TOP 5 Rock Singers who Sing in Falsetto
Singing in falsetto, a vocal register which almost exclusively uses head resonance is definitely not just the domain of male pop artists – the Bee Gees, Justin Timberlake, James Blunt and others. Even rockers can pull off really high falsetto tones (but without involving the chest "fry scream", more on that next time) – notably Freddie Mercury during his live shows, Mick Jagger in "Emotional Rescue" or Jack White in "Blue Orchid". But these tend to be rare excursions outside their usual singing zone. Today, let's take a look at five rock vocalists who use a high head register as one of their main sound-creating devices and trademarks.
Let's start with a quick technical explanation of what a falsetto is. In general, if you sing a deep note and gradually raise it, at one or two points (the specific pitches of the transition notes are listed in the singing manuals as E♭4-G4 for higher voices, C4-D4 for medium voices, and A3-B1 for lower voices) you'll notice a kind of break – the place in your body where your voice resonates change, as well as the colour of your voice. The resonance shifts from the chest to the head, and the head tone, aka falsetto, is more "round" in tone than the chest register, with fewer high harmonic frequencies. If you build up the intensity, you can even make the microphone feedback. However, it is also more difficult for an untrained voice to stay in tune using this technique.
For example, if you want to be able to yodel, a sharp transition between the chest and head registers will come in handy. However, most singing techniques aim to smooth out the transition tones and the change in voice colour. Classical opera training focuses a lot on developing head resonance. It gradually adds higher harmonic frequencies (for example, by specific adjustments of the lips, tongue and other facial muscles, but mainly by working with the breath) and it also "drags" it into lower positions. This is why a trained opera singer can be easily heard over the whole orchestra and to the top floors of the theatre without a microphone. On the other hand, pop or rock singing techniques (such as the Complete Vocal Technique or the belting technique) are based on developing the lower, chest register so that the singers can sing in their full voice even in higher positions without hitting the vocal break and they only resort to the falsetto when they want to use it.
Singers such as Bruce Dickinson, Freddie Mercury or Sting can sing in their full voice even at high pitch (but I hesitate to talk about "full voice" with Brian Johnson or Axl Rose, even though they sing high and it's not a falsetto). In addition, performers like Jay Buchanan (Rival Sons) and Robert Plant are able to somewhat throttle this impressive "scream" making it sound hoarse, so the result is quite harsh – as if the gentlemen were "tearing their vocal cords". I know, you will probably say that rough treatment of the voice belongs to rock music. But I think that professional singers know very well how to work with their voice to bring out the rock feeling without physically wearing themselves out.
But let's get back to the falsetto and its uses. After the technical overview, we should mention the cultural context: the male falsetto is often ridiculed as "effeminate", "soft" or even "gay" (again, we're back to the established ideas of what is "masculine" and what is "feminine"), especially in the context of pop music. Interestingly, when it comes to rockers who use a high head register, we don't hear those kinds of comments much – rock has always been seen as a "masculine" genre, disregarding the falsetto. At most, a falsetto combined with distorted guitars might strike some as a sonic freak show. This illustrates how a change of context can change the meaning of the same phenomenon.
Now, let's leave the theory and look at some examples of rock singers who can sing half of a concert or an album in falsetto – and take inspiration from their different approaches. Feel free to add more in the comments.
1. Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age)
The multi-instrumentalist, frontman of QOTSA, all-star bands Them Crooked Vultures and Eagles of Death Metal uses his voice a bit as a melodic instrument, which in falsetto positions creates a counterpoint to the heavy, fuzzed-out guitar riffs. He often employs chromatic techniques in his vocal lines, "stretching" the voice like bubblegum over the throbbing rhythm.
2. Matt Bellamy (Muse)
The Muse frontman works somewhat similarly with the contrast between the high vocals and piercing, thick guitar sound. And he certainly doesn't spare his diaphragm and breath while singing. Whether he's singing in full voice or falsetto, you can clearly hear how much air he needs to take in before each phrase to give enough power to his arched melodic lines.
What kind of rocker is that, you might say. But if you ask me, Prince was a rocker, at least in spirit and opulent appearance. In R'n'B, which inspired him a lot, falsetto male vocals are common (or rather they were socially accepted there earlier than in other genres), but Prince's interpretation is a bit more subtle than in the case of the above-mentioned artists, and he also works with melodic lines in a much more rhythmic, even percussive way.
4. Thom Yorke (Radiohead)
"Warmth" or emotion" are notions that many people associate with vibrato – the regular repetitive change in pitch that can occur in the voice (or be cultivated through breath control). I specifically want to mention the vibrato employed by Thom Yorke because it is very characteristic of his voice – both in the lower positions and especially in the falsetto. In addition, Yorke does not avoid the vocal break between the chest and head register in his vocal parts at all, on the contrary, he actively uses it.
5. King Diamond
Unlike the regular head register, the Danish metal bad boy's falsetto parts have an unusual edge to them - he's definitely not singing in full voice, but at the same time, his vocals contain quite a few high harmonic frequencies. At times it sounds (hopefully his fans will forgive me) as if the singer has taken a sip of helium. What is remarkable, however, is the pitch range that King Diamond is able to demonstrate with a single long glissando (a gradual change in pitch) without changing the tone colour. It's basically a kind of metal countertenor.
And who is your favourite falsetto singer or song sung in falsetto? Jeff Buckley? Or Neil Young in "After the Gold Rush"? Let us know in the comments!
From recommended works on the subject:
Biddle, Ian and Frenya Jarman-Ivens. Oh Boy!: Making Masculinities in Popular Music. Routledge, 2007.
Carson, Anne. Gender of Sound. In: Glass, Irony and God, 119–141. New Directions, 1992.
Cavarero, Adriana. For More Than One Voice: Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Stanford University Press, 2005.
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