What is Rock Music?

Driving, intense, energetic, and almost always loud, rock music was the most popular form of music for decades before hip-hop went mainstream. Dominating the airwaves for nearly 50 years, rock spawned dozens of sub-genres – everything from intricate, lyrical folk-rock to the most brutal forms of extreme death metal. It’s played in small bars and sold-out arenas, garages and concert halls, and has made its mark all over the world.

Because its subgenres are so diverse, rock is defined more by its overall aesthetic than any specific musical features (though, as we’ll explore in the next section, nearly all subgenres use electric guitars). Rock is about electrifying energy, especially the youthful, rebellious energy of its founders. Over the years, generations of musicians have found their own ways of capturing that energy, but the same spirit inspires them all.


Musical Features of Rock

Maybe more than any other genre, rock is defined by a single instrument: the electric guitar. Before rock, electric guitars played a minor role, mostly as a backing instrument for large jazz bands. But throughout the early 1900s they became more and more popular with blues musicians. The electric guitar was a great instrument for a small band – by hooking up to an amplifier, guitarists could make a sound loud enough to compete with drums and mic’ed up vocals.

Genius guitarists like B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix explored the unique sounds that electric guitars could make. They didn’t just use amplifiers to get louder – they also played with the tone and character of the instrument itself, using electrified sound as its own kind of instrument. Hendrix, for example, famously used the scream of amplifier feedback in his solos – a sound that would be impossible to achieve with any acoustic instrument. He also pioneered the use of distortion or “fuzz,” which today is the signature sound of rock guitar.

In musical terms, different sub-genres of rock are very different from each other – they use different kinds of scales, rhythms, and tempos – but there are some common threads. Most rock music emphasizes the pentatonic scale, a bare-bones scale that comes from blues music. Even a novice guitarist can create a basic rock sound by just playing the minor pentatonic scale on a distorted electric guitar. That sound can be used in any of rock’s many subgenres and not seem out of place.


Subgenres and Examples

50s Rock (“Rock & Roll”)

Chuck Berry – Roll Over Beethoven (1956)

Chuck Berry – Roll Over Beethoven (1956)

In its earliest form, rock music was called “Rock & Roll,” and it was a lively outgrowth from blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie. At this point, rock & roll was the same genre as R&B – these days we think of them as totally different genres, but they were both born out of this energetic 1950s dance music.

Listening to early rockers like Chuck Berry, you can hear a lot of the features that characterize rock even today – it’s fast, has a driving beat with a lot of syncopation, and emphasizes the combination of drums, vocals, and guitar. But notice that Chuck’s guitar has a much cleaner tone than modern rock. That’s because amplifier distortion hadn’t yet become popular. It would take another generation of guitarists to shift into the harsher, heavier tones that we know from modern rock.

Maybe more than anything else, these early rockers brought an attitude to rock. They were brash and rebellious, not showing much respect for tradition or upper-class social norms. Their dances involved all kinds of bending and gyrating, which were considered lewd in the conservative society of the 1950s. Beyond that, early rock & roll musicians pioneered the use of television, which was a brand-new entertainment medium in those days. So all that rudeness and rule-breaking was no longer restricted to bars and dance halls, as it might have been during the Jazz Age. Now, rock & roll stars were suddenly finding their way right into the living rooms of American families!

Rock & roll is a distinctively “retro” style, and very few artists today would describe themselves as “rock & roll.” The closest thing we have now is “rockabilly,” which is an underground genre based on fusing 1950s-style rock & roll with punk rock and elements of country. For example:

Restless – Rockabilly Rat

Important Artists

  • Little Richard
  • Chuck Berry
  • Bo Didley
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Elvis Presley


Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

Jimi Hendrix 'Voodoo Child' (Slight Return)

Like all modern music, rock has its roots in the blues. But some subgenres really embrace that heritage, while others have moved further away from it. Blues-rock is the subgenre that really digs deep in the blues tradition for inspiration. So it might be surprising that blues-rock has also been the source of some of rock’s greatest innovations – it’s the most traditional form of rock, but at the same time the most inventive.

