Solo artists may employ professional backing vocalists in studio recording sessions as well as during concerts. In many rock and metal bands (e.g., the power trio), the musicians doing backing vocals also play instruments, such as guitar, electric bass, drums, or keyboards. In Latin or Afro-Cuban groups, backing singers may play percussion instruments or shakers while singing. In some pop and hip-hop groups and in musical theater, the backing singers may be required to perform elaborately choreographed dance routines while they sing through headset microphones.
The style of singing used by backing singers varies according to the type of song and the genre of music the band plays. In pop and country songs, backing vocalists may perform vocal harmony parts to support the lead vocalist. In hardcore punk or rockabilly, other band members who play instruments may sing or shout backing vocals during the chorus (refrain) section of the songs.
Alternative terms for backing vocalists include backing singers, backing vocals, additional vocals or, particularly in the United States and Canada, backup singers or sometimes background singers or harmony vocalists.
While some bands use performers whose sole on-stage role is performing backing vocals, it is common for backing singers to have other roles. Two notable examples of band members who sang back-up are The Beach Boys and The Beatles. The Beach Boys were well known for their close vocal harmonies, occasionally with all five members singing at once such as "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl". All five members would sing lead, although most often Brian Wilson or Mike Love would sing lead with guitarists Carl Wilson and Al Jardine and drummer Dennis Wilson singing background harmonies.
Former guitaristJohn Frusciante and current guitarist Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing nearly all backing vocals (few songs were recorded without backing vocals), often singing some parts without accompaniment from lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis. The band's bassist Flea occasionally filled in for additional vocals. Frusciante usually sang one song by himself during concerts. Another example is "No Frontiers" by The Corrs, which is sung by Sharon and Caroline.
In the recording studio, some lead singers record their own backing vocals by overdubbing with a multitrack recording system. A multitrack recording system enables the record producer to add many layers of recordings over top of each other. Using a multitrack system, a lead vocalist can record his or her own backing vocals, and then record the lead vocal part over top. Some lead vocalists prefer this approach because the sound of their own harmonies will blend well with their main vocal.
Some bands use backing vocals in order to contrast with the lead singer who may be performing an unusual vocal technique. For example, Brian "Head" Welch, the lead guitarist of the band Korn, performed backing vocals on several songs, and notably on the song "Ball Tongue", he screams the chorus while lead vocalist Jonathan Davis sings incomprehensible scat vocals. Similarly, the Canadian deathcore group Despised Icon uses two vocalists, one performing screams and another performing low, growling death grunts who alternate, and sometimes sing in unison to highlight certain lyrics. In rap music, a background rapper who chants and rhymes to support the main artist is often referred to as hype man.
Paul McCartney can be heard as one of the background revellers on Donovan's 1966 "Mellow Yellow". (Contrary to popular belief, it is not McCartney whispering the "quite rightly" answering lines in the chorus, but rather Donovan himself).
Al B. Sure! contributed background vocals to Guy's song "You Can Call Me Crazy". According to producer Teddy Riley, the song was originally planned for Sure!'s debut album In Effect Mode but the song never made the final cut.