Songwriter U: Tips on Playing Guitar and Singing

Taylor GT Guitar

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Written by Katie Sanakai for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer.

Strumming guitar and singing along brings up images of campfires or social gatherings with everyone nestled around the living room, calling out song titles. But you don’t want to be surprised by requests for songs you can’t play or sing, so make yourself a short list of tunes you know for the next time your friends come over and want to have some good, old-fashioned fun. 

Let’s break it down into some manageable steps to learn to accompany yourself on guitar while you sing:

1. Decide what your strength is.

If you are just starting the journey of accompanying yourself, you probably have a stronger skill at either singing or playing. Decide what is easier for you, then practice a tune for mastery using your stronger skill to start. For example, if you are better at guitar, choose a song that you have the skills to play. Practice it for complete mastery, so you can play without pauses or difficulty. Then you can begin to add in your weaker skill (singing).

If you are a better singer, practice the song so that you can sing it comfortably without referencing the lyrics, and then approach the guitar part. Use small steps to begin, like playing the chord changes every measure before you add in the strumming pattern. 

2. Pick a song.

Sometimes the best tunes to play while singing are beginner guitar songs. Keep in mind your ability level. If there’s a song you really want to play but it’s many steps above your current skills, start with some easy guitar songs. The world of guitar playing has hundreds of 3 and 4-chord songs with lots of variety, so you won’t be limited to “Wheels on the bus” or “Twinkle, twinkle”! (But if you have a toddler, they will totally love to hear you play those!). 

That said, you will be more motivated to practice a song that you really love. Pick an artist you love to sing along with in your car or that song you can’t get out of your head. Look up the guitar chords by using a chord finder.

3. Use the transpose function.

This is a really useful option that a novice may not be familiar with. Guitarists making pop music like to use the same chord families for the keys that are easier to play. Singers like to pick a key based on where a song sits well in their voice. While every guitar is for the most part played with the same tuning, every voice is really unique. Your favorite singer might have a higher or lower range than you do, so utilize the transpose function. The buttons marked -1 will move the key down by 1 half step. For example, if the original song was in Eb, it will now be in D. If the original is in E and you push +1, the new key will be F. This is a great way to get the song to “fit” in your voice. You can simply give it a try in a few keys and find what is easiest for you to sing. 

And the opposite is true. If there is a song that you want to perform that is in Eb, but you aren’t familiar with how to play that key, transposing it down a step (-1) to the key of D will likely place most chords in an open position. 

Sheet music websites often have a transpose option available as well, but in that case, you need to know what key you want to move it to, you can’t change the key multiple times to try it out. When you purchase the sheet music, you’ll be asked what key to print it in. 

A few things to consider

If you are using a free website for chords, they will have a user-contribution format like Wikipedia. Not all the submissions will be correct.  Check out the user rating and find a five-star rating to know that the chords are accurate.

Make sure you consult the top of the chord chart to see if a capo is in place. If you don’t have a capo handy, you can transpose it to get it in the original key. If you play as written without a capo, you’ll find you can’t sing or play along with the original tune, but again every voice is different, so that’s okay!

A CASE STUDY:

We are going to walk through the steps of choosing a song (and not getting discouraged or giving up). 

  • First, you decide you want to learn “Let it Be.” You look up the chords in the original key and see the needed chords: F, C, Dm, Bb, Am. Let’s say you are new to guitar, only know your open chords, and don’t know how to play a Bb barre chord. Let’s choose a different song in that case.
  • Let’s try another Beatles tune. Next, you look up “Love Me Do” and see you only need G, G7, D, and C. (Remember to look for a well-rated rendition if you are using a free website versus a paid app). Those are all open chords you are familiar with, so you give that one a try. But if you are a woman or a man with a lower voice, you find that that the B section of the song (“Someone to love, somebody new”) is either too high or too low- it doesn’t sit right in your voice. 
  • Next step: try placing a capo on your guitar in the 2nd fret. That will move the song up 2 half steps or one whole step to the key of A. Sing through that and see if it works for your voice. 
  • If the higher key works, great. Start by practicing your BEST skill until you are super comfortable either singing or playing it. Next, add the skill that you are working on improving and go slowly until you can sing and strum at the same time comfortably. 
  • If it’s still not a good key for your voice with the capo on, let’s use the transpose function on the website or app. You transpose up or down by half-steps (+1 or -1) and see that the key of D comes up with all open chords you know. When you sing along now, it’s placed in a much better spot. 

This case study is meant to give you steps if:
1. you might not know all the chords needed to play the song you’d like to learn and/or
2. the song doesn’t fit well in your vocal range. 

As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Your singing voice is very particular to you so use these tips to find the right song for you to begin to accompany yourself on guitar. Then it’s time to invite your friends over.

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