No matter where you go, Rock is known and loved around the world. But, what is Rock Music? While the name comes from the 1950s era of Rock and Roll music, it’s now commonly applied to a huge range of sub-genres that bear little resemblance to one another.
So, I decided to take you back to the roots of Rock to discuss its origins and influences. Then, I’ll look at how these different influences pulled it in several different directions. And then, I’ll look at 20 different types of rock music that exist in the world today.
Think you know your stuff? You can test your rock godliness with Rock Trivia Madness, but I’d read this article first.
Rock and Roll
Whether you call it Rock & Roll or Rock ‘n’ Roll, this was the start of Rock Music and the defining force behind a massive worldwide success that continues today.
“Rock and roll” was originally used to describe the way ships moved over rough seas. From there, it became a pretty obvious euphemism for sex. But, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, this name was used for a particular new type of music that was becoming popular.
DJ Alan Freed…
He is credited with popularizing both the name and the musical style by playing fresh Rock and Roll records in heavy rotation in the 1950s. This was a new sound that developed out of jazz, blues, folk, country, and boogie-woogie, particularly rhythm and blues influences.
It was characterized by a strong backbeat on the drums, the old ‘boom-chick-boom-chick’ pattern that we still hear everywhere, along with a walking bass, and a strong, flamboyant lead instrument like the piano, sax, or the eventual favorite, the electric guitar.
The singing in Rock and roll had a strong verse-chorus alternation with some harmony or call and answer responses.
This format proved incredibly popular…
In a racially segregated 1950s America, Rock and Roll tore down barriers. The music had its roots in African-American styles but was popular across race lines. White musicians began to adopt the sound and, because of their social position, expanded its popularity.
Early pioneers such as Sister Rosette Tharpe, Fats Domino, and Goree Carter helped to originate the sound of Rock Music.
Chuck Berry, Bill Hayley and His Comets, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis pushed its popularity. Later, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley were able to make rock and roll a worldwide phenomenon.
What was it about Rock and Roll that made it catch on?
The swinging backbeat of Rock and Roll made it easy to dance to and helped spawn a trend for dance parties and new dance crazes like the Twist. The new 1950s technologies of electric guitars and amplifiers allowed bands to push the volume and also create never before heard sounds.
And the new technology of 45rpm records allowed teens everywhere to buy and share the latest singles. The rock and roll phenomenon was also youth-led – it was fun, exciting, and rebellious. And brought down a lot of racial boundaries being held in place by the status quo.
One of the very first spin-off genres was rockabilly. This was the name given to Southern rock and roll musicians and started as an insult.
It combines rock and roll with the word ‘hillbilly,’ an insulting name for country people. But, this name stuck and has even been carried proudly ever since.
It combined heavy influences from the growing rock and roll trends like swing, rhythm and blues, and boogie-woogie with more traditional country music elements like honky-tonk. Singers still sang in a country twang but worked in doo-wop and acapella style singing and harmonies.
The music was focused on boogie-woogie piano riffs, with bass and guitar for rhythm. The swinging backbeat of the drums propelled this music forward and gave it an exciting edge.
Performers like Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes), Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire), Johnny Cash (Folsom Prison Blues), and of course Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, That’s Alright Mama) helped to push this honky-tonk genre of Rock Music into the national consciousness.
Still rocking on…
Rockabilly had a resurgence from the late 70s to the 90s with bands like Rockpile and the Stray Cats. These bands kept the general sound of rockabilly and added a few modern pop and rock elements.
They also often stuck to a 1950s fashion style with matching suits and pompadour hairstyles to keep the rock alive. A heavier, more hardcore version called “Psychobilly” also developed, with bands like The Cramps, The Meteors, and Tiger Army as good examples.
Teen Idol Rock
To some, the Teen Idols were the opposite of rock and roll. After all, they sang a watered-down, highly produced, tame version of this popular music that seemed to betray what earlier rock and roll represented.
They were the first true sensations with cult-like followings, mostly of screaming teenage girls. But, there’s no denying that this is one direction that rock and roll went in, and for that, the idols deserve a mention.
We’re talking about fresh-faced, smartly-dressed young heartthrobs like Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Freddie Canon, Ricky Nelson, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Darin, and Bobby Vee.
That’s a lot of Bobby’s…
Teen Idol Rock was very produced compared to the rough and raw sounds of earlier rock and roll artists. They used quitter beats and focused on the singer’s sweet crooning.
While a lot of teen idols had faster songs, they mostly devolved into highly marketable slow ballads that bore little resemblance to rock.
British Rock and Roll
This name might make you think of the 1990s Brit-pop scene. But here, I’m talking about the original British Rock and Roll genre of the 1950s.
While Rock n Roll was developing and changing, there was no way this popular music style could be contained to American shores. And Britain was a perfect place to receive it and make its own version.
