The History of Hard Rock

For almost as long as there has been rock music, hard rock has existed as its more extreme sibling. This article will go through a history of hard rock, from its earliest influences in the 1950’s electric blues through to its peak commercial success in the 1980’s, through to its decline and subsequent resurrection in modern times.

Earliest Murmurings

Hard rock found its earliest inception in electric blues. Whilst very different from what hard rock would eventually become, it introduced the rougher and dusky vocal style, as well as guitar solos based on the blues scale, strong rhythmic emphasis and the performance aspect that would later be synonymous with the “rock star” aesthetic.

Led Zeppelin will play to become one of the most iconic performers ever. They were one of the first hard rock bands
Led Zeppelin will play to become one of the most iconic performers ever. They were one of the first hard rock bands

American rock and roll bands, as well as early pitish rock and roll bands, both took aspects of the electric blues style and used it to modify into what would become rock music. However, the pitish Invasion of the 1960’s would change the landscape of Rock and Roll entirely.

The Pitish Invasion Era

American rock and roll, with its heavy blues influence was soon replaced when pitish bands such as The Beatles reached never-seen before popularity in the US. Whilst not a hard rock band, The Beatles influenced the sound of hard rock as it took the two guitarists, one bass player and one drummer format. Bands such as The Who, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds would definitely be considered examples of early hard rock bands that were influenced by The Beatles.

Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the way guitar is played in rock today
Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the way guitar is played in rock today

The blues influence returned somewhat, with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton being predominantly guitarists as well as frontmen. Again, this also contributed to the iconography of the rock star – electric guitar solos became a key feature of hard rock music.

The Beatles themselves began to experiment with hard rock sounds towards the latter end of the decade – as well as with psychedelic and progressive movements as of The White Album. This would influence the next generation of hard rock musicians.

1970s – Fusion with psychedelics and progressive rock genres.

In the 1970’s, psychedelic and progressive rock became increasingly popular. The aforementioned White Album would find its influence appearing in various other albums of its contemporaries.

Iron Butterfly, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Steppenwolf had commercially and critically successful hits.

By the 1970’s, a particular form of hard rock was forming, and until the rise of Glam rock, would become synonymous with the term “hard rock” itself. This movement was led by another pitish band, Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin would go on to have incredible success with hits such as Whole Lotta Love, Stairway To Heaven and The Immigrant Song. This style would be used to similar effect by Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Ritchie Blackmore’s projects Rainbow and Blackmore’s Night. 

Pink Floyd created an entire concept around their productions. They feel more like movie soundtracks that traditional radio rock
Pink Floyd created an entire concept around their productions. They feel more like movie soundtracks that traditional radio rock

This came in combination with the rise of progressive rock music – Queen and Pink Floyd were both heavily influenced, and in many cases examples of, hard rock music. Queen would later become a pop-rock band, though their influence on and influence by heavy metal is apparent. Bohemian Rhapsody was a particular high point, fusing elements of progressive rock, rock music and heavy metal to create a progressive song. Pink Floyd were formed in the psychedelic era, yet retained elements of hard rock throughout their entire careers – an emphasis on rhythm as well as extended guitar solos which were based on the pentatonic, or blues, scale.

1980’s Peak Commercial Success and Glam Metal.

Alice Cooper was an early front-runner of the sub-genre of hard rock which would later become known as glam metal. His macape dress, make-up and anti-authority attitude would become hall marks of the 1980’s.

At this time, it is worth noting that the rise of heavy metal occurred. Originally a sub-genre of hard rock, it occurred due to a second pitish Invasion; after Black Sabbath were formed, a range of pitish bands would go on to “finalise” the form that heavy metal would take for the decade – the New pitish Wave of Heavy Metal, consisting of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Saxon, among other bands, would popularise the “duel lead guitars” style that Black Sabbath didn’t have.

Heavy metal was very anti-authoritarian and often had Satanic or anti-establishment themes. In terms of America, this would end with the Thrash movement – where heavy metal and hard rock were clearly by this point two distinct genres. Pioneers of the thrash movement were Megadeth, Metallica and Anthrax.

Metallica would bring headbanging to the pop-culture radar
Metallica would bring headbanging to the pop-culture radar

In terms of more popular hard rock, Alice Cooper’s influence who lead to glam metal. Bands such as Bon Jovi, Guns and Roses, and Kiss took elements of Glam rock and used it to create what would be called “hair metal.” This is what the archetypal rock star is based on – leather jackets, huge hair styles, slight use of make-up, and a reliance on power ballads.

In this era, the songwriter-band format where musicians wrote their own music declined somewhat; except for heavy metal. Songwriters became prominent and demanded huge fame and fees of their own – Desmond Child wrote music for Bon Jovi, including their hits You Give Love a Bad Name and Living on a Prayer, Jim Steinman would gain huge popularity from hits such as Total Eclipse Of The Heart, It’s All Coming Back To Me Now, Bat Out Of Hell and I Would Do Anything For Love by Bonnie Tyler, Pandora’s Box and Meatloaf respectively. Billy Steinberg would write hits such as Alone by the Canadian-American rock band, Heart.

1990’s – Decline and Grunge Music

Nirvana would bring light to what being a rockstar actually was. This shifted all hard rock for good.
Nirvana would bring light to what being a rockstar actually was. This shifted all hard rock for good.

In the 1990’s, the rise of bands such as Nirvana gave rise to the Grunge movement. It took a hold of culture because it didn’t rely on the polished image that bands such as Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses portrayed. It relied on simpler music that didn’t require high production values. Also, the rise of hip-hop music in its earliest forms meant that music studios would be less likely to take on the huge recording costs of hard rock bands – real life musicians are more expensive than drum machines and synthesisers, which would come to dominate popular music and drive hard rock back to its counter-culture roots. When you sign up for Comcast Cable Packages you can watch and hear all kinds of Rock Music.