15 Hard Rock and Heavy Metal

Hard Rock and Heavy Metal

Hard Rock and Heavy Metal represent two somewhat distinguishable styles that emerged out of the rock music of the 1960s. Both styles of music brought levels of volume, distortion and overall intensity to unprecedented heights. The riff-based blues sound of groups like Cream and Led Zeppelin was instrumental in the development of both genres. It is important to note that both “styles” use the riff (a short, repeated musical line) as the basic building block for much of their repertoire.

Hard Rock maintains more of a connection to blues-rock and folk-rock by including blues forms and covers as well as acoustic music. Often the singers were capable of singing softer folk-styled ballads as well as loud and heavy riff-based songs. Occasionally these groups would use synthesizers or other somewhat rare (in rock) instruments as well. Their songs would often be about love and relationships

Heavy Metal can be described as having a stronger emphasis on aggressive timbres and darker lyrics. Features include heavily distorted guitar sounds, aggressive, hard-hitting drumming, and aggressive singing styles. Often times, the singing features screaming that sometimes obscure the intelligibility of the lyrics, yet add intensity and depth to the overall sound. This style is based more on the intensity of sound. The music and lyrics often contain references to dark subject matter such as anger and violence and serve as an outlet for those emotions in what has traditionally been a primarily male audience, though this has changed more and more through the years.

Led Zeppelin

Black and white press photo of Led Zeppelin.
Figure 15.1 Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin was made up of guitarist Jimmy Page, vocalist Robert Plant, bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The group is seen by many as one of the most influential groups of all time, and certainly one of the most influential on the development of hard rock and heavy metal. All the musicians had been part of the British Blues Revival, and the importance of blues in their music lasted through their entire career.

Jimmy Page was an important session guitarist who became a member of the Yardbirds in 1966 alongside Jeff Beck. The group slowly dwindled until 1968 when Page was the only remaining member and was contractually obligated to fulfill performances for a Scandinavian tour. He contacted Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham to join him for the tour, billed as the “New Yardbirds”. Eventually, the group felt good enough to leave the Yardbirds’ legacy behind them and came up with a new name, Led Zeppelin.

The group began performing concerts and put together a list of songs that mixed blues classics and heavy blues influenced originals. Early songs such as “Dazed and Confused” feature a descending riff in the bass and distorted guitar. Their first album, Led Zeppelin (1969), features a mixture of heavy, riff-based sound as the core of their music with some traditional blues songs (including two written by Willie Dixon) and even some acoustic music. Robert Plant’s intense, high pitched screaming vocal style was featured on the heavier songs, and his style was enormously influential on heavy metal singers that came after him. In the song “Good Times Bad Times” (Ch. 15 Listening Examples), the use of space within the primary riff during the A section allows gaps where John Bonham provides drum fills. The vocal line follows this sense of space, so that significant chunks of the A section showcase these drum fills. The B section provides the “chorus” where the title is stated, sung via group vocals. This is followed by a brief C section that provides contrast and features Robert Plant singing in an uncharacteristically low vocal register. Formally, the song can be described as ABCB>Guitar Solo>BA(with guitar solo), an interesting and somewhat atypical song form. The guitar work of Jimmy Page during these solos show his blues influence filtered through his distorted amplifier and his high energy, fast, frantic style.

An instrumental piece for acoustic guitar and written by Jimmy Page called “Black Mountain Side” was included on the album, demonstrating a softer dynamic and representing a blend of American Blues and Folk with Eastern musical styles such as Indian music. The piece uses a non-standard tuning. This tuning is occasionally used by Country blues musicians, but Page evokes atypical rock sounds from this tuning.

On their second album, Led Zeppelin II (1969), the group continued on the path of heavy, guitar riff-based songs. The influence of the blues is not as apparent on this album though they use elements of classic blues songs in their originals. Unlike the first album, original songs took up almost the entire album. They began to explore acoustic and folk-based sounds in their music on this album in combination with the increasingly heavy sounds. “Ramble On” features an acoustic A section that has a folk/country feel with acoustic guitars and light percussion, though Plant’s vocals become increasingly aggressive as the section goes on. The B section is dynamically contrasting with heavy, distorted guitars, heavy drums, and screaming vocals. A brief C section features a line played by two distorted guitars over the backdrop of the folk-style A section and leads back into another B section. The full form is laid out as follows: ABACBAB.

The song “Whole Lotta Love” is one of the band’s most popular, featuring an iconic opening riff and sexually suggestive lyrics. It is also the source of some controversy as the band was successfully sued by blues composer Willie Dixon as the song contained elements of a blues written by Dixon called “You Need Love”.

