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A Guide to the Origin and Genres of Rock Music

Once upon a time there was some cavemen who got together and hummed, banging their knuckles on the stone wall and grunting in harmony. Thus music was born. No?! Well anyways…

For my purposes, REAL music came about when some European dudes in wigs with bad teeth and poor hygiene started writing songs for rich dudes. This music was played on harpsichords, organs, violins, and stuff and is now known collectively as “classical” music. And it evolved over the centuries into more diverse and more modern sound, played on ever evolving instruments.

In that regard, my faith in European Metal is an extension of that classical music sound, using modern rock instruments in addition to the complex arrangements, orchestrations, rhythms, and soaring vocals of ‘classical’. I digress, I skipped a few generations of music.

Rock was born in the twentieth century from R+B (rhythm and blues), mixed with old style country and folksy music. It evolved with acts like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and other 50s contemporaries into the more pop focused “classic” sound of the sixties. Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and others took the American sound and unified the band sound now the norm on college rock radio everywhere. Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Woody Guthrie and the like went a different way creating simple lyrical “folk” songs and laying the foundation for modern pop.

Out of that diverging group of sounds came the classic rock and classic hard rock sound of the late sixties, seventies, and eighties. Groups like the Byrds, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Journey, Santana, Lynard Skynyrd and the like were able to advance rock into distinct genres but a defined style. And that is the kind of music I grew up on.

There is a sickeningly long list of sub-genres within rock music. So I’m consolidating using my own criteria and personal taste.

Classic Rock: This category encompasses many diverse styles. Basically anything that sounds like it was born out of the sixties or seventies and still has a decent groove and hummability would be classic rock. And “Drugs, a whole lotta drugs”, as George Carlin would say. Bands like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Kinks, Moody Blues, Eric Clapton, Thin Lizzy, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and the like. Queen can live here, but they kinda move around. A modern band? Try Queens of the Stone Age.

Roots Rock: This is basically a melding of roots music (Blues, Southern Folk, and Country) with a rock edge. Bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Creem, Blackfoot, Kansas, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Eagles, Dixie Dregs, Black Crowes, Foghat, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Santana.

Pop Rock: A very generic term that encompasses any artist “cool” enough to still be rock but with less guitar and a lighter tone. Cheap Trick, The Cars, Talking Heads, The Smithereens, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran and Prince.

Punk: Artists with attitude, anger and varying degrees of talent. Emerged in the 70s. The Clash, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Green Day, The Offspring, and The Dictators.

Grunge: Coming from the Seattle scene in the late 80s. The 90s answer to Punk. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots all hang here.

Alternative: A reaction/counteraction to grunge, similar but with less edge. Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Weezer. Most Indie Rock ends up here, at least at first. Includes Industrial Rock in my world, Nine Inch Nails, etc…

Hard Rock: An evolution of Classic Rock into something harder, heavier, but still rock (not metal). Bands like Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Van Halen, Journey, Aerosmith, AC/DC, and Guns n’ Roses. Morphed into hair metal in the 80’s, but those bands were at their core hard rock: Dokken, Ratt, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, and King’s X. Modern bands include Creed, Alter Bridge, Three Days Grace, and Rage Against the Machine.

Final mention is Progressive Rock. I usually include this genre in Classic Rock but it really deserves it’s own place–where else can you get an entire album with only one 40+ minute song on it? Bands like Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Rush. Very complex and very weird, at times at least.

I’ve ignored pop, dance, disco, funk, rap, folk, and all others as I either include it in the above genres or would never consider listening to it, much less writing about it.

Rock vs Metal

Metal is much “colder” and usually harder than any Rock. Subject matter in rock is usually sex, drugs, and partying. Metal delves into social, political, religion, fantasy and many other topics. Metal is usually more aggressive and angrier by rock standards.

Black Sabbath vs Led Zeppelin. Iron Maiden vs Van Halen. Metallica vs Guns n’ Roses. “I may not be able to describe it, but I know it when I hear it!”

For a guide into the origins and genres of Heavy Metal click here.