Britain already had seen increasing popularity in jazz, boogie-woogie, and blues music, all imported from America. So, when rock and roll came around, it was similarly adopted and also influenced again by those earlier styles.
Across the pond and back…
Most people see British rock and roll as a watered-down, copied version of the original, and they’ve got a point. But, this style still helped to influence later skiffle and then beat music styles which then came back to America as a new sound.
Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan, Cliff Richard and the Drifters (and the Shadows), Billy Fury, Tony Sheridan, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates are the most notable British rock and rollers from the 1950s. But you’ll be forgiven if you haven’t heard of a lot of them.
While 1950s British rock and roll didn’t get very far, our next entry on this list of 20 different types of rock music certainly did.
You’ll never walk alone…
Beat music or Merseybeat is a style that came out of the area of Liverpool, England, in the early 1960s. And, if that seems to ring a bell, it’s because that’s also where The Beatles came from. Coincidence? I think not!
Merseybeat, or just “beat” music, was a child of earlier rock and roll. It used a strong bass-snare-bass-snare beat. But, rather than focusing on just the 2 and 4 beats, it placed weight on all 4 beats in a bar.
This, and driving bass, were the background for lengthier guitar strumming, creating a distinct sound. One that had the kids up and dancing.
Who led the charge?
Notable groups like The Searchers, Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Spencer Davis Group, and The Moody Blues helped to develop this genre of rock music.
Later, the sound blew up in the UK and overseas with The Beatles, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, Donovan, and many more.
Yes, The Beatles were a beat band, hence the name. They led the “British Invasion,” which other British bands that played different styles of Rock n Roll also took advantage of in the mid-1960s.
While The Beatles were invading America with Merseybeat, another style of rock music was brewing. In the UK, bands like The Animals, The Yardbirds, and especially The Rolling Stones were blending a big blues influence back into the developing rock and roll they heard around them.
In the US, Canned Heat and Lonnie Mack were doing the same. These bands either covered old blues songs from the likes of Jimmie Dixon and Muddy Waters or wrote their own songs in a similar style. But, they added more rock elements, including guitar solos and faster tempos.
In the late 1960s…
Merseybeat was on its way out, and Blues Rock was in in a big way. This genre spawned some legendary guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page (was Jimmy the new Bobby?).
Eventually, this genre inspired a whole host of other genres, especially hard rock and Southern rock. Furthermore, this was a hugely influential genre that is still popular today.
The Rolling Stones are still rolling on. And bands like The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and John Spencer Blues Explosion are still classified as Blues Rock bands. Albeit with a harder, edgier sound.
In the early 1960s, at the same time that the Brits were invading America, something else was brewing out on the west coast. Later becoming known as the “California sound,” Surf Rock came in two different types, but both were extremely successful.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Instrumental Surf Rock was a huge hit. This music was almost entirely focused on the fast-picking guitar sounds of pioneers like Dick Dale and The Surfaris, famous for their recording of Wipeout.
Guitarists used heavy reverb, which was supposed to sound “wet,” like ocean waves. It generally had fast beats and represented the fast cars and fun surf culture that was taking off at the time.
Vocal groups were also experimenting with new sounds. Taking rock and roll and mixing in doo-wop and close harmony singing styles, groups like Jan and Dean and the inimitable Beach Boys did something new.
They used multi-track recording to bring vocals to the fore. But also experimented with guitar sounds using reverb and more effects. The Beach Boys, in particular, wrote songs about what was popular with youths at the time. Their early songs are about cars, surfing, and romance.
Cuz hey, what else is there?
Surf rock was heard in the theme song for “Dr. No,” the first James Bond movie, and later all over the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack. While this genre peaked in the 60s, the guitar sound, in particular, hasn’t disappeared. Instead, it has influenced bands like The Who, The Pixies, and many more.
Garage rock is exactly what it sounds like. In the 1950s and 1960s, rock music was a huge, inescapable part of popular culture. And in the mid-1960s, technology was advancing, and the economy was booming.
This made it easier than ever before for regular folks to purchase musical instruments and equipment. It became cheaper than ever to outfit a band, and that meant you didn’t have to stick to only what you were sure would sell.
And so, Garage Rock was born…
This was both a very basic genre and an experimental one. It was basic because the people playing garage rock weren’t necessarily the most talented or professional of musicians. Many were just making music on the side.
They kept their songs simple, using power chords and other easy-to-learn techniques. But, they also experimented with things like distortion, fuzz, and reverb. Perhaps in an attempt to create a cool sound without great musicianship.
G, C, and D…
Garage bands perfected the 3-chord song and laid the groundwork for later Punk Rock bands. They also had hit songs, like “Hang on Sloopy” by The McCoys and “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs.
And while Garage Rock went out of style in the late 1960s, rock bands starting by playing in garages is still very much a thing.
