Instruments in Rock Music

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  • 0:01 A Wide Range of Rock
  • 0:40 The Rhythm Section
  • 3:00 Lead Instruments
  • 4:10 Other Instruments
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Rock music contains a wide variety of sounds, but the instrumentation of a rock band usually follows a set pattern. In this lesson, you'll learn about the typical instruments and some variations.

A Wide Range of Rock

Rock 'n' roll has evolved tremendously in the last sixty years. Think of the difference between those early rock pioneers, Chuck Berry for example, and acts that are currently touring like Avenged Sevenfold or The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Consider the difference between classic bands like The Beatles and Queen. There's a wide gulf between the country-influenced harmonies of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the crunching chords of Metallica, yet they all have a place under the umbrella term rock music. So many sounds exist in rock, but there's a standard set of instruments that make up the majority of rock bands: guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.

The Rhythm Section

Rock music relies heavily on the rhythm section to create the beat that propels the song. The typical rock rhythm section consists of drums, bass guitar, and a rhythm guitar. The focus of the rhythm section is to drive the song and keep a steady tempo so the lead instruments and vocals can play the melody.

The drummer typically sits at the back of the band and plays a drum kit, a collection of drums of various sizes along with cymbals and other percussion instruments. Some drummers use a kit with only a few drums, like Ringo Starr of The Beatles, who typically used four to five drums and three cymbals in his kit. Other rock drummers play surrounded by drums, cymbals, chimes, and even more exotic percussion, like a Chinese gong. Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, was well known for his extensive kit that included over thirty pieces, both acoustic and electronic. While there was a brief shift towards electronic drums in the 80s, most rock bands now use some variation on a traditional drum kit.

Rock bands normally have an electric bass, which looks like a larger guitar with thicker strings. Most basses have four strings, but some players use five or six string bass guitars. Some rock 'n' roll genres, such as rockabilly, feature upright acoustic basses, like those found in orchestras, but a rock bass is typically played by plucking or slapping the strings rather than by using a bow. The bass player's role is to provide the low sounds, what musicians call the bottom end. While the bass is almost always a rhythm instrument, some bass players grab the spotlight and solo. Cliff Burton, the original bass player for Metallica, rocked a few long solos and played his instrument with his fingers rather than using a pick. In contrast, bass players like Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Les Claypool from Primus, use a slap technique that involves hitting the low strings with the side of the thumb and pulling the higher two strings to create notes that pop.

Rhythm guitar is often played on a six string electric guitar, but some musicians use acoustic guitars as well. The rhythm guitar player strums a series of chords, which are groups of notes that work well together. He or she works with the drummer and bass player to set the rhythm and tempo, or speed for the song. Joan Jett may be known as a singer, but her rhythm guitar work is widely held to be among the best in the history of rock. It's her catchy guitar riffs that make her songs memorable.

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