So now you’ve sung like an angel, it’s time to scream like a demon. This is the latest in my series of articles introducing the aspects of developing a unique singing voice – if you’re new to singing and have found this article via google, you may want to read back on the previous articles in this series to understand some of the technical theory I’ll be referring to. Also, given the subject matter there is a good chance that the videos linked might contain strong language, so if that’s a problem consider yourself warned.
Hard rock vocals have come a long way from blues pioneers like Howlin’ Wolf and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, through 1960s powerhouses like Robert Plant and Janis Joplin all the way up to out an out screamers and growlers like Barney Greenway, George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher and Angela Gossow. In between are a myriad of hybrid voices influenced variously by opera (Ronnie Dio, Bruce Dickinson), punk (Glen Danzig, Henry Rollins, Phil Anselmo) and even rap and hip hop (Mike Patton, Fred Durst). Some voices use throat distortion to strengthen and exploit the falsetto register to get powerful, screaming high notes (Bon Scott, Brian Johnson, Rob Halford). As a singer, hard rock and metal offers technical and artistic challenges that are all about pushing your voice to limits of technique and expression.
Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?
A lot of what I am going to discuss in this article is frowned upon by traditional singing teachers and voice coaches as teaching dangerous and unhealthy ways of singing. It is true that extreme vocal styles can harm your voice, but I see it as exactly the same trade-off that you make when taking up a physical sport. Boxing damages your hands with every punch, not to mention the effect on your brain of taking blows – but people box anyway. Long distance running puts pressure on knee joints and the heart – people run anyway. Football (soccer or American), hockey (ice or field), rugby or any other sport you could name carries risk of injury as well as wear and tear on the human body, but pushing ourselves to the limits is how we grow and generally speaking, hurting yourself a little bit on the way to doing something awesome is seen as a good thing; the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, eliminate bad habits and make the task at hand as safe as possible. It’s when such activities result in debilitating injury that you need to stop, and usually that is a sign that you need to correct your technique rather than that you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
That said, if you are training to be a professional opera singer, classical actor or other profession where your vocal health is paramount, the trade-off is simply not worth it. In that case, you wouldn’t join a death metal band as a growler or screamer any more than you’d take up bare knuckle boxing if you were a professional hand model.
The other health and safety aspect that ought to be mentioned at this point is the excessive aspects of the rock n’ roll image. Some people will tell you you cannot develop a decent rock voice without smoking like a chimney, chugging whisky from a bottle and spending the majority of your time wasted. While alcohol and drug misuse is undeniably a part of the music industry, as far as musical ability and singing technique is concerned it’s actually a red herring. A good rock voice comes from hard work, practice and dedication to your art and alcohol, smoking and substance abuse have ruined far more voices, careers and lives than they have ever made. When you look into it, most of the top rock singers are actually a lot healthier on the road than either they or their publicists might like to admit. When you’re relying on your voice to operate at full strength night after night, you have to be. At that point, recklessly destroying your voice with smoke and toxins isn’t a wise move on any level.
Me Want Cookies
Let’s start with the aspect of metal vocals I get asked about the most; the full on demonic growl and scream style popularised in death, black and hardcore metal since the 1980s. Here’s Cannibal Corpse frontman George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher talking about his vocal approach to a German interviewer:
Why sing that way? In short, to sound inhuman. As I hinted at in previous articles, finely tuned melodic vocals are all very well, but there comes a time when pitched notes and tonalities pin down the emotion of the song in a way you don’t want. Heavy metal and extreme music explores extremely dark emotions and themes, so by pushing the voice into uncomfortable, untuned territory you can convey demonic, broken and despairing characteristics while leaving the tonal palette free for the guitars to do what they will with (I ended the last article in this series with a clip showing how the untuned scream vocal style can be paired with a cleaner, ‘innocent’ vocalist to exploit the contrast between the two).
If you didn’t watch the above clip, I’d like to refer to three points in particular that Fisher makes. The first is that all the power comes from the diaphragm – if you’re still trying to generate all your power with your chest, neck and shouting muscles go back and read my earlier articles before trying this – if your technique isn’t up to snuff, your voice will be weak, unconvincing and will wear out almost immediately (beginning metalcore bands are especially notorious for weedy, pubescent ‘evil’ voices).
