Hard rock is a variation of rock and roll music, which has its earliest roots in early-1960s garage and psychedelic rock. It is typified by a heavy use of distorted electric guitars, bass guitar, and drums. The term "hard rock" is often used as an umbrella term for genres such as punk and grunge in order to distinguish them from the more radio-friendly, pop rock genre. Even though the genre uses a large amount of distorted sounds to exemplify the melodic and harmonic lines, hard rock creates a partnership with rock and roll and its variations so that extreme dimensions of sound can co-exist in a harmonious and cooperative manner. The milieu of hard rock exists in partnership with other forms of rock and roll such garage rock, psychedelic rock, punk, and grunge music in the art form of rock and roll music.
Hard rock became a template of society and reflected the many views and moods of the younger generation. There were protest songs of the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s, which created a venue for civil disobedience and influenced the public attitude. Although many denied its negative impact, it enabled an accelerated use of drugs and alcohol among its adherents and fans as they attempted to achieve a stronger connection with the music. Although such usages are viewed as detrimental societal factors, hard rock became a unifying communicational device to show its dual purpose; to bring disparate groups together, and to separate them from social conservatism.
Hard rock is strongly influenced by blues music; the most frequently used scale in hard rock is the pentatonic, which is a typical blues scale. Unlike traditional rock and roll, which takes elements of the "old" blues styles, hard rock incorporates elements of "British blues," a style of blues played with more modern instruments, such as electric guitars, drums, keyboards, and electric bass. Hard rock departs from traditional blues by being seldom restricted to the I, IV, and V chords prevalent in 12- or 16-bar blues. Rather, it includes other chords, typically major chords rooted in tones of the minor scale.
The term "hard rock" is often applied to many styles of rock music. There is a common misconception that these styles can be called "hard rock" even though they are very different, provided that their only common feature is the fact that they deviate from pop rock. Two such examples are punk rock and grunge. Punk rock uses a faster tempo and fewer riffs (often using power chords), while grunge fuses elements of hardcore punk and heavy metal, and is generally characterized by "dirty" guitar, heavy drumming, and apathetic or angst-filled lyrics.
The predominant instruments in hard rock are the electric guitar, bass, and drums. The role of the guitarist is very prevalent in hard rock. Most hard rock bands are comprised of two different types of guitarist; the lead guitarist and the rhythm guitarist. The lead guitarist plays the solos, riffs, and fills. Hard rock lead guitarists also use techniques such as alternate picking, sweep picking, and tapping to maximize the speed of their solos and riffs. The role of the rhythm guitarist is to compliment the lead guitarist and provide rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the other instruments in the band. The rhythm guitarist may also provide backup vocals.
The bassist's role is important to the structure of hard rock music; the bass-line outlines the harmony of the music being performed while simultaneously indicating the rhythmic pulse. As with the rhythm guitarist, bassists may also provide backup vocals. Drums provide a key element of hard rock music by sustaining the rhythm of the music and creating a drive that keeps the music flowing. Lastly, singers define the band as a whole and give it its overall image and sound.
Differentiation from heavy metal
During the 1970s, hard rock inspired a new genre of music: Heavy metal. The emergence of this genre has led to some confusion about the difference between hard rock and heavy metal bands. Adding to this, distinctions between hard rock and heavy metal styles are usually subtle, and often are determined more by a band's image rather than its songs. The two genres have some crossovers. For example, heavy metal pioneers, such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, are often considered to be both heavy metal and hard rock bands, whereas, bands such as AC/DC, Aerosmith, Nazareth, Status Quo, Guns N' Roses, and KISS, are normally referred to as just hard rock bands and not heavy metal bands.
To further add to the confusion, one of the heavy metal sub-genres of the 1980s, glam metal, was known to be influenced by both the pioneering heavy metal acts and other hard rock groups such as Alice Cooper, KISS and Mötley Crüe. KISS subsequently went on to experiment with glam metal.
Early years (1960s)
One of the major influences of hard rock is blues music, especially British blues. British rock bands, such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Who, and The Kinks, modified rock and roll, adding to the standard genre; harder sounds, heavier guitar riffs, bombastic drumming and louder vocals. This sound created the basis for hard rock. Early forms of hard rock can be heard in the songs "Helter Skelter" by The Beatles, "I Can See for Miles" by The Who, and "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks.
At the same time, musician Jimi Hendrix, produced a form of blues-influenced psychedelic rock, which combined elements of jazz, blues and rock and roll, creating a unique genre. He was one of the first guitarists to experiment with new guitar effects like phasing, feedback, and distortion.
Hard rock emerged from British groups of the late-1960s, such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, that mixed the music of early British rock bands with a more hard-edged form of blues rock. Led Zeppelin's eponymous first album, Led Zeppelin I (1969), is a good example of blues rock that represents the beginning of the hard rock genre. The blues origins of the group's album is clear, and a few songs by well-known blues artists are adapted or covered within the album.