On Led Zeppelin III (1970) the group began exploring acoustic music to an even greater extent than before. The cover design was innovative and featured a revolving cardboard disc behind the main cover that featured a collage of images. The disc could be rotated and as it rotated a variety of these images would show up in cut out holes in the front cover.

Black and white photo of Led Zeppelin playing acoustic (1973)
Figure 15.2 Led Zeppelin in 1973.

Many of the songs on III were acoustic and featured alongside the band’s heavy songs, making for an eclectic and varied listening experience. Many of these songs were written by Plant and Page at a cottage in the English countryside which likely inspired the acoustic direction that dominates the music. The album opens with the incredibly intense and heavy “Immigrant Song” which features a short, repetitive riff and pounding drums. A vocal howl adds to the intensity of the groove the band has set up. The second song is called “Friends” and introduces the acoustic side of the album. This song uses acoustic guitar as the primary accompaniment (rather than distorted electric guitar) with orchestral strings occasionally providing the melody. It also utilizes a musical scale that is often used in Eastern European and Middle Eastern folk music adding a unique, worldly atmosphere. It is sometimes referred to as the “Gypsy Scale”, and I demonstrate it below (Listening Examples 15.1).

In the live setting, improvisations were incorporated into their sound, and Robert Plant’s vocals played an important part in these. Page and Plant would often use call and response where they would go back and forth, sometimes imitating one another. See the interesting example below from a concert at Royal Albert Hall in 1970. Also, often in live performance the group would incorporate their acoustic material into sets devoted to the acoustic songs. This created a huge dynamic range and exciting peaks and valleys for the listener.

Led Zeppelin began work on their fourth album, commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV (1971), and it would turn out to be their most popular and successful album. The album continued to integrate acoustic sounds and a variety of influences, but, compared to III, their hard rock sound returned to its previous dominance. Classic rock songs such as “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, and the stylistically diverse epic “Stairway to Heaven” came from this album. Folk-inspired songs which featured acoustic instruments such as “Going to California” were also featured. The song “Rock and Roll” is a heavy, fast, energetic number that serves as a return to form for the group in a way as it features a variant on the classic 12-bar blues form which was displayed so heavily on their first release. The guitar riffs are seemingly classic blues or early rock, but filtered through Page’s hard rock distorted guitar sound. Lyrically, the line “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled” harkens back to the band’s roots as well, though the lyrics themselves don’t follow the standard AAB pattern of 12-bar blues.

The best known song off the album (and one of the most revered compositions in rock history) is “Stairway to Heaven”. The song is an 8 minute epic that runs the band’s stylistic gamut, building slowly and gradually from quiet, folk-based acoustic sounds to heavy, distorted and loud, giving it a wide dynamic range. This form resembles movements from classical works more than standard pop song forms which often feature either one repeating section or two contrasting sections. The music starts as a simple folk-style acoustic guitar melody which serves to accompany a soft vocal melody. The instrumentation includes a choir of recorders (played by John Paul Jones) which evoke a medieval folk music atmosphere. The second section of the music begins around 2:15 when electric piano and electric 12-string guitar join the musical texture. Plant’s voice continues to grow in intensity as the sections build. Finally, the drums and bass join in around 4:20, or just over halfway into the song. Around 5:33, the transition into the final section begins. A guitar solo (completely improvised at that) takes over for the vocals and the music is a simple descending three-chord pattern that repeats underneath the guitar solo. Around 6:45 the music has completely transformed into classic Zeppelin hard rock with Plant’s voice returning in a high-pitched scream. The tempo slows down into a last statement by Plant’s voice unaccompanied by the band singing a line from the first section.

The group continued touring around the world, selling out practically everywhere they played. The constant touring lasted into 1973 before the band finally took an extended respite from live performance. In 1973 the band released Houses of the Holy, continuing the mixture of styles from their previous albums. John Paul Jones began taking a larger role within the productions, particularly through his use of the Mellotron to emulate the sounds of orchestral instruments. The band was also exploring funk (see “The Crunge” in Ch. 15.1 Listening Examples) and reggae in addition to hard rock, blues, folk, and country. Acoustic instruments are featured alongside as usual, but the hard-edge tone of the electric guitars and drums are retained. This is the sound of a band experimenting without abandoning their roots.

After releasing Physical Graffiti in 1975, the band embarked on another tour of the U.S. and Europe before taking another extended break from the rigors of touring, lasting until 1977. Graffiti includes new songs as well as outtakes from albums dating all the way back to the sessions for Led Zeppelin III. The album was very successful and represents a culmination of almost everything the band had done stylistically at that point. The song Kashmir (Ch. 15.1 Listening Examples) blends rock instruments with orchestral strings, and uses two rhythmic patterns simultaneously; the drums play a 4 beat pattern while the instruments play a riff in a 3 beat pattern.

