What makes for truly great rock singing? The question is really what makes great Rock and Roll? As the vocal line is just a part of the monster of rock that is a rock band. Is it the distortion? The heavy rhythms, the high notes or heavy sound?
It is a combination of all those things, but most importantly it’s the energy. Rock should send waves of energy through your body to make you want to get up and dance, sing, head-bang or workout; and the vocal line is the front and centre of that sound and energy.
If you’re a singer who wants to branch out into a rock sound or you’ve just started singing and rock is what you really have fun singing along to, then here are 3 tips you can use to help you become a rock god/goddess.
Tip 1: Rock Singing and Rhythm
The first step in successful rock singing is focusing on a good sense of beat and rhythm. If you listen to all-time rock classics such as We Will Rock You (by Queen) or I Love Rock and Roll (by Joan Jett), you will hear how important these elements are for creating the right kind of rock energy
You want to feel the beat in your body, accenting it in the voice. In his book “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N’ Roll”; Matt Edwards recommends that singers practice by using a drum, tapping along to the beat while they sing. If you don’t have a drum, you still have your body; stamping and clapping can be a great substitute. A feel for the back beat (beats 2 and 4) is essential and you can this by listening to the snare drum.
Also, you need to understand the difference between the beat (a steady constant pulse) and the rhythm pattern (short and long sounds matching the syllables) in the song you are singing. To sing with accurate rhythm, ensure that your consonants are crisp and that they fall accurately on the beat. Also, your warm-up routine needs to include exercises for the main articulators – the tongue, lips and jaw.
Tip 2: Rock Singing Tone Quality
Singers might wrongly assume from the sounds they hear in rock music, that they need to sing as high as possible and focus on training the upper part of their range. Strong high notes can really add an exciting climax to a song. For example, see Freddie Mercury’s effortless D5 from The Show Must Go On . However, it is important to remember that high notes are a seasoning, and not the steak.
In rock singing you can find examples of every type vocal timbre or quality, including
- Head voice/falsetto – see Deep Purple’s Child in Time
- Chest voice – see Avi Kaplan’s Summit
- Mix voice – see The Killers, Here with Me and
- Belt – see Cranberries, Zombie
In general, rock singing needs to convey a sense of fire, guts and strength. To do this, it needs to be grounded in a speaking voice quality. That means you need strength and stability in your chest voice. Female singers, in particular, may need to do a lot of work to train the chest voice. At times, when the emotions are intense in the song, you will want to use a heightened voice or strong mix quality at the top of your chest voice range around the region known as the passaggio.
Rock singers are also influence by their surrounding instruments. Over the years, as technology progressed and the instruments changed, so did the vocals. Rock singers must carry their voice above the drums and the distorted electric guitar. So the key to training a good rock sound is pushing the boundaries but making sure you have a great and strong chest voice foundation. This applies both to male and female singers. The great rock women and men both have really strong chest mixes in their high notes so that they blend well with the heavy band.
Tip 3: Vocal Distortion
One aspect of rock singing that always attracts a lot of attention is vocal distortion. Rock music originated during the 1940s and 50s from the music of the African-Americans, including Blues, Jazz, and Gospel. In these styles, the Western ideal of a clean legato, head dominant sound with vibrato is not always appropriate. Vocal effects such as growls, screams and moans were used to add colour.
Even before guitars became electric and distorted, artists such as Little Richard were growling and distorting the voice. Take, for example, his classic Tutti Frutti, which demonstrates these distortions in early rock ‘n roll. We should also know that, at the time, some conservatives found these sounds monstrous, evil or uncouth. There were parents who would not let their children listen to this music because of its supposedly immoral sounds.
Rock growls and distortions tap into more primal emotions and animalistic cries. We hear them at times of heightened emotions, such as yelling out in anger, crying for help, or cheering at a football game. Are vocal distortions bad for your voice or injurious to your vocal health? This is a topic of debate. However, the great rock singers claim that they can draw on these sounds at will and without destroying their voices.
There are voice educators who have devoted much time to studying vocal distortions used in rock singing and discovering “safer” ways to make and teach these sounds. Among the most definitive of these are Ariel Coelho (Brazil), Melissa Cross (New York) and Cathrine Sadolin (Denmark). Important take home messages from their research is that you should have an established voice technique before attempting distortions. Also, that distortions are not made with high volume, but rely on the amplifying effects of the microphone to give them their edge.
I urge anyone that wants to experiment with these sounds is to either do so with the guidance of a teacher or verse yourself in enough knowledge to ensure you don’t injure the voice. It is a very tiring and taxing exercise, especially when you’re first starting out. When you want to take distorted sounds into performance situations, ensure that when they try vocal lines also clean and without distortion and be able to switch between the two at will when getting vocally tired. Another helpful resource on the distortion sounds is Melissa Cross and her DVD “The Zen of Screaming”.