Singing In A New Year

“Everyone is musical,” they said. “Music is a part of our earthly assignment. If you don’t sing because you don’t think you can sing, that does not diminish the singer within you. You simply do not honor your talent.”
– from the book Mutant Message from Forever by Marlo Morgan

Some recent questions via both email and the Guitar Forums (IMPORTANT ASIDE: please take the time to check out the new Forum pages!!! Paul has (yet again) done a great job of reformatting the Forum into various pertinent topics of discussion. Of course, it’s all for naught unless we take advantage of it!) were probably steering me to this particular topic, but I think what really iced it was a discussion I had a few weeks ago with one of my students.

We’d been talking about setting out some goals for the upcoming year (and yes, I try to do that with my students). He expressed a real interest in working out arrangements – meaning that he wanted to come up with new and interesting ways to use the guitar sort of like a piano, more as an accompaniment for his voice than strictly as a rhythm instrument. He does have a good voice, by the way. That always helps.

I don’t. Oh, it’s not a terrible voice by any means. I can hold a tune. But, as I’ve said before (and as you’ll be able to judge for yourself if A-J ever gets my tapes online!), it has been best described as “an acquired taste.” I can live with that.

But one thing that my student was interested in pointing out was that I have tailored my playing to work with my voice, often using the guitar to almost disguise its shortcomings and also to strengthen it in places.You can, in effect, learn to arrange your playing in order to help your singing.

Today we’ll examine this technique as well as take on those always scary “playing and singing at the same time” jitters. What I hope to do is to help each of you who feels ill at ease about your singing find a starting point, a place where you can be comfortable and learn to be honest about what you can and can’t do. Singing requires, in many respects, the same sort of attitude we bring to the guitar. The more realistic we are in our approach, the better our chances of being happy with our performances. Not everyone has a great voice, but just about everyone has the ability to develop a passable one.

And, before I forget…

These files are the author’s own work and represent his interpretation of these songs. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Walking And Chewing Gum

Many people starting out are, frankly, so freaked at trying to remember everything they can about playing that they don’t believe it’s possible to sing and play the guitar at the same time. It can be daunting.

And then there’s that little matter of rhythm…

Needless to say (and why does it always seem needless to say, “needless to say?”), there are a lot of ways to tackle learning to sing and strum at the same time. Some people concentrate on the strumming rhythm and let the singing fall where it may, others concentrate on the singing and hope that the guitar falls close enough into line so as not to be a distraction. Both of these ways, by the way, could be taken as stylistic quirks.

But if you want to do your best at both, you’re going to have to work at it. And, as always, it’s easiest to start out as simply as possible and gradually take on more and more complex patterns as your skills improve. I find that the earlier and the easier you begin concentrating on this the better.

Some of you may, in fact, find this ridiculously easy. That’s okay. Let’s pick a simple song with a very simple melody, preferably something in straight quarter notes, half notes and whole notes. The idea is that we are going to strum the rhythm of the melody so that there will be no difference between the rhythm we are strumming and the rhythm of the melody line. This is probably the easiest example of this I know:

Twinkle Twinkle 1
Twinkle Twinkle 2

As always, start out as slowly as you have to in order to keep a steady rhythm (yes, you might want to use a metronome to check). Since this is fairly easy, though, you’ll probably be ready to take the next step relatively quickly. This is where you start “filling in” the missing beats. First try using a strumming pattern of steady eighth notes and then you might want to vary things a little bit:

Twinkle Twinkle melody line 1
Twinkle Twinkle melody line 2
Twinkle Twinkle strumming pattern 2 line 1
Twinkle Twinkle strumming pattern 2 line 2
Twinkle Twinkle strumming pattern 3 line 1
Twinkle Twinkle strumming pattern 3 line 2
Twinkle Twinkle strumming pattern 4 line 1
Twinkle Twinkle strumming pattern 4 line 2

Another beginning step is to take a song with a melody you have absolutely down pat (and one where the melody line contains rhythms markedly different than what you’d strum) and, essentially, do the opposite of what we were just doing. Strum a steady beat of quarter notes (just on the first, second and fourth beats if it’s a fast song) while you sing. Even though these songs have just gone out of season, they are good ones to work with, again because you can do the melody in your sleep.

Silent Night line 1
Silent Night line 2
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer line 1
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer line 2

Again, and I know that I am really beating this into the ground here, these may seem like incredibly easy examples, but that is precisely the point. If this is not something that comes naturally to you (and it doesn’t for a lot of people), and if it something that you want to develop, then you have to start out as simply as possible. Otherwise you are in for a world of frustration. It is hardly worth it.

Clues And Cues

The guitarist as singer/songwriter is a powerful image, one that transcends cultures as well as history. We think of wandering minstrels spellbinding the gathered crowds as they pass on their tales of love, of loss and redemption, of valor of epic proportion.

