The top 3 challenges for singers learning guitar, and how to conquer them

August 21, 2017

Living and working in Nashville, I meet a lot of singers who want to learn to accompany themselves. Even in a music town like this one, where competent guitarists are easy to find, there’s a lot of value in being able to play for yourself. First off all, it makes you independent – you can perform anytime and anywhere without having to rely on someone else. Second, it adds another dimension to your performances. Third, if you write songs it gives you another musical tool. And last, (I believe), it will ultimately make you a better and more musical singer as you learn to think like an instrumentalist as well as a vocalist.

There are three main challenges that I find most singers encounter when they start learning to play. Here are the big issues, and some tips on how to get past them.

1. Getting comfortable with the guitar.

If you’re used to being unencumbered onstage, having a box hanging around your neck can be distracting and uncomfortable. So the first step is to make sure you’re physically comfortable with the instrument. There are several aspects to this, but the most important one is the guitar itself.

Guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes, just like people. You want to find an instrument that fits your body. The most common acoustic guitar style is called a dreadnought; this is probably what you picture when you think of an acoustic guitar.

dreadnought acoustic guitar

Dreadnoughts were designed to project a full, strong sound. In order to create enough bass, though, they need to be fairly deep and somewhat wide across the bottom of the body. For someone with a smaller frame, this can make things uncomfortable.

You should be able to sit holding the guitar and be able to bring your strumming hand to the strings without putting any strain on your shoulder. See if you can swing the forearm back and forth, from just above the strings to about the end of the pickguard (almost to the bottom of the body).

Try standing and using a guitar strap. The guitar should sit more or less in the center of your chest: you should be able to easily bring the fretting hand to the strings, and be able to swing the strumming hand easily back and forth without feeling like the guitar body is in your way. To play good rhythm (essential for accompanying yourself), your strumming hand needs to be able to move freely and naturally. This may take some adjusting the strap to find the best height, but if you need to pull your strumming hand up beyond a slight angle the instrument might be too high. The power in strumming comes from the downward swing, so you should be able to move the forearm down so it extends some. Not so much that the arm is straight, but at a greater angle than on the upward swing.

Experiment with this a little. If you can’t get comfortable, you may need to find a smaller instrument. There are many body shapes and styles to choose from: orchestra (OM), 000 (triple-o), 00 (double-o), parlor, mini, and numerous others. As you practice and learn more about what feels right, you’ll have a good idea of whether the guitar you’re playing will work for you.

2. Creating the rhythm instead of reacting to it.

As a vocalist, you may have a different sense of rhythm than an instrumentalist. That’s not to say you can’t keep time, but rhythm is a physical thing. When you sing a song, you certainly feel the beat, and most of us move our bodies to the music in one way or another. But to play a percussive instrument – something you hit – gives you a different feeling, because of the concrete attack you get from striking a string, piano key, or drum head. Because of this, singers tend to have a more fluid sense of rhythm. This is a good thing from a phrasing and interpretive standpoint, but to be a good accompanist your time needs to be as solid and grounded as any drummer. After all, if you accompany yourself alone, you ARE the drummer!

If you’ve never practiced with a metronome, start. If you’re able to practice to drum loops or beats, that’s also really useful. Here are a few key things to listen for and try.

First, find the pulse (the steady beat) and move to it. Start by just feeling it, and then either tapping your foot, your hand, or nodding your head. Some people find it easier to move the upper body in time than to tap. Then try playing a single note or chord in time with the steady beat. Try this sequence:

– First, play steadily on each beat, counting fours.

– Play every other beat (ONE rest TWO rest). These are the downbeats.

– Try reversing the pattern by waiting for the second beat (rest TWO rest FOUR). These are the offbeats, or “backbeat”.

– Try subdividing the beat in twos (ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and). If you can manage it, try playing this on a single note with repeated downstrokes, then moving to a strum with either repeated downstrokes or alternating down and up strums.

Even if you can already play strum patterns, this is a really useful exercise. Your sense of rhythm can always be fine-tuned, and if you’re new to the guitar than this work is very productive and powerful.

3. Coordinating playing and singing.

This is the most difficult thing for most people to master. Part of the challenge is that we learn to sing songs fairly easily by ear…just hear it enough times and if your voice can reach the notes, there it is. Learning guitar often needs to be a little more deliberate. There’s coordination and control to develop, patterns to remember, and a certain amount of repetitive work that’s unavoidable. So many singers find the guitar distracting, which leads many to give up.

The best way to deal with this challenge is to start very simply and slowly. Learn simple songs with just a handful of chords. Two or three at the most, maybe four. Start off getting the patterns under your fingers. When you can reach the chords in time, try singing the song and only striking each chord once. Take the opportunity to feel the rhythm in your body, noticing how the chord changes line up with the lyrics. This sets up a framework for the song. Then you can practice the rhythm and strumming separately before you try to put all the pieces together. Remember that accomplished musicians learn to keep track of many musical elements at once, and that process takes time. But if you start off with songs that are easy to sing with just a few chords and a simple beat, you’ll learn to work through the process of learning any song.

Above all, remember that it’s going to be frustrating to pair something you do really well with something that’s much harder and unfamiliar. Accept and embrace the challenges, be prepared to do the work, and commit yourself for the long game. I’ve seen it work over and over, and it’ll work for you too.

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