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Teaching vocal technique to rock singers

Teaching a rock singer can be a very challenging experience. As a voice teacher, it’s easy to get trapped in between creating a healthy technical foundation for the voice and matching the extreme demands of the singer’s particular rock genre. In this blog, we want to give you some ideas for how to make this an easier task.

What do rock singers need?

Before we can think about how to best teach rock singers, we need to understand the requirements of the genre. From the perspective of vocal technique, what is it that rock singers need to be able to do in order to be true to their genre?

Although there are many sub-genres in rock music with different sound ideals, nearly all of them demand that you sing in a pitch range that isn’t easily accessible to most. It is the area in between what we call the first and third passages (in male voices between E4 and Eb5, and in female voices between A4 and Ab5). Some rock music even goes beyond that range. And most rock music not only occasionally goes there, but it basically lives there for the biggest part of the song! So the first thing a rock singer needs is good control over this comparatively high pitch range; it has to become very natural for the singer to use it.

In many cases, rock music also requires an aggressive sound. Singers often try to produce this sound by pushing the voice too hard, which makes it even harder to sustain the relatively high pitches. Regularly pushing the voice too hard will also increase the risk for vocal damage or functional problems. So a second important vocal skill that you need to have as a rock singer is being able to produce aggressive sounds in a relatively safe way.

General strategy

The main technical goal with rock singers should be the same as with every other singer: You need to establish vocal balance as the home base for their voices. But in many cases, the way to that goal might be a little different than usual. You will have to tolerate and even use certain deviations from vocal balance if they help the singer stay true to the requirements of their genre.

In order to get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at a very common example that you will find in many rock voices. The typical rock singer will face the problem that they can push their voice to a certain point as they approach the top notes, but then at a certain pitch—when they can’t push any harder—they will have a break in their voice. That’s because they want to hang on too hard to the feeling of chest voice and a thicker vocal fold. Ironically, their approach eventually causes the very opposite; there is so much muscular engagement that they suddenly have to completely let go to a very thin vocal fold. Then they lose any connection to the chest voice in order to be able to raise the pitch further. 

So what you will have to do as their teacher is thin out the vocal coordination before the break and thicken it above the break. Since most singers aren’t immediately able to find a perfectly balanced coordination, you have two options while they are working on it: Number one is to have the singer lean toward a headier and thinner coordination in order to stop the pushing and pulling before the break. From this position, you could then gradually thicken the sound again. 

Now is this a good idea for rock singers? The answer is, it depends. From a technical point of view, it might be if the singer pulls so hard that nothing else makes them stop. With regard to sound, it might work for a female symphonic metal singer or a male singer who wants to sound like Coldplay. But if you intend to sing Classic Rock, Hard Rock, or Power Metal, this alone surely isn’t your preferred strategy, and this approach to vocal balance simply wouldn’t be very suitable to your genre. 

Therefore, a much better (second) strategy for most rock singers is to gradually thin out the pushed and chest-dominated sounds. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also mix headier exercises into your lesson plan. In fact, you will have to do so in order to really balance out their voices. But while you do so, you have to make sure that singers also practice getting closer to vocal balance while still being able to hold on to what gives them their characteristic sound. Working on vocal technique shouldn’t feel like you are taking their voices apart or are taking away from their style.

How to make this happen

The so-called pharyngeal sounds are usually great tools to thin out the voice while the singer is still able to hold on to some of the stability of the thicker chest feeling. Producing pharyngeal sounds involves raising the larynx in a way that helps to thin out the vocal folds while at the same time creating a sound that is very compatible with the biggest part of rock music. With these effects, they usually also serve as great range-building tools for rock singers.

Still, these unfinished sounds shouldn't be the final destination of a singer's vocal development. Once they have easy access to the required range, you should start to move toward a less pharyngeal and more normal sound. Because even if a slightly raised larynx is quite common in rock music, a singer needs to develop the skill to also sing and vocalise with a more relaxed larynx posture. Otherwise, the voice will never become truly balanced and can’t develop its full potential.

If the pharyngeal exercises don't have the desired effect, as an alternative strategy, you should try a combination of low larynx exercises and edgy sounds. This will relax the singer's vocal production while the edgy sounds help to connect to more chest voice and feeling.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to any kind of manipulation through extrinsic muscles around the larynx. In particular, you want to monitor tension in the tongue, the jaw, or the neck musculature and address it accordingly. 

Please also be aware that vowels in rock songs, especially in the hook lines, are usually pretty open. Acoustically, this is necessary in order to produce the sound and intensity associated with the genre. So even though more closed vowels may help you to encourage thinning out a too-thick and chest-dominated coordination, keep in mind that you will ultimately have to go back to more open vowels. Therefore, you should start to challenge the singer with open vowels as soon as possible. See if they can keep the more balanced vocal production as you put them on more and more open vowels. Be prepared for some back and forth between different vowel shapes.

