Vocalist Corner guysinger

Published on June 23rd, 2010 | by Hugh Hession

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The Importance of singing style

Style is paramount when it comes to singing. It’s what ultimately defines you as a vocalist and has been responsible for making rock stars out of singers who most would agree are average at best.

Throw out all of the so called “rules” of American Idol. The definition of a great singer is a subjective matter in tumultuous portions.

It rarely has to do with how well a vocalist sings, but rather how well a vocalist sounds.

You see, how a vocalist sings focuses more on technique (proper breathing, use of vibrato, annunciation of vowels/consonants, accessing the head voice etc.). How a vocalist sounds is a different matter all together. This deals more with the tonality of the voice (the voice tone that a vocalist is born with) and how the vocalist manipulates that tone to create expressiveness and ambiance. The way a vocalist sounds is going to win out over technique every time.

Now I’m not downplaying the importance of technique. In fact, some of the most well-known singers don’t utilize proper vocal technique. As a result, they blow out their voices, become hoarse and sometimes get vocal nodules. Any vocalist who is serious about sustaining their career should be learning technique. However, style is something that needs to be shaped.  Often you hear how a singer needs to find their voice, or conversely, how a vocalist has their own identity. This is all about style.

Examples of vocalists with an identifiable style

So let’s look at some examples of vocalists, both old-school and new, who (in my opinion) have developed and maintained their own style. Their voices have created a brand for their music and persona, making them household names. In short, they are identifiable. This is the ultimate dream for any vocalist in the biz.

  • Bruce Springsteen. Yep. Love or hate him there is no doubt he has his own style. I know. I’ve heard it again and again. He can’t sing, right?  Well, if you’ve been following me throughout this post, recall that technique runs a distance second to style.
  • Steve Perry (Solo and Journey).  Nothing like Steve’s smooth-n-smoky, sweet, hot and honey drenched melodies. It’s the best of all BBQ sauces combined. Doesn’t matter what song he sings, you know it’s him.
  • Rob Thomas (Solo and Matchbox 20). Rob’s voice is very “now” but also quite unique. He can hang with the best of rock vocalists but also has a versatility that enables him to deliver pop music like no other. Either way, when you hear him over the radio…there is no denying: that’s Rob.
  • Chad Kroeger (Nickelback). Wow. That sums up Chad’s talent. He cuts through the band’s infectious tunes with vigor and tonal bliss. Blend that with his penchant for melody and you have the makings of a singer who fans will remember years from now.
  • Caleb Followill (Kings of Leon). What an original sound he brought forth to the world of rock-n-roll. Memorable and undeniably addictive.
  • Chris Martin (Coldplay). His tone and style cannot be denied over the airwaves.
  • Gwen Stefani (Solo and No Doubt). Place Gwen on a recording and there is no question who is on the mic.
  • Bono (U2). Need I say anymore?
  • Sting (Solo and The Police). The marvelous Gordon Sumner. Exceptional on Rock, Pop or Jazz. Who can mistaken that voice who made “Roxanne” so famous?
  • Ozzy Osbourne. The man can’t sing. But that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most recognized voices in rock music history. Slap some delay and pitch shift on his vocals and you have the makings of an Ozzy studio album.

If you think about it, many of the above vocalists I mentioned above have survived and outlasted many. You can try and challenge me by pointing out who is current on the Top 40 charts (which really is irrelevant) but for the most part, I feel that vocals are now merely being treated as something that is part of the package rather than the source of identity.

Sure, you may be able to identify a top artist “now,” but let them fade off into obscurity within the next few years (and undoubtedly, most will) and then see how memorable they are. Because when the time comes years from now, when their songs are re-cycled by newer artists (just as many are doing now), most have trouble remembering the original artist (unless of course, you are a music buff, like me!).

Today’s singers play it too safe

My opinion is that much of today’s lead singers play it too safe. Vocalists tend to emulate one another, and record companies are too focused on churning out the stuff that appears to be working, rather than taking any risks on potential bankable vocalists and bands that sound unique and have tremendous future potential. The very industry that used to be all about taking risks, no longer does so. That to me, is its current problem. Listen to much of what is out there now. There is such a copy-cat attitude, repeating the same style of song where any comparable vocalist could sing it and with no problem.

My theory of vocal originality is this. If you can imagine placing another vocalist on a particular song and it sounds almost identical, then their isn’t much originality involved. Thus, the vocalist becomes secondary. Brand recognition on vocal style is a powerful thing that gives the vocalist a marketable name that can be carried on for the duration of their career.

So the question in your mind is undoubtedly, “how do I get that identifiable style?”  I’m going to save this for another post, however I will say that the tone you were born with is what you have to work with and obviously, some are blessed more than others. However, there are certain things you can do or be aware of that can help you develop your own vocal style. Stay tuned. More to come!

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About the Author

owns and operates Emerging Artists Entertainment Marketing & Consulting, LLC - a company devoted to cultivating aspiring music artists, He is also the head of Hession Entertainment Group, LLC (artist management) and the Music Industry Liaison for the artist discovery site, TalentWatch (www.talentwatch.net). He has over 25 years experience in the music business as a performer, composer, producer and artist manager. Hugh holds a BA in Marketing and is a professional member of NARIP and a voting member of The Recording Academy. He often speaks at seminars and workshops on artist development.



