Your Take: What Makes a Good Singer?

Juli Thanki | March 9th, 2013

This week, The A.V. Club covered Don’t Stop Believin’, a documentary about Arnel Pineda, “the Filipino rocker whose remarkable imitation of Steve Perry landed him a gig as the frontman for the classic rock band Journey back in 2007.”

The article, written by Noel Murray, raised some interesting questions:

When Pineda was discovered on YouTube, he was singing covers of lots of different kinds of songs, and was just as credible impersonating Sting, Jon Bon Jovi, Axl Rose, and Geddy Lee as he was doing Perry. He has range and power. But is hitting the right notes with the right inflection all that’s necessary to make a singer “good?”

Perhaps the better questions to ask when it comes to the quality of a lead singer are, “Does the voice suit the task?” and “Is the task worth doing?” Consider Taylor Swift’s… [performance] at last month’s Grammy awards. Swift has long been dinged in some quarters for her thin voice, which tends to be extra-shaky in a live setting. But Swift’s bright personality and the intimate detail in her songwriting is usually adequate compensation for her weaknesses—that is, unless she’s dressed up like a circus ringmaster, singing the booming, trashy “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” in which case the paltriness of her voice is just one more thing to mock.

So: what makes a singer “good”? What makes a singer appeal to you? Do songwriting and performance compensate for shaky vocals?



  1. Mike Wimmer
    March 9, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Songwriting and performance matter to me a lot more than just vocal prowess. I look at a number of current Country artists that have really good vocal talents like Josh Turner, Jake Owen and Randy Houser, but record a lot of weak material that I just dont pay much attention to them. Same goes for Trace Adkins who is capable of really great things, but too often picks bad, bad songs.

    I mean Shooter Jennings isnt a super great singer, but I still love “Wild and Lonesome” that he just put out. Same goes for Mike Cooley who may not be a great technical singer, but his songwriting cuts on the DBT albums are usually some of the strongest material.

  2. Kent
    March 9, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    It’s funny. I greatly appreciate Carrie Underwood for her amazing voice, but then I have no issues with Taylor Swift being a considerably weaker vocalist.

    I think I’m a very shallow music consumer in some respects. I’m not so concerned with perfect vocals and clever songwriting. The lyrics of a song rarely interest me, well-written or not (though I do appreciate when they resonate with me). Ultimately, if it sounds good to me, I like it. It is literally that simple. The lyrics could probably insult every fiber of my being, and the singer could be a terrible vocalist, but if it sounds good to me, I could probably ignore all of that and just enjoy the ear candy. On the flip-side, I don’t care how great the the song’s insight is on the average person’s struggle with the economy, or what a great story it tells. If it doesn’t please my ears, I don’t want to hear it.

  3. Leeann Ward
    March 9, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I certainly appreciate beautiful, polished voices, such as Vince Gill and Alison Krauss. But I also appreciated singers like Guy Clark, John Prine, Todd Snider, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, etc., even though their voices arent so pretty. I do think it’s a lot about the songwriting and performance, even with the polished singers. So, for me, I suppose that’s what’s most important. I’m not one who thinks that anyone could sing the phone book and I’d still like it.

  4. bob
    March 9, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Great topic.

    I prefer singers with range and power but I don’t want every ballad to be a power ballad and the greatest voice can’t overcome really bad material. Mike W’s and Leeann’s comments noted.

    Although lyrics are very important to me, I mainly agree with Kent’s comment “Ultimately, if it sounds good to me, I like it.” He continued to say that he might like the sound even if the vocalist is terrible. I draw the line there.

    There are some very famous singers who I can’t even listen to no matter how good the music or songwriting is. I just don’t like the sound of their voices. If another artist performed the same song I might love it.

    I love songs that make me laugh.

  5. nm
    March 9, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I love singers who can phrase what they’re singing in ways that pay attention to the subject that they’re singing about. George Jones, for instance, has kind of a funny-sounding voice when you think about it, but the way he phrases is just beautiful. I recently was listening to a bunch of covers he did, often songs that have been sung by so many people that you can hardly hear them any more, like Hank Williams’s hits, but he had performed them as if they were brand new things — it was as if I’d never heard them before, because he paid so much attention to what they were about. Someone like Buddy Miller or the singers Leeann mentioned have that same talent, even if they don’t have polished voices.

    On the other hand, when singers just sing a sound and not a song, as Carrie Underwood or Martina McBride do all too often, it’s just noise to me no matter how fine their voices technically are. Unless it’s bluegrass, when a good tight harmony can sometimes make up for a lack of intelligent singing — but even there, I’d rather have both sound and meaning.

    The best singers, to my ears, have good voices and good phrasing. Which means Lee Ann Womack for the win among established singers, or someone like the members of the Pistol Annies doing their solo material.

  6. BRUCE
    March 9, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    There are a few singers that I would listen sing the phone book. Don Williams being one of them. In this instance, I listen to his voice.

    But most of the time I listen to the individual song presentation. For example, I love Vince Gills’ voice on “Go Rest High” yet I cannot stomach listening to him sing Christmas songs.

