TESLA's JEFF KEITH Says Tuning Down To Accommodate His Aging Voice Has 'Worked Out Well' For The Band
October 2, 2023
In a new interview with Rockin' Metal Revival, TESLA singer Jeff Keith spoke about the fact that he and his bandmates are still enjoying themselves on stage, more than 40 years after the group's formation.
"I will admit that back in the '80s or in the '90s, I could sing things in the regular key of E," he explained (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET). "So for quite some time now, the guys have tuned down a half step, and then there's certain songs that maybe it's tuned down a whole step so I can still sing the same exact melody, but as opposed to what's on the record, it's just tuned down — and drop D, whatever they call it, is as low as you can go; otherwise the strings just get [too loose]. So, you know what? That worked out well for us. And my voice is still holding up. [I] try to take care of it. [I] make sure on days off I'm resting it."
He continued: "We don't do three-in-a-rows anymore; we just do two [shows] in a row and have a day off. So a lot of things like that. With the voice being your instrument, I've really gotta take care of it and just try not to overdo it. And for a guy like me, that's hard to do, but I'm able to do it because I'm just so high strung."
Keith previously talked about TESLA's decision to tune down its instruments this past July during an appearance on the "That Metal Interview" podcast. At the time, he said: "We started dropping things down to — instead of in E, the key of E, we dropped it to E flat. On particular songs, where I sing really high — I don't even know how I hit the notes back then in the '80s and the '90s — but I think they can drop as low as… there's E flat, and then you can drop as low as D. And on a couple of songs we drop down to the D tuning, so I can sing the same melody but dropped down a whole step. And from what I understand, you can't drop any lower than that, or the strings are so loose [that they are too floppy to play]. So, we just dropped some keys, and then we tried it on a couple of songs and when we even dropped down a whole step, I still can't quite hit the notes [on some songs]."
He continued: "Once again, I don't know how the heck I hit them notes way back then, but all I know is from 'Into The Now'  on, I started thinking about, 'Hey, I've gotta watch out what key we're doing it in, because next thing you know, I sing something that I can't go out there and do it night after night live.' I mean, it is 37 years later, so… [Laughs] So, with 'Forever More', 'Simplicity' — all that stuff — I just started keeping in mind, 'Hey, whatever you write, you've gotta sing it night after night.' Back in the '80s, and stuff like that, I wasn't thinking about it. You just do 20, 30 takes of something, pick the best out of it and go, 'Hey, there you go. That's great.' But I never had the thought in mind of, 'Hey, you've gotta go out there night after night and sing it.' And back then, I could — thankfully — but today, it's, like, 'Hang on a second.' I'm gonna turn 65 in October. It's, like, 'Hang on now.' I'm starting to fill out forms for Medicare and all that stuff. [Laughs] So [I've gotta] be careful with what melodies I come up with, because I've gotta be able to do it night after night."
Keith is not the first high-profile rock singer to admit to having trouble hitting some of the notes that he was able to reach several decades earlier. In October 2022, STRYPER frontman Michael Sweet told The Rock Experience With Mike Brunn that it was important for him to come out and almost apologize for the fact that he and his bandmates were tuning down because of his voice. "Maybe it's wrong for me to think this way, but it's a little bit of a pride issue; you're proud that you don't have to tune down 'cause you could do it in the original key," he said. "And there's something to be said for that; it feels good to be able to say that. But then I realized everyone tunes down except for maybe a select few — very select few. And those few are bands that don't sing in a super-high register. The bands like STRYPER that sing in a very high register, belting…
"See, the vocals for STRYPER, and this isn't to put us on a pedestal, but they're unique in the sense that not only are they high, but they're chest-belted vocals," he explained. "They're not [makes growling sound]; they come from here [puts hand over chest], not from here [puts hand over his throat]. That makes it a little bit more difficult to pull off. So when we dropped the key down a half step, I felt like, 'Wow, okay, this is a little easier.' I can get through the show a little easier and not have to strain or struggle so much.
"You've got all the vocal coaches out there watching right now, saying, 'Oh, if he took lessons, he'd be able to do it again.' That's bullcrap," Michael said. "It makes me laugh sometimes when you hear these guys say, 'Oh, yeah, 'cause he's singing wrong.' No, I'm not singing wrong. I get my vocal cords checked every year. I've never had surgery; I've never had nodules. They tell me my vocal cords look pristine. I'm not singing wrong. If I was singing wrong, they would not look pristine. So my problem lies with just aging. Your vocal folds, as you age, they start to stiffen, and there's not a darn thing you can do about that. Your muscles, they change. It's just part of life. You deal with it the best way that you can. You stay in shape; that's important. Take care of yourself, of course. But also, I've got post-nasal drip really bad. And I'm always clearing my throat; it's a real thick post-nasal drip. My doctors who scoped me have said, 'We've never seen anything like it.' It's almost like glue on my vocal cords continuously, and that keeps me from being able to sing at the best of my range and at the top of my range. But they also said that they think it's protected my vocal cords as well. So I'm definitely singing right. I'm blessed to still have the voice that I have. Is it what it once was? No."
Four years ago, IRON MAIDEN's Bruce Dickinson said that he takes pride in the fact that he and his bandmates perform their songs in the original key. "We don't detune, like some other people do," he said. "We don't do any of that. I suppose if one day we have to, we have to, but we don't have to do it now, and I think the songs sound better as a result of it. They're meant to be played in that key."
Back in 2014, QUEENSRŸCHE's Todd La Torre said that the fact that he sings the band's songs in their original key is one of the reasons he has been able to win over so many of the QUEENSRŸCHE fans following the departure of original frontman Geoff Tate.
"We don't drop-tune," he said. "When I first got in the band, [the other guys in QUEENSRŸCHE] said, 'Hey, if you want us to tune down a half a step, if it's easier for you, don't be afraid to ask us.' And I said, 'No. I wanna do this the best way that I can to represent the songs the way that they really go, and if it's a struggle for me, I just have more work to do for me. But let me keep trying to do this.' So I think the fact that those old songs weren't being played [in the last few years with Geoff in the band]… I mean, some of them were played, but a lot of times they were tuned down or songs were not played in their entirety, like 'Roads To Madness'; we play that song in its entirety. We play 'NM 156' in its entirety. And those fans, they really love hearing that. So the fact that that wasn't happening, and then when I came into the band, it started happening, it really kind of made it easier, I think, for fans to kind of rally around and go, 'Awesome!'"
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