How to sing with grit and distortion

How to sing with grit

Learn how to sing like Dave Grohl and growl like James Brown by exploring the world of vocal distortion. Top voice coach and researcher Nicole Gill explains the science behind raw vocals.

Want to know how the likes of Dave Grohl, Corey Taylor and Chester Bennington all achieve their raw distorted vocals? Well, the simple answer is constriction. Within singing lessons, you are probably taught that constriction in clean singing is something to be avoided. It can interfere with the quality of tone in the voice and if unintentionally habitual, it can lead to straining of the muscles surrounding the larynx. This will likely come along with vocal fatigue. However, cleverly co-ordinated constriction is exactly what rock, metal, punk and other extreme style vocalists do in order to create gravely sounds.

The vocal tract as a sphincter

As a safety mechanism, the vocal tract has three sphincters which it can utilise in order to protect our airway. These are the vocal folds, the ventricular folds (also known as false folds) and the aryepiglottic folds. When we swallow, all three of these safety sphincters close in order to stop foreign bodies from entering the airway. When we sing, we partially close the vocal folds. The vocal folds vibrate thanks to a pressure of air underneath them and the vibrated air flow is then resonated through the vocal tract and out of the mouth. The remaining safety sphincters, being the false folds and the aryepiglottic folds, are not usually involved in the singing process.

Extreme singing

In extreme styles of singing however, the vocalist can co-ordinate the secondary vibrations of one or more of these structures above the vocal folds at one time. They can also use the back of the tongue and the cartilages in the vocal tract – dependant on the type of distortion they are trying to achieve. In order to do this, the vocalist has to very cleverly co-ordinate the constriction of the structures above the vocal folds. In this sense you could even suggest that the extreme vocalist has a far more complex technical journey than the singer.

Over time the extreme vocalist will learn to co-ordinate the constriction of structures above the vocal folds. Each structure and variation of distortion will give the vocalist a slightly different sound. In metal music, false fold constriction is popular. False fold distortion will sound more aggressive however the false folds are located just above the true vocal folds, which means the vocalist will need to ensure complete accuracy in order to avoid injury. Another popular form of creating distortion is with the constriction of the aryepiglottic sphincter. This is sometimes termed as growl voice. The aryepiglottic folds are above the false folds and so further from the vocal folds. The vocalist can also use the vibrations of the cartilages in the larynx which offers a more rattled sound to the singer. This effect is popular in soul singers such as James Brown.

How is this “safe” though? Well, evidence so far shows that singers of these styles, although sounding aggressive, actually have a weaker vocal fold adduction. In other words, they allow more air through the vocal folds and the body of the vocal fold itself doesn’t have as much surface area bashing together than in usual singing. However, it can be very difficult for the vocalist to feel the right co-ordination of constriction. The vocalist has to be careful not to over compress the vocal folds rather than constricting the upper vocal tract. The correct sensation of constriction isn’t necessarily obvious to the singer. Therefore, whenever a vocalist is attempting any form of distortion, they should only do very short practices. I mean under a minute! It takes a while to learn the correct co-ordination and if you over do it in your first try, you’ll need a few days voice rest before attempting again. Unfortunately, because the sound of distortion sounds like shouting, that’s very likely going to be the go-to technique for most singers, which they must avoid! Starting with breathy sounds can help to ensure the vocal folds aren’t overly compressed.

Unfortunately, it can’t be said that distortion is “safe” for everyone. Singers who wish to try vocal distortion and extreme effects need to have adequate vocal technique to begin with. Particularly strained singers will struggle not to overload their voice and should consider seeing a vocal coach in order to develop a more relaxed approach to singing before attempting distortion.

Want to learn more about vocal distortion? Register for iSingmag’s Q&A webinar with top vocal coach Nicole Gill

The webinar i on Tuesday, 30 July, at 7pm (GMT). It’s ideal for singers and singing teachers who are interested in learning about how vocal distortion is produced. It will also benefit those who already produce vocal distortion to understand the physiological process of their chosen effect.  

You will learn about the various types of distortions and get advice about how to safe-guard against vocal injurycaused by extreme effects. You will leave the webinar with a deeper insight into extreme vocal effects, including how they are produced and how to limit risks.  


Nicole is a professional vocal coach and voice researcher practising from Hampstead, London. By understanding the complex mechanics of the voice, Nicole can to turn her knowledge into practical tools for the singer. Whilst studying for her MA in vocal pedagogy, Nicole’s research has already opened up opportunities to present at voice conferences in the UK. Having been a voice researcher for just a year, Nicole is already set to present her research at conferences attended by the world’s leading voice experts and Cambridge Press. Aside from her career as a vocal coach, Nicole is a professional singer and songwriter. Her features with ‘Biometrix’ have achieved over a million streams. Outside of this, Nicole keeps herself busy by singing and touring with function and tribute acts. Performing at weddings, parties, clubs and events means Nicole travels all over the UK as well as around the world. Most recently Nicole had the pleasure of singing at the Kenya Music Festival.