sentence phrase that describes what’s going on in that part of the song.
4) Next, take a blank sheet of paper and list the sentences you wrote describing each part of the song.
5) Finally, sing the song using only the paper with the single sentences.
You’ll be amazed at how much better you can remember the lyrics just by boiling the lyrics down into simple phrases!
And with the lyrics memorized, you’ll be able to focus way more on your singing and guitar playing.
Hack #7: Strum Single Chords While You Sing
Here’s the ugly truth:
Many singers lose track of their guitar playing as soon as they start singing.
That’s because it’s too easy to lose your place with all the moving parts.
So now that you’ve got the chords and lyrics memorized, let’s start singing and playing at the same time.
But to keep things simple, for now just play each chord once while you sing.
In other words, strum the chord for each phrase once and let it ring out while you sing the lyrics.
Then when the chords change, strum the next chord and sing the lyrics for that measure.
Lots of songs start this way anyway.
But without having to worry about playing the rhythm of the song on guitar, you’ll be able to focus more on your vocal technique.
And that’ll bring you so much closer to playing the complete song correctly.
Hack #8: Sing While Playing with the Recording
Now that you have the song and lyrics memorized, it’s time for you to put it all together and sing while you play.
But it can be really easy to forget your place if you don’t have something to play along with.
So, for right now, sing and play along with the recording so that you never miss a cue.
You may notice that you’re falling behind or speeding up when you’re playing with the recording.
That’s totally normal!
So, if you find yourself going too slow or fast, simply turn up the recording a bit so that you can hear the rhythm more clearly.
Then once you’ve got a better handle on the song, turn the recording down again and see if you can still stay on the beat.
Again, a good rule of thumb is to play and sing along with the recording at least 10 times while your hands and voice get used to the song.
Hack #9: Sing and Play to a Metronome
Here’s the ugly truth:
As soon as you start playing and singing without the recording, your tempo will probably suffer.
So now that you’re ready to sing and play solo, make sure to practice with a metronome.
There are lots of great free metronomes online. Simply pick one and find the tempo for the track and play along.
If you don’t know the tempo of the song you’re playing, don’t worry.
Here’s how to find the tempo of a track:
1. Play the recording of the song you chose.
2. Now, turn the metronome on and see where the beats line up with the rhythm of the song.
3. Next, adjust the speed of the metronome until you hear that the beats of the metronome match the beats of the song.
4. A good way to see if you’ve got the right tempo is to stop the metronome. Then start the metronome and the recording at the same time.
If the metronome matches the rhythm of the song, you’ve got the right tempo!
Again, if you find yourself slowing down or speeding up while you’re playing along with the metronome, don’t worry.
Simply, try to catch up by slowing down if you’re going too fast, or speeding up if you’re going to slow.
The truth is playing with a metronome is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also one of the best things you can do as a musician.
That’s because playing to a metronome is one of the best ways to train your ear as a musician.
And almost all modern music is recorded to a click so it’s great practice for when you’re ready to record.
Hack #10: Keep Your Focus on Your Singing
Now that you’ve got the rhythm, melody, and lyrics memorized, you’ll find that singing the song is way easier!
But you also don’t want to seem like a robot on stage.
We’ve all seen those performers who are so focused on what they’re playing that they totally forget about the audience.
Don’t make this mistake!
Instead, keep more of your focus on your singing than your guitar playing.
That’s because your singing ultimately tells the story of the song you’re performing; not your guitar playing.
And people in the audience will connect way more with an amazing voice than great guitar skills.
Don’t get me wrong: that doesn’t mean to completely forget about your guitar playing.
It just means that the chords, tempo, and rhythm can all be suspended a bit as long as your singing is great.
By now, you should be able to sing and play guitar at the same time!
With your voice and guitar working together, you’ll be amazed at how much your performance improves.
So, remember to practice these hacks anytime you need to learn a new song, and pretty soon, you won’t even have to think about what your hands are doing; you’ll just be playing perfectly.
~ Matt Ramsey
“Matt Ramsey’s complete singing course is Master Your Voice“.