Vocal coach to the stars Peter Strobl shares his top tips for guitar and bass-playing singers

Peter Strobl

Whether you’re singing lead or adding background and harmony vocals, your voice is an instrument that requires as much care as your electric guitar or bass.

In fact, if you’re singing and playing, it may require additional care, because everything from your breathing pattern to your posture is affected by the extra weight around your neck.

Factor in the physical demands of live performances and the fact that your vocal instrument - the only one you’ve got - doesn’t get packed away every night after the show, and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster, if you aren’t applying proper technique and maintenance.

There is no quick fix. You have to do the work. Nothing replaces 15 or 20 minutes a day doing simple vocal exercises that move you in the right path

Voice teacher Peter Strobl is known for his expertise and no-nonsense style. His client roster spans across genres from rock to pop, choral groups, opera singers, and even teachers and attorneys looking to strengthen their daily speaking voices.

When recording artists want to up their game, he’s the one they speed-dial. Among them are Americana duo Naked Blue, singer/songwriter Jennifer Hope, Neil Fallon of Clutch, Nate Bergman of Lionize, and Eddie and Wolfgang Van Halen, with whom he has worked since 2007.

In addition to vocal coaching, Strobl is a bassist, guitarist, luthier, music instructor, and producer. Born in Salzburg, Austria, and now based in Baltimore after 40 years in Los Angeles, he also conducts professional-level voice workshops in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area.

His resume includes seven years as musical director for Gary Puckett, and studio manager at the legendary Shangri-La, where he worked with a wide range of artists including Mark Knopfler during the recording of his Shangri-La album.

Peter Strobl spoke to MusicRadar about some key things you can and should do to protect your voice. However, he cautions, “There is no quick fix. You have to do the work. Nothing replaces 15 or 20 minutes a day doing simple vocal exercises that move you in the right path - exercises that you think aren’t doing anything, but that will allow your career to last much longer.

“They’re a pain in the ass, they’re boring, they’re no fun, but if you don’t do them, something might go south, and you’ll end up on the operating table with the doctor saying, ‘See you again in six months when I need another down-payment on my yacht.’”

1. Everything starts with the breath

“Learn how to breathe properly. There appears to be massive confusion about this basic process. 'Should my stomach go out? In? Should my lower back expand? Should my kidneys explode?'

“Breathing is what happens when you just relax and do nothing at all. Otherwise we would die when we fall asleep. Inhaling is actually a passive activity that happens when your abdominal muscles relax. Exhaling happens when your abs tighten. Once you understand that process, you can use that knowledge to breathe more effectively as a singer. If your chest rises and falls, you are doing it all wrong.  

The voice is a reed instrument. Think of the breath as a pickup to the phrase. Breathe, play the phrase, breathe, play the next phrase

“Try this simple exercise. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend slightly over at the waist and place your hands on your knees, as if you dropped a tortoiseshell guitar pick on a brown shag rug. Blow out any residual air while pulling your stomach muscles (yes, they’re in there somewhere) in toward your spine. Now, let your stomach relax and fall toward the floor.

“Unless someone has duct-taped your face, you will notice that air enters your body through the holes in your face. Now push your stomach in again toward your spine to expel the air. Notice that you have to work harder to exhale than to inhale. Inhaling is passive.

“Many singers start a phrase with residual breath in the lungs, sing until they run out, and then take a quick breath that is more to catch up than it is to prepare for the next phrase. The voice is a reed instrument. Watch any woodwind player - they breathe before the phrase, not after.

“Think of the breath as a pickup to the phrase. Breathe, play the phrase, breathe, play the next phrase. The breath is a setup for the phrase you’re going to sing, not a catch-up for the phrase you just completed.”

2. Make your instrument an integral component of your vocal regimen

“If you play guitar or bass, the sooner you integrate your singing with your instrument, the better.

“I started working with Wolfgang Van Halen at 17 years old - him, not me. From the very beginning, I had him strap on a bass, play descending five-note exercises, 5-4-3-2-1, and sing the notes as he played them.

Musicians tend to shortchange vocal development in favor of their instrument. But when you find yourself standing in front of a vocal mic, the average listener relates to you as a singer first

“As the sessions progressed, I used various vowels and consonants in order to address specific areas of development. The scales became more difficult as his strength, stamina, and range developed. Learning to sing what you play and play what you sing will improve your musicianship as both a singer and a player.  

