Joe Elliott

Why do some older rock stars lose the ability to sing high notes?

Today I’d like to answer the question: “Why do some older rock singers lose their vocal power and ability to sing high notes?”. We’ll also cover some steps you can take to reduce the chance of this happening to you.

The simple answer is that usually between the ages 50 and 60, the micro-muscles that support proper larynx and vocal cord function begin to naturally atrophy. This is in regard to both the reduction of physical mass and loss of flexibility of not only the vocal cords themselves, but also in the vital tendons, ligaments and micro-muscles responsible for efficiently operating your singing and speaking voice.

Rock singers like Axl Rose (Guns N’ Roses), David Coverdale (White Snake), Joe Elliot (Def Leppard), Jon Bon Jovi (Bon Jovi) and Paul Stanley (KISS) have all suffered notable loss of vocal power and range, especially in their upper registers.

The average concert goer is just going to put this loss of vocal ability down to old age and partying to excess in younger years, or just plain old decades of live concert performances and punishing touring schedules. While some of these things may have played a part in their declining vocal abilities, there are other factors at play.

There are a few factors that can impact more significantly on a singer’s ability to deliver a good vocal performance and match those iconic high notes that made their songs such a high point of our personal music playlists. In this article, I’m going to shine a spotlight on some of the most obvious causes of vocal decline in older singers.

Collagen levels

Vocal cords are made up of individual strands of collagen. When you reach your 30s and 40s, both men and women start to produce significantly less collagen in their bodies. Collagen is essential for maintaining not only healthy skin and cartilage, but also the natural mass in your vocal cords.

Once you have lost a significant amount of your natural collagen levels, a strict healthy eating regime is required to be able to replenish most of what was lost. It is not possible to naturally reclaim all of your diminished collagen levels as you age.

My recommendation for thirty year old singers and upwards is to consider purchasing a respected, reputable collagen supplement product like this one from Vital Vitamins or this one from Ancestral Supplements. This will help to supplement your collagen levels, which is especially useful if you use your voice excessively or rely on your voice in any way to make a living. I believe that everyone, singer or not, should be using a collagen supplement to help maintain a healthy function of their voice as they age.

In keeping with my “No BS” policy, as a vocal coach that has logged thousands of hours working with singers, public speakers (and everything in between), I noticed that as soon as I hit my early 40s my voice would take slightly longer to recover after marathon coaching weeks.

Singing is like an athletic sport. Marathon coaching days are the vocal equivalent to competing in multiple back-to-back Iron Man events. The energy demand is very hard on the body and it’s important to have a good, healthy diet. Even the best diets can create gaps in vital nutrition, especially when it comes to essential minerals, vitamins, nutrients and peptides. This includes collagen.

I have been using a collagen supplement reliably for the past 10 years and I wish I had started taking them sooner! One of the biggest gains that I’ve noticed is that my voice recovers faster when I am using collagen supplements. My voice feels stronger and sounds like it too.

Need supplements? Click here to browse collagen supplements with the right types of collagen on Amazon.

Physical changes within the larynx

Inside your larynx, you have many connecting muscles, tendons and ligaments. As you get older, if you don’t use your voice correctly and maintain a healthy vocal exercise regime, you will experience decline and atrophy in the mass and the strength of the connecting supportive muscles that maintain a healthy larynx function. This of course includes your vocal cords, which are responsible for phonating (producing monotonal and melodic sounds).

As we age, we experience reduction in the size and the mass of the micro-muscles that anchor and support proper larynx function. This includes the aryepiglottic muscle, the thyroarytenoid muscle, the cricothyroid muscle, the oblique arytenoid muscle, the transverse arytenoid muscle, and both the lateral and posterior cricoarytenoid muscles.

These micro-muscle groups are prone to reducing in size as we age. The blood supply to these muscles is often reduced, which is going to speed up the amount of atrophy and shrinkage.

What does this mean for an aging singer?

It simply means that as these muscles atrophy and decline in size, you will experience a loss of strength in the larynx, making it harder for your larynx to naturally position itself to create the proper connection to your high notes. The larynx needs to be able to rely on the healthy function of tendons, ligaments and various micro-muscle groups to facilitate the larynx tilt or the thyroid tilt that allows us to access our higher register.

Depending on how significant the decline or atrophy is in these micro-muscle groups, it can be very difficult to rebuild these muscles back to achieve the required mass to function normally. A better idea is to adopt a regular vocal exercise regime that can correctly target these micro-muscle groups and help you to maintain healthy mass and function well into your 70s and beyond.

Shining examples of well maintained singing voices include Glenn Hughes (ex Deep Purple) and Rob Halford (Judas Priest) who are both well into their 70s (72 at the time of writing). They each understand the importance of regular vocal exercise sessions and using good vocal technique to maintain their glorious singing and screaming voices.

Glenn Hughes
Rob Halford
Rob Halford

It’s worth mentioning that both Rob and Glenn were born with above average natural strength, flexibility and length of their vocal cords. Throughout their decades long careers in music, they have both encountered numerous vocal problems with their voices brought about by excess drugs, alcohol and other vices.

