“Don’t sing ‘I Will Always Love You’ if you cannot hit those notes,” says Garvaundo Hamilton, 33, who won the Karaoke World Championships in 2020. Just because you like a song does not mean you should sing it. Many classic songs should probably be avoided unless you’re a trained vocalist with an expansive range — including all of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Journey and Queen, particularly “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If you want to sound good, he also suggests caution when attempting “rap that’s really too fast for you.” Hamilton, a general manager at a print shop in Seattle, goes out to karaoke nearly every night of the week. He spends at least four hours a day singing to himself in the car, in the shower, at his desk and anywhere else he can. Use a karaoke app on your phone to practice. Hamilton keeps a list of go-to songs on his phone divided into different categories, including up-tempo, ballads and duets. His favorite is Alexandra Burke’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” For karaoke, you don’t need to have all the lyrics memorized, but it helps to have practiced a song until you can sing it confidently. Given the choice, Hamilton avoids private karaoke rooms, opting instead for the bar-style public ones where your audience includes strangers. If you’re shy or planning to sing something new, alcohol can sometimes ease nerves. Don’t overdo it, and choose a room-temperature drink. “Cold beverages aren’t good for your throat,” Hamilton says. You don’t have to be a great vocalist, but your skill level should be a consideration when choosing what to sing. An upbeat party song that prompts a singalong can be a good option for so-so singers who might struggle to carry a song alone.
Karaoke varies by geography. Hamilton first started as a teenager in Jamaica, where, in his experience, audiences tolerated only accomplished singers. “They’ll boo you, they’ll stop you, they’ll kick you off the stage,” he says. Hamilton has found that some cities have more skillful singers (New York, Atlanta) and some lean more toward tone-deaf drunks (Los Angeles, Chicago). For the most part though, your fellow karaoke-goers are looking for joy and release; expect to be supported so long as you’re making a heartfelt effort. “Most people are there to sing and not to be judgmental,” Hamilton says.