Playing the Guitar While Singing – (Or Singing while Playing the Guitar)

A lot of bands have a lead vocalist who also plays an instrument. You listen to a live album from them and you hear the instrument performed to perfection and wonder how they do it. You’ve tried to sing while playing your guitar and have discovered that it’s not an easy thing to do.

Reality check: most live albums you listen to are not really live. A live recording is used, then the instruments are dubbed in the studio. Meaning that a guitar track that’s not as full as the guitarist or producer would like, will be re-recorded in the studio. This goes for all instruments and voices, so that the end result is an album that’s not really live. Over 95% of live albums are done this way.

I know of some that are really the live product, these would include all live albums by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Steve Hackett and the Rolling Stones. These ones are plainly obvious as you can hear the mistakes that are made. Let’s face it: everyone makes mistakes live, even the best. There are certainly more than the ones mentioned here, but remember that most are not live.

So, by listening to live albums and trying to perform the songs yourself the same way, you wonder why it is you can’t play a complicated solo while singing. Often this can lead to doubting your own abilities. It shouldn’t.

A year or two ago I read an interview in Canadian Musician with Geddy Lee (Bass and lead vocals for Rush). Geddy was talking about just this point. He mentioned that first of all, once the album was recorded, the guys took two weeks off to learn the songs. And learn to play them live. This is because, on a studio recording, you might have five guitar tracks in a song. Unless you have five guitarists on stage, you won’t be able to reproduce this live. What you need to do is create one track which is playable for one guitarist. And then adapt it to vocals.

As a bass player, Geddy was explaining that it was very difficult to play bass and sing at the same time. It would be sort of like playing a solo while singing, you can easily imagine the difficulties involved. So, he resorted to playing, essentially, chord lines while singing.

There are some musicians, although extremely rare, who can play a solo like Jimmy Paige, and sing something entirely unrelated at the same time. If you watch Pendragon’s video Live at Last, it’s amazing to see Nick Barrett soloing and singing at the same time. But, as I said, people like this are exceptions.

The first thing to do, whether you are playing your own song or someone else’s is to adapt the guitar track to the voice. Meaning, no solos while you’re singing. Also watch out for picking. You may not, in certain instances, be able to pick and sing simultaneously.

Suppose your picking is played in full times: 4 notes per measure in a 4/4. Now suppose your vocal line has five syllables (for singing, always think in terms of syllables). This means that you will have to sing five notes in that measure while picking four notes on the guitar. Once is no big deal, but if you’re picking 18 measures like this while never singing 4 syllables in a measure, you will be running into trouble. Depending on your abilities, it may or may not be done. You can adjust this by changing the picking pattern. It could mean turning a finger-picking into a pick-picking or vice-versa. It could meant the addition or subtraction of a not in the picking line.

If you’re using a distortion guitar, then you can make use of punches while singing. Instead of playing a steady rhythm, you can hit the chords only once, on the first beat and let it fade by itself. This is fairly simple and can add a lot of power to a song or a part of a song.

Also very important is to know your drummer well. I remember one situation where we were trying out a new drummer. He insisted on playing everything in 4/4 while letting me play my 3/4s and 6/8s through his beats. It works, but it’s an added difficulty. Playing with a new drummer takes a lot of getting use to. It can take a few weeks before you fall into synch with him when you’re playing an instrument and singing. This guy told me to start counting the beats. So I’m playing the guitar and singing and I should be counting? All at the same time? I told him to get lost.

This is to illustrate a point: you can do two things at once, but doing a third one is nearly impossible. What you have to do is learn to play without counting or tapping your foot. You need to get your playing completely in tune with what the drummer is doing. You’ll realize after a time that if he makes a mistake, you’ll be making the same mistake. But that’s cool, because if he makes a mistake live, people are less susceptible to notice it. And you should not be making any timing mistakes this way. Remember that, first and foremost, your drummer is there to count for you. Practice playing your guitar with him as much as possible.

So, you’re basically laying your guitar track on his drum track. Then you lay your vocal track on the guitar track which has been previously adapted to the vocals, I know it sounds funny, but that’s the way to do it. Once you’re playing your guitar track without thinking about such things as counting, you’ll be better able to sing.

A mistake most beginners make is to expect their live product to sound close to the original. If a song has been recorded using 16 tracks, there’s no way you can reproduce this with four musicians. Everyone would have to be playing four instruments at the same time. The trick is to do the most you can with what you have. Four musicians means four tracks, plus a sixth for vocals.

Also, remember that most people record their albums before having played the songs with their bands. Meaning that everybody learns the song while in the studio, usually, without playing together. The guitarist who is also lead vocalist can play anything he wants as he’s not singing at the same time.

Once an album is complete, everyone goes home and learns their parts for the live show. That’s how it’s normally done and that’s how you should do it to.

If you will be playing a cover song, it’s OK to learn the actual guitar tracks, but it’s better if you don’t. See what’s happening and figure how you can do this live. If in an instrumental section you have a rhythm guitar happening and a solo, you obviously can’t play both at the same time. If you have a keyboard player, then the two of you should work at exchanging solos and rhythm patterns. If you don’t then the bass player should cover as much chord territory as is possible while you’re playing a solo.

The same goes for singing. You can’t play as much as would like, so the other musicians in the band should cover your guitar parts as much as possible so that the song doesn’t sound too empty.

Of course, and I know I’ve said this a lot in the past, but it’s a simple fact that the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Also check out… Singing in a New Year