By 1976, the band began running into problems and setbacks. Plant was injured in a car accident that contributed to the decision to take a break from touring. During the 1977 tour, there were fan riots, fights between promoters and Zeppelin’s crew, Bonham and Page were running into substance abuse problems, and then Plant received news that his young son, Karac, had become ill and died while Plant was on the road. At this point the band cancelled the tour.

Color photo of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant - Led Zeppelin (1977)
Figure 15.3 Led Zeppelin in 1977.

The band released In Through the Out Door in 1978 to mixed reviews and embarked on a short European tour in 1980. Though they were scheduled to perform a North American tour, this never materialized as John Bonham died an alcohol-related death. At this point the band declined to continue as Led Zeppelin. They released one more album consisting mainly of unreleased material, Coda, in 1982 and have reunited a handful of times since. The most notable reunion occurred in 2007 when the group reunited with John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham, performing on drums. Led Zeppelin remains one of the most popular and influential in popular music.

Listening Examples 15.1

Jimmy Page playing skiffle music live on TV 1958.

Led Zepplin:

Black Sabbath

Black and white press photo of Black Sabbath
Figure 15.4 Black Sabbath.

Black Sabbath is a British group which formed in 1968 and pioneered Heavy Metal. Their vocalist Ozzy Osbourne was their central attraction because of his passionate and energetic performance style while the band members (guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward) provided a heavy, stripped down distortion-drenched backdrop for Osbourne’s voice. Black Sabbath effectively created the sound of heavy metal through combining the heavy, riff-based sound of artists like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin with dark imagery in their lyrics and their look. This dark imagery in particular was in stark contrast to popular music in the climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and set the group apart from anyone else at the time.

Their self-titled debut album (recorded in 1969, released in 1970) displays this heavy sound and dark imagery through the music, lyrics, and even the eerie cover art. On the song “Black Sabbath”, the group makes extensive use of the interval of a tritone, which in medieval times was considered “the Devil’s Interval”. (An interval is any combination of two pitches). The song opens with the sound of thunder and rain, combined with church bells which continue as the band begins to play. The primary riff consists of three notes, contains the “tritone”, and is repeated through most of the song. Formally, The A section is the loud and distorted version of this riff, and the B section features the same riff at a quieter dynamic with Osbourne contributing vocals. Around 4:35 the music changes to a C section, featuring a faster tempo and the introduction of a new riff. The C section also features a guitar solo before the song finishes.

The group’s second album, Paranoid, was their most successful and contains some of their most popular and iconic songs including “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, and “War Pigs”. The music on this album continued to develop the heavy metal sound they had begun cultivating. “Paranoid” is a good example of the heavy, stripped down sound that characterizes heavy metal. The guitar plays riffs and power chords (a two-note combination that sounds particularly heavy on a distorted electric guitar) and is heavily distorted, while the drum beat is relentless and full of energy. Osbourne’s vocals have a tortured quality that reflect the lyrical content, describing paranoia and mental illness consuming one’s thoughts. Page 186 of the text provides a formal analysis to accompany listening.

While Black Sabbath’s dark image (lyrical, visual, and musical) was a large part of their success, they began drifting away from it. The group began incorporating occasional ballads and synthesizers into their sound, and subsequently this time period saw a decline in their popularity. Osbourne left the group in 1978, and from that point many singers went in and out of Black Sabbath. Osbourne had a successful solo career that was most likely helped by his bizarre behavior such as biting the head off a live dove, urinating on the Alamo, and biting the head off a dead bat that a fan threw onstage (he’s a unique fellow). The original lineup of the group reunited in the late 1990s and have been active recently, releasing their first new album with Osbourne since the 1970s with 13 (released 2013). The group undertook a farewell tour in 2017, but rumors of a possible reunion have persisted.

Listening Examples 15.2

Black Sabbath:

Deep Purple

Black and white press photo of Deep Purple (1971)
Figure 15.5 Deep Purple in 1971.

