Hard Rock Music: History, Artists & Bands

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explain the history of the hard rock subgenre. We will explore how genre distinctions are made and how hard rock came to be defined as distinct from other types of rock music.

Hard Rock Subgenres

Popular music genres are constantly spawning new subgenres. What exactly are the differences between rock'n'roll, rock, hard rock, heavy metal, soft rock, progressive rock and on, and on, and on? As the popular music scholar Simon Frith has observed, for fans of music, talking about popular music is just as important as the music itself.

Hard rock is one of the many subgenres that distinguishes a certain type of rock music from other types of rock music. Hard rock is characterized by an emphasis on bluesy guitar riffs, powerful vocals, and heavy, thunderous drums.

In order to understand what makes a subgenre like hard rock meaningful, we must understand the other genres that contrast it. For instance, soft rock is characterized by catchy melodies, ballads, relatively light drumming, and soothing vocals. Hard rock, in comparison, is characterized by more driving melodies, few ballads, guitar solos, loud drumming, and vocals that approach shouting or screaming. Both of these subgenres - soft rock and hard rock - make sense in comparison to one another. Soft rock and hard rock are subgenre terms created by fans and journalists to explain the different poles of the rock spectrum.

Origins of Hard Rock

Hard rock came about as a subgenre in the 1960s. Rock music was still very much in its early days. The 1950s saw rock music, or rock'n'roll as it was often called in the 50s and 60s, explode onto the stage of American popular culture with dramatic force. African-American based rhythm and blues was fused with southern country and western genres to create a genre that would define youth culture in the middle of the 20th century. Artists like Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Buddy Holly enraptured young audiences and outraged conservative parents throughout the 1950s.

By the early 1960s, rock'n'roll had started to splinter into numerous subgenres. While the rock'n'roll of the 1950s was deeply rooted in rhythm and blues, the rock'n'roll of the 1960s assimilated many other influences from other popular genres. The girl groups of the early 60s like the Supremes, the Shirelles, and the Crystals fused the vocal pop music of the 1940s with rhythm and blues, as well as rock'n'roll, to make the first major distinction between the more hard edged rock and the more pop-friendly versions of rock. As British rock groups started appearing in droves, sparking what would be called the British Invasion, the distinction between softer rock and harder rock become more apparent.

The Late 1960s and the Splintering of Rock

As the 1960s wore on and the subcultures surrounding rock music became more polarized, the distinction between pop and rock become more significant. The harder versions of rock become more political, with some specializing in lyrics criticizing the Vietnam War or the repressive conformity of the 1950s. The folk music scene in America had expressed a leftist ideological streak for decades, and rock music began to assimilate many of these tendencies. For many, Bob Dylan was the most visible bridge between the worlds of left-leaning folk and politically conscious rock.

Keith Moon, charismatic drummer for the Who.

Many of the British bands that began as much more pop-friendly, easy listening version of rock in the early 1960s had become much harder and more experiential by the second part of the decade. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and especially the Who set the stage for the distinction between hard rock and soft rock. The Beatles delighted in LSD inspired psychedelia, the Rolling Stones rediscovered their hard-edged, bluesy roots, and the Who destroyed their fans' eardrums figuratively, and their instruments literally, with the most intense rock music of the era.

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