Styles & Forms | Hard Rock

Hard rock is a cross between rock’n’roll and blues, but played louder – everything on ‘11’ or ‘one louder’, as guitarist Nigel Tufnell in spoof rock band Spinal Tap would say. The electric guitar is the prominent instrument in hard rock, and most hard rock songs are based on a guitar ‘riff’.

The classic example of a hard rock guitar riff is the ‘dur, dur, dur...’ beginning of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’ from Machine Head (1972) – gloriously simple and yet spectacularly effective and memorable. A ‘riff’ is a short series of notes, often in a low register, repeated several times at the beginning of a song and then repeated several times later in the song.

The first hard rock bands such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and Led Zeppelin, emerged at the end of the 1960s. It is difficult to overestimate the contribution Jimi Hendrix made to rock music in general and hard rock in particular by revolutionizing the electric guitar, inventing a whole new sonic vocabulary including harnessing distortion and feedback for musical effect, as can be heard in ‘Foxy Lady’ from Are You Experienced? (1967). Cream, featuring Eric Clapton on guitar after he left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, made onstage jamming for rock musicians a viable proposition, as can be heard in their rollercoaster ride through Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’ from Wheels Of Fire (1968), and many hard rock bands place an importance on instrumental prowess.

Formed by guitarist Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin demonstrate that hard rock is a broader arena than its critics would have listeners believe. Their first album Led Zeppelin (1969) is heavily blues-based, Led Zeppelin II (1969) includes the bombastic ‘Whole Lotta Love’ which, along with Black Sabbath, was heavily influential on the heavy metal style. Led Zeppelin III (1970) shows a folky, acoustic side, and Led Zeppelin IV (1971) includes the famous ‘Stairway To Heaven’, one of the band’s most ambitious and popular songs.


Many listeners may regard hard rock and heavy metal as interchangeable, and while there is an overlap, there are also significant distinctions. Hard rock is generally blues-based and sometimes played with a swing feel or at least a certain blues-derived ‘swagger’, whereas heavy metal, as inspired by Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and Black Sabbath, is far less blues-based and is more brutal.

British band Queen took hard rock to a new level of sophistication with the semi-operatic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ from A Night At The Opera (1975), which includes a long multi-tracked vocal section which the band were understandably unable to recreate live, followed by a pummelling riff section – contrast between delicate interludes and fortissimo (‘as loud as possible’) riffing is popular in hard rock bands. It certainly cannot be termed as subtle …

Interest in hard rock declined in the mid-70s as the scene became rather stale and punk rock​ and new wave captured listeners’ attention, but was rejuvenated by American band...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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