The second point Fisher makes refers to a common ‘cheat’ technique where the singer cups their hands around the microphone and deliberately overloads it to get distortion that way. This will still result in a weedy, unconvincing sound if your basic power isn’t there and will severely limit the frequencies, timbres and articulation you’ll be able to use in your performance (see previous articles). So when you practice this, do it without a microphone first to get the sound unamplified. Once you know what you’re doing, if you want to use techniques like cupping the hands (or processing effects in the case of aggrotech vocals) go ahead – but make it something you choose to do for a special effect, not something you have to do out of bad habit.
The other point he made was where he talks about vocal hygiene, how he’s never smoked and avoids smoky areas in between gigs. See, told you.
Though mostly associated with low pitched demonic growls, this vocal style applies to mid and high pitched registers as well (Cannibal Corpse’s songs frequently require Fisher to switch between low growling and high screaming in quick succession). Also, despite what some of the more chauvinistic metal fans might insist, this isn’t just for the boys; Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow popularised female growling throughout the 2000s, though she wasn’t the first woman to use the technique on record.
To get started, try a variation on the sirening exercise I described in early on this series, only this time instead of using an “nn” sound try it with a hard guttaral “uh” sound. Start by voicing this vowel sound clean in mid range, aiming to channel the sound entirely through the mouth (pinch your nose to make sure the nasal port is closed) with all the power coming from your abdominal muscles. If your throat is constricting, drop the effort away from it to make sure the power is coming from the right place. Then begin sliding the pitch of the note up and (especially) down, aiming to get strong, powerful notes at the limit of your range. When you have done this, gradually introduce throat distortion (look for the ‘sweet spot’ where you can start to engage your false vocal folds without choking the voice entirely) and increase the distortion until you can turn that strong, tuned note into an equally strong untuned roar. Find two or three pitches where your voice is at its strongest and practice hitting fierce growled or screamed monosyllables.
Now it’s time to try an actual lyric. You can use a metal lyric or any other lyric you’d like to practice with (try it with nursery rhymes and cheesy pop lyrics for giggles), but to start with here’s a verse from Slayer’s thrash metal classic South Of Heaven. Practice it using each of the pitches you found you were strong in and aim for volume and power with every syllable, starting with short staccato note durations (like spitting the words) gradually increasing in note duration as the verse progresses until you end with a long sustained roar of “die!”.
An unforseen future nestled somewhere in time
Unsuspecting victims, no warning, no sign
Judgement day, the second coming arrives
Before you see the light, you must die!
(words by Tom Araya, music by Jeff Hanneman)
What’s Opera, Doc? – Hybrid Rock Voices
Though this is by no means without exception, classic rock is built around high male voices. Hard rock bands quickly found that low and mid range notes struggled to be heard above the guitar riffs and chords that occupied that register and the sexual politics of the time weren’t about to let female voices dominate such masculine music. The early metal vocalists who thrived operated at the top of their head voice, sometimes using nasal twang for added resonance (Ozzy Osbourne’s sound takes this to the extreme), while some like ACDC’s Bon Scott, his successor Brian Johnson and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford pushed even higher into overdriven falsetto notes strengthened with lots of throat distortion. Some were classically trained; Ronnie James Dio began as an operatic tenor before turning to the dark side of heavy metal and even those who weren’t trained looked to operatic stylings for inspiration.
When hardcore punk, thrash, black and death metal pioneers traded all that for the untuned aggression-orientated style that became growling and screaming, metal vocalists sought ways to combine both approaches into a hybrid style that would combine the ferocity of screaming with the virtuosity of classic metal.
Phil Anselmo of Pantera developed a style seamlessly merging pitched singing with primal, growled aggression. Learn this song if you want a challenge.
Finally, a clip of former Steve Vai vocalist turned prog metal icon Devin Townsend. In this song he repeatedly moves between clean operatic vocals and full on screamed vocals, visiting every point in between as he gradually brings in throat distortion. This is the hybrid approach in a nutshell, demonstrated by a master.