Both singers are well known for their belting ability, both in their middle and upper registers, but they have maintained their ability to perform at a high level by regularly going back to the basics of good technical foundations in their respective singing styles. This includes good vocal warmup routines, and maintaining overall fitness.

One of the best kept secrets among high profile singers is having access to world class ear, nose and throat specialists (ENTs) and vocal surgeons including Dr. Steven Zeitels, who has operated on many celebrity singers like Adele, Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Cher, Roger Daltrey (The Who), Lionel Richie, Keith Urban, Paul Stanley (Kiss), and James Taylor.

Unless you also have access to a world class vocal surgeon, I highly recommend adopting a regular vocal exercise programme in order to maintain healthy mass, function and flexibility to these essential micro-muscle groups. You should also learn the appropriate warm up and warm down exercises for your vocal style and age group. If you’re unsure on where to start with this, please don’t hesitate to contact me to set up a private coaching session.

Long breaks between recording and touring

For established rock stars, it is very normal to have a touring schedule of 250 or more shows in a year. They then come off the road and have extended breaks of up to 1-3 years, or sometimes even longer before the band finds themselves back in the studio to record a new album.

An example of this is the time between Def Leppard’s Pyromania album (20 January, 1983) and their Hysteria album (3 August, 1987) which meant that Def Leppard would have had at least two years off between touring and recording those albums. There was a good reason for this in Def Leppard’s case, given Rick Allen (their drummer) was in a catastrophic car accident in which he lost his left arm.

Another example is the gap between Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion (17 September, 1991) album and their Chinese Democracy tour (starting in January 2001) which is a gap of over 7 years, even factoring in two years of touring for the Use Your Illusion tour!

While it may look like an appealing lifestyle to work at a breakneck pace for 12 months on tour and then retire to an exotic location for a well-earned extended break, these long hiatuses can be hell on a singer’s vocal abilities.

Here’s why.

Many of your favourite rock singers are just guys and girls that are born with above average strength and mass in their voice. It’s very easy for someone that is born vocally stronger than their peers to take their singing voice for granted. It might surprise you that some of your favourite artists don’t have regular vocal exercise routines and through their 20s, 30s and even 40s, continue to rely on the natural strength of their singing voice to see them through.

However without exception, these singers are in for a rude shock as they approach their 40s, 50s and 60s. This is because this is the time that the voice naturally starts to change. These changes take place inside the larynx (as I mentioned earlier) through depleted levels of collagen. The vocal cords are losing mass and flexibility, and so are the micro-muscles that are responsible for supporting the larynx as we sing up and down through our range.

Poor vocal technique

Many of your favourite celebrity singers sound good because they were born with naturally big voices. Just because someone sounds good, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they are singing or screaming in a way that uses healthy vocal technique.

A perfect example of this is Axl Rose (vocalist for Guns N’ Roses). Throughout the 80s, Axl Rose was renowned for his incredibly powerful male tenor voice. Axl is actually a natural baritone but he was blessed with an anomaly in his voice that allowed him to also have an incredibly powerful tenor upper register.

Axl Rose

Axl developed his vocal style by listening to and closely replicating the singing style of Dan McCafferty (Nazareth) who was known for his big, gravelly, three octave vocal range. As a result, Axl can be heard applying excessive pressure to his vocal cords as early as the G N’ R Lies album (released 1988). By around 1991-1993, Axl Rose started to suffer serious vocal challenges during GNR’s Use Your Illusion tour.

His vocal cords started to develop either nodules, nodes, polyps or cists which seriously impacted his ability to sing high notes. This can be seen through any of the Use Your Illusion performance videos online where Axl’s voice would regularly break into a whistle register to hit some of his signature notes when he applied too much pressure to his cords.

Axl sacrificed his magnificent voice regularly to produce a stunning vocal effect at the beginning of Welcome to the Jungle which is a combination of a vocal pitch and a purpose-made whistle tone. Producing this whistle tone effect requires air passing through the vocal cords, drying them out. It also requires an excessive amount of tension to the vocal cords to be applied to produce this eerie, whistle tone effect. This results in the vocal cords producing excessive amounts of heat, which is a really good way to dry out your voice and remove the protective layer of mucosae (natural lubricant that protects your vocal cords from friction damage).

If we fast forward a decade to 2001, from the start of the Chinese Democracy tour, Axl is clearly struggling to hit any high notes with the same vocal power that he once possessed. There was a long break between the Use Your Illusion tour and the Chinese Democracy tour that will have resulted in natural atrophy and loss of strength in the vocal muscles if they were not being healthily worked out regularly. This, in combination with the excessive wear and tear that Axl places on his voice to achieve his signature vocal style and sound, has contributed to the ongoing decline of a once-magnificent singing voice.

I believe that Axl smoked his fair share of pot in his earlier years with Guns N’ Roses, and passing superheated smoke over the vocal cords is a very good way to dry them out in a hurry. When you combine this with Axl’s extreme singing style, it’s easy to understand how he’s managed to blow his voice out.

Based on my 30+ years of vocal coaching experience, it’s highly probable that Axl Rose has had surgery on his vocal cords, possibly multiple times, to remove vocal polyps or similar conditions. Axl has never publicly acknowledged any ties to surgery in his interviews, so this is pure speculation at this stage.

