I play guitar for fun, and I've both played accompanying rhythm, as well as melody. I've also played rhythm for singers.

Now, when I try to accompany myself on guitar for the rhythm, and then sing a song to it, I get completely lost on the timing if the song and the rhythm are somehow off-beat to each other. I have the same problem when I try to play pieces on my guitar where I play rhythm and melody simultaneously.

I can figure out the rhythm, I get the melody timing, but I just can't keep both in my head at the same time. Any suggestions? Maybe ways I can get accustomed to multiple simultaneous beats on a basic level before I attempt to solo the songs I would normally play?

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    Hi! Consider changing the title of this question, as it isn't really polyrhythms that is the core issue here, but singing and comping at the same time. E.g. "Approaches to comping and singing at the same time". Commented May 1, 2014 at 11:23
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    @MeaningfulUsername Haha, ok. Sorry for my blatant misuse of a word of which I have no clue what it means. I just tried "latin-deduction" (poly)-(rhythm)... something with multiple simultaneous rhythms : P Commented May 1, 2014 at 13:47

6 Answers 6


Break the problem down into the smallest steps possible. The problem is that you need to be keeping two rhythms going at once, one for the guitar and one for your voice.

You've already got:

  • The ability to sing the song with good timing and rhythm

  • The ability to play the guitar with good timing and rhythym

You need a way to put the two together. Here's a couple suggestions.

  • Start out with either humming (easier) or singing (harder), and tapping the rhythm with a hand or foot. This takes out the complication of remembering how to strum properly or finger chords. Once you can do this, start adding chords in slowly. Start with playing a single chord in rhythm for the whole song. Once you can do that in rhythm, add in the proper chords.

  • If you have a recording of the song, put that on, then hum along with it while playing guitar. If that's too hard, play along without singing at all. If that's too easy, then start singing to the recording. This way, you don't have to think about the melody so much. Once you can sing and play, drop the volume on the recording or remove it entirely.


I am learning to self-accompany on harp, and I have experienced exactly the same problem.

You've already got some good suggestions. To add to them: something I've found beneficial is to conceptualize the thing-that-hands-are-doing and the thing-the-voice-is-doing as a single thing, and practice accordingly.

To explain that -- one approach already discussed is to try to become automatic on one or both of the parts (voice or instrument) and hope that carries one through. That's not wrong, but I think it's complementary to the opposite approach of learning the two parts together. When one studies the two parts separately and attempts to get them so automatic they can unspool from one's hands/voice like from a tape, one never figures out the persnickety details of how the two parts fit together. But it's the persnickety details where one get derailed.

For instance -- btw, the example I have in the back of my head while talking about this is Dowland's "Come Again", if it that illuminates my examples -- if in learning the instrumental part, I hadn't noticed that I was not quite playing the 16th note runs in strict time, I may think that I have the instrumental accompaniment down, but when I try to put it on "automatic" and sing over it, every time I hit one of those bars, my voice part is going to get to the end of the bar first, and I'll be all lost and discombobulated, thinking "Wait!? What just happened?!" There are two solutions: One is to pull out the metronome and discover those 16th notes are lagging, and get them up to tempo by drilling them. But what if I want to linger over the 16th notes? What if, say, I am milking the dirty joke in the lyrics or just generally getting my artiste on with some rubato? Then what I want to have happen is for the voice to be rubato in sync with the instrumental part. And the only way to possibly get that to work is to have a very clear and precise understanding of how the rhythms of the vocal part sync with the rhythms of the instrumental part.

To that end, one can, e.g. make sure one has the count for the joint piece -- hands and throat -- right, and then work on it reeeeeeeeaaaaaaalllllyyyyyyy sssssssssllllllloooooowwwwwwllllllllllyyyyyyyyyy until one reliably gets it precisely right. Then work on cranking the tempo back up to where it needs to be.

Now, this approach may make more sense for classical guitar, but if you're doing anything at all complex with picking, it might pertain. I decided I wanted to be able to self-accompany on Sumer is icumen in, which has "pes", a ridiculously simple repeating bass riff -- but for me, I found doing it required that I actually figure out how every individual note of the melody lined up (or not) against the corresponding note of the bass part.

  • I've seen Geddy Lee practice, and this is exactly how he syncs up his vocals and bass. He does both parts slowly and with exaggerated beats to get a feel for the sync, then speeds it up. Commented May 2, 2014 at 6:16
  • I think you're onto it right here. I have a crazy hard time doing two things at once, and I'm only at my best when I'm literally thinking of all of it as just one thing. My buddy who plays/sings effortlessly likes to say he;s at a loss to only do one or the other; but put together they actually complement one another
    – johnjps111
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 20:58

From my own experience, I'd like to think that playing the guitar while watching TV has helped the ability to play while doing other things.

As for specific approaches to learn to sing and play at the same time: Learn both the accompaniment and the lyrics/melody separately and thoroughly. When playing and singing at the same time, use a very simplified comping pattern, maybe just stroke the chord on the 1st beat on every measure. As you get comfortable comfortable with this approach, try more involved patterns.

If changing chords is too problematic in the beginning, try simplifying further by only using the bass note of the chord.


If you get distracted by the lyrics' meaning, try singing nonsense words that fit the stress pattern of the real words.


For most songs, I'm perfectly capable of playing and singing at the same time. But there are some songs where the guitar rhythm and vocal rhythm don't correlate clearly. To me AC/DC's Back in Black is one such song.

Now, I've been singing or playing this song countless of times for years. I know the song inside out but I never managed to do both at the same time until recently. When everything else failed, I decided to fix this problem with brute force and created the following chart:

Back in Black chords and lyrics

Each box corresponds to a sub-beat, black text is what the guitar plays and the maroon text is what the vocal says. I practiced very slowly, to the point that I could stop and think in between the sub-beats. After getting a feel of it, I pushed the tempo higher and higher until I was able to do it in the right tempo. It took me less than an hour to get there and a few more hours to make it second nature.

I know it's a lot of work for a single song that you already know but for some songs it's worth it.


Edit: I want to add that BobRodes' answer is a simpler version of mine that's easier to understand: How can I develop mastery of polyrhythms in playing guitar?

Seems like you're going about this by feel. This is a very excellent and quick method to learning songs, however, you may not be able to rely on it for more difficult songs.

If you like to have something concrete in front of you to practice, then try this method that I use (based on basic music notation (Sorry I'm limited to posting only 2 links)(ht tp://method-behind-the-music.com/theory/notation))

1) Write down the rhythm timing
2) Write down the melody timing
3) Write down the rhythm with the melody timing

Side note about music notation:

You only need to know about measures and how many beats are in one measure. Most of the common songs have 4 beats per measure and you can feel it when you tap to the song. Here are some examples to get the feel for the difference between a 4 beat measure and 3 beat measure.

Once you know how many beats are in a measure, you can follow the steps above. After that, you will have something in front of you to follow in your practice. This method is great because you can break it down into smaller pieces if it's too difficult or you can add more to it if it's too easy.

When you practice without a clear direction you don't know if you'll get to your goal and you don't know how long it will take. With this method, the journey long, you will get to your goal, it's just a matter of time and practice.

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