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Warming up, knowing your instrument, and practicing relentlessly are among the singing tips from Saigon Kick’s Matt Kramer when it comes to delivering great rock vocals.
Earlier this year, we published tips on delivering great R&B vocals with master singer and vocal coach Alvin Fields. While many of the principles that Fields discussed can well apply to any sort of healthy and expressive vocal performance, every genre has secrets and idiosyncrasies that make its singers sound unique.
Take, for example, the wide world of rock ’n’ roll. Whether you want to growl like James Hetfield, soar like Bono, rage like Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, cut like Paramore’s Hayley Williams, or simply be amazing like Freddie Mercury, a bit of thoughtfulness, practice, and study can help you deliver great rock vocals while keeping your vocal cords healthy and able to survive the long haul.
Matt Kramer made his name as the lead singer for the band Saigon Kick. The son of an opera singer, he’s an expert educator and vocal coach as well, and teaches at his Miami-area studio Kramer Voice Company. Here are some singing tips and strategies for producing great rock vocals from the master.
Warm up – always
Just like an Olympic athlete or Formula One racing car, a great rock singer needs to warm up before letting loose – and Kramer recommends starting slow. “See how you are on any given day and go from there,” he says. “Starting to sing isn’t like turning on an electric keyboard. You’re going to be different every day.”
Kramer recommends going through your entire range, finding if you’re having any trouble getting into the tougher spots, and make sure that you work through them before your set begins. “If you go into your set and you’re not ready, it’s like waking up, rolling out of bed, and going for a sprint. It’s better to do some stretching, windmills, jumping jacks, like they taught you in third grade.”
Part of warming up properly is knowing your musical terrain and preparing accordingly. “If you’re going mountain climbing and only brought hiking clothes, you’re going to have a hard time,” he says. “You should have known better and thought about what you were climbing.” That same idea is key for singers, he continues. “I’ve seen singers go straight into AC/DC from the bar and you can’t just open up that quickly.”
To get yourself into prime racing shape, Kramer recommends starting low and working your way up. “If you sing with some grit, get some of that grit in there at the end of your warm up, but definitely not the beginning,” he says. “It’s like having an old car and warming it up on a cold day. Let it get to the right temperature and hit the throttle towards the end. Then you’ll be ready for whatever you need to do.
Study your own voice
Since your vocal cords are inside your body, learning about your own voice can seem like a mysterious thing — but Kramer recommends putting in the time to get familiar with every aspect.
“Know your machine,” Kramer advises. “It’s like learning where the volume knob on your keyboard is or where the tremolo is on your guitar. You have to understand what the whole instrument is, and it’s your whole body. I like to call it a machine, even though it’s an instrument, and it’s one of those manual things like flying an airplane. There’s a lot going on and it’s best if you are able to learn to keep an eye on everything that’s happening, as opposed to just throwing your hands up in the air and seeing what happens.”
Learning your voice may seem like a broad mission, but it can be easily broken down. Does tensing or relaxing your shoulders affect your pitch, or your ability to get the breath you need? Take note of the answer for future rehearsals and performances. Does focusing on relaxing your jaw or throat help make singing painless, or do you get sore more quickly the more attention you pay to such things? Build your awareness of how your entire body works as part of your vocal performance.
Self-awareness as a singer applies both to the naturally gifted and hard-working students alike. “Even if you’re one of these lucky people who just opens up and great vocals just happen, great,” he says, “but you’re still going to have to learn about your voice. Even the strongest guys in the world can end up with broken bones sometimes and need to learn how to use their bodies differently.”
Protect your assets
The legend of rock may indicate that rock singers should stay up and party all night and then get on stage and rage, but Kramer argues that the opposite is true.
“If you’re performing, don’t sit in a club and talk all day beforehand,” he says. “Don’t stay up and scream either if you have to sing the next day. Watch the amount of time you spend talking and try to stay consistent.”
“Lots of singers suffer from losing their high-end or their vocal power or, worse, they get nodules, blood vessel ruptures,” he continues. “That’s all from singing and talking too much and keeping too busy a schedule. So take it easy and make sure that you’re not pushing yourself too hard before you get on stage.”
Go for consistency
While there’s an element of wildness that can give rock vocals that extra edge, Kramer warns that even the most explosive performance needs to be tempered with discipline and consistency.
“Think of it more like a race car and less like ‘Dukes of Hazard,’” he says. “On a real track, Dukes of Hazard would crash, but a race car driver knows how to stay consistent, even when he’s going 200 miles an hour. When singers do daredevil stuff, there isn’t as much going on as one might think,” he continues. “That’s where a lot of singers blow themselves out. They have the pedal to the metal with the breaks on at the same time. Do that and you’re going to break something.”
To become more consistent when it comes to something like pitch, Kramer recommends taking a couple of weeks to sit at a piano every day and play each and every note of each and every song, singing along and paying close attention to both your body and the sound that it’s producing. “Get a lyric sheet and write down the note that goes along with every word,” he says. “That will help give you the navigational awareness that you need to stay consistently on pitch.”
