Can you sing what you play on guitar, as you play it?
It’s not something that many people can do the first time they try it. But there are great benefits to be gained from developing this ability.
Learning to sing what you improvise gets you inside the music and away from thinking only in terms of shapes on the neck. You learn to intuitively know what notes will sound like before you play them.
This approach is often championed in the jazz world but there is no reason why it can’t be applied other types of improvised music.
Start by singing the minor pentatonic scale
Don’t worry if you’re not the best singer in the world. Start with a slow backing track, say a blues in A, and play a simple phrase of three or four notes from the A minor pentatonic scale.
Now play the phrase again but this time singing the notes as you do so.
Try other phrases, gradually introducing bends and larger intervals. Some intervals are harder to sing than others but with practice these too become familiar.
You can add in the b5 to make the blues scale, and any other additional notes that you know work in this context.
Want to see a demonstration?
The video below is part 7 of my Youtube series How to Improvise on Guitar, in which I demonstrate how to sing what you play on guitar:
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Then try singing modes
Repeat the same approach but using the modes of the major scale over suitable backings tracks; this could be simply a static chord in Band in a Box.
There are more notes here to deal with so it’s a little more tricky than pentatonics.
Again, as you use bigger intervals, singing the pitches accurately may get harder, but stick with it.
Now try dom7, min7 and maj7 arpeggios. This time you could try them without a backing track, or maybe with just a pedal note in the background.
You can make the exercise as simple or complex as you can manage.
Singing with chromaticism
Adding chromaticism to your playing can bring a sense of jazziness to your improvising. What is chromaticism? Check out the video below for a quick demonstration:
Now that you know what chromaticism is you can use it with any of scales or arpeggios you already know. Chromaticism is a great effect to have in your repertoire, and it can be used in a wide range of situations.
So, back to singing what you play… try different approaches such as a D7 arpeggio with approach note one semitone below each note. Or maybe try singing the entire chromatic scale itself.
Singing with chromaticism is harder than singing scales and arpeggios but if you can master this then you are well on your way to being able to play whatever you can sing.
Sing what you play – Conclusion
If you’ve never tried singing and playing, give it a try even if you don’t like your singing voice (who does like their singing voice?).
The point is not to sing like an angel, it’s to develop a higher level of musicianship. But, if you do want to improve your singing voice, take a look at some of books on my Recommended Reading for Guitarists page.
If you’d like to see a video demonstration of this approach to improvising, check out my video ‘How to improvise on guitar part 7: sing what you play‘ on my Youtube channel. Good luck and enjoy!
About the Author:Stuart Bahn is a professional guitarist and guitar educator in London, England.