“Musicians tend to shortchange vocal development in favor of their instrument. But when you find yourself standing in front of a vocal mic, the average listener relates to you as a singer first. No matter how accomplished a player you are, there is always someone out there better. But there is no-one who can possibly sing exactly like you. Your voice is unique. Work hard and use your instrument as a tool to support and develop your skills as a vocalist.”

Peter Strobl and Wolfgang Van Halen

Strobl with Wolfgang Van Halen

(Image credit: Amanda Wray)

3. Lead with your forehead, not with your chin

“If you look into a mirror and rock your head up and down, back and forth, you will see the muscles of your neck and throat flexing with each movement. Each movement represents tension that could have an effect on your vocal performance and could cause problems over time.

“The most relaxed head position is when you’re looking forward toward an imaginary horizon. If you think about letting your forehead be the first part of your body to enter a room, you will have the idea.

Microphone placement for guitar and bass players is hugely important. Many guitar players have a yard sale of pedals at their feet and put the mic stand on the other side

“Microphone placement for guitar and bass players is hugely important. Many guitar players have a yard sale of pedals at their feet and put the mic stand on the other side. They have to reach out with their neck and shoulders in order to get to the mic. Distorting the architecture of your vocal instrument compromises everything having to do with singing.  

“When I started working with Eddie and Wolf Van Halen, their vocal mics were high and pointed down so they had to sing up into them from below - sort of a Lemmy posture. We moved the mics so that they could look down the barrel of the mic and see the floor about 6 to 8 feet away. In many live situations, this is where the audience is in relation to the vocal mic. If they can see your nose hairs, your mic is too high.

“We also moved Ed’s mic stand to the side of his effects pedals and used a long boom to place the microphone exactly where his face would be when he was singing. This eliminated the need to reach out with his neck to get to the mic.”

4. Pay attention to your posture

“Nate Bergman fronts Lionize and plays a Gibson Les Paul. A solidbody guitar like that can weigh 7 to 10 pounds. This is why it’s so important to play vocal exercises at the same time as you sing them. Watch your posture, and make sure that what you felt from learning to breathe while bending at the waist is still happening when you’re in playing position.

“A gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds, so if you hang a gallon of water on a clothesline around your neck and jump around on stage for an hour, that’s what’s happening with a guitar. It’s hard work on your back and legs.   

“The first thing you must do is nail down what it feels like to breathe correctly. Then figure out how to maintain that sensation in the posture you assume when you’ve got this anchor hanging around your neck.

It helps to be strong and physically fit. The moment the big muscles of your back, shoulders, and abdomen fail, the small muscles of your neck and throat will try to take over

“It helps to be strong and physically fit. The moment the big muscles of your back, shoulders, and abdomen fail, the small muscles of your neck and throat will try to take over. The result is vocal tension, vocal strain, and a shorter career.

“The more you lean forward toward your microphone, the heavier the instrument feels, because it’s now suspended in mid-air. So posture and mic position are hugely important.

“Remember that gravity goes straight down into the center of the Earth, so if you’re cantilevered, if you’re leaning over, the instrument is going to feel heavier than if you’re standing straight. This will bind up and overwork your back and stomach. And you must maintain elasticity in your abdomen in order to continue breathing efficiently.”

5. There is no correct way to scream

“If you are singing aggressive rock or metal, you must come to the honest realization that you are damaging a very fragile instrument and take steps to do strict maintenance daily, and before and after gigs.

“Imagine a football player who beats the hell out of himself on game day. After suffering what amounts to a few dozen car crashes, he takes the rest of the week to rehab and fix things. You can’t practice being a lineman by just smashing your head into the garage wall for three sets of ten every day and then expect to be in top form for the game.

Rock and roll is an art form of rebellion, so let’s just get real and face the facts: there is no 'correct' way to be aggressive

“There are those who claim to teach 'rock screaming', 'metal screaming', and other silliness as if there is some sort of legitimate pedagogy involved. Rock and roll is an art form of rebellion, so let’s just get real and face the facts: there is no 'correct' way to be aggressive. The very act of playing a guitar amp at distorted levels spits in the face of the original designs. Worn-out tubes and capacitors can be replaced. But once your voice is gone, it’s lunchtime.

