Gather round because in today’s lesson, I’ll be diving into one of the best genres on the planet, rock. And for all the people out there who just thought that there was classic rock, hard rock, and rock, I’m here to welcome you to a ton of other rock genres to classify your favorite tunes into. And I’m going to tell you why they’re named what they are.
In no way is this a comprehensive list, because there are hundreds of different rock sub-genres. But it’ll give you a good overall vibe of just how deep down the rabbit hole you can go.
Let’s start this trip with…
Notable Artists: Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans, and The Savage Resurrection
Call it acid rock or psychedelic rock, but either way, it comes from mid-’60s garage punk movement and is usually stylized with heavy distortion, long (often) improvised jam sessions, and obviously, drug references. Acid rock could be considered a sub-genre of psychedelic rock, but that’s up to you.
Notable Artists: Siouxsie and the Banshees, Violent Femmes, and Red Hot Chili Peppers
Alternative or alt-rock started fluttering around in the ’80s as, exactly as the name hints, an alternative to mainstream rock. As far as rock genres go, this is basically a blanket term put on rock music that you could say, “Isn’t your parents’ rock ‘n’ roll.” At this point, it’s lost most of its meaning.
Notable Artists: the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and Yes
This one is tough. Art rock is basically an artistic statement in the form of music. It’s often challenging and extremely experimental in its rhythms, time signatures, and overall vibe. In a lot of cases, art rock is something more to think about and reflect upon than dance or sing along with.
Notable Artists: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin
Don’t get this one confused with the blues, this is blues rock. At its simplest, it’s a fusion of blues and rock. Often it takes the blues style, speeds it up, and gives it a kick of rock ‘n’ roll aggression. A lot more music than you think could be thrown into this category.
Notable Artists: The Crusaders, DC Talk, and Jars of Clay
Take rock music, add lyrics focusing on Christianity, Jesus, and God, have it performed by (often) self-proclaimed Christians, and you’ve got Christian rock. While it started around the ’60s, there was a big resurgence in the ’90s as well.
Notable Artists: David Bowie, INXS, and Liquid Liquid
Dance rock or dance-oriented rock is just that; rock ‘n’ roll made for dancing. It emerged right after disco died. People still wanted to hit the club but didn’t want to listen to that old music their parents listened to. Think of it as a fusion of disco, funk, and rock that makes you move.
Notable Artists: 45 Grave, Kommunity FK, and Christian Death
This isn’t death metal, we’re still focusing on rock genres here. Mix up darker themes, horror, gothic elements, and punk, and you’ve got death rock. If the focus of most songs is around death and it’s rock music, you can safely group it in this category.
Notable Artists: Jimmy Eat World, My Chemical Romance, and Brand New
Short for emotional. When this first started up in the ’80s, it stemmed off of post-hardcore as emotional hardcore or emocore. The sound is a fusion of punk, rock, and hardcore with confessional lyrics.
Notable Artists: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield
Take folk music and mix it up with the electric guitar and drums from rock and you have folk rock. This form of rock came about in the mid-’60s to describe The Byrds. In the folk community, adding electric instruments was a no-no, but thankfully, music knows no bounds and some of the best music of all time evolved out of it.
Notable Artists: Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, and George Clinton
Bring on that funky bass line, drums, and electric guitar. With funk rock, you’ll still feel the jazz, rhythm, and blues that it stems from, but the volume is turned all the way up to 11. You might even get some drum machines or synths if you’re lucky.
Notable Artists: Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Sonics, and The Kingsmen
If you’re looking for raw energy, this is where you’ll find it. Picture a group shredding together in a garage with electric guitars, bass, drums, (most likely) easy chord progressions, and a whole bunch of aggression. Congrats! You’re thinking of a garage rock band. It all started in the late ’50s/early ’60s and blew up during the British Invasion. People were motivated to start their own bands. Guess where they practiced.
Notable Artists: Ziggy Stardust, New York Dolls, and Gary Glitter
Get your costumes ready, because this is all about the glamorous side of things. The music can range across rock genres, but the style, costumes, makeup, and hair are true throughout it all. We have to thank the U.K. for this one, starting up there in the early ’70s. It’s hard not to think of glam rock without thinking of Bowie.
Notable Artists: Alice Cooper, The Cure, and Bauhaus
The post-punk of the late ’70s brought about a whole new, darker sound with gothic overtones. It grabs onto the romanticism of the dark and death and rocking out to it. It’s often found supporting the fashion side of glam but with a darker palate. While he didn’t start the genre, Alice Cooper is the godfather of it.
Notable Artists: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains’
Thank you to the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a sub-genre of alternative rock. The funny thing about the term is that it was first used as a descriptor of the music, not a genre, but it stuck. The sound is a mix of rock, punk, and metal known for its sloppy side. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be incredible.
Notable Artists: AC/DC, KISS, and The Who.
Think about rock ‘n’ roll. Okay, now think about metal. Okay… right in the middle is hard rock. This one is pretty simple, but it’s aggressive vocals, guitar, drums, and just an overall heavier sound. It’s often found existing very close to and in conjunction with metal, but the two genres are not the same.
Notable Artists: n/a
Indie is short for independent. This one is a tough one to nail down because it started up as a sub-genre of alt-rock. But at this point, the lines are super blurred. Indie is all about the DIY feel, the small scale, and a smaller budget. A lot of your favorite indie bands might not be indie, but used to be at one point… and many of your favorite massive bands might be indie. It’s a tricky label to use these days.
