Early Types of Rock Music

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

This lesson takes you back in time to the early days of rock music in the 1950s and '60s. You'll learn the differences between the rock music styles of that time and how they relate to one another.

Variations in Style

The rock music we hear today has evolved from many different earlier incarnations of the style. You'll notice when you listen to rock that the sounds can change dramatically from one group to the next. This was the case even in the early days of this genre.

This lesson reflects back on the early days of rock and considers five types of rock in particular. At times, these genres overlap and have influenced one another.

Blues Rock

Blues rock combines elements of blues music and a rock sound that tends to be more fast-paced and repetitious. Groups like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Animals, and guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix are considered part of this style for their strong relationship to the blues.

Blues music is known for its unique beats and tones and an improvisational style. The genre is considered a core American tradition, rooted primarily in the experiences of African Americans.

Much of what we recognize as rock music has its roots in the blues. Even other styles that are not considered this particular type draw from the rhythm and blues sound of famous artists like Muddy Waters, Chester 'Howlin' Wolf' Burnett, and Bo Diddley. These figures started their careers prior to the rock of the 1950s.


Rockabilly is a type of rock that blends rhythm and blues with country music. It was referred to as 'hillbilly' music during this era. Rock legends like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley can be considered rockabilly.

Berry's 1955 song 'Maybellene', for instance, is known to combine a rhythm and blues beat with guitar sounds that are inspired by country music. This became a massive hit in part due to its unique sound and catchy tune delivered by the extraordinarily talented Berry. In addition, the lyrics tell a relatable story about a love interest who isn't faithful. Souped-up cars, known as hot rods, are a central element of the story too. Teenagers of the time related to the music in ways they didn't relate to their parents' music.

Chuck Berry included a country sound in his rock music.
Chuck Berry with his guitar

Surf Rock

The term surf rock is used to describe two somewhat different approaches. One type is that of the Beach Boys and other similar bands, who sang lyrics related to surf culture of the 1960s, often to an upbeat tempo. When most people think of surf rock, they probably think of this form, which included harmonizing among a group of vocalists.

Another type of surf rock is an instrumental style, without singers. A pioneer of this style of surf music was Dick Dale, known as 'The King of the Surf Guitar'. In another instance of overlap of genres, his song Miserlou is a traditional folk song of Greece, reworked by Dale to be surf rock.

Many surf rock songs will include sounds that make you think of the waves of an ocean, through the use of reverb, or reverberation. Reverb is the effect of an instrument interacting with its environment. Changing this can manipulate the level of echoes produced. Using reverb, surf rockers are able to create a very engaging sound, unlike what you might hear in other music.

Folk Rock

Folk rock can be described as the combination of folk and rock music.

What exactly is folk music? This is hard to pin down, because folk traditions cover a broad range of sounds and traditions. You can think of folk music as frequently relating to the history and experiences of people, passed from one person to another. The music is typically arranged in simple melodies that are relatively easy to duplicate.

Folk rock took this tradition and also incorporated a more significant beat. Although folk music is typically associated with acoustic guitars that are without electric amplification, sometimes the element of electric guitars was added, an invention that was also important to many types of rock. Examples of folk rock artists are The Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Mamas and the Papas, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Particularly during the 1960s, the themes of 'protest' and 'change' were often prevalent in these songs. From concerns over war and civil rights to experiences of personal loss or liberation, the music hit a nerve for many. Songs from this era even had the capacity to solidify and motivate groups to take action.

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