Later, Deep Purple entered the hard rock scene with the albums, Shades of Deep Purple (1968), The Book of Taliesyn (1968), and Deep Purple (1969). Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple are usually considered some of the first hard rock bands.
First era (1970s)
In the 1970s, hard rock attained its identity. Led Zeppelin's third album, Led Zeppelin III was more progressive rock-oriented than the group's second, but the heavy aspects of their music remained. In 1970, Black Sabbath, released what is considered the first heavy metal album, Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath's music was revolutionary even for hard rock. It was typified by dark lyrics, hard riffs and a heavy atmosphere, transforming hard rock into to an early form of heavy metal. Deep Purple's transformation of hard rock continued with their album, Machine Head, considered (along with "Black Sabbath") as one of the first proto-metal albums. The song "Highway Star," which is on the album, is considered the first speed metal song. Deep Purple's music lacks the darker, more Gothic, elements of Black Sabbath, and is generally considered hard rock rather than heavy metal. Another band, Nazareth, provided a blend of hard rock which commercialized the genre further with their best selling album, Hair of the Dog, which in turn, influenced numerous other bands.
During the 1970s, hard rock developed a variety of sub-genres. In 1972, Alice Cooper made the first shock rock album, School's Out. The following year, Aerosmith, Queen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd released their eponymous debut albums, demonstrating the broadening directions of hard rock. Lynyrd Skynyrd's featured "Free Bird," the single that first gave the band national attention. The song quickly became a staple for Lynyrd Skynyrd and is most recognized for its nearly five-minute triple guitar solo section that finishes it.
In 1974, Bad Company released its debut album, which also influenced the hard rock genre. Also in 1974, Queen released its third album, Sheer Heart Attack. The tracks for the song "Stone Cold Crazy" were one of the earliest examples of speed metal and thrash metal, and influenced later thrash metal artists, such as Metallica and Megadeth.
Queen used layered vocals and guitars and mixed hard rock with arena rock, glam rock, heavy metal, progressive rock, and occasionally, opera. Additionally, KISS furthered the shock rock concept when it released its first three albums, KISS, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed To Kill, in a little over a year. The band achieved their commercial breakthrough with their double live album, Alive.
With the death of Tommy Bolin in 1976, Deep Purple disbanded. In 1977, the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant, died in a plane crash, disbanding Lynyrd Skynyrd. A year later, The Who's drummer, Keith Moon, died in his sleep, having overdosed on Chlormethiazole. With the rise of disco in the United States and punk rock in the United Kingdom, hard rock began to lose its popularity. Disco appealed to a more diverse group of people and punk rock seemed to take over the rebellious role that hard rock once held. Meanwhile, Black Sabbath moved away from the dark quality of their early work with albums such as Technical Ecstasy.
Van Halen, another important group in hard rock, formed in 1978. Van Halen's music was based mostly on the guitar skills of Eddie Van Halen, the lead guitarist. The song, "Eruption," from the album Van Halen, demonstrated Eddie Van Halen's technique and was very influential.
In 1979, the differences between the hard rock movement and the rising heavy metal movement were highlighted when the Australian hard rock band AC/DC released its second biggest album, Highway to Hell. AC/DC's music was based mostly on rhythm & blues and early-1970s hard rock, with the group explicitly repudiating the "heavy metal" tag.
Second era (1980s)
In 1980, Led Zeppelin disbanded after the sudden death of its drummer, John Bonham. Bon Scott, the lead singer of AC/DC, also passed away in 1980. With these deaths, the first wave of "classic" hard rock bands ended. Some bands, such as Queen, moved away from their hard rock roots and more towards pop. AC/DC however, remained on the scene, and recorded the album Back in Black, with their new lead singer Brian Johnson. Back in Black is the fourth biggest selling album of all time. By being so successful, AC/DC proved hard rock could be popular and made the rise of a radio-friendly hard rock and heavy metal possible. Van Halen, too, released many successful albums, such as Van Halen II and Women and Children First.
In 1981, the U.S. band Mötley Crüe, released an album called, Too Fast For Love, which set the basis for the rising genre, glam metal. Also, Def Leppard, an English hard rock band, released the album Pyromania, which reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts. Their music was a mix of glam rock, heavy metal, classic rock, and Album Oriented Rock, which influenced many 1980s hard rock and glam rock bands.
In 1983, Mötley Crüe released the album, Shout at the Devil, which became a huge hit, and Van Halen's album, 1984, became a huge success, hitting number two on Billboard album charts. In particular, the song "Jump" reached number one on the singles chart and is considered one of the most popular hard rock songs ever written. However, 1984 was also the first time the band included keyboards and synthesizers, marking a shift away from their original guitar-orientated style.
