Mastering Singing and Playing Guitar/Bass At The Same Time
I’m excited to dive into this topic because its one that can be a little tricky to master as a skill in itself, and honestly, there’s really not much education or resources out there to help us multi instrumentalists or people who aspire to be!
We all look at those amazing frontmen/women who are up there smashing it on the mic AND the guitar or bass at the same time. Its the single most impressive thing for me at least to see someone do this and NAIL it.
Its one thing to watch a great musician on their instrument, but for me its a whole other world to watch someone be great on two at once.
Whether its the mighty Hetfield from Metallica, the blistering Tom Araya from Slayer, the super impressive Geddy Lee from Rush, the incredible likes of John Mayer and even Ed Sheehan, then lets get heavy, the clinical Mohammed Suicemez from Necrophagist, or the mystical Alexi Laiho from Children of Bodom, I watch any one of these guys and am not only in awe, I’m totally inspired to push a little harder as a multi instrumentalist.
So how the hell do we develop this skill? Who do we turn to? I’ve had a bunch of vocal coaches and guitar teachers but they’ve always just been good at only one instrument and when it comes to teaching this, when I ask the question I usually just get a polite smile and shrug.
YouTube is no better. So how did these great frontmen/women do it and develop this skill?
For me it starts with understanding a couple of things about the brain itself and how it processes information.
Lets get a little weird and dig into some psychology and physiology.
Unconscious vs Conscious brain.
Did you know that in any single second our brains are getting smashed with over 11 million “bits” of information? These are signals sent from our nervous system to our brains. Think about it, our heart pumping blood and oxygen into our cells and removing waste, our lungs processing oxygen and dumping the CO2 out. Or the amount of data our eyes actually process just in looking at things. What about moving all of our muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments etc. We don’t actually think about these things (thank god for that too!).
This is because all of these processes are unconscious. Luckily we don’t have to sit and consciously think about beating our heart to stay alive, or taking in breathes so we can oxygenate our lungs and then cells through our blood stream. It just kinda happens right?!
So this is insane when you think about it. How cool our brains actually are?!
There’s studies out there that back up these figures (check out the mighty Britannica and their articles on Physiology) and they also go to explain that the conscious brain, that is the part of us that actually thinks and focuses and is aware in any given moment, can only handle about 50 bits of information in a given second.
Alright….this makes sense. Its no wonder we have all of these functions that happen almost as a baseline for us without us having to think about it. Then our conscious brain is free to think and focus on whatever task is at hand.
This is all great, but how does it apply to guitar/bass playing and singing at the same time.
Well, you need to actually let one of the instruments you’re performing be completely taken over by the subconscious brain.
Ahhhh ok! When I first understood this it changed things for me. In the jam room, when I was trying to think (or use my conscious) brain and focus on the two instruments at the same time, I’d never get it. I’d always stuff it up. I’d get overloaded.
No wonder, the conscious brain isn’t really designed to do this and now we’ve got some data and science to support that claim.
So, instead of taking this approach what I instead did was understood that the subconscious brain is a creature of habit, repetition and patterning. So I drilled in my guitar playing SOOOO hard into habit that it became autonomous for me. It got to the point where I didn’t actually have to consciously think of what I was playing, it was on autopilot and my fingers, hands and ultimately, subconscious took over that part of the process.
Great, that was step one, that then freed up my conscious brain to focus on one thing, and for me it was singing. So when I perform live at a gig or even at rehearsal, I’m simply taking advantage of these laws of physiology and letting my guitar playing be performed and driven by the subconscious and my singing, performed by my conscious brain.
When I watch some of the artists mentioned above, I believe they do the same. Now I dont have the luxury of interviewing them but I watch them and look for the tell tale signs to see where their focus is. Its usually on their singing and how its responding, resonating with the crowd.
Ok so lets get a guide book happening so you can all action this:
How to Master Singing and playing Guitar/Bass at the same time
-Step 1 - Take the guitar or bass part and drill them into your subconscious and muscle memory HARD. I’m talking hundreds of times, until you can literally play them without thinking and it feels boring for you. It should get to the point where you feel like you can play it in your sleep ;)
-Step 2 - Slowly start to add vocals on top. There will be tricky coordination points where things get crazy and you’re asking something entirely new of your body in performing them at the same time, so isolate these tricky spots and workshop them and again make them subconscious. Until you can do it “in your sleep” again.
-Step 3 - Speed it up. Work on building up the speed and increasing the demands on your brain and body.
-Step 4 - Increase the pressures and find new ways to shock your physiology so that it is truly hardwired. This means getting into a rehearsal room with intense volume and noise. Playing and performing with other musicians. Doing it in full light, in the dark, in different spots in the room, while doing different poses.
The whole goal of all of this is to drill everything so deep into your subconscious that you have the freedom to actually perform and be present with your audience, whether thats a comera, a friend, your local pub, a couple of hundred people out to see your show or a stadium full of fans (I wish!).
Cam Bird is a Recording Artist, Producer, Composer and Guitar Instructor from Melbourne Australia.
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