More than any other element of a song, the human element, the actual voice, is the most personally expressive, audibly recognizable, and sonically diverse. We air guitar along with Dimebag Darrell, we dashboard drum with Dave Lombardo, and most importantly, we sing along with the metal greats like Dio, Halford, Hetfield, Araya, and Anselmo.
No two people sound exactly alike, though in the world of heavy metal, some vocalists imitate others, making originality and vocal recognition even more crucial to a band’s success. That’s why we’ve put together this list of the ten most recognizable heavy metal singers. This is not a list of which vocalists are best, or you’d see some of the previously mentioned lead singers on this list. This is a list of singers that are very distinct, like them or not. The following ten lead vocalists have unmistakable qualities that make it easy to identify their music within seconds.
We’ll start our list with the undeniably sinister voice of Rob Zombie. While there are similarities with some industrial bands like Ministry at times, Rob Zombie’s sound has evolved to a much more recognizable sound of its own. Think of the chorus of “Thunderkiss ’65,” which from a vocal standpoint, sounds like no other vocalist. Zombie’s solo material is full of original sounding vocals in “Foxy Foxy,” “Superbeast,” “Never Gonna Stop,” and from his 2013 album, Venemous Rat Regeneration Vendor.
Before the guitars of a Zombie song, you’ll know it’s Rob by his one-of-a-kind metal voice, so we’re putting Rob at number ten on this list.
Tool is all around one of the most unique metal bands that stands out for its sound, and Maynard James Keenan is no exception. With such signature bass and guitar in a band, it would be tough to compete with the originality of this progressive metal band, but Maynard ties it all together and delivers some of the most outstanding and unique performances in all of heavy metal. Keenan has a quiet, focused voice that builds in anticipation and intensity, accenting Tool’s profound lyrics. Maynard is indeed a vocalist like no other in the world of heavy metal. Bands like Chevelle and even The Deftones seem to have been influenced by Maynard’s signature sound.
Examples of Maynard’s standout vocals for recognizability’s sake are “Prison Sex,” “Aenema,” and “Sober.”
The lead singer of thrash metal band Megadeth would probably not be placed on any top list for best vocalists, but when it comes to recognizability, Mustaine has nailed it. His voice has a style that is immediately apparent, and that really sets them apart from other thrash bands. There aren’t many vocalists that sound like Dave Mustaine. His voice is charismatic, affected, and snarly, and incredibly noticeable. It’s a great trademark. Anyone else singing songs like “Sweating Bullets,” “Peace Sells,” “Hangar 18,” or “Trust” just wouldn’t sound right. In terms of irreplacability, Mustaine’s voice might be up their with his guitar work.
Gone but not forgotten, Peter Steele had one of the most unique sounding voices in heavy metal. His low, bass-baritone range helped carve out an interesting place in the world of metal and his band, Type O Negative. Steele had a haunting, deep voice that was the perfect match for the gothic metal band he had formed. His powerful, rich voice complimented the lyrics of romance, addiction, and relationships in songs like “Love You to Death,” “Black No. 1,” and “Everything Dies.”
When you think of classic heavy metal vocalists, Bruce Dickinson is possibly the first one that comes to mind. Dickinson’s voice is one of the most copied in the world of heavy metal, and instantly recognizable for its range, clarity, and operatic sound. Dickinson, as the lead vocalist of Iron Maiden for most of the group’s long career, helped usher in what would be considered one of the penultimate styles of heavy metal singing. Dickinson’s influence can clearly be heard across the board in many power metal bands of today.
What made Korn so innovative in the mid 90’s was their complete originality that they brought to the table on every front. The beats, the rich guitar sounds, the distinctive bass, angst-filled lyrics, and emotional vocals of Jonathan Davis made Korn the first breakthrough nu metal artist. Their first single introduced us to Jonathan Davis’ unmistakable howls, shouts, and raw screams with the opening line, “Are you ready?”
The vocal style of Jonathan Davis may never have seen the light of day had grunge, alternative, and alternative metal experienced its growth surge in the early 90’s. The sharp, clear vocals of glam were abandoned when bands like Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and later Korn dominated rock radio airwaves with more emotional, uneasy, and less fine-tuned vocals. Jonathon Davis took the gritty vocal sound trend to the next level on their debut album on songs like “Need To,” “Ball Tongue,” and the album closer, “Daddy.”