Another element of staying consistent with pitch, Kramer says, is paying attention to the energy with which you approach any given note. “Rock is power,” he says. “If you’re coming in without enough power, you’re going to be flat, most likely. If you have lots of attitude, you’ll probably end up sharp. Just do it a lot, pay attention, and listen.”
Focus on practicing, not clothing
This one is simple — if you want to be a great rock singer, put in the hours and practice like it’s nobody’s business, and don’t worry so much about which pair of sunglasses will make you look best under the spotlight.
“It’s a job,” states Kramer. “Lots of guys don’t take it seriously. A lot of singers aren’t like the guitar players who practice for hours every day to get their time, tone, and technique perfect.”
“Vibe and mojo are needed to pull off a great rock performance,” he continues, “but don’t be lazy and rely on those alone. The best rock singers have discipline.” Kramer cites Mick Hucknall of the band Simply Red as a prime example of substance over flash. “There are some pretty goofy singers out there, and this guy was one of them,” he says. “He’s this redhead, geeky guy, but he’s the next huge singer. He sure didn’t grow up being cool with the right clothes and the right look. He was busy singing. His voice is what gets him everything.”
Use caution with growl and grit
If gravel is part of your vocal sound, Kramer recommends learning, self-awareness, and practice to keep your vocals, and your body, strong.
“Drill sergeants and babies do it all the time, and your mom does it when she’s pissed off at you,” he says. “It’s all the same thing. You’re overdriving your vocal box. You’re hammering it and trying to keep it steady at the same time. It’s kind of like the motor of a Harley. When you start to overdrive it, it gets throttly, and the more you do it, the more you get into guttural scream territory.”
As Kramer points out, humans have been screaming for thousands of years, and if you’re able to scream, hold it together, and go on the road performing that way for a year, do it. “Some people just don’t have the machine to do that, and that’s fine,” Kramer says, “but I have to say that most people who scream great were not taught how to do it. All the cats that I know who do it didn’t learn it from a vocal coach. They may have gone to a vocal coach to learn how to do it better when they started losing their voices, but it was something that they came to naturally.”
Whether you’re a natural-born screamer or someone trying to add just a touch of grit to your performance, Kramer continues his car analogy. “Guys like Phil Anselmo from Pantera, Bruce Dickinson, and Chris Cornell, who has a range of over four octaves, are the finest of the breed, and if you’re going in that direction, think about it like a dune buggy,” he says. “You need suspension. If you’re jumping off of a sand dune and landing from twenty feet on another sand dune, you need something to catch yourself with. So again, it all comes back to knowing your machine, knowing the track, and knowing how far you can push yourself and how to recover. If you don’t know how to catch yourself, you’re going to have some hard landings.”
There’s more than one way to rock
Think that rock vocalists are all about screaming, or that you have to growl like a chain-smoking tiger to be taken seriously? Think again, says Kramer. Some of the best rock singers sing with clean, undistorted tones.
Just listen to Bono’s reedy tenor on U2 classics like “Mysterious Ways,” or Journey’s Steve Perry or Queen’s Freddy Mercury soaring on nearly anything they ever recorded — without any real growl to speak of.
The lesson? When it comes to delivering powerful rock vocals, let your preconceptions of how a rock singer “should” sound go, Kramer says, and come up with something powerful, expressive, engaging, and unique that works for you.
Play to your strengths, and work with what you have
To the above point, if you are trying desperately to sound like Axl Rose or Chris Cornell and just can’t pull it off — stop trying.
“If Steve Perry joined Pantera, it would last one rehearsal,” says Kramer. “That doesn’t make Steve Perry any less of a singer. He’s just not the singer for Pantera. And if you take Phil Anselmo and put him in Journey, you’ll get the same result, because someone’s gotta sing those crazy vocals clean. Both singers are great in their own right, but a Lexus is a Lexus and a monster truck is a monster truck. Trying to make a voice into something that it’s not is a really bad idea.”
The lesson is that you have to accept what you were born with vocally, Kramer says, and if you can’t growl, for example, it’s probably for a good reason. “A key part of Eddie Vedder’s technique is that he has incredible energy, like a soccer player,” he says. “Is that you? That’s not me. Singing like that is like doing power lifting or playing professional basketball. There may be a few guys under six feet who can do it, but what it comes down to is that if you’re not built for it, you’re not built for it. If your vocal machine is a Lexus, don’t trash it by drag racing it. That’s not meant to be beat up. It’s meant to cruise.”
In short, Kramer encourages you to work with what you have, and make that the best it can be, in a rock context or beyond. And if, at the end of the day, you just want to sing like Eddie Vedder but you sound more like Steve Perry? “Go to a Pearl Jam concert and have fun!” Kramer says with a laugh. “You can love something, but if it’s not you, why the hell would you do it? Just remember that what we love isn’t always good for us.”