In 1984, KISS returned to the genre with the album Animalize. With their unmasking, they officially entered the glam metal movement. Judas Priest's Defenders of the Faith achieved RIAA Gold and Platinum certifications. Other important acts in 1984's glam metal scene were Ratt and W.A.S.P.
At the same time, musicians Yngwie J. Malmsteen and Steve Vai released their respective debut albums, Rising Force and Flex-Able. Their unique style did not feature vocals, with both albums showcasing the guitar-playing talents of the artists instead; this was the beginning of instrumental rock. There were differences between Malmsteen and Vai; while Malmsteen's music was greatly influenced by classical music, Vai was more hard rock-influenced.
In 1986, the Swedish band, Europe, released The Final Countdown, often considered the most popular and radio-friendly album, together with Van Halen's 1984. In particular, the title track, "The Final Countdown," became a huge success, reaching number one in 26 countries. Also in 1986, guitarist Joe Satriani, a friend of Steve Vai, released his first album, Not of This Earth. Satriani achieved further success in 1987, with the release of Surfing with the Alien, a milestone in the history of instrumental rock.
In 1987, the most notable successes in the charts were Appetite For Destruction by Guns N' Roses and Hysteria by Def Leppard (which reached number one on the Billboard album chart), Mötley Crüe's Girls, Girls, Girls and Whitesnake's 1987. In 1988, Skid Row was formed. Their first album, Skid Row, was released in 1989. Thrash metal was strongly transformed into groove metal, which would later evolve, into the nu metal genre.
Third era (1990s to Present)
The early 1990s were at first dominated by Guns N' Roses and Metallica. The multi-platinum releases of Metallica's Black Album and Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II in 1991 showcased this popularity. But the popularity of such bands waned, as their music and attitudes became more decadent and self-indulgent. In 1991, a new form of hard rock broke into the mainstream.
Grunge combined elements of hardcore punk and heavy metal into a dirty sound that made use of heavy guitar distortion, fuzz and feedback. Although most grunge bands had a sound that sharply contrasted with mainstream hard rock (for example Nirvana, Mudhoney and L7), a minority (for example Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog and even Soundgarden) were more strongly influenced by much 1970s and 1980s rock and metal. However, all grunge bands shunned the macho, anthemic and fashion-focused style of hard rock at that time.
In the UK, bands like Swervedriver, Catherine Wheel, and Ride demonstrated that guitar heroics could be incorporated into songs that lacked the often-misogynistic content of 1970s and 1980s hard rock bands. As the popularity of artists such as Metallica continued from the 1980s into the 1990s, some other bands had begun to fuse metal with a range of eclectic influences. These bands came to be known as alternative metal artists, a subset of alternative rock. Some, such as Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Living Colour, and White Zombie, fused funk with metal styles, though most of these bands actually formed in the '80s. Faith No More/Mr. Bungle fused many genres with hard rock, ranging from rap music to soul. Helmet and The Afghan Whigs were also successful experimental hard rock bands.
The Darkness' retro glam-metal influences helped propel them to the upper realms of the charts in the early 2000s, with the likes of Wolfmother. Towards the mid 2000s with new bands started to become mainstream, The Answer, Glitterati, The Datsuns, Nineteenth Century, and Punk influenced Towers of London are some of the new rock bands which followed up from the Garage rock revival. The biggest major hard rock band of recent years however, is supergroup Velvet Revolver. Made up of ex-members of Guns N' Roses primarily, the musicians have updated the sound of hard rock but also have a high quality pedigree to come from. This has helped revive the sleaze rock scene (for example, bands like Buckcherry, which Guns N' Roses Appetite For Destruction album is often credited with influencing).
The importance of hard rock
Hard rock music is a combination of extremities in music, from grunge, garage, and psychedelic rock to a traditional blues and pop rock sound, yet there is order and a singleness of purpose in any performance which brings a harmony of the polarizing opposites that has inspired many different genres of music. Over the years, heavy metal, glam metal, shock rock, speed metal, thrash metal, and alternative rock, among others, have taken their cue from hard rock and further developed the music scene to what it is today. Thus, hard rock could be considered the origin of the heavier styles of rock music.
- Dowley, Ruth. Hard rock. London: Andersen, 2006. ISBN 1842704672
- Jasper, Tony and Derek Oliver. The International Encyclopedia of Hard Rock & Heavy Metal. New York: Facts on File, 1985. ISBN 0816011001
- Kyriazi, Paul, Rod Taylor, Russ Tamblyn, Robert Culp, James Darren, Ishtar Uhvana, Netfa Perry, and George Chakiris. Hard Rock Lovers. Santa Monica, CA: Ronin Audio Books, 2006. ISBN 0971618321
All links retrieved November 23, 2020.
- Alternative Metal Urban Dictionary
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