Nikki O'NeillBy Nikki O’Neill
Author, Songwriter, Teacher

While many guitar students want to learn how to sing and play songs, there are also many guitar instructors who don’t sing. The main challenge for most beginners in this area has to do with polyrhythms, not melodic pitches. It’s about singing the different rhythms of the vocal lines while keeping the strumming rhythm of the guitar constant. The most common mistake is when the strumming hand tries to mimic the various vocal rhythms. So if any guitar instructors are intimated by singing in front of their students, remember that it’s okay to just “talk-sing” the lyrics á la Tom Waits as you coach your students! Here’s my step-by-step approach:

1. Pick a slower song in 4/4 time with a very simple and straightforward rhythm guitar part. A ballad like “Let it Be” by The Beatles is a great one to start with; all you do is play two quarter-note down-strums for each chord. Next time, try “From Me to You”—also by The Beatles—and play it with a simple down, down-up type of strum.

2. Analyze the guitar part from a rhythmic perspective. Count the four beats out loud in each measure as you play. Which beats are the strums on?  Is every strum on the beat, or are some strums in-between the beats? Take a look at the excerpt below from Women’s Road to Rock Guitar for more on teaching strum patterns.

Excerpt from Women's Road to Rock Guitar
“Must-Know Strum Patterns in Rock”

3. Memorize the guitar part (chord changes and strum rhythm) and play it with rock-solid time before you sing anything. Then put the guitar away. Now it’s time to analyze the vocal part.

4. Start speaking the first lyric line of the vocal part. Don’t even worry about singing the notes — just speak the lyrics with the same rhythm as if you would sing them. Tap the four beats in each measure as you speak. Which beat does the vocal start on? Do a couple of beats go by before it starts? How many? Pay attention to rhythmic patterns (numbers of syllables could repeat in another line.)

5. Once you know how the guitar and vocal parts each relate to the beat, it’s time to try both together. You might need to work at it one syllable at a time. Next, it’s one line… and eventually you get a whole section. Talk-sing the vocals at first while you play, then you can start singing the actual melody notes.

If your student has trouble singing the correct pitches, let them play the melody on their guitar and try to match each pitch with their voice.

To help your students improve their rhythm and sense of musical time, while learning lots of great strum patterns in rock and pop, and getting rhythm-related tips from guitarists Orianthi and Ann Klein, check out Women’s Road to Rock Guitar.