Playing guitar and singing: certain easy songs are incredibly difficult to me?

I’ve been playing guitar for about 14 yrs now, and, though I don’t play as much as I used to, I can still play pretty well. I love singing and playing. There are some pretty difficult songs out there that I have no trouble singing and playing. For instance, the first person who comes to mind is Dave Matthews. He’s got some pretty complex riffs, and I rarely have trouble playing them and singing along.

On the other hand, take Ben Harper or Iron & Wine. Both of them play some pretty straightforward chord progressions on some of their stuff, and I just cannot sing along with it.

Why is it that I can sing what seems to be more difficult stuff with little problem, but more straightforward stuff is difficult?

I’m thinking it has something to do with the beat. Looking at Iron & Wine again, he tends to start singing in between beats, and the lyrics don’t always stick to the beat. Same with Ben Harper.

Also, when I try to play their songs, I tend to fingerpick.

Also, I’d be interested in ways I can overcome this. I don’t think it’s an issue of my guitar playing, or my singing. It’s an issue of doing them both at the same time. Are there techniques people use to be able to sing and play at different tempos or beats?

I should have asked this, say, ten years ago, but I didn’t. Time to branch out.

I think you’ve already stumbled on the key issue.

The easiest thing to do is to exhale (start a syllable) on a down beat in sync with a down stroke (strum) on the guitar. That’s the most natural combination. Everything else is some sort of syncopation which trips up the hand or the voice or both.

One way to get past that is to break down the measure into that tiny little section of syncopation and just practice that repeatedly. For example, practice the loop between beats 2 and 3 instead of the entire measure. If that’s still not working, narrow down the section even more and just practice beats 2.0 to 2.5 and then 2.5 to 3.0.

But, for a lot of the songs I’m talking about. I can’t even hum a single note while playing the riff. It’s strange. I can play it with no problem, until I try to make any sound with my mouth.

To add on to this, I think it’s the same thing that allows some musicians to talk while they’re playing something. It’s as though what they do with their mouth is totally detached from what they’re playing on the guitar.

How does one practice that?

Way back when I was in high school, I was in a play in which I had to speak while playing the violin (I was proficient at both). I absolutely could not reconcile the different rhythms. Then it occurred to me: If I’m having trouble with this, perhaps the character himself would also have trouble. So I just did it without worrying about it.

I’d think singing would be easier, because at least the tempo would be the same, if not necessarily the accents. I suspect the songs that you’re having a problem with might have speech rhythms different from the musical rhythms. And I wonder if some people - even professionals - have to work it out slowly, measure by measure, then gradually increase the speed.

I can’t play the bass line to Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and sing. I can do them independently…just not together.

I’ve also been trying to play/sing this Producers song (“What She Does to Me”). No dice. This band is covering it, and the vocal/guitar are two different people.

And I really can’t talk while playing. I mean, I can strum chords and carry on a convo but speaking the intro to “Tick Tock” by the Vaughn Brothers, no. It’s like if my guitar is going to be rhythmic, the words have to be rhythmic.

Billy Joel was on “In the Actor’s Studio” and Lipton said, basically, “You don’t put down separate piano and vocal tracks…there’s piano bleeding into your vocal mic.” Joel said that how he plays piano affects how he phrases his singing. I can identify with that.

I’m interested to hear what others have to say. I would note (ahem) that when they record the song, they may not be doing both simultaneously either.

Yet, whether or not the record them separately, I’ve still seen plenty live who can sing/talk while they play as though it’s totally natural. You don’t even think about it when you see them do it because it seems so normal, but then you realize, when you pick up your guitar, it’s not that easy.

I always thought that was why the riffs (and often the solos) in punk songs followed the vocal melody so closely- if you’re a three- or four-piece band, your singer probably plays guitar, too.

True enough. A long time ago, I had a psych class where the prof said that brain studies reveal that speaking and singing are controlled by different parts of the brain. Some people, due to an accident to a specific area or areas, lose their ability to talk but they can still sing.

For others, it could be a simple case of having highly developed chops. I used to play in a church with a guy who was really good at solo leads and riffs. He said, “Chords, sure…but you can’t sing and play lead at the same time.”