Singers spend years learning to perfect a crystal clarity that pleases the ear fluidly from low to high. But what happens if you just want to sound like Lady Gaga (in “Poker Face” or “Applause,” not in her Academy Award Sound of Music tribute)? Or if you want to sing folk music without taking it into the Broadway jukebox realm? The truth is, that “trained” vocal sound is something you can turn off and on if you have great control of your voice. Here are some vocal tips on how to sound gruff.
Isn’t Gruffness Something You Just Have or Don’t Have?
Well, if we’re talking about gruffness due to vocal injury, then yes. But I don’t think that’s what you’re after. Lady Gaga is a fantastic example of someone who can turn this sound on and off.
First, listen to this example of her gruff, untrained sound in “Applause.”
Next, listen to her in The Sound of Music tribute. Sounds like a legit singer, right?
Then here she is a year later with the gruffness back.
The reason Gaga’s Sound of Music tribute got so much hype wasn’t because she was the best singer of Golden-Age Broadway to ever hit the stage. It was because her audience was surprised and impressed with her adaptability–one moment she’s hoarsely speak-singing her pop songs, and the next she’s melodiously singing Rodgers and Hammerstein with the clarity of Julie Andrews.
But if she can sound so beautiful, why would she ever choose to sing another way? Well, simply put, her pop songs would sound ridiculous if you sang them like Julie Andrews. Observe:
Luckily, Lady Gaga can sing gruffly when she chooses to and can sing like a legit Broadway diva when she chooses to. And so can you.
What Are the Hallmarks of that “Trained” Sound
To ditch the trained sound, we first need to identify what makes someone sound like a trained singer.
A real biggie is the thyroid tilt. That little feeling of tilt (like a puppy-dog cry) onto the note that you experience is one of the hallmarks of the trained-singer sound. The thyroid tilt offers sweetness and helps facilitate that shimmering vibrato.
Even-Sounding Mixed Voice
Whether we’re talking about a beautiful trained belt sound like Sara Bareilles’s or a trained head-mix like Sierra Boggess’s, trained singers tend to instinctively thin out their vocal folds as they go higher and higher, lightening their chest voice more and more until it seamlessly becomes head voice.
No Vocal Fry
You know that lazy, rattly sound common with the So Cal surf culture?
(No judgment, by the way. I use it constantly). That’s called vocal fry, and it happens when your vocal folds are slack. You don’t really hear much of that at all in a trained, legit voice.
Sticking the Note
You don’t hear a lot of trained-sounding voices sliding up to notes or sliding off of them. They stick the note and hold it out (typically with at least some vibrato).
Now Remove All Those Elements
Un-Tilt Your Thyroid Cartilage!
You know how when everything is working well with your voice, it feels like you’re tipping onto the note instead of moving into the note head on? Let’s take that little tilt out and just move toward the note horizontally. Listen to these two examples, the first with a thyroid tilt, and the second without.
Singing without the thyroid tilt should feel more like the way you talk (depending on the way you talk!)
Just Go For Chest
Just go for a chesty speech tone instead of an even timbre from low to high. You won’t be able to go too high like this without adjusting some other elements (or injuring your voice), so when you’re doing this, make sure it’s low enough to be comfortable.
Throw in Vocal Fry
Throw some vocal fry into your tone wherever you want it to sound most world-weary.
Don’t Stick the Note
Feel free to slide off the longer notes instead of holding them. Scroll back up to Lady Gaga’s “A Million Reasons,” and listen to about a minute in: “I’ve got a hundred…” Listen to her slide off each note. It wouldn’t have the same effect if she stuck each note like this:
Without the sliding, it’s much cleaner and less gritty.
Mix and Match
You don’t have to use every one of these elements every time you sing. For a folksy feel, you might try to un-tilt your thyroid cartilage but add a little breathiness. For a higher-pitched song, you might want to scrap the chest voice altogether but keep the other elements. For something you want to sound fairly polished but still have a little bit of grit to it, you might just sing the way you normally do but add vocal fry. Play around and see what works for you on a given song. There’s no wrong answer here if you’re getting an aesthetic you want and your throat feels fine.