How to Sing and Play Guitar at the Same Time

You can learn how to sing and play guitar at the same time with a little bit of practice and effort. This lesson precludes those who don't have the basic skills of guitar down. Also, let it be known that even the greatest artists and bands often simplify arrangements for live performances. Don't beat yourself up trying to get a song to sound like a studio version unless you are laying down multiple tracks in a studio. There's one way to get something to sound exactly the same, and that's to do the exact same stuff that put the original together. In most cases, this doesn't involve a live, all at once, set. Here's what you should learn to prepare yourself for playing guitar and singing at the same time:

  1. Basic chord shapes
  2. Basic strumming patterns
  3. The ability to speak

For the purposes of this lesson I am going to refer to an old folk song called Shady Grove, which assuredly rests in the public domain. It's quite similar to the song Matty Groves. This is the song that I used to learn how to play and sing at the same time several years ago, and I think it might work for you as well. I am most familiar with the Jerry Garcia (guitar and vocals) and David Grisman (mandolin) version. To hear the melody, search for the song on YouTube. Rhythm is square 4/4 time.

Em                   D              Em      D       Em 
1 & 2 &              3 & 4          1 &     2 &     3 & 4
Cheeks as red as the bloomin' rose, eyes of deepest brown
You are the darlin' of my heart, stay til the sun goes down

Shady Grove, my little love, Shady Grove, my dear
Shady Grove, my little love, I'm going to leave you here

Went to see my Shady Grove, she was standin' in the door
Shoes & stockin's in her hand, little bare feet on the floor

Wish I had a big fine horse, corn to feed him on
Pretty little girl stay at home, feed him when I'm gone

Shady Grove, my little love, Shady Grove, I say
Shady Grove, my little love, don't wait til Judgement day!

The trick to being able to play and sing this song (or any song) at the same time, is being able to have your hand count out the beat for you...

  1. Pat out the beat with your hand on your knee while counting along out loud.
  2. Make sure that you are familiar with the Em and D open position guitar chords enough that you only need to look at the lyrics, not a fingering diagram.
  3. Play through the chord progression counting out the beat evenly. Make sure that you divide the beat evenly and that each number falls with the correct chord as it is pre-formatted above.
  4. Now that you know the guitar part, pat out the beat on your knee and sing the words making sure that the right syllables fall on the beat as shown above. Focus on learning these syllables.
  5. This is the part where the magic happens. If you can do the skills above, well enough to not make a mistake, you can play the guitar part and sing at the same time. Don't try anything too fancy yet, just simple down-up strumming. Another option is hitting the root note of each chord and plucking the other notes with three fingers of your strumming hand in an alternating fashion. As you progress and get better, you can work in travis-style finger picking, and eventually hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, or any other personal touches to make the piece your own.

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