Deep Purple was a band that fused elements of classical music with heavy, riff-based rock. The group formed in 1968 and is considered, along with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, among the earliest and most influential bands to play music that contains elements of hard rock and heavy metal. Keyboardist Jon Lord was classically trained, and his influence plus Ritchie Blackmore’s high volume riffs and blues stylings created Deep Purple’s unique sound. The group went through a number of changes in members throughout their career. The second lineup is arguably their most famous, featuring singer Ian Gillan, keyboardist Jon Lord, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, bassist Roger Glover, and drummer Ian Paice

Before fully committing to a heavy metal sound, Deep Purple played a lighter, psychedelic rock on their first three albums and also experimented with classical influences in 1969 when they recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The music featured the band alongside an orchestra performing a large-scale piece (around one hour long) written by keyboardist Jon Lord. The music features alternating sections, pitting the band and orchestra against each other. As the music goes on the Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic become texturally intertwined. Vocals are featured in the second movement.

After recording with the Royal Philharmonic, the group began to move away from classical influences, closer towards a heavy metal style based on riffs, distortion, and high volumes. The first album to showcase this new approach is their 4th album, In Rock (1970). With their 6th album, Machine Head (1972), was their most successful featuring the hit song “Smoke on the Water”. The song features an iconic guitar riff and the lyrics are about the group’s experience recording in Montreux, Switzerland.

Lineup changes began in the mid-1970s and included David Coverdale replacing Ian Gillan as vocalist. This group released an album called Burn in 1974. The title track (in Listening Examples 15.3 below) features a return to classical influences, blending a hard rock riff and an instrumental section in the middle based on a classical chord progression. Blackmore left the group in 1975 and formed a new group called Rainbow. The classic early seventies lineup regrouped in 1984 and stayed together into the early 1990s. They continue to tour today with Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse replacing Blackmore and keyboardist Don Airey replacing Jon Lord.

Listening Examples 15.3

Deep Purple:

British Heavy Metal: Judas Priest and Iron Maiden

Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are among the first groups completely identifiable (by the definition given above) as heavy metal. Judas Priest formed in 1971, slowly building a following in England. They added a second lead guitar in 1974 and this addition added power to the sound and enabled dual lead lines much like the Allman Brothers Band had done, albeit with a much different sound. Their hardcore image was showcased by their leather outfitted biker look. Their song “Breaking the Law” from the album British Steel (1980, featured in Listening Examples 15.4 below) features a signature guitar riff that opens the track and a familiar song form. See if you can identify it by the lyrical excerpt below. Notice also the emotional lyrical content expressing disaffection, frustration, and depression.


There I was completely wasted, out of work and down
All inside it’s so frustrating as I drift from town to town
Feel as though nobody cares if I live or die
So I might as well begin to put some action in my life
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
So much for the golden future I can’t even start
I’ve had every promise broken, there’s anger in my heart
You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue
If you did you’d find yourselves doing the same thing too
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law


Iron Maiden adopted the dual lead guitar approach and took the themes of violence and destruction as their image. They stressed an anti-war philosophy through their descriptions of violence and terror. The song “Run to the Hills” (in Listening Examples 15.4, below) features social commentary on the clash of culture between Native Americans and European settlers. See if you can identify the form by examining the lyrics below. The green text refers to an introduction section before the main part of the song comes in.


White man came across the sea
He brought us pain and misery
He killed our tribes killed our creed
He took our game for his own need
We fought him hard we fought him well
Out on the plains we gave him hell
But many came too much for Cree
Oh will we ever be set free?
Riding through dust clouds and barren wastes
Galloping hard on the plains
Chasing the redskins back to their holes
Fighting them at their own game
Murder for freedom the stab in the back
Women and children are cowards attack
Run to the hills, run for your lives
Run to the hills, run for your lives
Soldier blue in the barren wastes
Hunting and killing their game
Raping the women and wasting the men
The only good Indians are tame
Selling them whiskey and taking their gold
Enslaving the young and destroying the old
Run to the hills, run for your lives
Run to the hills, run for your lives


Van Halen

Color photo of Van Halen performing live
Figure 15.6 Van Halen.

Van Halen formed in 1974 by brothers Edward and Alex Van Halen. Originally from the Netherlands, they moved to California as teens. As children they were trained on classical piano. This classical training was a benefit as Eddie Van Halen was a disciplined guitarist who devoted many hours to perfecting his guitar technique and became one of the most revolutionary rock guitarists of all time. Special techniques he introduced into hard rock were extensive use of harmonics, and tapping the strings with both hands.

