By Desi Serna

For many guitarists, coordinating their playing with singing proves to be a big challenge. They can devote their attention to one activity or the other, but not both. As soon as the singing begins, the guitar parts fall apart, and vice versa. Although playing guitar and singing is a skill in itself that not everyone is equally suited for, there are some things you can do to make improvements:

  • Learn from pianists. To an untrained observer, piano players seem to use two hands independently, but the reality is that the left-hand parts and right-hand parts are learned together. In the same way, learn how your guitar playing and singing work together, instead of thinking of them as separate and disconnected.

  • Learn from drummers. You may have the impression that drummers use their limbs independently, but in reality, they learn how the different parts work together, too. Drummers know when a hi-hat and kick drum are played at the same time, or opposite one another. In the same way, you should know when a word is sung on a strum or opposite a strum.

  • Keep it simple. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Begin with songs that have both simple guitar parts and simple singing. Use basic chords and easy strum patterns. Sing melodies that feature simple, predictable rhythms.

  • Make sure you can perform the two parts separately before combining them. If you have any trouble playing a guitar part, adding vocals will just complicate things and cause you to stumble even more. The same goes for songs that you’re not able to sing correctly even when your hands are completely free. Commit both parts to memory and practice them individually until they become second nature; then start the process of combining them.

  • When you get tripped up playing and singing, stop and figure out what you’re doing wrong. Did you miss a strum? On which beat does the word land? Did you mistakenly try to combine two parts that are really supposed to be played on separate beats? Does the chord come first, then the word, or vice versa? If necessary, work out how each syllable relates to each strum and chord change.

  • Slow down! Back off on the tempo, cut the tempo in half, whatever it takes. Slowly work measure by measure, line by line, working to fit the pieces together. When everything is in place, gradually increase the tempo.

  • With fingerpicking, choose songs that feature very simple patterns, ones that you can play without thinking.

  • If the chord changes themselves are tripping you up, rework them in a different position, perhaps one in which you use a capo, so that the fingerings are made easier for you. For example, instead of playing in the key of Ab using barre chords, put a capo at the first fret and play as if you were in the key of G.

  • Do it your way. Sometimes a song just won’t come together no matter how hard you try. When this is the case, change the feel to something that comes more naturally to you.

  • Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Guitarists who play and sing well didn’t develop their skills overnight. Don’t rush the process. A song may take hours, days, weeks, or months to master.