“Accept the fact that you’re damaging your voice. Before every gig, and between gigs, you should do exercises that counteract what you’ve roasted during your gig. This is where singers get completely bullshitted by people in my business who say, 'This is the proper way to scream your guts out,' or hand you a straw to sing through, pat you on the ass, and cash your cheque.

“Don’t waste your time. There’s no safe way to sing metal. You’ve got to scream, you’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to be honestly rebellious. Anything less is bullshit.

“Watch concert footage of Clutch to see what comes out of Neil Fallon in an hour-and-a-half show. Touring the new album, he is working harder, but singing with more freedom than ever. It is because he’s bought into the concept of taking care of himself before and between concerts if he expects to do this for another 25 years.

“He is putting in the reps doing very basic breathing and falsetto exercises that have nothing to do with his songs but everything to do with building and maintaining his most important instrument.

“Incidentally, Neil leans toward a feather-light Gibson ES335 and actually gets a little rest when he straps on the guitar and stands at the mic for a few songs.  

“If you want to deliver your message forcefully and command every emotional nuance in an aggressive genre, learn to take care of your voice before, after, and between gigs so you can start every gig at ground zero and not in the hole.”

6. Know your stuff

“Don’t expect to be taken seriously if you are reading lyrics from an iPad. The worst bloody item ever invented is the iPad/mic stand attachment.

Reading on the gig screws with your posture and concentration and destroys any sense of connection with an audience

“Reading on the gig screws with your posture and concentration and destroys any sense of connection with an audience. People don’t go to concerts to be read to. If that were the case, the biggest ticket in town would be Story Time at the Library.

“Have some respect for not only your audience, but for the art and craft of singing. Reading lyrics might be fine in a bar or a wedding band, when you’re taking requests and you can’t possibly know all the songs ever written.

“But you can’t consider yourself a serious concert musician if you’re doing that - unless, of course, you’re getting a monthly cheque for product placement. Otherwise, leave the tablet in the gigbag.”

7. Magic potions… aren’t

“You can’t breathe honey and lemon. Anything you put in your mouth doesn’t get anywhere near your vocal cords. If it does, you’re going to die, because your vocal cords are in your airway, and if anything gets in your airway, you choke.

If you warm up properly, you should be able to sing at all hours of the day

“If drinking hot tea makes you feel better, fine, but realise that it doesn’t get anywhere near your vocal cords. Proper technique and hard work are what keeps you singing well.

“If you warm up properly, you should be able to sing at all hours of the day. You can’t compensate for poor technique by spraying and dumping things down your throat.

“And the more dependent you allow yourself to be on 'Captain Johnny’s Magic Fisherman’s Throat Sliders,' the more screwed you’ll be when you forget them in your other gigbag. Leave that crap for somebody else and just bust your ass to be a better singer.”

8. Research your teacher

Don’t expect to learn how to sing from watching videos online or from some stupid DVD boxed set. If you are serious, you need one-on-one focused attention. Do research, find a teacher you trust, and take private lessons.

“When looking for a teacher, ask questions, the stupider the better. Be curious about how your instrument works and learn the facts. It’s worth the cost of admission to vet someone by taking a lesson.

“Talk to some students or clients, or go see them perform - they don’t have to be famous. Learn something about a prospective teacher’s background. They don’t need to be the greatest singer in the world, but they should be able to demonstrate how to breathe properly, how to shift between head and chest registers.

Your teacher should be able to explain things in clear, concise, factual words devoid of flowery imagery, salesmanship, or false-positive reinforcement

“And they should understand the architecture of the mouth and how it works. Don’t settle for some flashy bullshit artist who might fool you into thinking that you now know something that you really don’t.  

“Make your teacher answer hard questions. When a teacher says, 'Sing from the diaphragm,' ask for a detailed explanation. 'What is the diaphragm? What does it look like? Exactly where is it? What does it really do?'

“Your teacher should be able to explain things in clear, concise, factual words devoid of flowery imagery, salesmanship, or false-positive reinforcement. If you don’t get simple, factual explanations that make logical sense, leave some cash on the piano, beat it out of there, and keep looking.  

“Singing is a physical process driven by simple cause and effect. Don’t get caught up on psychobabble. Do the work.”