What sets heavy metal and rock singers apart from their pop, soul and rap contemporaries? Well, for a start, a lot of these guys can really sing powerfully and in tune, reproduce what they do night after night on stage, and record minus the studio tricks that modern day pop stars use to cover their vocal flaws. They often have phenomenal technique, and display genuine vocal athleticism. In operatic terms, they mostly support the voice well, they use the breath skilfully, and they sustain outrageously high tessituras for far longer than most male opera singers.
So here is my personal list of the best of the best in this genre:
- Bruce Dickinson – voice category: full lyric tenor.
What can you say about Bruce that hasn’t already been said? The man is a phenomenon. A polymath and Renaissance Man, he is an airline pilot, champion fencer, author and historian, as well as being the singer in the world’s most successful heavy metal group. Here is a person who is widely respected outside the rock community for his intellect and media-savvy, as well as being a great singer.
With regards to his singing, he was nicknamed the ‘Air-raid Siren’ in his early days, singing for british metallers Samson. You could say that Bruce pioneered what was to become a signature sound for metal (especially power metal) singers with the extremes of high register and a relatively clean sounding vocal production. What sets Bruce apart as a singer is the level of commitment and intensity in what he does. He never sings a song half-heartedly, and performs with a seemingly indefatigable energy. Also, in contrast to many rock and pop singers, he actually brings a broad palette of colours and dynamics to what he does.
Listen to the video clip here, the song Number of the Beast from 1982. Bruce was only 23 years old, and as far as I know he had no formal voice training. In the first section of the song, he moves from a near-whispered intro, to sudden fully supported high pitched lines with remarkable dexterity. When the song kicks of properly, he combines a punchy, staccato quality with a legato line. This is a feature of much bel canto opera repertoire but which many classical singers find very difficult to pull off. The style is of course rather different, but the technique the same. You can see it in opera vocal music when there is a legato bow indicated over a phrase concurrent with staccato or marcato markings.
He also incorporates a certain amount of rock 'raspiness' into his sound, but it is never forced or strained. He has a total command over his instrument at all times. The high lying legatos which he finishes phrases with, and indeed all his high singing is a very well supported head voice, which is NOT falsetto. There is no audible join, and he brings a large amount of the head quality into his lower voice too, which maintains a timbral brilliance and emotional connection. His range has sunk a little as he gets older, but he still performs with the same energy he as he had in his 20s.
Here is another example of his work on the more gentle solo track.
- Ronnie James Dio – voice category: low tenor
Ronnie James Dio was what you would call a late starter in the world of rock. He was born in 1942, and although he fronted many bands, he didn’t break through in the world of heavy rock until the mid 70s when he teamed up with Ritchie Blackmore to form Rainbow. After a stint in Black Sabbath, his first solo album, Holy Diver, was released when Dio had turned 40, in 1982.
Dio’s voice was the classy sound of rock, and an altogether different instrument than the histrionics of for example Bruce Dickinson. He didn’t have the huge range, or the high-pitched wailing sound so popular to rock singers, but relied instead upon a combination of genuinely sweet tone, a rough rasp at times, and rock solid phrasing and technique. There was a sense of grandiosity and more epic poetry in Dio's singing, and indeed his lyrics more often than not dwell on the fantastic, dungeons and dragons, rainbows and dark forces.
Here he is on the track 'Gates of Babylon' by Rainbow. The amount of feel he conveys in this track is second to none:
Dio claimed that he had never had vocal training, but attributed his solid technique to his childhood years spent playing the trumpet, and the ensuing breath control.
He was extremely adept at edging the vocal chords to give a supported rasp. At no point does this feel uncomfortable or painful. This is, I feel, one of the prerequisites of masterful rock technique. Some singers can do it and some can’t, and it is usually discovered by them in a process of trial and error.
Out of all the singers here, Dio probably has the most naturally beautiful sound, similar in many ways to an operatic high baritone or low tenor. Listen to the clean singing at the start of the Black Sabbath track 'The Sign of the Southern Cross' to hear this, and also his modulation into a raspier, edgy full voice technique:
The only thing that keeps him off top spot is that Bruce takes things a lot further with using extreme registers and the risks that they entail with live performance. Dio’s was the most solid, and effective voice in rock for many years, and a truly powerful instrument to boot.
And let's not forget, Dio was the man to introduce the now ubiquitous 'horns' gesture to the world of metal.
Ronnie James Dio passed away on May 16th, 2010.
- Geoff Tate – voice type: baritoneGeoff Tate shot to prominence as the vocalist for progressive metal band Queensrÿche in the mid 80s. His voice is included here due to a phenomenal technique which allowed him to sing at extremes of high register even though his actual speaking voice and vocal 'centre' are very much in the baritone area. Listen to this track, Roads To Madness, by Queensrÿche from their first full length album 'The Warning'. For me this is his most complete vocal display, combining a huge range of dynamics, emotion and register. I hear influences of Ian Gillan's performance on the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar here too.In general baritones have a very good falsetto capability, usually better than that of tenors, and Tate uses his falsetto to maximum effect in a 'supported falsetto' fashion, which imbues it with power and focus. He also sings with a fairly high larynx in his upper range, which is what enables him, as a baritone, to hit those stratospheric heights with flexibility and precision. It means that the root of his tongue can remain reasonably relaxed. With a mic, the thinning of the sound that this causes isn't so problematical. Dickinson and Dio both sing with lower larynxes than Tate, giving a slightly more 'full' sound at the top, even though they have higher Fachs (voice categorization).Most operatice technique favours either a neutral laryngal position or a lowered larynx through as much of the range as possible.Tate is the only singer out of this trio who had formal vocal training, and it shows. His teacher in the US for a period was David P. Kyle, who also taught Ann Wilson of Heart and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, both rock singers with outstanding technique. Apparently as his career went on he became much lazier with his practice and skills and his vocals less technically accomplished as a result. What a shame! At the start of his career he had all the materials to be one of rock's premiere vocalists for decades to come. He was a huge influence on the vocalists in the plethora of prog-metal bands who were influenced by Queensrÿche in the late 80s and 90s such as Dream Theater and Fates Warning.An example of his more baritonal singing can be heard on Queensrÿche's most well known single, the ballad 'Silent Lucidity'.
Of course there are many other fantastic singers in Metal. The raspy, rock sound is covered well by singers such as W.Axl Rose, and Brian Johnson. Rob Halford could well have been included in this list, as a pioneer of baritone/falsetto singing in metal. And in classic rock we have such amazing voices as Ian Gillan, Paul Rodgers, Freddie Mercury and Meat Loaf, to name but four.