We’ve already mentioned a bit about sex and rock and roll on this list of 20 different types of rock music. So, if you were wondering where ‘drugs’ comes in, it’s now.
Just like the name suggests, Psychedelic Rock wasn’t based around just any drugs (like alcohol or sugar). It was heavily influenced by the 1960s psychedelic drug culture that focused on magic mushrooms, marijuana, and, of course, LSD.
All of these drugs shared things like hallucinations, distorted sense of time and place, and disconnection from reality. And so did the music. Or, at least, that’s what psych-rockers hoped.
They used numerous effects…
…both live and in the studio, to create new and different sensations through their music. Also, they incorporated different “world music” influences, like Indian and Middle Eastern instruments and modalities.
They jammed more and had more jazz-influenced, free-form songs. And they sang about internal journeys, drug-induced experiences, and surrealist themes.
What bands are we talking about here?
Some massive Psychedelic Rock Bands include The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, Cream, and Procul Harem. The Beatles’ later work is also in this category, especially the albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band and Revolver, and so is Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.
Psychedelic Rock’s extended use of effects and new sounds was a huge influence on lots of genres. Especially our next and most popular type of Rock Music.
As Rock Music developed all over America and the world, there were a lot of new directions to take it. Rock instrumentation became a triumvirate of guitar, bass, and drums.
But, there was still a lot that could be done with just those three instruments. One direction that Rock Music was inevitably going to go into was Hard Rock.
Bigger, harder, faster, stronger…
This is a genre that eventually got harder, faster, and heavier and spawned its own progeny, Heavy Metal. But that’s a whole other story. Hard Rock developed from the different types of rock music that were played in the mid-1960s.
Musicians started to play harder and faster with more vigorous energy. Guitarists used more effects, especially reverb and distortion, for a grittier, dirtier sound. And singers took notes from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, letting their performances get growlier and dirtier, too.
Who are the hard rockers?
Cream, The Jeff Beck Group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Kinks, The Who, The Animals, and even The Beatles all contributed to the development of the Hard Rock sound.
This was then picked up and built on by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and even Black Sabbath, developments that led to metal. Later, in the 1980s, hard rock led to hair metal, but that’s something I think most of us would rather forget.
So, what makes hard rock ‘hard’?
Heavy, driving beats on the drums, loud, distorted guitars, and driving bass form the basis for Hard Rock. Vocals that are sung with grit, shouted, shrieked, or even screamed to give Hard Rock its edge and differentiate it from other, softer forms of rock music.
If you’ve got hard, you’ve gotta have soft, too. In the 60s and 70s, Rock split into yet another branch, taking the standard rock instrumentation and general sound but making it light, airy, and very inoffensive. This is Soft Rock or Light Rock.
Soft Rock legends include Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, The Carpenters, The Bee Gees, Bread, Ann Murray, John Denver, Elton John, The Eagles, and Chicago; the list goes on and on. Soft Rock has morphed into a new term, Adult Contemporary, but continues to be pleasant, light, and just plain nice.
Rock exploded in the 60s. Youth culture was on the rise, and with it, the ever-growing and expanding world of music. While some artists were taking things into a harder and noisier realm, others pushed the technical side of their music.
Progressive rock, better known as “Prog,” was both a reaction to simplified and repetitive Rock Music and a step in favor of virtuosity and musicianship. It was influenced by both rock music and also the experimental jazz of the time.
Prog also expanded the instrumentation of Rock Music, including things like woodwinds, strings, and keys. Songs got longer and more complicated, often involving time signature and tempo changes.
Many Prog Rock songs were works of compositional genius and went on for far longer than the standard 3-minute radio format encouraged.
The experimental work of The Beatles and Beach Boys was a big influence on Prog. And by the late 60s and early 70s, bands like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, Rush, and Van der Graaf Generator had created a whole new genre of rock music.
Perhaps not a distinctive sound, Jam Rock is still a distinct rock genre. Developing from the psychedelic bands of the 1960s, Jam Rock bands began to take shape and also build huge followings.
Bands like The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead started to play long concerts and tour frequently. Fans started to follow them around as a sort of pilgrimage or cult-like group, most notably the Deadheads.
These bands would constantly tour and play long improvised jams on their songs. So, every concert became a unique experience.
In the 80s and 90s…
Jam bands had a bit of a resurgence, with groups like Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveller, and The String Cheese Incident taking up the torch. Jam Rock remains very much a live concert experience-based genre.
This may be less of a genre based on sound than one based on creativity. In the late 1960s, many players decided to take things in yet another direction. It wasn’t necessarily hard like Hard Rock, drug-based like Psychedelic Rock, or technically focused like Progressive Rock. Instead, it was weird.
Bands and solo artists started to play around with not only their sound but also song structure, instrumentation, and lyrical themes. There was an emphasis on absurdity and shock as well in some Experimental Rock groups.
