by Vanessa McGowan

Road Rules: Tips For Singers & Songwriters Playing Guitar

by Vanessa McGowan

Road Rules: Tips For Singers & Songwriters Playing Guitar

A singer/songwriter usually begins his or her career performing solo, accompanying themselves on piano or guitar, and eventually adding one or two side (wo)men as their sound and budget grows. It’s often many years before they can hire a dedicated acoustic guitar player and just sing – if that is ultimately their desired way to perform. This article offers suggestions and practical advice for singer/songwriters who are either just starting out performing live, or want to improve what they’ve been doing for years. You’re a guitarist, own it…

Whether playing solo or playing with a band, unless you’re hiring an acoustic guitar player as well, you are filling that role within the band. Not paying enough attention to how you do that will not only hinder how good your music sounds but will frustrate the musicians you’ve hired to play with you. As a songwriter, the vocal part of any song probably feels more important to you, but slacking off on the accompaniment when the words get hard will make the bottom fall out of the groove. Be conscious of what the guitar is doing outside the vocal part and try to keep half an ear on that at all times.

The acoustic guitar is a rhythmic instrument in a band, providing the chords but also a huge part of the groove. Because of that, it’s really important that what you’re doing is consistent. Good sound comes first, from your hands. A teacher of mine used to always say that the bulk of the sound had to come from you – from your fingers, arms, body. The pickup, amp or PA is just to boost the volume of that sound a little, not to create the tone.

Learn how to use a pick properly, or finger-style consistently. Strive for a good tone and a strong, consistent sound, and practice to get your guitar playing up to a concert-worthy level. Take a few lessons from someone whose playing you admire. If you’re not solely a songwriter and you plan on standing on stage and performing at some point in the future, you can’t spend 100% of your time writing songs. Even 30 minutes, three times a week of focused guitar practice will do wonders for how you sound and how confident you feel on stage.

Learn how to communicate what you want clearly.

Just like in life and love, good communication is important for fun, productive and successful music making. In an earlier post, I gave some tips for working with session musicians and learning how to communicate to sound engineers is equally important for a live show or recording session.

When I first started performing I honestly had no idea how to explain what I wanted to hear (or more often, didn’t want to hear), and upright bass is challenging for even experienced sound engineers. In those early years touring I was incredibly lucky to have a wonderful bandmate in Tattletale Saints, Cy Winstanley, who could translate for me and explain what I wanted to hear in language that the engineer understood.

I still can’t isolate the specific frequencies I want removed, but I’ve learned how to explain the kind of tone I want to hear and how to politely but confidently point out things about the sound that I don’t like. I’ve learned how to troubleshoot any problems that arise with my amp or bass pickups. I’ve learned (the hard way) to always carry spares, of everything.

Learn from the musicians around you. Listen to how more experienced performers communicate during sound checks. Ask other players what equipment they like, and why. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a guitar player who DOESN’T want to sit around talking gear for 5 hours! Just try really hard to avoid standing on stage during soundcheck whining, “It just sounds… bad!” That will only serve to insult and annoy the engineer, and get you no closer to a good tone.

Learning how to communicate your sound needs effectively is empowering too, for both men and women. Everybody will find an improvement of your stage sound and overall experience as a performing musician. For women, you won’t feel like you’re reinforcing the stereotype that women don’t understand technology and equipment. If nothing else, female musicians owe it to ourselves and the greater female population to stop perpetuating the myth that women don’t know what we’re doing on stage, especially with gear.

Great tone starts with you.


Because I’m a bass player, not a guitarist, I reached out to my long-time friend and bandmate, Cy Winstanley, for some practical tips. Cy has played all over the world and is an in-demand live and session guitarist in Nashville. He’s an acclaimed songwriter, electric and acoustic guitarist, and a gear-head whose life-long motto seems to be, “I just need to buy this one new pedal…”

Cy believes getting at least a handful of lessons to get some technique basics is essential.
“If there was one technique to work on I’d recommend practising alternate picking with a pick. Down on the beat, up on the offbeat. With a few exceptions, that’s pretty much the rule regardless of how complex the part. Pick from the wrist and focus on staying relaxed through your hand and shoulder.

“Thinking of the acoustic guitar as a drum kit is useful too. Fundamentally you have the kick drum on beat one (strumming the lower, bassy strings), and the snare on beat three (the high strings). If you listen to Neil Young’s acoustic playing you can hear how he clearly he establishes this. Everything else, any other ornamental/in-between strums, serves to reinforce that groove.”


If you’re starting from scratch, a cheap starting option is the K&K Pure Pickup – online from a few different stores for around US$100. The K&K is a very natural sounding pickup and that is actually a very cheap price point. It does , however,require some installation – best done by a professional.

For a simpler solution, Cy recommends the LR Baggs M1  – around US$150. “It’s a magnetic sound hole pickup and while not super reflective of your guitar sound, it’s very stable and has a nice tone.”

If you’re ready to step it up a level try the Audio Sprockets Tone Dexter DI for around US$400. Cy recently started using this DI and is blown away by how good it sounds.

“Basically, without using a mic you are really unable to get a replication of what your guitar actually sounds like. The Tone Dexter, using a mic to set up, mimics your guitar’s tone and applies that to your pickup sound. Very convincing I gotta say. Alternatively, the LR Baggs Venue DI is a little cheaper (around US$300) and also great.  

“I think it’s essential for guitarists to A. Have a tuner and B. Have some way of muting their signal when they’re not playing – the Venue DI (and the Tone Dexter) have both.”

Vanessa McGowan is a Fender and Aguilar endorsee originally from New Zealand, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.

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