How to Sing Rock
3 Counterintuitive Things All Rock Singers Need to Know
If there is anywhere in the world of singing technique where people get the wrong idea about how to achieve great-sounding vocals then it’s in the rock genres. Often, singers aren’t even thinking about what they are doing to their voices, they are just doing it. They just sing however they sing, and in the process they formulate all sorts of bad habits that become engrained in muscle memory.
In rock we tend to give it a lot of passion, plenty of gusto and generally more oomph than other genres. We use grit, distortion and effects that put those precious vocal cords through a lot of strain. There are certain instincts and tendencies that show up within the instrument (your body) when we sing, and they need your close attention if you want your voice to survive the rigours of 2 hour shows, lengthy tours, rehearsals, or any level of regular intensive singing.
These are my top 3 counterintuitive tips to get you thinking about your voice technique in a different way.
1. To sing big means you must sing small.
When we say, ‘big notes’, usually we are referring to notes high in your range. These are the notes that feel hard to hit, hard to reach. When belting out a big chorus for example, high in the range, it is so easy to get it all wrong. Those big notes require the vocal cords to be stretched really thin and long, the cords are also vibrating together at a much higher speed. That’s what creates the higher frequency, or note.
So if you try to push big amounts of air though the vocal cords, when they are trying to stretch and vibrate together at high speeds, you are making it very hard for those cords to do their job. We need much smaller amounts of air pressure. You must think of it as almost stopping the air flow entirely, that’s a mind trick to avoid over exerting. If you don’t do this, there is one thing you will definitely get and that is tension! You will be squeezing and tightening and gripping so hard to actually make the cords come together and not sound breathy, whilst you force all that air through, resulting in all sorts of muscles that shouldn’t be involved in singing starting to get involved. This is bad news. Man, I know what this feels like. I did it for years. I learned the hard way.
Other ways we go small to go big are in the amount of cord engagement. The vocal cords want to be connecting in a small way, not the whole mass bashing together violently. Another way is in the shape of the vowel, as the cords thin out, so does the shape of the sound. If you go too wide with your vowels you will ‘splat’ and this will feel incredibly tense and awkward. We can use vowel modification as well as shaping the vocal tract to remedy this and keep the sound firing out in a narrow targeted and accurate way. This will make your voice resonate at the front of your face, literally vibrating the facial bones to help you project great strength of tone. You see, everything about these big notes requires a small, narrow and minimal approach. The whole voice feels like its thinning out into a very tiny space.
2. To sing powerfully you must sing light
In the same way that we must think small when singing big notes, we must also think light, not heavy when singing powerfully. If you go in all heavy you will have similar problems to that described above. This ‘heavy’ approach tends to mean that we are not allowing the voice to shift into the head voice properly. We are using the chest voice muscles at the front of the Adam’s Apple (your larynx) and holding on with those muscles for too long as we raise higher. The voice will struggle to get into top register when you do this. Any perceived power will be detrimental to the health of your voice as you are causing such tension that it starts to damage the cords.
In rock genres, when trying to sound powerful, it’s very easy to fall into this trap but actually the best singers in the world know that they must shift into the head voice much sooner than others think. Shifting into head voice means allowing the muscles at the back of the larynx to pull backwards and stretch the cords. This motion occurs in a horizontal fashion, not vertically. So the muscles at the front grip the cords and hold them and those at the back pull and stretch. If we are not using the muscles at the back we are trying to do everything in chest voice. What we rally need is a balance of both. Some people might refer to this as ‘singing in the mix’.
Another way we must think light is to only allow the cords to come together lightly. The mistake singers often make when a coach says, “Light” is they go breathy. Light does not have to mean breathy. Light means a light connection of the vocal cords, but we still need that connection. Light means no use of those pesky extrinsic muscles that aren’t actually supposed to be involved in singing, such as the root of the tongue and the swallowing muscles in your throat, neck and under the chin. Light means creaky, non breathy cord closure.
3. To sing with distortion/grit/rasp you must not tense your throat
Ok, this is less of a counterintuitive attention grabbing headline as the other two but all the same it is important to understand where your grit and distortion comes from. Above, I was talking about not tensing up the muscles around the larynx, the neck and the throat. These are all parts of the anatomy that gatecrash the voice in a misguided reaction when we think we want to add some cool gritty effects to the sound. In fact, these pesky muscles get involved all the time when singing, if you aren’t aware of it, and even when you are aware of it, they can creep back in when you’re not looking.
There are a range of ways you can learn to isolate these issues and remove them from your singing habits but it can take a lot of time to get there. You may be asked by a coach to stick your tongue out and sing through a scale or exercise like that. This avoids the big tongue muscle, which reaches all the way down to the top of the larynx, from grabbing and pressing down on our voice box. Attached, and in close proximity, are the swallowing muscles. To isolate these you might be instructed to hold above the larynx with your fingers and under your chin as you sing to see if you feel a grab, or something grip or tense. These muscles need to get out of the way.
The grit and distortion that is more healthy comes from internal muscles around the cords, just tweaking and squeezing the actual cords inside the voice box to create a rasp. This is very different from tensing everything you have in the vague area of the neck. I’ve heard people describe distortion as ‘white noise’. Adding white noise that resonates higher up in the pharynx as opposed to gripping with everything in the throat. We should feel no tension in the throat or neck at all. It takes time to undo these habits and careful work on the mechanics of the voice. It’s always a case of step by step going through these different problem areas and keeping check. You must feel what happens when you sing, not listen.
The accompanied video will show you some examples of the kind of exercises that can help and how to remove unwanted tension.
As you can see some of these problems are intertwined and overlap one another. They are separate but part of the same kind of problem. Starting with easy, effortless vocalising is the only way to ensure safe and reliably powerful, gritty rock singing can last a whole career. Please don’t make the mistakes of ignoring these warning signs. Get proper training. Get your voice to be the best it can be. Good luck.
About the Author
Calder McLaughlin is a professional singing teacher and vocal coach based in Loughborough, England. He has many years teaching and performing experience, having worked as an active musician for many years. He gained a First Class Music Degree from Loughborough College in 2016, before setting up Singing Lessons Loughborough, to help tutor local students to improve their singing ability through individually tailored vocal lessons.