Singer’s Brain vs Guitarist’s Brain: Are They Different?

I wish I could consider myself an excellent all-round musician, but seeing as I’m more a of a realist (Pessimist? No, definitely realist), I know that I am a singer first and foremost, while my instrument skills are essentially just about ‘good enough’ (if there is such a thing) to accompany my voice. I am always trying to get better at guitar, but there’s a bit of a stumbling block that I come across a lot when learning new songs: guitar tab.

For those of you not in the know; guitar tablature, or tab, is a way of documenting guitar music using lines to represent the strings of the guitar and numbers to represent the which note should be fretted. There are heaps of great tabs online, and they are really very useful for learning new songs.

Guitar Tab Example

Guitar Tab for 'These Wooden Ideas' by Idlewild (from*; tabbed by Greame)

The thing is, when you learn a song from a singer’s point of view, you learn the melody. You learn the shape of it and how it flows through the structure of the song. You learn the lyrics and how they fit with the chords. Essentially, you learn the song as a whole.

This isn’t usually the case with guitar tabs – they are often broken down into phrases, licks or verse and chorus sections, often without the lyrics as a reference point (or, as in our example here, just the first line). Which is fine – it makes sense when playing guitar to learn in sections, to get one riff down and then move onto the next and string them together according to the structure of the song. This seems to be how a guitarist’s brain works.

So, the problem for me is that my singer’s brain takes over – it wants to know how the song goes as a whole, how the whole thing flows together before I’ve managed to get the first bit sorted. I also find that when I listen to songs to work out guitar parts my ears get distracted and start listening to the vocal parts… but that might just be me!

So there we go:

Singer’s brain – learns words, melody and how the song flows.

Guitarist’s brain – learns sections and puts together for structure

Guitar tabs naturally tend to lean towards the ‘guitarist’s brain’ way of learning. I mean, of course they do – they are designed for guitarists.

So, how does a singer get round this? Well, to be honest I tend to learn new songs from chord sheets and not tabs. This gives you the structure of the song at a glance, and you have the lyrics to reference where the chord changes are. This helps combine my singer’s way of learning with playing the guitar, but does not give you the full picture of a guitar part, just the essentials.

A bit of a cop-out? Perhaps.

So, by trying to understand the differences between how guitarists and singers learn, I am hoping to combine both ways of thinking into my practice sessions. Let’s see how it goes!

*By the way – if you are looking for guitar tabs is a good place to start.


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Filed under Opinionated, Techniques, Tips and Advice for Musicians

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