10 Vocal Tips for Performing Guitarists
For many performing guitarists, vocals are a sore spot — if not an Achilles Heel, at least a necessary evil or a source of insecurity on stage. Gaining experience as a performer helps, and so does singing lessons, but there are simple things you can do at every gig to make singing as easy and melodious as possible. Here’s a checklist of 10 suggestions:
• Position amps carefully: Being able to hear your voice on stage is critical to do your best singing — the kind of vocalizing where you can bring all the magic you bring to the guitar (sustain, vibrato, bending notes) into play. Avoid setting up your amps so they’re blasting directly at you on stage. The same goes for your bandmates’ amps. Your singing volume can’t compete with amplifiers. And place all the amps on stage in a manner that allows the vocal microphones to pick up as little of their output as possible. You don’t need to hear guitars or other instruments accidentally competing with your voice in the monitors.
• Manage stage volume: The lower the stage volume, the better you’re going to hear yourself sing and, consequently, the better you’ll be able to vocalize. Try to set all the amps on stage accordingly. Consider relying on pedals to get the kind of gain, sustain and tone you want, rather than cranking amps to Everest heights.
• Use a boom microphone stand: Avoid straight microphone stands. You’ve got more room to play your guitar if you’re using a boom stand with at least 12 inches of distance between the supporting shaft and your instrument. Even more space may be ideal. It’s easy to clunk your guitar into a straight mic stand or to be self-conscious enough about doing it that your vocal and guitar performances could both suffer. Self-consciousness and the stage are not allies.
• Say “ah”: When you sing, open you mouth wide. That allows you to project more volume with less effort and to more effectively shape notes while you sing. Also considering singing with your lips pulled back over your teeth as much as feels natural. This helps give your mouth the optimum posture for letting what comes out of your diaphragm project.
• Look up and smile: Don’t get lost so deeply in your vocal and guitar performances that you forget that you’re supposed to be having fun. Smile while you sing. It helps you vocalize better — see the hint about “baring” your teeth above — and lets the audience know you’re enjoying yourself, which cues them in to how much fun they should be having. Look at the crowd, not your shoes, and speak to them occasionally between songs. This helps establish a rapport that can set you at ease, allow you to do your best work, and draw the audience in, helping them make the transition from onlookers to fans.
• Write and phrase concisely: When you’re writing a song, keep in mind that you or somebody else is going to have to sing it. Too many words in a line and it becomes indigestible — hard to get the words out without compromising your breath, which leads to an inability to phrase, sustain and shape melodies with musicality.
• Breathe: Inhale and exhale normally and consistently. The better your flow of oxygen, the more you’ll be able to use that oxygen to project and control your singing. It’s easy to get excited or nervous and forget to breathe. Practicing yoga or meditation helps tremendously with correct breathing.
• Step back to solo: Draw back from the vocal microphone when you launch into a guitar solo. If the music gets under your skin, and it should, it can cause you to move in ways that might result in knocking or bumping the mic or mic stand, which will be audible as a loud “clunk” through the PA. This is another reason why a boom stand is best, although if you start swinging your guitar’s neck around like Link Wray or Pete Townshend even a boom stand isn’t safe.
• Preserve monitor headroom: Try to keep everything out of your stage monitors except vocals. If you’re playing through an amp on stage in a small club, you shouldn’t need anything in the stage monitors besides vocals. Drums and other amplified instruments should be placed and set at volumes where they are audible — albeit not deafening — on stage without the help of monitors. On big stages there should be enough separate monitor mixes to have at least one or two floor wedges dedicated to your voice alone.
• Stay hydrated: This is not as easy as it sounds in a crowded, hot room under even hotter stage lights — especially if you’re drinking beer or stronger. Alcohol dries the throat. Allergies or cold and allergy medication do the same. The best beverage for singers is room temperature water. A good rule of thumb is to alternate every cocktail or beer you drink with a 16-ounce helping of water.