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Along with blues and jazz, rock music can be named without as much as a hint of doubt as one of the 20th century’s top cultural achievements. Perfectly epitomizing the era in which it occurred, rock music demonstrated a cultural revolution, a change of attitude, a change of lifestyle. And at the very helm of such a revolution was the guitar, an electric six-string and its gritty attitude.
Originating in the 1950’s as rock ‘n’ roll, rock music came a long way from its early beginnings, ultimately growing into hundreds of subgenres, some of which arguably became genres of their own. During its journey, rock influenced and spurred other genres, but also got influenced itself, resulting in a rich musical tradition and catalogue.
The Beginnings of Rock Guitar
The origins of rock music, and therefore rock guitar can be traced back to the late 40’s and early 50’s when a unique blend of blues, country music got cooked up with a several ingredients previously unknown to the music scene and resulted with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Similarly to blues, rock wasn’t too much of a complex style, mostly revolving around standard verse-chorus form and a sturdy 4/4 beat. The guitar was instantly singled out as the most prominent instrument, alongside with vocals. The remainder of standard early rock acts was rounded up with a rhythm section consisting of the drums and bass guitar.
Numerous early rock legends rose to fame during the 50’s, but seeing that it’s the rock guitar we are focusing on, we’ll kick things off with the iconic axeman Chuck Berry. His early hits such as 1955’s “Maybellene,” 1957’s “Rock and Roll Music” and most notably 1958 hit number “Johnny B. Goode” helped define the rock sound and the very essence of rock ‘n’ roll with not only the music, but the overall energy and attitude Berry brought in while delivering his tunes live.
Rock Guitar in the ‘60s
The ‘60s are the time when rock guitar started taking the shape and form it is known for even to this day. Various rock subgenres started emerging on the scene, all implementing guitar sounds to a great extent. The era marked the beginning of the so-called British invasion and genres such as garage rock, blues rock, psychedelic rock and much more.
The level of guitar experimentation was reaching an all-time high. Whether it was playing more of a rhythmic role of taking over as a solo instrument like in the blues rock genre, the guitar was forming new sonic landscapes and ways of artistic expression never heard before. As far as the most influential guitarists of the ‘60s go, legendary Jimi Hendrix and the iconic blues axeman Eric Clapton are often singled out, but the number of highly influential guitarists is often too long to list, as it includes such guitar greats as Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmoore, Robert Fripp and numerous other axeman who emerged during the late ‘60s.
Rock Guitar in the ‘70s
With the arrival of the ‘70s, artistic expression and musical complexity began to appear as somewhat of a top priority for most of the musicians, and therefore guitarists. Prog rock was in a full swing, reaching peak around 1972 in a manner no genre ever succeeded ever before or after. Apart from the complexity of prog rock, the decade’s early years also marked the emergence of neo-classical rock music through the work of Deep Purple and its guitarist Richie Blackmoore who implemented the melodies and scales reminiscent to classical music in his sound.
Heavy metal genre was officially born with Black Sabbath and guitarist Tony Iommi whose low tuning and gloomy sound experimentations unexpectedly resulted in the birth of metal music. Prior to Iommi’s tunes, the sound of heavy metal could be traced to such acts as Led Zeppelin or Iron Butterfly and their 1968 hit single “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vidda.”
Once prog rock reached its peak, many critics consider that the genre imploded, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the next major musical and cultural movement was the very opposite of prog rock. Punk began during the mid-’70s in the UK, as well in the United States, with the emergence of such acts as the Ramones, The Clash and the iconic Sex Pistols who led the punk revolution of 1977. Rooted in garage rock, punk combined the basic rock music with basic, hard-edged, in-your-face approach. The guitar was once again fuzzy and out of control.
Rock Guitar in the ‘80s
The ‘80s saw rock music going in a different direction once again. The New wave scene the decade brought up the emergence of alternative rock and such bands as R.E.M. and The Cure. When it comes to more guitar-driven sound, heavy metal was in the full swing at the time, with classic metal bands such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden reaching their peak and a completely new scene of thrash metal emerging in the US with bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer.
The very opposite of the thrash scene was the glam metal movement led by acts like Motley Crue and Poison. Another interesting characteristic of the ‘80s is the fact that guitar rock music entered the mainstream as a genre, something that never happened in the upcoming years. Groups such as Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen and his E-Street Shuffle Band easily filled stadiums with their music, and still do to this very day.
Rock Guitar in the ‘90s and onward
Rock guitar was brought to its roots once again with the so-called grunge scene of the ‘90s. Bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden proved that mainstream rock caused a market saturation and the need to out primary focus on emotions and artistic expression once again.
With a vast majority of the crucial rock subgenres having a solid fan base to this very day, the guitar sound remains rich, exciting and unpredictable, just as the spirit of rock is meant to be. The detailed story of rock culture easily takes up entire books, but can still be summed up around genuine expression and those crunchy guitar tones you’re bound to love.