You may have read or had a teacher tell you that you have to be able to sing what you want to play on the guitar. If you aren’t comfortable with singing, that may come as advice that you are happy to ignore. How important can it be? Is it even true?
In short, yes. It is true. Of course it is possible to do a respectable job of playing chords to plenty of songs without singing, but you will undoubtedly be limited in how quickly and accurately you learn and play both melodies and accompaniment.
Don’t worry, though, singing during your practice time doesn’t have to be painful or embarrassing. You don’t need to be able to sing all the lyrics correctly or produce a vocal performance to be proud of. You do, however, need to be able to hear the parts of the song in your head clearly enough to reproduce them vocally. That means that you can hear and sing the picking or strumming pattern or the bass line or any number of techniques, such as slides, bends or hammer-ons. It also, and maybe most importantly, means that you can hear and sing the melodic rhythm and the pulse correctly.
The first step is to learn to sing the melody correctly and without referring to written music. Many of my students get stuck at this stage, as they are concerned with perfecting the lyrics. Lyrics may be important, but don’t let them cause you to stumble or pause. Rhythmic nonsense sounds such as “da-da-da” or “chck-a-chck” do the job and should be used whenever your lyrics drop out from under you and you need to keep a flow.
As you work with the melody, be absolutely certain that you are singing each note, regardless of how far out of your comfort range those notes may be. Breaking the melody down into small parts and singing those parts very slowly will increase your awareness and accuracy. As you begin to define every note, you may realize that you have been perceiving a musical phrase or line as a vague block of sound, rather than a series of distinct notes. Be on guard for this common problem and be relentless about solving it through slow, conscious work!
When you feel certain that you are singing each note correctly, slowly begin bringing the melody up to tempo, singing with the rhythm, dynamics and expression that you want to have in your playing.
Once you can sing the melody, it’s time to learn to sing the guitar parts. If you are playing rhythm or accompaniment, learn to sing the root of each chord. Then, try singing the rhythm (strumming or fingerpicking pattern), again using sounds like “chck, chck-a,” or “chck, chck, chck-a-chck-a.”
A metronome is essential for this practice! In addition to singing with the metronome, be sure to sing with your favorite recording of the song, if at all possible. This will help you avoid the common mistake of adding or subtracting beats or portions of beats, which is something that I hear a lot of students doing in the parts of songs that are difficult for them. If you suspect this is an issue for you, feel free to contact me and I will help you through it.