IMPROVISING IN A HEAVY ROCK STYLE
By JJ Wheeler – musician, teacher and record producer
Heavy rock, or hard rock as it is also known, is typically louder, faster, and more complex than rock or pop music, and came from a generation of great experimental musicians, including Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. In the same way that classical music evolved in the late 19th century due to the development of better quality instruments, resulting in more virtuosic and exciting musical performance, a new age of instruments and voices began to push the boundaries of rock a hundred or so years later. The genre originated as a subgenre of rock music and was derived from mid-1960s garage rock, blues-rock and psychedelic rock. Heavy rock is defined by its use of aggressive sound, which is achieved by developing more complex rhythmic and melodic patterns, using louder and thicker textures. It usually contains strong vocals, the distorted sound of electric guitars, intermittent riffs from the bass guitar, driving drum rhythms and a piano or keyboard.
During the mid-1960s, a number of American and British rock bands started to change some of the characteristics of the rock ‘n’ roll genre. However, heavy rock only began to become more mainstream in the 1970s and the 1980s. During this time, a new style of heavy rock music called stadium or arena rock started to become popular, and bands began to incorporate louder sounds, special effects and more of a visual performance than was previously seen at shows. More recently, a number of post-grunge, garage and punk bands such as Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Creed and Nickelback revisited the genre and incorporated aspects of the heavy rock style into their music, including the traditional distorted guitar sounds and the aggressive nature of the music.
Improvising in a heavy rock style
When you think about improvising in this style, you should be doing so from a good knowledge of what typifies the style. So, do listen to some of the artists mentioned here, and try to pick out your instrument, listening to how the player manipulates the sound, making it heavier; with more notes and repetition, louder, faster and with a grittier sound. You might come across heavy rock songs at Grade 1 onwards.
Example improvising videos
Watch videos with session musicians Sam Edgington and Leigh Martyn Thomas for tips and ideas on how to improvise in a heavy rock style:
Several classic heavy rock bands have influenced the genre such as AC/DC and Guns ‘n’ Roses. The band AC/DC is known as one of the best-selling bands of all time. ‘Highway to Hell’, their first commercially successful album, established them as one of the top hard rock bands worldwide and included a lot of traditional heavy rock themes. Guns ‘n’ Roses also played a key part in bringing the heavy rock genre into the mainstream and are also considered one of the best heavy rock bands of all time. Over the years, they have also added a number of more classical instruments into their line-up including strings, horns and wind instruments.
A number of more contemporary heavy rock bands have influenced the genre, such as Radiohead, Kings of Leon and Biffy Clyro. Radiohead was largely influenced by artists such as Queen and Pink Floyd as well as the classic rock bands of the 60s. Their 1997 album OK Computer consisted primarily of heavy rock songs and was regarded by many critics as one of the best albums in existence. Rolling Stone called the album a ‘stunning art-rock tour de force’. Kings of Leon were influenced by a number of artists, including The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Thin Lizzy and the Pixies. Their early music contained a mix of both Southern rock and blues, however as they progressed within the industry, their songs began to feature more of a heavy rock sound. Biffy Clyro are another more contemporary influential band within the heavy rock genre. Their early music displayed a more unique sound, with complex rhythms and styles. However, their fourth album Puzzle brought them further into the mainstream style of heavy rock music.
Heavy rock Spotify playlist
We've pulled together a playlist of heavy rock songs that appear on our Rock & Pop 2018 syllabus as well as other great heavy rock songs for further inspiration and ideas. Follow our Spotify profile and playlists to easily find the playlists whenever you want to have a listen.
About JJ Wheeler
JJ Wheeler is a professional touring and session drummer and percussionist, teacher and record label producer. He has worked with artists such as Celine Dion, worked on West End musicals including The Bodyguard and regularly performs in a range of bands across the UK and abroad. JJ runs workshops, clinics and masterclasses all over the world, and is also a Trinity Rock & Pop examiner.