Rock Like: Axl Rose, Brian Johnson and James Hetfield

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There are healthy ways to add grit to your voice, without relying on smoking, drinking or nodes! –says Jaime Vendera

The human voice is the most amazing instrument ever created, more capable than we give credit.

Our voices can even sound like they are taking a beating when they are really just fine.

This is especially evident with rock and metal singers, who repeatedly release uncanny wails, screams, and guttural sounds from what sounds like the depths of your darkest nightmare.

NOT Beyond Your Capability

Many believe these sounds are beyond their capability.

But, I am here to smash that fallacy to pieces, because you CAN learn to sing with grit, range, and power!

While I don’t believe in teaching you “how to sing like ___” (insert singer’s name here), I do believe in explaining certain traits that will allow you to represent a singer’s voice when you are covering their songs.

Hopefully, this new series will help you to begin discovering these unique tones for yourself.

I’m not going to give a “how-to” lesson in achieving this – but I do want to give you some principles and key ideas on your road to a rock-grit voice.

I’ve chosen some veteran rockers; we’ll look at their signature sound and how I personally think they create that sound.

(This review is in no way claims to reflect exactly on their personal approach to singing since I have not personally worked with these three individuals.)

So, let’s do a “Rocker Review”!


AXL ROSE

Axl Rose is probably best known (as far as screams) for the long, haunting scream at the beginning of the song, Welcome to the Jungle. His unique banshee-like tone throughout the rest of the song falls somewhere between full voice and falsetto to the ear. Many call this sound the pharyngeal voice or pharyngeal tone (reinforced falsetto), because it has that high, piercing, rock tone bite. FYI: the pharynx is the windpipe above the cords. What’s going on with Axl is a tonal mixture between falsetto and full voice with serious kick. It’s the same sound I use to shatter glass with my voice, but not as unpleasant sounding – ha-ha. Considering Axl’s low speaking voice, I’m sure he found his own way into the high notes by incorporating the pharyngeal tone with a bit of rasp until it sounded as unique and cool as it does, thus defining his own signature sound which has sold millions.


BRIAN JOHNSON

Brian Johnson’s “whiskey beaten” voice on songs like, Shoot to Thrill and Back in Black have made the ACDC frontman a staple in rock and roll. On these particular songs, his upper register has a serious, blood curdling edge that would peel the flesh off your face. As far as his grit is concerned, I believe that his unique tone is a combination of the pharyngeal sound with a whole lotta grit slapped on top to make sound it so cool. Many are afraid this sound will blow out the voice. This need not be true. With correct technique and understanding, you can add ACDC grit- just like a guitar effect- to your overall tone, making your voice sound brutal beyond belief.


JAMES HETFIELD

James Hetfield is known for his low/mid-range voice slathered in gritty angst, especially on songs like Enter Sandman where he pounds your eardrums with a belted plea that is so in-your-face, people think he must have lungs of steel. James sticks to a straightforward sound in his low-mid register which has made him one of the top voices in rock and metal. His grit is produced in much the same way as Brian Johnson’s, but on the lower and mid-range end of his register. In other words, he’s adding grit to a lower part of his voice, and driving it with volume, instead of combining it with pharyngeal tones.


The Bottom Line

There are healthy ways to add grit to your voice, without relying on smoking, drinking or nodes!

I find that singers often don’t take advantage of the entire voice – all of the tones that can be created above the cords as well as work with the cords themselves.

You can add extra nastiness at times by the manipulation of the false folds. (FYI-the sound produced by the false folds is much like slapping the hands together- sound but no pitch. Still, it can add to your awesomeness.)

Please note, this is NOT excess stress, which many singers incorrectly add by pushing too much air, tightening the pharynx, and even the squeezing inward with neck muscles (ever see those veins bulge on certain singers?) in an attempt to make the correct sound.

Once you have your vocal technique down pat, extra air and over-tightening will not be a problem)

Join me next month as we look 3 more singers – and if you want to suggest which ones you most want to hear about, leave a comment below!

-Jaime

Jaime Vendera

Check out Jaime’s Three vocal workshops October 17,18,19 in Krakow, Poland-
People can learn all about the workshop, how to book a spot, get directions, etc. at theultimatevocalworkshop.com

Jaime Vendera is best known for his glass shattering world record (MythBusters/SuperHuman Showdown), his Raise Your Voice book series, and his work with rockers such as, James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Terry Ilous (Great White), and Eric Emery (Concordia). Learn more about grit in Jaime’s Extreme Scream and Rock & Metal Singer’s Warm Up programs at jaimevendera.com


  • Eduardo

    Hello, very interesting the subject, albeit superficial approach … Well, I would like to comment on Bruce Dickinson in next time. Thank you! Eduard Giglio.

  • al-andrew

    I am very interested in this technique…. However what always interests me that not one of these metal/rock artists ever look relaxed….. It always appears to endure massive effort and strain…. I repeat …. “It appears”
    I know nothing about this technique and would like to understand more.

  • Eric Fréget

    I d like a lot hearing about Alice Cooper’s voice and technique ;-)

  • Landon Farris

    I would like to hear some insight on Anthony Green’s voice. His high vocal register is insane and he sings with so much power! Still, like you mentioned, in nearly all of his live videos I can see those veins bulging on his neck. I have a similar register and have always had the same issue, neck veins bulging.

  • Hi, thanks for the interesting article. I’m interested in developing my own sound and would love add grit to it. I have steered clear of grit up till now because it shreds my voice to pieces. Could you go into greater detail and depth as to techniques specifically for adding grit without strain?

  • Grimmace63

    I would love to hear your thoughts on Maynard James Keenan….both range and grit.

  • Me

    Chester Bennington needs a full article!! I want a Q&a from him And his singing coach! When did he know he could do this thing with his voice? When did he take lessons & why? How often does he have complications? Whats the worst its gotten? Secrets to his singing style success? Etc. Post links if the info is out there please!