As a metal vocalist, you can’t get much more recognizable than Davis.
(For the best up to the minute news and features on Jonathan Davis and the rest of Korn, check out our friends over at Korn Row.)
Known for his political views and avant garde style of singing, Serj Tankian has developed a style all to his own. Serj’s band, System of a Down, reached popularity in 1998 with their debut self-titled album, which featured the single “Sugar.” This would introduce everyone to Tankian’s unorthodox vocal style and impressive range. At one moment, Serj can be singing in a whisper, the next using a high falsetto, the next a deep scream. The vocals, along with the sometimes progressive, sometimes experimental aspects of the rest of the band, make System of a Down (and Serj’s solo work) hard to label.
It’s hard to compare any band to System of a Down or to Serj Tankian’s vocal style because it’s so unique. That’s what puts him near the top of this list. Tankian has continued to release extraordinary solo albums, and continued to tour with System of a Down from 2011-2013.
It could be argued that no one has a voice more cut out for heavy metal than Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, lead singer and bass player of the legendary Motörhead. Lemmy has written some incredible heavy metal songs, like “Ace of Spades,” “The Game,” “Killed by Death,” and “Rock Out.” If you like any one of these songs, you’ll most likely love the entire Motörhead catalog. Motörhead, which gave birth to future metal genres speed metal and thrash, has just as much in common with punk bands as it does with heavy metal. Lemmy himself has compared his music more to The Ramones than to Metallica.
Unlike other vocalists, Lemmy’s voice actually has gotten cooler with age. His voice is intelligible, yet incredibly gravelly, raspy, and painfully raw, perfectly suited for the louder, faster style of heavy metal Lemmy is known for.
Countless bands have cited Motörhead as a large influence, including Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth, and Slayer. However, no vocalist has come close to the acclaimed style of Lemmy Kilmister.
Guns N’ Roses may not have made the huge impact on metal that they did in 1987 without singer Axl Rose’s trademark raspy, yet full ranged vocals. In 1987, when Appetite for Destruction was released, the popular vocal style of the time (in glam) was to sing clean, high pitched, and to sing solely about sex. Axl’s vocals and lyrics challenged the status quo of metal at the time, while the collaborative sound of GN’R made a massive impact on rock.
Axl’s voice ranges into falsetto to bass, providing deep backing vocals for some of the best known songs like “November Rain” and some really interesting variations on his singing voice in Use Your Illusion songs like “Locomotive,” “Perfect Crime,” and “My World.”
Rose was also part of one of rock n’ roll’s most celebrated, iconic duos, pairing with Slash for the first five studio albums. These iconic albums feature the immediately recognizable vocals on “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Don’t Cry,” “Nighttrain,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Paradise City,” “Patience,” “Yesterdays,” and “Civil War.” If it wasn’t Slash’s distinctive playing that made the song instantly recognizable, it was Axl’s unmatched vocals.
When Rose returned with the new version of GN’R with 2008’s Chinese Democracy, he proved that his vocals were still impressive, taking the album material on tour. Song like “I.R.S.,” “Catcher in the Rye,” and “Street of Dreams” demonstrate Rose still has it.
Ending a top metal vocalists list with any other singer would’ve been a travesty. Ozzy not only has perhaps the best catalog of recognizable songs like “Paranoid,” “Crazy Train,” and “Iron Man,” but also the most recognizable VOICE. In many songs in his solo career, Ozzy doubles his voice and also harmonizes sometimes, which produces a unique effect on “Crazy Train,” “No More Tears,” and “Over the Mountain.”
Ozzy may not be the best technical vocalist, surely there are others like Dickinson, Halford, and Ozzy’s Black Sabbath successor, Dio, that reached higher notes and could sustain them cleanly, but that’s not what metal is about, nor does it make a voice unique. Ozzy’s actual singing voice is a rare find in any genre, making him the most recognizable voice in all of heavy metal. It’s Osbourne’s uniqueness that helped make Black Sabbath the most influential metal band, and what makes so many of their early releases must-own, essential heavy metal albums. Here are some reasons why Osbourne’s voice is at the top of this list:
Which heavy metal singers do you think are the most recognizable? Disagree with this list? Who should be number one? Let us know in the comments below.