    So for me it is the specific song presentation in which I am pleased by the voice as it’s singing a particular song rather than the voice over all songs with only a few exceptions,, one already being mentioned.

    As a side note, regardless if I like the voice or not, I respect one who can sound the same, or at least close, live as in the studio. Obviously this leaves Swift totally out of the picture as I despise her on both accounts.

  7. Paul W Dennis
    March 10, 2013 at 1:25 am

    It’s complex but I think the singer is the most important element as a great vocalist can redeem the lamest material – I could listen to Gene Watson, Marty Robbins, Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin sing just about anything. Obviously I’d rather hear Gene, Marty, Frank and Dean sing great material but in their case it is a nicety – if the material is great the perfromance will be transcendent.

    On the other hand, less accomplished vocalists are often only as good as the song. I guess the key elements are vocal quality and nuance. George Strait is a good singer but his greatest strength is in his ability to pick good songs. Give him a mediocre song and George will not be able to produce a great recording (although it certainly will be listenable)

    There are some singers who are so bad that nothing they sing is pleasing to my ear – Bob Dylan, John Prine and Vince Matthews come to mind, but their songwriting skills are such that almost any decent singer can sing their material and make it sound good

  8. Doug Gilliland
    March 10, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    I agree with Leeann. I think I tend to subconsciously evaluate a singer’s performance on a song-by-song basis.

    Even though Cash, Kristofferson, Prine, etc., don’t have the greatest voices, I just can’t imagine any of the “golden-throated” singers connecting with, or delivering certain songs, any better.

    Vince Gill relating the tragedy “Sam Stone?” John Berry or Gary Morris rendering “Randall Knife?” Blake Shelton and “Sunday Morning Coming Down?”

    Being a good singer goes beyond having a great voice. It’s the ability to capture and convey the mood and emotion of a song in a compelling, memorable performance.

  9. Barry Mazor
    March 11, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Clearly responses vary by what the posters want from music in general–and from songs in particular, since those are what singers, most of the time, anyhow, sing. If you want it to consist of pleasing sound, so be it; you’ll find those. But I side, strongly, with those who want it to move me, and not necessarily move me in line with my expectations. (It’s called “surprise.”) I care how much the singer makes me hear and feel the meaning of the particular son–and if they do that well with a whole bunch and variety of them, I’d say that person is a talented singer. It is not much different, to me, from accomplished acting; a Brando and your latest 10-minute TV spokesmodel don’t even have the same job. He was applying a singular, even unexplainable level of imagination and understanding to the choice–often unconscious, but not always; it’s called art–he made about how to deliver that line, speech, scene–just as George Hones does, or Frank Sinatra did, or Robert Johnson, and (boy, sorry Paul, (are you ever missing something) Bob Dylan did in his heyday, which is why he’s been recording for 50 years.
    And yes, the musical equivalent of ten-minute spokesmodels may take up ear-time for a while, but you won’t give a damn a few months let alone years later. I see my job is trying to point people towards singers and music that might last more than a week.

  10. TX Music Jim
    March 11, 2013 at 11:50 am

    To my ears that is why the greatest singers are guys like Merle George jones waylon jennings because they can write or pick a great song, sing it great and do it all in a way that becomes one for the ages. That is also why to hear a Townes Van Zandt or a John Prine to one of their classics is pleasing to my ears while the can not sing great they can convey the emotion in the song in a way that is haunting and timeless.

  11. Barry Mazor
    March 11, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    While George Hones may be interesting, I love George Jones, whatever my typing let loose. With my own occasional between deadline rushing, and today’s nasty, overeager spellcheck devices, I sometimes wish we had one of those “edit after the fact” buttons on our own comments here.

    It might give some people a chance to have second thoughts about comments they OUGHT to have second thoughts about, too

  12. bll
    March 11, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    To me its not the quality of the voice or vocal talent (or lack thereof) but the emotion conveyed by the singer. Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack not only have wonderful voices you feel what the song says. Same thing with Garth Brooks, who has a good voice and vocal ability, but he really conveys the emotion of the lyrics.

  13. Jon
    March 11, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    So, if there are good singers, then mustn’t there also be bad listeners? I mean, even with Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, never mind John Prine, Townes Van Zandt – or anyone who sings, really – there are plenty of people who hear the singing but don’t feel what the song says or get the emotion of the lyrics when he sings. Are they untalented listeners?

  14. Barry Mazor
    March 11, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    John–there might be. There ought to be more reviews of audiences, if you ask me., And of posters on blogs. Great performers demand great audiences! But, for some reason, there seems to be no demand for that. Maybe there should be a newsletter on listeners just for performers, then..

    Never mind.

  15. Barry Mazor
    March 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    I spelled Jon “John”. Bad writer.

  16. Markus Meyer
    March 13, 2013 at 1:23 am

    For me, lots of vocalists sound better with the right material.

    For example, Gary LeVox is great with songs like “Come Wake Me Up”, but not so great with songs like “Summer Nights”.

    I personally prefer rougher voices such as Jason Aldean, Bucky Covington, Blake Shelton and Kip Moore.

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