Mike Moxcey ©2005


You might be thinking that singing has nothing to do with playing music. On some levels, that is probably true. However, if you're focused on the playing part of music, then singing is integral. Singing regular old folk songs is easy.

Singing fancy bluegrass or pop harmony is difficult. Singing songs like operas or The Star Spangled Banner is hard. But singing Clementine or Tom Dooley isn't that difficult if you match the song to your voice.

Since you're just learning what the guitar or mandolin or dobro or banjo or whatever sounds like, you're in a good spot for changing it to match your voice before you get too hung up on the "proper" (i.e. familiar) sounds of songs.

Find Your Natural Key(s)

To learn to sing, you ought to find out what your "natural" key is. One way to do this (and to improve your singing in general) is to choose a song you know the words to but haven't listened to in a long time or perhaps have never listened to. Don't choose one you currently play or have some idea of how it should sound. For example, if you choose any song off the radio, you will try to sing it in the key someone else sings it in.

And try to choose a song with long notes such as Amazing Grace or Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Tom Dooley. If not, then just select a children's song such as Polly Wolly Doodle or Skip to My Lou. Or Yankee Doodle. Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Anyway, sing the song when you're alone in the car or shower or where ever.

DO NOT PLAY IT ON ANY INSTRUMENT—it will mess up your ear.

Once you're completely happy with how it sounds (which may take several weeks), then get out your stringed instrument (or tuner) and sing the last note and figure out what that note is. That's the key you ought to:
  1. play that song in and
  2. start figuring out a few other songs in (or in the two keys a 5th away—I’ll explain that later)
Don't worry if it's in some weird key like Eb. Your singing will sound better.

After a lot of good sounding singing on different songs, your voice will be stronger and you will be more confident with it and you can then move up or down one or two steps and still sound good when you play in a jam in "regular" keys.


Loudness is often a case of projecting: singing from your diaphragm and using your lungs as a resonator. Practice singing a song with an easy melody and vibrant notes such as Amazing Grace. Sing in the shower and in the car until you can make the windows rattle. When you practice at home, you've actually got to practice being loud. It's a technique that requires practicing just as much as fretting or picking or tuning or singing lullabies does. (My wife makes me practice outdoors a lot and it's mighty cold in February).

A rule of thumb for acoustic group audiences used to be 25 listeners/musician. A string quartet could play for 100 people. I can play unamplified for about a 100 attentive listeners (not bar patrons) in a gymnasium, and about 50 in a carpeted room or outdoors.
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