For this purpose, it is helpful to consider that adding a slightly pharyngeal character to the voice can make it easier to open the vowels and still have relatively thin vocal folds. As the singer starts to master the more open vowels that way, you should try to gradually reduce the pharyngeal character. Remember that at the end of the day, we want the singer to be able to sing with a relaxed larynx position, not imposed to any extreme.

Song choice

Working on the right songs is critical in rock music. There is so much material that is very, very hard to sing, and as a teacher, you want to make sure that you don’t overburden the singer. This is even more important in rock, since most of the time you are dealing with pretty aggressive sounds. There is no reason to unnecessarily increase the chance of hurting the voice by pushing for high notes or melody lines that are simply out of reach or clearly too difficult at the singer’s current stage of vocal development. 

As a guideline, you don’t want the song to go into an area that the singer can’t constantly vocalise in.

What about effects?

Many people make a big deal out of learning vocal effects like distortion, screaming, growling, etc. But when you approach these effects from a balanced vocal function, they really aren’t that hard. Actually, for many singers, these effects come pretty naturally once the “clean” vocal sound is in place and balanced. Then producing these effects only requires minor adjustments to the vocal tract, which tires out the voice a lot less than they would otherwise.

Trying to work on effects before the “clean” sound is well-established is possible, but it quickly creates bad habits. So if you want to train vocal effects before the voice is balanced well, do it in a pitch area that can already be produced easily.

Producing aggressive rock sounds and effects can become very tempting to the singer. Thus, you want to make sure they understand that in order to keep everything functioning well, they have to tune their voices toward vocal balance and not toward those extreme sounds. Because in the long run, regardless of the strategy you choose for a rock voice, the goal is to always make vocal balance their home base.

Some examples

It’s always good to also have examples to listen to when you talk about singing. So here are some rock song examples with singers who are really good at combining good vocal technique with a genre-typic rock sound. Of course there are many more, but these few you don't want to miss:

"Jane" by Mickey Thomas with Jefferson Starship

Mickey's ease of vocal production is simply outstanding, and he manages to create a great rock sound using very few vocal effects. Please also pay attention to the fact that although his voice is balanced very well, for stylistic reasons, Mickey Thomas sings with a slightly raised larynx that many would refer to as a little "twang."

"Don't Stop Believin'" by Steve Perry with Journey

In this track, you can hear that Steve Perry's sound is a little heavier than Mickey Thomas's. That is partly due to his vocal timbre, but it also has to do with the fact that he sings this song with a little thicker vocal production and partly very open vowels. For instance, listen to the words "girl" (0:19–0:20), "South" (0:39–0:40) or "nights" (1:50–1:54), to name a few very obvious examples. That all contributes to a little rougher vocal sound than the one we heard from Mickey Thomas, although it would still be classified as a "clean" sound.

"Year of the Tiger" by Myles Kennedy

Diving into more recent rock music, you can hear the raised larynx even more clearly in Myles Kennedy's voice than in the examples before. He seems to do that from a balanced vocal home base so it won't keep him from reaching the high notes.

"Run for Cover" by Brandon Flowers with The Killers

Brandon Flowers truly exemplifies that you can be a successful rock singer without strongly relying on a raised larynx sound. Listen to how little of that pharyngeal/twangy sound he uses in his singing. Of course that's also a stylistic choice and not adequate for all genres of rock music (maybe not even for all of The Killer's songs), but it is a nice and interesting contrast to the other examples.

"Sweet Sacrifice" by Amy Lee with Evanescence

As the first female example, Amy Lee's pretty, well-balanced voice allows her to mix aggressive Power Metal with Symphonic Metal elements in this song. Pay attention to the open vowels and slightly raised larynx in the more aggressive parts contrasted with the more closed vowels with a lower larynx position during the more legit and symphonic passages.

"Whataya Want from Me" By Adam Lambert

Adam Lambert has managed to establish himself as a pretty serious rock singer over the last several years, especially since he is touring the world as Queen's new front man. His voice is a great example of how a balanced instrument and the constant use of vocal effects can go hand-in-hand. In this song, listen for the ease in vocal production when he is going through his range, adding distortion effects on many notes.

"Try" by P!nk

In this last example by P!nk, you'll be able to hear a lot of the things we have already talked about before: the open vowels, slightly raised larynx, vocal effects, etc. Still, everything is happening relatively close to vocal balance, making it a very sustainable way of singing rock music.

 

I hope you enjoyed this blog and that it was of some help to you. If you have any questions about this or another topic, post them in the comments section below!

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Voice instructor, vocal producer, and lawyer, Andreas Grussl runs a very successful voice studio in his hometown of Graz, the second biggest city in Austria.

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