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Strumming and Singing

Vocal tips for guitarists
For me, playing the guitar has always come relatively easy. I pick things up fast, and a little practice can go a long way. However, like many other guitarists, trying to get comfortable with my singing voice has been like searching for the elusive Holy Grail! Not to mention that accompanying myself on the guitar means I have to read the map and drive the car at the same time. The faster I drive and the more intricate the path, the harder it makes them both to do. Having searched now for the better part of 5 years, I still have not found the grail, but I have traveled many miles and have some suggestions for those who are also searching.

First of all, assuming you have little or no experience with the technique of proper vocal delivery, you must take stock of what you have as a singer. Is your voice smooth or gruff? Is it sweet or raspy? Most people hate the sound of their own voice, but that does not mean you don't have the ability to convey a song with conviction. Look at singers like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits. These are not gorgeous tenors, but they all have style and are more than effective storytellers.

"Part of the process is developing a relationship with your singing voice, much like the relationship you have with your guitar."
Along those same lines, you need to assess your range. Many men believe that singing lower is easier and better sounding for them, but this is not always the case. The male voice is composed of three one octave registers (which usually overlap some). These are: chest, head, and falsetto. The chest range for most men is similar to the lowest octave on the guitar, E (6 string open) to E (4th string, 2nd fret). The head range is the next octave, E (4th string, 2nd fret) to E (1st string, open), and most men's falsetto range is about D (2nd string, 3rd fret) up to a high D or so. However, each man's range is different (though it can usually be expanded upon with proper practice), and everyone has a "sweet spot" in their vocal range. If you sing in the wrong register, you may never sound good. The key to success for any vocalist is finding material that suits their capabilities.

Now it's time to pick a song and practice. It can be tricky to maintain one rhythm in your hands while singing another, but if you rehearse anything long enough, you'll develop the independence needed to reproduce both parts. Start simple, and practice the parts separately before doing them together. If you can't sing the proper melody a cappella (without accompaniment), then you need more practice. Once you can do each part accurately, then, slowly at first, combine them. Make sure to slow the overall tempo so you can be more perceptive of what you are doing. Also, tape record the practice so you can listen independently later. Taped evaluation is crucial to not only assess your tone and hear your weaknesses, but also to share them for criticism from peers and teachers. Beginning vocal students are notorious for being shy about public performance. Don't embarrass yourself by making mistakes because you're nervous. Share a tape and you'll know exactly what your audience will hear.

In my opinion, the most important thing to keep in mind for the beginning vocalist is good breath support. Breathing deeply and from the diaphragm will not only give you the breath you need to croon, but will also allow you to relax as you sing and play at the same time. Tension caused by playing too difficult a guitar part, combined with the nervousness of struggling with your voice, can settle in your vocal cords, limitimg your range and ability to produce a good tone, not to mention inhibiting your senses of pitch and rhythm. Be sure the guitar part is second nature so you can focus on breathing and singing.

With proper deep breathing, the stomach should expand with inhilation, and as you breath out, the stomach should come back in with a slight pressure on the abdominal muscles. Make sure this is the case while you are singing. If your standing with the guitar, you should feel your stomach go out against the guitar as you breathe in. Then, use your diaphram and the slight muscle pressure I mentioned above to push out your tone. If you sit with an acoustic guitar, you're going to need good posture so that the air can flow, but I suggest if you don't already have great breath support, then you should always practice standing up. Take time to get used to your body, and if you're having problems, you should have a qualified vocal coach evaluate you with your guitar strapped on to learn ways to support your breathing.

Some more things to keep in mind:
  1. Sing the melody exactly - Study the recording and/or transcription of the song you're trying to perform, and make sure you sing the exact same pitch relationships as the original version (if you want to change the key to better suit your range, that is fine). Later you can take "artistic license" with the vocal melody if desired, but for the sake of good practice, do it exactly until you get it perfect.

  2. Always warm up - Don't sing if you don't feel like it. My warm up exercise is simply to hum (with my mouth closed) from my lowest comfortable pitch to my highest and back down. You'll need plenty of breath to do it slowly and with control, and you should pay particular attention to the crossover between your head and falsetto registers. If you can blend these nicely and without a break, you're off to a good start. Next, I yawn a few times. Seriously. If you yawn out a high pitch and roll it down with your mouth wide open, you are demonstrating good vocal technique (don't overemphasize the actual yawn!). Making a moterboat sound with your lips while you sing through a song is another great warm-up, and don't forget the importance of warming up your mind. Study the lyric and find the emotions you'll need to communicate the story.

  3. Don't breath too deep or push too hard while singing - Once mastered, deep breathing while singing should be as effortless and second nature as it is while jogging (if you're a good jogger!), and it should not be forced. If you experience light-headedness while practicing, simply take a break for rest, as this should be expected for a beginner. Avoid tension. Tension below your vocal chords affects your breathing, while tension above them affects the sound of your voice. Don't lock your knees, clench your teeth, or reach out your chin to get to the microphone. Just relax and enjoy.

To anyone who's reading this and would like to start singing, then jump right in. Part of the process is developing a relationship with your singing voice, much like the relationship you have with your guitar. You are going to need to go ahead and make all the mistakes, and you have to be brave about it. You will be embarassed and you will feel incredibly awkward, but when you get the hang of it, it can be one of the most personal and enjoyable forms of expression. You will be rewarded in terms of musical growth, and you will be a more valuable musician.

Josh Graves thought he had skills until he saw Lindsey Buckingham do Big Love live on Fleetwood Mac's The Dance tour.