4 Responses to The Importance of singing style

  1. Zachary J Gray says:

    Kudos on your enthusiasm for helping developing young musicians, and I agree that style is paramount with vocal music. But careful readers may take issue with the misleading dichotomy you have set up, characterizing technique and style as antagonists, which is a most unfortunate kind of advice to give student musicians, lest they lack talent and aspire beyond possibility, or have it and lack the tenacity and discipline to develop technique, or lack musical sensibility and attempt to innovate without regard for creative precedent.

    Your mistaken statements about Ozzy Osbourne are an example of this unfortunate misrepresentation of what constitutes a successful signature stlye. It would be better to characterize success in developing a style as dependent on three inseparable interwoven strands: Talent, Technique, and Musicality.

    I do agree with your choice of the work of John (Ozzy) Osbourne as a great example of a highly successful style, but he had all three of these necessary strands, and he in fact, could sing very well. The best evidence is on the track “Solitude” from Master of Reality. This track is a solid performance with sound technique, good pitch, dynamic interest, and a sweet tone. John could sing sweetly – he had talent. But the vocal work on the track is not readily identifiable as Ozzy’s signature style. In his case, it was this third strand, musicality, that led Ozzy to the heavily distorted vocal style he chose for the vast majority of his work. It worked so well that it helped forge an entire new genre of music!

    It would be indefensible to assert that a man without talent, sound technique, and musical sensibility could play such an immense role in shaping such a powerful influence on future musical style. I assert therefore that his vocal style was the result of, and not in spite of, talent, technique, and musicality. All three had to be there for it to work.

    To take a counter example, consider his later years. Now that one of these strands – his technique – is severely diminished by 40 years of drug abuse, as well as his suffering from Parkin’s disease, the other two strands, namely, his talent and musicality, can barely hold together his live performances. His work today obviously lacks that force and the style that inspired his early work.

    Ultimately, it is unfair to characterize his work as a technical contrivance without substance, especially without investigating fully. His early Sabbath work is testament to his ability to combine these essentials: vocal talent, technical ability and musicality, which enabled him to innovate and produce an incredible signature style. And that should be a sobering lesson to young musicians to nurture all three of these elements in hopes of producing success.

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Thanks so much Zachary, for your insight and reply to one of my favorite posts!

      First, I agree with you in terms of the importance of combining the three elements of technique, style and musicality for optimum vocal performance. However, my intent for this particular post was to specifically point out through examples of some of the most identifiable vocalists of all time, how style and tone make a difference in becoming forgettable vs unforgettable. Many of the greatest music artists of all time (Springsteen, Tom Petty, Dylan) have little vocal technique. A vocalist may sound incredible, utilizing all three of the elements you mention – but can you distinguish them from others? That was my point in this post.

      To reiterate, technique is incredibly important. In fact, I mention that in this post – but tone and style – that is EVERYTHING if you want to really stand out.

      You’re an Ozzy fan. That makes two of us! However, Ozzy was never known for his technical prowess when it comes to singing. But, his style and tone (along with his music and image) are legendary.

      Style tends to trump technique when it comes down to the “saleability” of an artist. I’ve heard vocalists who may be technically proficient but lack style. Conversely, I’ve heard singers who have incredible tone and a unique style but would benefit from instruction to help them with endurance, pitch and proper breathing etc. John Mayer serves as a great example of someone who has an identifiable style but took voice lessons to build upon his technique.

      To quote my own words: “the def­i­n­i­tion of a great singer is a sub­jec­tive mat­ter in tumul­tuous por­tions.”

      Thanks again!
      Hugh

  2. Hugh,

    I really enjoyed this post and I think it is an extremely useful concept or idea for young singers who want to be commercially successfully. I fall into this category which is why I found it particularly useful. I am a singer/songwriter and have had vocal lessons which have definitely improved my technique and range. However it wasn’t until a few years of recording my own music that I started to realise how important the ‘sound’ of a singers voice is, I think even more so on a recording as compared to live.

    The reason I think this post is so good for people to read is because it is actually EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to get an objective view of your own ‘sound’, even when listening back to a recording. I’m sure anyone reading this who has tried recording themselves singing or talking will remember the first time they tried it and cringed at the sound of their own voice (everyone does). When you are starting out it takes a while to get away from listening “to myself singing” to listening objectively to the piece of music with the vocal as one of the instruments.

    I think like every skill, the more you practice the more you can develop your sound. I also think the word ‘develop’ is the correct description as you say, because it has to start with what you have already and grow into a branded sound, rather than be forced into something you think will sound cool. More often than not, the latter strategy will be based on artists that you admire and you will end up sounding like a copycat ‘not quite as good’ version of them (I hear these voices a lot at open mics and pub gigs).

    All the best,

    Nathaniel James

    • Hugh Hession says:

      You are spot on, Nathaniel. Thanks for the comment. This post is one of my favorites, because the “sound” that you develop – that vocal styling, cannot be contrived. Of course, you can manipulate your voice in certain ways, but if it doesn’t sound natural, it won’t come off well. That “copycat” sound you mention, supports exactly what I just mentioned. The vocalists I talk about in this post were born with that certain tonality that each of them are so famous for. They’ve just learned how to really bring that out. Most importantly, it fits their music like a glove, which is rare, really. Take someone like Tom Petty by himself, and really, he’s not that great of a vocalist at all. But…when he sings his songs – it comes together. Thing is, he doesn’t sound like anyone else, which completely gave him the edge in terms of branding his voice.

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