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Open Mic: What Makes A Great Lead Vocalist?


Freddie Mercury (Queen) had a vocal range few could match

Many songwriters are also in fact performers: be it a solo singer/ songwriter or as a member of a band.

While it is crucial that the songwriting itself be of the highest caliber, it is also important to focus on the performance of these songs. More specifically, the way the songs are sung in order for them to be delivered properly.

So, therein lies the question at hand for this week’s Open Mic discussion: What makes a great vocalist?

By understanding and dissecting who the best vocalists were and what made them so great, we can gain some insights as to how you can apply their genius into your own work.

1. Vocal range

Having a strong vocal is important part of making your songs diverse. Without a range to be able to sing in different keys or octaves, you may run into the issue of your songs all sounding quite similar.

Example: Freddie Mercury (Queen)

It is said that Freddie Mercury had a 4 octave vocal range. While this has been disputed by many (claiming his voice was a still incredibly impressive 3.5 octave range) there is no doubt that the Queen frontman, vocalist and songwriter was able to produce quite an amazing range of songs, each sounding unique from the others.

2. Vocal timbre

The timbre of a voice is the tone and color, which is what gives it a unique sound. Having a distinct timbre will make your voice, and thus your songs, instantly recognizable.

Example: Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin)

There are many vocalists who posses a strong vocal timbre, but few have as strong and instantly recognizable a voice as that of Led Zeppelin’s vocalist Robert Plant. The color, the tone and the depth of his voice are all obvious and consistent from one song to the next.

3. Vocal style

Having distinct style in your voice is necessary in the exact ways of vocal range. Unlike range where it can help to diversify your sound, style will help to keep the songs sounding like you, no matter which direction the song takes you.

Example: Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys)

One of the biggest factors in the current success of the Akron, OH based blues-rock band The Black Keys is the vocal style of lead singer and co-songwriter Dan Auerbach. The distinct warm, soul and crunch of Auerbach’s voice gives him a style that is undeniably his own, which remains consistent throughout the entire Black Keys’ song catalog, ranging from raw power-blues tunes to high-production pop-rock songs.

What Do You Think Makes A Great Lead Vocalist?

This is, of course, an open discussion! While the vocal characteristics and the examples above are all important, there is no doubt that there is more to be discussed. Give us your examples of your favorite vocalists, and what has defined them as so great in the form of a comment below!

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23 thoughts on “Open Mic: What Makes A Great Lead Vocalist?

  1.  Flamboyancy of course!


    1. Couldn’t agree more – Bowie is one of my all time favorites and he was certainly at his best during his most flamboyant times. 

      1. Hmm I can hit E1 to E4, so does that mean my range is 3 octaves?

        1.  No, it means you just sunk Jon’s battleship…

          1. While very impressive, there’s a big difference between a 3 and 4 octave vocal range 😉

  2. Swagger! Sometimes even OK vocals can be forgiven if the front man/woman has the moves. Think Jagger.

    1. Absolutely – Hell… look at Jimi Hendrix! He HATED his own voice but he has the right swagger to him and it worked beautifully.

  3.  Using your voice as an instrument, making it more prominent at times, but also being able to reinterpret where the song is going and adjust your voice to make the song unique each time.

    1. Totally agree with you Derek! I think Joni Mitchell did that very well with her vocals – in particular the Dry Cleaner From Des Moines – her voice was THE instrument focus, even with musicians like the legendary Jaco Pastorius on the track.

  4. Emotion is a big one for me.  Actually for me, music is all about emotion.  If you can sing with it and make me feel it then you have a better chance of me liking it.  I want to be able to empathize with you or go on that voyage with you, or at least have you pick me up and shake me around a bit.  Sing with passion or go home.


    1. Passion is 100% for me as well – if you don’t have soul in your voice, or can’t go at without truly seeming passionate about what you’re singing, then you might as well just go home 😉

  5. “Your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.” — Johnny Cash

    1. I certainly agree with that (who could disagree with Johnny Cash) but I also feel that Style, if nurtured and exploited, can certainly become a function of your skill.

  6. The ability to sing usually helps, that and a good singing voice.

  7. El vocalista también debe preocuparse por tener un buen micrófono adecuado para su voz.

  8. I think skill should be number one but these days you don’t even need the skill. It’s sad but true. I think the way you Pronounce words is a big thing to set you apart from everyone else. But the way you dress, act on stage, and look make a good lead vocalist… Unfortunately not being a good singer.. If you have the talent than that will help you so much more. The best vocalist would have the skill, image, and presence.
    -Jamie Stoffa
    City At Dawn

  9.  Finding your own voice because until that happens everything else is just semantics.

    1. That’s a very good point! 

  10. Want the definition of a great vocalist?  JEFF SCOTT SOTO!!! 

    He is without a doubt the WHOLE package! Vocal range, vocal timbe, vocal style and stage presence all rolled into one rock god!  If you don’t know who he is, do yourself a favor and check him out.  You’ll be glad you did!!

  11. Stage precense and performativity. Nothing bothers me more than a front man or woman singing without any visible emotion. If they don’t care about singing this song, why should I listen?

  12. Cedric Bixler, more passion than voice

  13. I’ve thought about this more than I care to admit! Anyway… a great lead singer should have:

    – something distinctive and original, you know its him or her right away
    – timbre changes with pitch (Rod Stewart doesn’t have this but he’s Rod Stewart, so…)
    – groove and unusual phrasing (think of Axl Rose on Mr. Brownstone)
    – believability (one of my very favorite singers is Buddy Miller and one of the things that make him so great is his ability to make any song sound like he lived it and wrote it)
    – vocal chords made of carbon fiber because either you can do it night after night or you can’t, Tyler is probably the most durable lead singer in history, true freak of nature
    – sings with the band, not separate from it, Jagger is the master

    I could keep going, but I think these are the bits that matter most.

    1. Wow thank you so much for such meaningful feedback! I, for one, am glad you spent so much time thinking about this! 🙂

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