Original Instruments

If we think about it, there's really two original instruments. The drum, and the voice.

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Going Back To Our Roots

If we think about it, there's really two original instruments. The drum, and the voice. We close our eyes, and picture the caveman dancing around the fire, beating a drum, and howling.

If we're really imaginative, we can then picture cavemen wearing berets, and howling off key really really fast, and we have the precursor of bebop.

But the point is - at least for this article - is we take the idea of two original instruments. (And by the way, I'm a huge jazz fan, so don't think I'm bopping bebop)

Fast forward to the present day, and electric guitars.

There's a curious deviation from the two original instruments that the electric guitar takes.

It doesn't have to come up for air, as the voice does.

We can shred at 302 beats per minute - all day! We guitarists literally never have to stop playing. Compared to, say, a saxophone, guitarists can play runs on their instrument that others can only imagine. This is because, again, the only thing limiting our expression is carpal tunnel syndrome, not lung capacity. At first, we think Cool! I can jam all day, and that ol' saxophone will never keep up. However, don't we usually strive to make our guitars sing? And howl? And scream? What sings, howls, and screams, and clutters up the airwaves on American Idol? Singers! Yes, yes, I hear you muttering something about the honor, of not howling like a monkey, and actually bringing an instrument to the gig, but read on...You'll surely play better after applying these principles. And if you've always liked the breathtaking tone of a saxophone or vocalist, you'll find some ideas to use.

Singer Stats

Singers, generally speaking, do not:

  • Try to play things as fast as possible
  • Try to play things extra complicated (unless we're talking about Mary
  • Poppins singing Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious, the vocal version of sweep picking.) But do you want to be like Julie Andrews?
  • Try to cram in as many words as possible.
  • Try to use the biggest word possible. (A fuchsia nebulousness appears to be in my cranium...no! It's Purple haze, all in my brain! )

    Singers, generally speaking, DO:

  • emphasize melody
  • emphasize tone
  • use dynamics (sing loud and soft.)

    Keep in mind, I am not suggesting that you throw your chops out the window. Heck no! I'm saying that you try to sing with your guitar. Literally.

    In order to apply the principles outlined above, the best way I've found is to actually sing along with your guitar lines. Do your best to match the pitch, but you don't have to be spot on.

    Since you'll run out of air (unless you're my grandmother,) stop playing when you do, breathe in, and play again. And if you hyperventilate, use some more space in your music, dude!

    Fear not, non-singers! Even if you're totally botching the notes, you'll notice a dramatic difference in the melody and spacing of your lines. And, if you want to get really creative, try singing a line first, and then play it. Since your voice doesn't know the patterns that trap your hand into the same stale licks, you'll have access to an incredible array of new sounds. And best of all, they'll be melodic!

    Of course, you can play fast, you can play complicated voicings, and you can play a lot. But now, with a bit o' luck, it will sound good! It will have purpose. And it won't sound like random doodling! A musician that stands out in my mind for taking this idea to an art form is the guitarist and singer, George Benson. (Now, now, metal heads, sit down and quit whining. You can use his ideas in your camp, too. Turn crooning into shrieking.)

    Original Instrument #2 - The Drum

    Since guitars can span the gap between melody and rhythm, we can incorporate both of the original instruments into our playing to great effect.

    Playing in a funk/dance band really made me appreciate the rhythmic role of the guitar in certain settings. Muted strings, wah wah pedals, and picking dynamics can all contribute to the percussive aspect of our instrument.

    Practicing with a drum machine, or at the very least, a metronome, is vital. However, thinking like a drummer is even better. For a crazy project, get a book with drum exercises or rudiments, and try to apply them to your guitar.

    Building a riff by assigning certain notes to the kick drum, others to the snare, and the final ones to the hi hat is another valuable technique for riff building. The main point to remember is that guitarists can often have sub-standard time. So from this moment on, refuse to accept that in your playing. Make a point of getting your time right. It will get you better gigs, and other musicians, namely bassists and drummers, will appreciate a good sense of rhythm. (And if they're the ones hiring you for the gig, it's good to impress them.)

    Specific Exercises

    01. Vocals: Sing a line, and then play it. As simple as it sounds, it will dramatically help refresh your lines. Try it in the privacy of your practice room, and be silly! Sing crazy stuff, and then play it. Chances are, you'll find something cool.

    02. Drums: Play air guitar to a song that you find difficult rhythmically. Mute out the strings with your left hand, and strum with your right. Try this with a funk, Latin, or ethnic beat. Not only will you be thinking like a drummer, but you'll improve right hand chops as well. It seems silly, but it has been one of the biggest helps to me. And for some of the musical situations I've been in, a muted, percussive sound was THE guitar part for the song. Believe it or not. This is especially helpful if you're having a tough time getting the feel of a beat that swings, or is outside of your playing experience.

    Have fun singing and grooving!

    Special thanks to my colleague and teacher, Mr. Mike Stacey for the conversation leading to this article.

    For further craziness, be sure to check out my blog.

    Josh Urban (photo) is a musician with a unique perspective on music. Always a thinker, he gains insight wherever he can find it, be it in the clubs as a working musician, busking on the city streets, or teaching in the classroom. A naturally enthusiastic fellow, Josh is always fired up about bringing the lessons he's learned to his readers. Maintaining a website, a blog, and a monthly newsletter, he aims to make musicians stop, think, and play with a little more intensity, integrity, and inspiration. You never know who's listening.