Notable Artists: The Free Spirits, The Grateful Dead, and Miles Davis.
Often referred to as fusion, this genre started in the ’60s with a combination of jazz harmony and improvisation combined with rhythm and blues, funk, and rock. It also introduced electronic instruments and amplification across the genre.
Notable Artists: Ritchie Valens, The Champs, and Santana.
First off, this is not rock music from Latin America. Rock music from Latin America is “rock music.” Rock music that mixes in elements of traditional Latin America/Caribbean folk with rock music, is Latin rock. This music is often miscategorized.
Notable Artists: Chavez, Hella, Steve Albini, and Don Caballero.
While most rock is in 4/4 meter, math rock often uses non-standard signatures like 7/8, 11/8, or 13/8 and changes throughout. It’s characterized by complex structures, extended chords, and not as much focus on lyrics. Drums are often the most important backbone of math rock.
Notable Artists: Blondie, Talking Heads, and New York Dolls.
When this one first came about in the ’70s, it was most often described as punk rock that brought in more of a disco, mod, and electronic vibe to it. As it solidified its sound, it’s been called one of the most important rock genres to evolve out of the ’80s. It’s also been called “virtually meaningless” in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock.
Notable Artists: Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and Unsane
Abrasive at times, noise rock fuses rock and a lot of distortion. In some cases, you have song structures, but in a lot of cases, it’s an experimentation in sound that has no real want to be amongst the mainstream movement of many other rock genres.
Notable Artists: Paul McCartney, Lighthouse, and Peter Frampton.
At its core, it’s popular rock, but it goes deeper than that. The emphasis is usually focused on professional writing, professional studio recording, and less focused on the attitude of the music itself. It’s an “easier pill to swallow” as far as rock genres go. Hooks abide in this one and it’s often upbeat.
Notable Artists: Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Mogwai.
This one is often a mix of rock instruments with the addition of electronics and a lot of experimentation. Vocals usually don’t play as heavy a part in post-rock, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find them. The characteristics of post-rock can come from across the board in math rock, space, progressive, ambient, jazz, electronic, and more.
Notable Artists: Ramones, Sex Pistols, and the Clash.
Punk rock grew out of a lot of things coming together in the ’70s. A base in rockabilly, a dash of rock ‘n’ roll, and a lot of garage rock. The music that was rejecting the normal go-to rock ‘n’ roll of the ’70s tended to be grouped in this genre. It expanded into hardcore, street, post, pop, and more.
Notable Artists: Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, and Linkin Park.
A fusion of different forms of rock with hip-hop elements. This could be the beats of hip-hop or the lyrical delivery itself. While the genre itself might have started up in the ’80s, it gained large-scale popularity throughout the ’90s with bands like 311, Bloodhound Gang, and Limp Bizkit.
Notable Artists: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
This is where a lot of favorite rock ‘n’ roll comes from, one of the original rock genres stemming from back in the early ’50s. If you take the original rhythm and blues sound, mixed it with country and bluegrass, this is where you’ll land. There will be strong vocals most often found with a bit of twang.
Notable Artists: Pg. 99., The Used, Heroin, and Antioch Arrow.
Take emo, add a lot of screaming, and boom. Screamo. It’s heavily influenced by hardcore punk with the vocals being screamed. Lyrics are often focused on emotionally charged topics like pain, breakups, relationships, and politics. You can also often find incredibly beautiful vocals between the emotional screaming “releases.”
Notable Artists: My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, and The Jesus and Mary Chain
Originally named from how the artists performed it. They were often found staring down at their feet (to focus on their pedals and readouts). The sound was originally used to describe dream pop bands, with ethereal sounds, layers of distortion, instruments fusing into one, and vocals taking the back seat.
Notable Artists: The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd
You could consider this a location-based sound, but the sound is what’s most important. Fusing the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and country, with emphasis on the electric guitar and vocals for the overall vibe. The peak of southern rock’s popularity was in the ’70s, but it’s still alive and well today.
Notable Artists: Early Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, and Joe Meek
This one of the rock genres is all about the atmosphere that it creates. Think about loose, long songs, focused on instrumentals that are almost hypnotic. It was initially used to describe the early works of Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. The sound could be described by mixing about the sounds of psychedelic, ambient, progressive, and sometimes electronic.
Notable Artists: Sleep, Kyuss, and Fu Manchu
The fusion of metal, doom, and sludge with psychedelic rock brings this genre together. The genre is often referenced as “desert rock” but not all stoner rock is desert rock, but most desert rock is stoner rock… It’s all about location on that side of things.
Notable Artists: The Beach Boys, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, and the Chantays
You can’t really say surf rock without thinking of The Beach Boys, but it started before them with Dick Dale’s instrumental surf rock. He brought in reverb-drenched electric guitars to emulate the sound of crashing waves. The Beach Boys brought with them those unforgettable harmonies to bring in the age of vocal surf. Closer to the end of the craze, a lot of the songs were about cars and girls, and they deemed it “hot rod rock.”
Notable Artists: Hel, Ultima Thule, and Volund Smed
That’s right, for the final genre we’re going old school. Basically, it’s a mix of rockabilly, punk, and folk with a specific focus around 19th-century Viking romanticism. Obviously a focus on the Vikings, Norse mythology, and often the Swedish King Karl XII and the Caroleans.
Next, we dive into the metal genres… and for a sneak preview, do you know why it’s called “metal”? Because metal is harder than rock.