Singer David Lee Roth developed a highly entertaining and energetic performance style at a similar level to James Brown. His entertaining approach combined with Eddie’s guitar pyrotechnics made for explosive live performances. The group’s sixth album, 1984 (1984), was a tremendous success reaching No. 2 on the album charts and featured their only No. 1 single, “Jump” (see Listening Examples 15.4 below). Formally, the song is verse-chorus form but features a section (highlighted in purple) right before the chorus that acts as a bridge to lead into the chorus. This section is called the “prechorus”. See the lyrical excerpt below:


I get up, and nothin’ gets me down
You got it tough, I’ve seen the toughest around
And I know, baby, just how you feel
You got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real
Ah, can’t you see me standin’ here
I got my back against the record machine
I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen
Ah, can’t you see what I mean?
Ah, might as well jump
Might as well jump
Go ahead an’ jump (jump)
Go ahead and jump

A troubled relationship as well as different musical interests between Roth and Eddie Van Halen led to Roth’s leaving the group to pursue a solo career. He was replaced by singer Sammy Hagar and the band maintained their success with the album 5150 (1986) reaching No. 1 on the album charts. Sammy Hagar perhaps lacked some of the humor of Roth’s entertaining style, but Hagar was a superb vocalist that brought a new musical range to the band (See “Summer Nights” from 5150 in Listening Examples 15.4 below). The Hagar-era band is sometimes referred to as “Van Hagar” and Van Halen fans are still in debate to this day on whether they prefer Roth or Hagar. Roth returned as the lead singer in 1996, but not for long. A number of singers came in and out of the group until the 2000s when Roth returned again. Their final album was released in 2012, and Eddie Van Halen passed away in 2020 effectively ending the group.


Color photo of Metallica greeting fans at a live performance
Figure 15.7 Metallica.

Metallica formed in the early 1980s and became one of the biggest heavy metal acts of all time. Their early music could be defined as Speed Metal, a genre of heavy metal pioneered by the group Motorhead. Speed metal took the fast tempo and energy of punk music with the vocals and extremely heavy sound of heavy metal. They incorporated slower music and acoustic elements on songs such as “Fade to Black” though at no expense of the intensity and heavy quality. Their self-titled album from 1991 went to No. 1 its first week and contained many hit singles including the ever-popular “Enter Sandman”. They are still active today.


Inspired by the dark imagery of groups like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, many bands took those ideas to the next level by incorporating real-life murderers and massacres into their lyrics and gave off a “sense of a ‘real presence’ of Satan”.

One of the most important early thrash metal bands is Slayer whose lyrics are often graphic, taking real accounts of atrocity and incorporating it into their music. They use the energy and fast/erratic tempos of punk music combined with the extreme heavy sound of heavy metal. Death metal is not a commercial form of music, because cleaning up the lyrics or adding “Catchy” elements would negate the very characteristics of the genre. The sound is too intense for the majority of listeners.

The song “Angel of Death” off the Reign in Blood album (1986) uses extreme speeds, dark lyrics, atonality, and call and response between the dual lead guitars. Lyrically, the song refers to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and the atrocities he was responsible for during the holocaust. The song “Reborn” talks of a witch burned at the stake rising from the dead to exact revenge on those who killed him or her.

Extreme Metal Subgenres: Black Metal and Grindcore

Metal has been the inspiration for a number of sub-genres or offshoots combining the heavy riff-based approach and generally aggressive sound with various other musical elements. One sub-genre, Black Metal, developed primarily in Europe and  features sinister, demonic sounding vocals, “Corpse Paint” on the musician’s faces, and often low tuning on the instruments (See the group Mayhem in Listening Examples 15.4 below).

Another sub-genre called Grindcore, is perhaps the most extreme and intense form of metal ever developed. It features extremes in just about every musical aspect and is truly at the outer limits of popular music. Song lengths are generally short (sometimes extremely short), tempos are extremely fast, riffs are dissonant and complex, the guitars are often tuned lower for a heavier sound, and the vocals are so guttural and scream-drenched that it’s impossible to understand the words. The group Napalm Death featuring vocalist Lee Dorrian (one of the greatest “growlers” in metal) represents grindcore and are featured in Listening Examples 15.4 below.

Listening Examples 15.4

Iron Maiden: “Run to the Hills” (1982)

Judas Priest:

Van Halen: First, listen to “Eruption”/”You Really Got Me” from Van Halen (1978). Two-Handed tapping is one of the most innovative techniques/sounds that Eddie Van Halen popularized. I tap a 3-note figure slowly to demonstrate the mechanics of how it works which involves tapping a note with my right hand, pulling the string away to sound a second note held by my left hand, and “hammering on” a third note with my left hand. With this technique, one can play three notes very fast without too much effort. Then I play an excerpt from “Eruption” that uses tapping in 3-note patterns. Here is a  10 minute guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen!

Van Halen: “Jump” (1984)

Van Halen: “Summer Nights” (1986)

Metallica:  “Battery” from Master of Puppets (1986)

Slayer: “Reborn” from Reign in Blood (1986)

Napalm Death:

Mayhem: Live


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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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