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Save Your Voice by Altering Your Playing

How you can adjust guitar parts of cover songs to bring the vocals within reach

In the past couple months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about singers. I’m a singer, and have struggled at times with a voice that just won’t do what I want it to do when I want it to do it, but for the most part, I have a pretty good relationship with my vocal cords.

Here are a couple cautionary tales for you to ponder as we dig into the subject of singing and how it relates to your playing.

Recently, I caught part of a set by a young man who was doing radio covers, and although the audience loved him, I was cringing and gnawing at my fingernails because I could hear what was going on with his voice. Most of the songs he was singing were way too high for his natural vocal range, but he was doing his level best to strain and belt them out anyway. I was glad to see him reaching for plenty of water during his set, but that won’t save him in the long run.

One of my all-time favorite guitar players is the incomparable Tony Rice, and he used to be one of my favorite singers, too. I say “used to be” because that golden baritone is now tragically gone. Because Rice was a bluegrass singer, he ended up doing that “high and lonesome” thing that bluegrass fans all love, when he should have been doing the “deep and luscious” thing more appropriate to his natural range. Chronically strained, his voice simply stopped working, and he’s left doing the “rasping and growly” thing, and that makes my heart ache.

What does this have to do with guitar?
If you are a guitar player who sings, and if a portion of your income comes from being in a cover band, you are no doubt acquainted with that curious paradox of a musically uneducated audience having remarkably well educated ears when it comes to “doing it like it’s on the record.” And we all know that rock’n’roll in particular is all about the guitar—especially classic rock and folk-rock. How do you play the song so it’s more comfortable to sing? You can transpose to a key a step or so lower, and sometimes that works out alright, but sometimes you have to go from the key of E to the key of D, or from A to G, and you simply cannot play the same hooks and riffs in D or G that you play in E or A; you run out of real estate on the fretboard.

So what do you do to get the same hook in a different key? Switch guitars. For those songs that you need to transpose a step down, buy a set of heavier strings, put them on one of your “alternate” guitars and tune it a step low. Then you can play the exact same riffs and hooks that are on the record, and sing the song without blowing a vocal cord. You may have to experiment with gauges before finding one that feels like it’s the same tension as your old set tuned to EADGBE, and doesn’t sound too twangy or loose. Be sure to take the transition slow, and don’t forget and tune that guitar up to standard by mistake and leave it.

I recently reviewed the Taylor 8-string baritone guitar, and had a blast playing songs I thought I couldn’t sing anymore because my voice is slipping ever lower as time marches on. I tuned the baritone to AEADEA (which is the baritone version of DADGAD) and capo’d at the third or fourth fret, giving me either CGCFGC or DbAbDbGbAbDb. All my old hooks and riffs were intact, and I could hit those no-longer-quite-so-high notes with ease.

Make something old completely new.
The other way to cope with transposing into a new key is to completely rearrange the song and make it your own. Give a nod to the hooks and riffs that are familiar, but no more than that. A really good song will stand up to a multitude of treatments, so don’t be afraid to speed it up, slow it down, genre-bend, punk it up, chicken-fry it, reggae-fy it, or paint it blue. If the song is strong enough, it’ll take it.

Learn how to actually sing.
You practice the guitar, right? You study it, learn scales, licks, riffs, chords and even tunings. So what makes you think you don’t need to work on singing with the same dedication? If you are naturally gifted with a great set of pipes, awesome. Make them better and learn how to protect them. If you are not naturally gifted, you can get better if you train. There a lots of books, CDs, DVDs, and teachers out there, but the one resource that I go back to every time and can wholeheartedly recommend is Roger Love’s book and CD, Set Your Voice Free. It took only two weeks of religiously going through Love’s program before people were asking me, “What is going on with your voice? You sound awesome!”

And guys, chicks dig baritones. We find them compellingly dark, sexy and virile. Don’t be afraid to get’chyer croon on and drop it down a step or two. Chicks dig it, and you get to buy a new guitar to string up down low?

You’re welcome.

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