How To Sing Like Tom Waits (Do This Now)

Published Categorized as Singing

Tom Waits is literally one of the few singers that you listen to his songs and can either go ‘oh what a nice voice’? Or ‘ what on earth is that’?

This is because in the course of his career, Tom Waits has had 2 distinct phases which are clearly different.

Once the pop and blues guy in bars, his music has since then changed to include a variety of acts such as his gravelly voice, rapsy growls and energetic performances.

Tom Waits influences quite a number of people in the industry and many have expressed the desire to want to sing like him.

This article will discuss the steps needed to do that, his voice type, vocal range amongst a few other things. 

What Are The Steps Needed To Sing Like Tom Waits?

How To Sing Like Tom Waits
  1. Train and Practice on Your Voice

There is no successful singer that got where they were without building their voice and training it to be powerful.

Learn to sing with the right techniques and without having to strain yourself. This is the first step.

  1. Get a Voice Teacher

A voice teacher will help you to get Waits’ voice without you having to damage your voice from overindulgence in smoking and alcohol.

Your voice teacher will teach you the technique required and guide you through it.

  1. Consistently Watch Tom Waits’ Performances

There are various videos of Tom Walt everywhere, especially on YouTube.

Watch and practice on them till you have gotten every nuance and detail of his songs and mannerisms. 

  1. Practice His Style Regularly 

We all know Tom Waits has a unique style of singing. To get this style, learn it then stay consistent and over time your efforts will be rewarded. 

What Voice Type Is Tom Waits?

Tom Waits is popular for his baritone and deep gravelly voice.

His voice is distinctly male and even Tom Waits has admitted he likes to stomp and scream into the microphone.

Some of his audience have admitted not liking his style of singing at first as it made for hard listening at first. 

I think Tom Waits is more popular for his growling on stage than even for his songs. Waits’ early career, which spanned the 1970s, saw him as a poetic powerslide chronicler with a Springsteen-ian twang. 

Around the time of his “Swordfishtrombones” album in 1983, his voice had thickened, morphing into the husky growl which he is very renowned for.

What Makes Tom Waits’ Voice So Unique?

This change in his voice has been a source of controversy. 

Some have attributed it to his previous excessive consumption of cigarettes and whiskey while others choose to believe it’s more of a theatrical effect. 

Whatever the case might have been in later years he ended up with his voice coarsened which lends itself to his character. 

In several of his songs, he emphasizes his voice by switching from a raspy voice to a vocal fry which often makes him sound like he’s growling. Asides that, the audience may perceive 

Wait’s voice as an encroachment because buzzing noises can be heard in most of his songs which convinces the listener that he is singing closely to them.  

Waits’ voice is growly and not a little unsettling while the dark themes in his songs generally makes the listener uncomfortable.

However, this spookiness is what captivates the listener and makes Tom Waits voice exceptional. 

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Can Tom Waits Actually Sing?

Although Tom Waits has not had a lot of commercial success, I would still say he is a good singer though not an exceptional one.

I would say Waits is a better songwriter and performer than he is a singer.

Due to his style of singing a lot of people have agreed that he is a terrible singer which they believe is the reason for his low commercial success.

However, we cannot totally say Tom Waits style of singing was terrible. 

He brings accuracy and power to his performances and even his phrasing; at times scary are unique in their own way.

The truth is Tom Waits was actually better when he was with Asylum Records and after that he steered clear of nice songs which kind of gave him a nasty reputation.

That being said, he gave us some hit songs and has a strong fan base till today who love to listen to him and are forever thrilled.

There are a number of musicians who look up to him and are quite content to sing and perform his songs.

How Did Tom Waits Start Singing?

Tom Waits was born Thomas Alan Waits in 1949 in California and started singing in his teenage years.

His musical career started in the 1960s’ in smoky clubs where he enthralled audiences with his rasping, growling voice. 

He started off drawing on a variety of pop, jazz, rock and avante garde music to which he added his own adaptations with his piano and guitar.

His early songs were influenced by Bob Dylan, Charles Byukwoski and Jack Kerouac.

He released his first album ‘Closing Time’ in 1973 and ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’ in 1974.

Much of his songs talk about and reflect the underbelly of starvation with themes on poverty, romance and this has garnered him a large following from that sector.

Even though Waits did not get a lot of commercial success, he won several Grammy awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Also here is an article I wrote on how to sing like Phillipa Soo

What Is Tom Waits’ Vocal Range?

Tom Waits vocal range is placed at C2 – D5 at 3.2 octaves which is a pretty good sound for a deep baritone voice.

The song with the highest pitch so far is ‘Shore Leave’ with a range of C3 – D5. His lowest recording pitch was on ‘Poor Edward’ with a C2 to C4 vocal range.

Tom Waits’ music is instantly recognizable due to his unique voice. Waits’ voice and his music have gone through two different phases.

All through his early career, he performed with a vintage, functional bar folk singer twang, and stuck to his presentable sounding range. 

After the  Small Change album however, Waits’ voice changed dramatically, and this has been attributed to his unhealthy lifestyle of smoking.

A heavily loaded growl, a smoker’s voice that is so thick you can hear it clearly and a coarse falsetto register are the characteristics that make him stand out.

What Is The Highest Note Tom Waits’ Can Sing?

Tom Waits has been known to reach a C5 when he is not too busy growling.

A C4 is recorded on his 1983 song ‘Shore Love’. Due to the changes in his voice, he might not exactly be able to belt out high notes unlike when he started and had a blues background.

It is sometimes surprising the artists who Tom Waits is often compared to and who some experts believe he has a better vocal range than.

Most of these opinions are subjective, however this doesn’t remove the fact that he is a great singer, better songwriter and a guitarist. 

What Are Some Classic Tom Waits Songs To Practice?

  • Looking For The Heart of Saturday Night: This song for which Tom Waits second album is named came hot on the heels of the first album and showed Waits in a clearer night which helped endear him to listeners. If you want to stick with Tom Waits original style, then this track is a good one to practice.
  • Rain Dogs: ‘Rain Dogs’ was a track on ‘Swordfishtrombones’ which received critical acclaim. As at this period, Tom Waits had switched to his signature growling and gravelly singing and if this is not your style then stay away.
  • Heartattack and Vine: ‘Heartattack and Vine’ is classic Tom Waits after Swordfishtrombones’ and is usually referred to as a heavy brawler.


We have had various artists and singers over the course of time but no one can deny that Tom Waits has carved a niche for himself.

Starting out with his oldtown boy drawl in bars, he switched up on us to something more gangster and has stayed true to himself since then.

Tom Waits has been referred to as one of the few original ones as he came out with his own style of music and his efforts did not waste as he was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame after many years on stage.

Despite critics efforts, many people look up to him and his works has influenced quite a number of big names in the music industry today. 

By Sophie Collins

Hi my name is Sophie, I am a Singer, Producer and Instrumentalist. I also love to bake and get creative with my hands. When I am not strumming my guitar, you can find me reading a good book with a glass of wine in my hands.

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