If Axl had used proper technique that complimented his voice throughout his career, he may still be hitting those high notes today.

About vocal surgeries

Some professional singers choose to attempt to combat vocal decline by going under the knife.

The most successful vocal surgeries that I know of have been on Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Sam Smith and Adele, who each used Dr. Steven Zeitels to repair their vocal cords.

In Steven Tyler’s case, Steven recounts this in well-documented interviews, where he admits to having gone under the knife in order to repair microtears in his vocal cords. The need for this was brought about through a combination of his once again well-documented drug and alcohol addictions. According to Steven, he had burst blood vessels in his vocal cords that prevented his vocal cords from functioning normally and being able to thin down correctly to access his iconic high notes.

Steven Tyler
Steven Tyler, age defying superhuman

Prior to this surgery, Steven had begun to struggle to hit his mid-range notes with power. His high notes were all but gone.

After the surgery, given the appropriate amount of recovery time and practicing regular vocal exercise workouts, Steven’s vocal recovery was nothing short of miraculous. It sounded to many of his fans, like Steven had discovered the proverbial vocal fountain of youth. That’s one very lucky singer!

On the other side of vocal surgeries, even as lately as 10 years ago singers were often left with permanent scarring on the vocal cords. This scarring significantly impacts on the ability of vocal cords to correctly thin down and make the appropriate voice level closures at the vocal cords to sing powerful high notes.

You are welcome to speculate on who these rock and roll casualties may include. Hint: Think about some of your favourite rock/metal singers from the 80s, 90s and early 2000s that are no longer able to hit the high notes and sound hoarse. These are usually positive indicators of permanent scarring on the vocal cords.

Rock and roll vices

Smoking cigarettes or vaping, excessive consumption of alcohol, weed/pot and other drugs are all known to significantly impact the healthy function of both your voice box (larynx) and your vocal cords. They also impair your ability to breath effectively from your diaphragm.

In the case of cigarette smoking (and now vaping), there are many studies that have proven direct correlation between usage lung damage.

If you are a singer that smokes or vapes and you have noticed significant loss of vocal range, or it’s getting more difficult to hit higher notes, contact me now for an honest conversation about how to reclaim your singing voice.

Genetic and neurological conditions

Not everything is under our control. Genetic disorders or conditions can have a real impact on singers in later life. We’ll cover both genetic and neurological conditions in more detail in a future post.

Better information leads to better singing!

Disclaimer: If you make a purchase from one of the above links, a tiny commission goes to supporting the site. In keeping with my “No BS” policy, I only ever recommend products that I personally use or know are beneficial to my readers.

4 thoughts on “Why do some older rock stars lose the ability to sing high notes?”

    1. Hi Mark,

      Tommy Shaw is an exceptionally gifted singer! He’s done a great job with Styx and I really love his work in Damn Yankees.


  1. Just had vocal cord polyp removed., January 5, 2024
    Diagnosed by an ENT and surgery done by Dr Speis the ENT is also a vocal coach… I mostly lost a very pretty falsetto about a year and a half or two years ago… I was able to do Roy Orbison… Smokey Robinson… Four season songs, The Drifters… The lion sleeps tonight That kind of stuff it is now of of my Setlist … I do not have a show on the books until March 29… I’m still in a healing stage and my ENT will see me this Friday for vocal exercises… I think I’m in good hands it just sounds like you might be better

    1. Hi Jimbob, thank you for your comment.

      Unfortunately I am not surprised that you’ve lost a very pretty falsetto register in your voice, because as you will now know, vocal cord polyps can severely affect the ability of the vocal cords to thin down and create the required closure to allow our voices to smoothly move into higher registers.

      In 30 years of coaching, I haven’t encountered an ENT that is also a qualified, experienced vocal coach. How would they have time to do both in a professional capacity? What I have encountered through my own experiences, is the surprising knowledge gap that most ENTs have about how a singer’s voice actually operates (practical can be very different to theory). There are certainly some amazing ENTs out there that have literally saved the careers of people like Steven Tyler, Adele, Sam Smith and others.

      An ENT is largely trained to spot obvious anomalies in vocal cords and the throat. When they are looking for the big things, it’s very easy to miss some of the small ones that can also have a major impact on how a voice behaves. This is especially true when observing how a voice operates under vocal stress. You can read more about this in a previous post about “Vocal Nasties”.

      I have successfully rehabilitated both professional and amateur singers who have experienced similar vocal issues with their voice. These singers specialise in all different genres, including opera, pop, rock, blues and country. I can tell you first hand that the path to recovery requires working closely with a vocal coach that has a deep understanding of how your vocal technique can affect your vocal health and your ongoing ability to perform.

      I would be happy to have a quick, no obligation chat with you via Skype. Once I’ve learned more about your current condition, we can discuss vocal coaching options to help you recover as much of your natural vocal strength, stamina and vocal range as physically possible. If you’re open to it, flick me an email at paule@rapidvocalresults.com to arrange a good time to chat.

      -Paule Enso, Vocal Performance Coach

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