Scientists of Rock Music…
The Velvet Underground pushed soundscapes to a whole different dimension. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention pushed creative boundaries and absurdity. And acts like The Plastic Ono Band and Captain Beefheart combined weird sounds with weird performances.
German acts like Kraftwerk and Can were labeled Krautrock and experimented with all sorts of sounds. American band Devo was an early pioneer in audio-visual experimentation and electronic instruments.
Space Rock, one of the strangest types of rock music, also started in the 1960s. What didn’t?
New sounds from psyche-rock and experimental bands were combined with the growing influence of space exploration and Sci-Fi on popular culture. Bands started to make sounds that they thought of as space-age, robotic, or representing the cold, open distances of space.
Bands like Pink Floyd and The Beatles influenced the generally droning and airy sound of Space Rock. But, bands like Hawkwind, Gong, and Spacemen 3 were probably the best examples of this genre.
This genre started in the 1970s, although it’s still going strong today. Southern Rock grew out of Rock and Roll with a strong return to blues and country influences.
Bands like The Allman Brothers Band, The Band, and CCR created this twangy-sounding version of Rock Music. Later, ZZ Top, Lynard Skynard, and The Black Crowes also helped to define the Southern sound.
In the 1970s, the world had changed. America had seen the devastation of the Vietnam War and massive changes in politics, drug use, and society at large. Music was all over the place, more than ever before, and it was also even easier than ever to start up a band.
Economic downturns also left a lot of unemployed and disaffected youth with a chip on their shoulder. Some of these young people started to express themselves in a rebellious, anti-everything subculture that would be labeled “Punk.”
New York and London were hotbeds for a new angry, aggressive, and basic form of Rock Music – Punk Rock. Bands were started quickly as the punk sound was decidedly DIY and based more on energy than musicianship.
Legendary Punk Rock bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, and The Clash tore down boundaries and pissed off a lot of people. A second wave of punk included bands like The Cramps, The Dead Boys, The Exploited, and The Misfits.
Now, Punk Rock has diversified into many sub-genres, like Hardcore, Emo, Crust-Punk, and more. It’s its own beast now. So much so that instead of a list of 20 different types of Rock Music, I could do one on 20 different types of Punk Rock Music. And it’d be brutal.
New Wave was originally another name applied to bands in the Punk Rock genre. However, these bands quickly became differentiated from the harder punk rock scene.
New Wave bands used simple composition and instrumentation and a lot of energy borrowed from punk. But, they also toned things down and introduced a more pop-oriented sound that made them safer.
We’re talking about bands like The Cars, Talking Heads, Blondie, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and even The Police here. New Wave bands also brought a punk look and style into the mainstream.
Growing out of Punk Rock, Noise Rock is an extension of the attitude, not the sound. If Punk Rock was about social rebellion, Noise Rock is about sonic rebellion. It’s about creating walls of sound and bizarre sounds rather than focusing on song structure.
The Velvet Underground may have been a forerunner of this style, but bands like Sonic Youth, Big Black, Swans, and The Jesus Lizard give you a good idea of this style.
Is this a type of rock music? The name would suggest otherwise. Then again, it still includes the word ‘rock.’ This is because Post-rock still uses the typical rock instrumentation of bass, drums, and guitar.
However, Post-rockers don’t follow the typical format or song structure of rock and roll or other branches of rock music. Instead, Post-rock bands create swelling, ambient soundscapes, often by introducing keyboards and other electronic instruments.
Talk Talk and Slint may have been the pioneers of Post-rock. But, it was bands like Tortoise, Stereolab, Toe, Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Do Make Say Think, Explosions in the Sky, and Black Emperor who came to define the Post-rock sound.
Want to Learn More About Rock Music?
We can help. Take a look at our detailed articles on The Essential Instruments in a Rock Band, the Best Grunge Bands of the 90s, the Best Rock Drummers of All Time, and the Best Metal Drummers of All Time for more great Rock Music selections.
You’ll need to hear it all. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Best Headphones Under $200, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Most Comfortable Earbuds, and the Best Noise Isolating Earbuds you can buy in 2023.
20 Different Types of Rock Music – Conclusion
I’ve looked at 20 styles of Rock Music, from the original Rock n Roll down to its many branches. But, there are many sub-branches to still explore.
Prog led to the development of complex Math Rock. Hard rock led to 70s/80s Glam Rock. Punk Rock led to Emo and Happy Hardcore. Experimental Rock led to Electronic Rock, and so on and so on. You can learn more about rock’s history and expansion in the History of Rock and Roll Vol.1 and Vol2.
But one thing is certain. Rock’s not dead. It’s not even sleeping. It simply keeps branching and expanding, getting bigger and more pervasive as time goes on.
So, until next time, Rock On!