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Sing To Improve Your Ear

Beyond the Realms of Conventional Guitar Thinking - Part IV
"Sing?!? But all I want to do is play guitar, and besides, my singing sucks!" Yes, as many of you were probably thinking the same thing, I too once thought that singing was just something I'd "..get around to learning when I felt like it." Well, luckily for me I joined a band that shoved a mic in front of me and said, "Here. We need you to sing if you're gonna be part of this band." So I started chipping in on the vocal duties, and gradually I was allowed to sing more and more when we played live. Now, a decade later, I am the primary backing vocalist in my band, as well as the main melody / harmony writer for our original tunes.

"Once I learned how to sing...it was like a whole new reality had opened up for me."

So what does that story have to do with improving one's ear? Nothing really, however, the process of learning how to sing has made the single most significant impact on my ear development in all my years of musicianship! Sure it's a profound statement to make considering all of the knowledge and influences one takes in over the course of time, but I know for a fact that once I learned how to sing... it was like a whole new reality had opened up for me. I mean, it was literally like going from listening to a clock radio with only one speaker to something like a Bose Home Theater system, or from a black & white TV to color night and day difference. I guess I could liken the feeling to those dorky old Perfect Pitch ads: "It's like Super-Charging your ear!" After learning how to pick out harmony parts, it made so many of my old favorite tunes come to life again once I could really hear the full scope of everything that was going on within. And guitar harmonies leapt out at me like never before, and I was finally able to write my own guitar harmony parts much easier. It literally made me go from straining to hear the parts I was trying to pick out to, "Hey... now I can hear all these chord voicings and fast solos I've been hacking and B.S.'ing my way through all these years!"

So, where does this leave you? Well, if you already have a grasp on singing then I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know, but for those who don't I strongly urge you to start. Take a few lessons from a local vocal teacher, or perhaps from a school choir teacher. Hell, even if it's just tips from a fellow musician bud who sings & plays at a pub on the weekends we've all gotta start somewhere and at some time. Even if it's just you singing along to the car stereo, that's a start (that's how I started). However, strive as best you can to take it further. Work towards being able to identify and isolate harmonies so that one day you can add your own harmony parts in songs where there are none. I've never had any formal training other than a few helpful tips from a former bandmate and some books I bought, but I really wished I had real training back when I started so that I could've learned proper breath control techniques from the get-go. I can't stress enough how important breath control (i.e., using your diaphragm muscles) is for the actual singing tone and confidence aspect it too makes night & day difference. Did I forget to mention how good it makes you feel to be able to really get in touch with one's own instrument (your voice) on a far more meaningful and almost spiritual level? I'm tellin' ya folks... singing is unlike any feeling you'll probably ever have with your guitar since it's, of course, a physical part of you and not merely an extension. But I digress...

The sooner you embark on this journey of ear expansion via the development of your body's built-in instrument, the sooner you will see the rewards of all those years of conventional (and oft times frustrating) ear training. Until next time...

Craig Smoot — Musician, Web Site and Info Systems Developer — is 1/2 of the guitar team for Black Label, and also runs Hellecasters.com and Rivera.com in his spare time.