  • 56 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Vrstone87
      quite interesting. the "air guitar" drum sections part has helped me in the past believe it or not.
      Kalakala
      The master at making his guitar sing is hands down David Gilmour.
      Hmmm....Methinks Mark Knopfler can give him a run for his "Money".
      Patcher
      One of the most true and genuinely helpful articles I've ever read about guitar playing. I registered at UG finally just to comment. Take a few breaths in your strums shredders! There's a reason Hendrix & SRV are way better known than say, Michael Angelo Batio, for example. All three are talented and incredibly impressive to watch play, but I'd argue that only the first two live by the kind of thinking that wrote this article. Well done.
      XXm3t@lXX
      and Purple Haze is pot, they sell it at my local coffee shop (amsterdam), but Jimi Hendrix was not talking about drugs but his fascination for UFO's and other things, he used to pretend as a kid that he was Flash Gordon.
      dude... he was a pothead. i dont know why people dont want to admit that purple haze is about pot. listen to the lyrics. pf course jimmi was going to tell the media its not about pot. but the lyrics... listen to it.
      Gitter_Wizard
      Haha I was about to leave an angry comment about you bopping bop, but you were joking... This was fun to read.
      bassetrox
      Best article Ive read on here in a while. And +1 to the satch/vai, SRV/MAB comments.
      echo_4190
      You know, if I could have read this 3 days ago, before playing in a park sunday... Dang... Oh well, great read, helpful for sure, I'll be sure to try out some of this stuff in the near future.
      Maverick49
      taylor8 wrote: The master at making his guitar sing is hands down David Gilmour.
      True, I love his solo to Wish You Were Here where he sings along with his guitar, its awesome. Hendrix was really good at following his vocal lines with his guitar too, especially in the live versions of Voodoo Child. Great article, I especially dig the use of drum techniques, since I've been learning funk I've been obsessed with adding percussive strums with the wah in my playing. Shaft-style baby!
      babybluefender
      Excellent. I especially liked your comparison between a singer and guitar playing. One reason why I like Joe Satriani over Steve Vai is how he makes the guitar 'sing'. My friend loves Vai because of how heavy some of his stuff is (we're both metalheads \m/), and he has a bit of trouble accepting why I like Satriani. Maybe I can refer him to this article!
      ha ha i have a friend who is like a guitar genius...he takes it EVERYwhere with him.... he is always telling me one day that he is gonna learn to talk with his guitar....so he never has to speak again...totally reminded me of him!
      BlackMagic17
      You've got it all exactly right. If guitars thought like this....we'd have a lot more good guitarists.
      BlackMagic17
      sorry. don't mean to double posts. but i of course meant that if guitarISTs though like this that we'd have a lot more good guitarists.
      jamie[wls]
      cool the singing part is exactly what steve vai does and the drum part is exactly what paul gilbert does
      TheUnholy
      Quite a good article - there's definitely merit in what the guy's saying, but at the same time - your guitar IS A GUITAR. Make it do sounds that only a guitar can do - otherwise, what's the point of being a guitarist?
      Timefore
      I think that playing along with some blues tracks and singing along with the guitar is the best way to get all those little nuances that make the guitar really sing, but most important of all, just let your soul go when you play. Excellent article - very entertaining as well!
      Set-Abominae
      Good article. Thought provoking. Maybe now I can finally break out of my generic shred runs...
      Kayfan
      I 'unno about this one vocal sweep picking sounds more like doolaloolaloodoolaloolalaloodolaloo etc.
      Dnalrafcmb3
      That was really good. I liked the comming up for air part. It really helped me with composing solos.
      rock_and_blues
      excellent article...im going to apply some of these ideas to my playing, they seem to make a lot of sense...thanks alot man!
      Metal_Rich
      cytalis wrote: Vocal sweep picking? Hahaha I love it.
      XD That killed me. Good article.
      Xeus
      that was really good! Fun, not too long, and really kept on track.
      Randomnessyay
      omg whenever i swweep pick groups of 14 i always say supercalifragilisticexpeaildocious.(i know i spelled that wrong lol)
      utahotc
      Excellent. I especially liked your comparison between a singer and guitar playing. One reason why I like Joe Satriani over Steve Vai is how he makes the guitar 'sing'. My friend loves Vai because of how heavy some of his stuff is (we're both metalheads \m/), and he has a bit of trouble accepting why I like Satriani. Maybe I can refer him to this article!
      dnjoe
      I liked that alot. Some very good ideas well expressed, good article.
      rojomeansred
      Lloyd1093 wrote: vocal sweep picking wow...and is that what purple haze really means?
      Purple Haze is pot man. He was just pointing out that you don't need to complicate things, the simpler the better.
      Cobalt Blue
      hmm i'll have to try that out, ive tryed to sing along to just playing a scale to try and improve my vocals.. bu i think thats a lost cause.
      Eklund
      This is really really good! I've actually been applying this to my playing for quite a long time, good to spread the word! Global musical skill has no downside!
      Scourge441
      Very interesting article. The rhythm part I already knew (I'm a bassist). While I did kinda know the stuff about singing, I've never really thought about it extensively.
      taylor8
      The master at making his guitar sing is hands down David Gilmour.
      that1l)ude
      i used the voice idea to actually improve my phrasing. i would sing a line in my head, and play to the rhythm in my head, even though it was usually a completely different pitch.
      Mihyaeru
      I do the rythem stuff a lot, i always tap out drum beats on the guitar, makes for more interesting rythems sometimes, but yeah good article nice way to expand ones playing