But, truth be told, few of our guitar heroes, male or female, are phenomenal singers. They do, however, manage to intelligently write and arrange music in accordance to the various strengths and nuances of their particular voices. And so can you.

Right off the bat, though, you have to resolve to be up front and honest with yourself. This cuts both ways – you have to accept and live within your limitations and you have to learn to appreciate the good things (and yes, everyone has some!) about your given voice.

And this might be a good time to point out something that might not be obvious – if possible, you should record yourself singing something. It can be on a cheap cassette deck or even the message tape on your answering machine! The reason for this is very simple – you should know what you actually sound like, not what you think you sound like. When we first hear our own voices, it tends to be something of a shock. That is because even though we hear ourselves all the time, what we hear is not what the outside world is hearing. And if you think there is a discrepancy in your speaking voice, wait ’til you hear yourself singing!

Once you’ve gotten used to (or gotten over!) what you sound like, then you should try to figure a few other things out. And yes, again, making use of a recorder of some sort would be a good idea. First, you need to figure out the “range” of your voice. A “range” is exactly what you probably think it is – the various notes you are capable of singing from the lowest note to the highest. And we’re talking about singing comfortably, about hitting notes cleanly and accurately, not about the notes that you can get by scrunching yourself all up in your best Joe Cocker impression. Most people have ranges from one to two octaves, usually one solid octave (say C to C) and a few notes on either side.

Having found your range, you should take the additional step of exploring the various qualities of your voice within that range. Is it stronger on the higher notes or the lower ones? Perhaps “stronger” is the wrong word because some people’s voices take on a, I don’t know, let’s call it a “quality” at certain points of their range. It’s this “quality” that gives some singers a distinctive trademark.

Knowing where your range is and where your voice is strongest also gives you the ability to arrange a song accordingly. I have a higher (but not as high as I think) range than a lot of the singers I admire and I find myself often having to play their songs with my capo on the second or third fret of my guitar in order to accommodate my voice.

But one of the most useful things you can do to help yourself out is to arrange your playing to give yourself musical cues at various points of a song. Usually this means no more than picking out a note here and there in order to help your maintain your tone. This is especially beneficial either during songs where you want the melodies to be very precise or if you are uncertain of your ability to sing the intervals between the notes with any semblance of finesse. Let’s go back to Twinkle, Twinkle to see this in action.

Twinkle Twinkle line 1
Twinkle line 2

I will admit that this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is simply to prove a point. When you get good at this you can “hide” your cues within your strumming. You’ll also note that you have to know where your notes are on the fret board in order to do this; you also need to know various chord voicings and when not to play all six strings at once. Yes, I know that this is a sneaky way to get you to realise that there’s something to learning a bit of theory after all…

Here I’ve charted out the first line of Neil Young’s Like A Hurricane, which is again a simple way to illustrate how this technique can provide you with enough notes (in this case the entire melody line) to sing with more confidence. Later this spring, when we go into arrangements in a little more depth, we’ll see some more subtle ways of using this method of leaving yourself melodic clues.

Like a Hurricane line 1
Like a Hurricane line 2

Of course, having gone through all of this, let’s not overlook the obvious: if you ever have the chance to take voice lessons of any kind, whether it be a private tutor or some words of advice from the leader of your church choir or school’s chorus. Or any of your friends that seriously studies singing. Never, ever, pass up the opportunity to learn from someone who has experience.

And even more obvious, this is something that has to be worked on. Practice and patience are key, but so, as I’ve said, is honesty. Not everyone has a great (or even a good) voice, but as long as you have a realistic idea of what you can and can’t do, you should be able to get by. More importantly, you’ll be able to provide smart accompaniment with which to accommodate your singing.

As we’ve said on numerous occasions, you should never feel as though you have to be a clone of each and every song you do. You should feel free to take some liberties with the timing of a song’s melody, especially if it is giving you waaay too hard of a time. But do remember, someone else created this and when ever you perform another person’s song you should try to do it in honor of having the opportunity to share in what it means to you. Yes, I’m certain that that sounds absolutely corny, but it is nonetheless true. Do the best with what you can. Even if it means simply joining in on the chorus, adding one single line of harmony or even doing no more then chiming in on the “ooo ooo’s” during “Sympathy For The Devil,” give it everything you’ve got.

When hundreds of people are singing, it’s never out of tune.

I’d especially like to thank Jimmy Hudson and the person who goes by the name of “Picker” on the forum pages for their input concerning this week’s column.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in a future column. You can either drop off a note at any of the newly revamped Forum pages or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…


You can more help and tips on playing and singing at the same time in A-J Charron’s lesson Playing the Guitar while Singing.