Blues-rock was most popular in the 1960s, when rock was developing into its modern sound. The whole course of popular music was changed in the late 60s when Jimi Hendrix, a blues-rock guitarist from Seattle, started pushing the boundaries of what an electric guitar could do. Instead of setting up his system to avoid piercing feedback sounds, he started embracing those sounds and using them in his solos. He experimented with all kinds of distortion, echo effects, and other sounds that hadn’t been widely used before.

Blues-rock became less popular after the 60s and 70s, but still plays a major role in modern rock. Popular groups like the Black Keys and the White Stripes brought blues-rock back into the mainstream in the 2000s, and many classic blues-rock bands are still touring (The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and ZZ Top are good examples). A lot of the music that we think of as “classic rock” comes from blues-rock, or from the early days of heavy metal (next section).

Important Artists

  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Janis Joplin
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • The Rolling Stones
  • Eric Clapton
  • The Black Keys

Heavy Metal

In Flames – Clad In Shadows

In Flames – Clad In Shadows '99 (HQ)

In the late 70s, a few rock musicians started introducing a darker, heavier sound. They continued using the minor pentatonic scales from blues-rock, but they brought in more diatonic scales (the more complex scales used in classical music). The roots of metal can be traced back to two bands: Black Sabbath and Motorhead. Sabbath pioneered a dark, almost supernatural sort of sound while Motorhead pioneered harsh, explosive energy. When those two influences came together, the modern genre of heavy metal was born.

Today, a lot of people would say that metal is its own genre, not a subgenre of rock – it has given rise to dozens of subgenres, many of them very different from traditional rock. One particularly notable subgenre is death metal, which takes the musical ideas of metal and exaggerates them. Listening to the In Flames song, you can hear the extreme guttural quality in the vocals – the hallmark of death metal. The heavily distorted electric guitars weave together an intricate web of melodies that rise like a wall of sound against the backdrop of pounding drums and vocals. Death metal is not for everyone, but it’s an extremely complex musical form that continually pushes the boundaries of heavy metal.

Thanks to the extreme inventiveness of death metal pioneers, metal is one of the most popular rock genres today, and arguably the most creative. There are plenty of bands still playing blues-rock and punk, for example, but for the most part they play music very similar to what was played in the 1970s. Metal, by contrast, has continued to evolve new styles.

Important Artists

  • Motorhead
  • Black Sabbath
  • Iron Maiden
  • Metallica
  • Pantera
  • In Flames
  • Converge

Punk Rock

Rise Against – Savior

Rise Against – Savior

Around the same time that heavy metal was being born, another underground rock movement was moving in a different direction. Punk was conceived as a revolutionary genre – many of its pioneers were leftist political activists, and they used their music to advance the cause of revolution. Their sound was fast and aggressive, often with a “chanting” quality to the vocals.

Like metal, punk is harsh and extremely energetic, but musically it’s exactly the opposite of metal. Where metal emphasizes extreme complexity and virtuousic playing, punk musicians prefer a more straightforward, back-to-basics aesthetic. Many punk musicians have minimal training, preferring raw emotion and basic sounds over the elaborate artifice of heavy metal. The same difference is also visible in stage aesthetics: punk bands tend to play on a less ornate stage, often standing on the same level as their fans. Metal bands are almost always seen on an elevated stage, and they often use light shows, fog machines, huge props, and other spectacles rarely seen in punk.

Today, nearly every major city boasts at least a few punk bands. The style continues to be popular, especially with younger audiences and those who haven’t had much formal training. Punk is, by design, open to all comers as long as they appreciate loud guitars and sticky barroom floors – those people exist in every generation, so punk will probably always be popular even if it doesn’t get much radio play.

Important Artists

  • The Sex Pistols
  • The Clash
  • The Dead Kennedys
  • Black Flag
  • Minor Threat
  • Rancid
  • Rise Against