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I notice a big gap in the complexity of what I can play on the guitar when I'm just playing, compared to playing and singing together. I'm by no means an expert guitarist but I can learn specific rhythms or finger-picking patterns to given songs - however if I want to sing as well I pretty much am stuck doing very simple strumming. Especially if the melody in any way differs from the timing of the guitar part.

Other than "just practice" what exercises can help here? Jumping in to trying to sing over a complicated piece of guitar is a big jump and generally in music we aim for a smooth progression of baby steps - what might those be in this scenario?

Also - is it possible to close the gap between what I can play with/without singing, or is the natural mechanism that this gap always remains and I merely need to get better at guitar so that it doesn't matter as much? I think doing two things at once is a specific skill here but maybe not?

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    I can see two options here, but I'm not making it an answer because it's pretty much "just practice": 1) Make it so you can play guitar (or sing) a particular song without thinking about that one part in any way at all - 100% automatic, and then you can focus on the other one. 2) Slow a song way down and go through each beat, practicing where things line up and where they don't. I have only ever done (1), and there are a very few songs where I've never really made it work (Over The Hills And Far Away by Led Zeppelin is a notable example). – Todd Wilcox May 24 '16 at 18:29
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    I agree with Todd and would also suggest singing/playing along with a recording of the song -- I've always found it easier to initially try just to match up with the recording, for some reason. – Matthew Read May 24 '16 at 20:41
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    I answered the question before reading the comments above, but interestingly I included elements from both comments in my answer. I have tried the slowing it way down part on songs with really tricky timing parts where the guitar riff may not line up intuitively with the lyrics and melody. – Rockin Cowboy May 24 '16 at 20:46
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I can totally understand your question. I experienced the same thing when first learning to play guitar to accompany my singing.

I have met some folks who play the guitar very well but cannot combine singing and guitar playing and do both at the same time. Even professional musicians and famous performers often choose to leave the playing up to their band while concentrating on singing (either without their instrument, or often with acoustic guitar in hand mainly as a prop).

The issue is that both singing and playing guitar require concentration in their own right. When singing you must remember the nuances of how to vocalize the melody as well as remember the lyrics and timing. With guitar you have to remember the chords, get the fingers in the right place, establish and maintain the correct rhythm and tempo - and if you add anything more complex than basic strumming - like a hammer on lick or fill between chords - you really have to concentrate on the guitar part.

As you have probably already discovered, if you are playing a simple strum only arrangement of a song with basic chords and you know the lyrics well by heart, it's not so hard. Where things fall apart is when you don't have the lyrics memorized and must concentrate to remember them - or try to follow along with the lyrics on a music stand and/or when the guitar arrangement calls for something a little more complex (where you have to really focus on what you are doing).

The key to success in improving your ability to sing and play at the same time and manage to do a decent job on both parts - is to become extremely comfortable doing each part independently.

In other words, you might start by making sure you can sing the song in your sleep without really thinking about it. Sing to a karaoke track, sing a capella, or record the guitar part (preferably correctly played) separately and practice singing without reading the lyrics until it becomes automatic, second nature, no concentration required (like driving your car down your street).

Once you are super comfortable with your ability to sing the song without looking at the lyrics, and hitting all the right notes at the right time - do the same thing with the guitar part by itself. Learn to play the guitar arrangement fluidly without having to focus all your mental energy on getting it right. You want to memorize the chord progression and if there are some tricky parts, practice those by themselves until you can pull them off easily without mistakes.

Next play the guitar part while humming the melody to be sure you groove the timing of the singing with the guitar playing before you add the element of remembering the words. Finally start singing and playing at the same time.

If there are some complex timing issues on the guitar arrangement, it might help to play along on guitar with a recording of a professional performance of the song you are trying to learn. If the recording is in a different key than you plan to play in, use a capo to match the recording.

No matter how much I practice singing or playing or both at the same time, I have come to accept that if I do both at the same time, I won't be able to do either as flawlessly as if I did them by themselves. That's why when I write songs and make demos in my home studio, I will record the guitar part by itself and then go back and sing the lyrics without playing the guitar. I always get better results that way than when I am doing my rough sketch recording by playing guitar and singing at the same time.

Unfortunately there is no trick or shortcut that precludes a great deal of practice. But it does make it easier for me to learn the parts independently first before combining them. That way I can concentrate specifically on the part I am refining and mastering (vocal or guitar) until I get it running on autopilot in my brain.

The best "trick" I have learned is to play with a backing band and let the other musicians carry the music while I concentrate on singing and play a really dumbed down guitar arrangement. I leave the fancy guitar riffs and licks up to my lead guitarist who is a full time professional musician.

Good luck and keep it fun!

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It may sound a tad abstract, but it helped for me:

Try to not focus on what you're playing on the guitar and on what you're singing, but try to listen to the piece of music that you're playing as a whole.

The vocals and guitar are just two components of a musical piece and in a song they come together. A perfect example for this convergence is an artist like Sungha Jung (or just the typical way of playing both rythm as bass as vocals on guitar). Just replace the guitar by both your vocals and your guitar and you yourself 'become' the instrument which produces the intertwined musical lines. Sounds spiritual, right?

This obviously also relates to "just practicing" as not focusing on playing the guitar implies that you can do it naturally from your muscle memory and 'intuition'. The same holds for the singing part.

Although this 'answer' may just sound like some mental stuff which is not concrete enough for you to practice, it helped me to listen to what I was playing and singing at the same and improved the combined performance in the end.

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I found this in my own research:

http://www.justinguitar.com/en/TE-901-SingingAndPlaying.php

There's more on the site itself but lessons is based on these ten steps:

  1. Listen to the song a lot. Like a LOT, at least 10 times in a row, and focus, try and get inside the track, not just scratch the surface. Try to ABSORB it. For some reason headphones seem to work best for me for doing focused listening.

  2. Learn the guitar part This should require listening, practice, and possibly playing along with the original recording. If you struggle with any one bit then work on that bit until you get it right.

  3. Play it while having a conversation You'll easily be able to tell if you have it automated enough!! It's the best test I know of, and I use it myself. If I can play it and think about something completely different I know I'm there and ready to think about singing!

  4. Listen to the song a lot more. This time, really listen to the vocal, the melody, how it's sung, how it feels on the beat.

  5. Write out the lyrics and study them. The better you know the lyrics (preferably memorised them) the easier it will be!

  6. Sing along with the original recording. No playing yet, just work on your vocal and make sure you are ok with your pitching and phrasing.

  7. Know the syllables when the chords change. Not just what word, but which syllable within a word the chords change on. Often people write this above the lyrics with an > sign. In the Justinguitar Beginners Songbook we have written a chord above the syllable of the chord change where possible which should help.

  8. Sing along and play muted strums on each beat. No playing chords yet!!! Just keep the fretting hand loosely on the strings so you just get a muted click sound. This will help you feel the rhythm of the melody which you will be singing. If you have listened enough the melody should be in your ear but for most people the rhythm of the melody takes a little more work! If you struggle with the lyrics at this point you can try humming along the melody, but really you want to get those lyrics into your memory bank!

  9. Add in the chords, but keep the rhythm simple. This will usually mean 4 strums per bar (will be 3 in 3:4 time), keep them all down strums and tap your foot with the beat too if you can (you should be working on getting that foot tapping automatically anyways!).

  10. Play it, fo' real. Now add in a strumming pattern and you are playing the song. If you struggle a bit, don't be afraid to slow it down, things are nearly always easier slower.

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