What’s The Difference Between Rock and Hard Rock?

While both genres have their roots in blues and rock n’ roll, the advent of the electric guitar, louder amplifiers, and distortion pedals has dramatically increased rock’s ‘edginess’ to evolve to hard rock and even further to heavy metal. Let’s rock on and check out the difference between the two!

The fundamental difference between rock and hard rock is the edge – the snarl of guitars, smashing drums, and the vocal growls that characterize and separate hard rock into its genre. Hard rock brings a heavier, deeper sound and more intense emotions than its milder cousin.

While the differences may seem obvious, the actual differences may not be what you think!

Rock Music Origins

Both rock and its more brutal cousin had their origins in the ’40s & ’50s, and in 1955 when Bill Haley cracked no 1 with “Rock Around the Clock’ – ROCK music was born.

Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and others picked up on this new sound and took it in their own unique direction.

Moving into the late 60’s and 70’s artists like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton started playing around the amps and microphones to create a ‘distortion’ of the sound and evolved a ‘heavier’ sound in blues and early rock.

Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac became icons in rock music as the genre exploded onto the global scene.

Then bands like Thin Lizzy, AC/ DC, Van Halen, Motorhead, Kiss, and Black Sabbath found a more gothic sound, and while labeled as heavy metal then, this was really the classic hard rock sound.

Plus, there was one other element truly differentiated rock and hard rock – VOLUME.

Getting Heavier and Louder!

Appealing to the rebellious, outcasts, and fringe elements of society, rock music became associated with uprising, anti-establishment sentiment, much like the Anti-Vietnam movements in the ’60s and 70s.

Yet, events like Woodstock, rock music showed its ‘softer side by peacefully uniting people in lyrics and melody.

Loud is one of the core elements of hard rock, and bands began to UP the ante on amplifiers stacking them as high as possible and giving their audience an ear-blowing (and mind-blowing) experience in the limits of human auditory capacity!

If you didn’t leave your hard rock concert with your ears ringing – IT WASN’T LOUD ENOUGH!

The saying, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old,” was (and still is) a common anthem of hard rock fans all over the world.

The Guitarists That Defined Rock and Hard Rock

From the earliest versions of rock and psychedelic rock, bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, and Black Sabbath changed how lead and rhythm guitar-influenced this genre.

Virtuoso players like Gary Moore and Mark Knopfler took blues and rock to levels of sound and expression that galvanized the music industry into exploring new ways of generating their specific sounds.

That mark was taking to the next level as the advent of the first analog and then digital effects pedals became more prominent. Guitarists began to experiment with heavier and harder sounds that they could now generate.

Hard rock guitars shook the body, rocked the mind and soul as no other sound had done before.

More edgy vocals that pushed the limits of acceptability and addressed sensitive issues found a home in the powerful grinding guitar riffs of bands like Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, The Scorpions, and the iconic Iron Maiden.

Chords and Scales – Evolving the Sound of Rock and Hard Rock

With the advent of metal in the early 80s, many of the so-called ‘early metal’ bands were downgraded to either hard rock or rock as the metal sound was a lot harder and heavier plus, the scales they used to generate the sound were based more on classical music than blues.

While hard rock and blues evolved from the classic blues sounds of the ’50s and ’60s and the typical chord progressions, more and more hard rock bands looked to use variations of the harmonic minor and minor scales that gave their music a bit more conflict and depth.

This is another difference between rock and hard rock – the actual sound and scales used.

One of the other significant differences was the innovations that came about from players that developed ridiculous levels of speed playing during solos and the fast and hard use of the ‘double stop’ or ‘power chords’ that paved the way for harder metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth later.

This, compared to the more classic guitar chord shapes used in early rock and blues.

Using these chords in both rock and hard rock gave the song a powerful rhythm. The added distortion lifted the listener to new heights and depths of emotion – especially the expression of anger and rebellion.

With almost a war-like sound, hard rock appealed to the more rebellious, the misfits and outcasts that finally found a voice and a sound that was all their own.

This was further extended when the punk bands of the ’80s branched off and created their own sub-genre, especially in the UK and Europe.

Rock & Hard Rock Ballads – The Softer Side

Songs like Stairway to Heaven, November Rain, Purple Rain were picked on the Top 10 Hard Rock Ballads of all time by Rolling Stone.

On the rock side, tracks like Let It Be, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Hey Jude, Piano Man, American Pie, Wish You Were Here, and Desperado were rated in the top rock ballads of all time.

While Prince would be considered more rock or pop than hard rock, he also crossed the boundaries between the genres with some of his music, as did many others.

Compare the gentle clean sounds of Billy Joel, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Don McClean, The Eagles, The Doors, and even U2 to the heavier, more percussive sound of Guns ‘N Roses, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, and  The Sisters of Mercy.

Doing so clearly separates the music into rock and hard rock.

Many hearts found themselves singing ‘Bed of Roses’ or ‘Patience’ to their significant other either while courting or after having broken up.

 The duality of the emotion in those tracks offers both hope in the new and solace in the aftermath of a breakup.

Many people have found comfort in very dark times in their lives in the power and depth of hard rock, and those songs have stayed with them for life – at a time when the lighter, less intense strains of rock just didn’t cut it.

The Guitars That Changed The World

The Fender Stratocaster, the Gibson Les Paul, and Ibanez, ESP, Hamer, Jackson, and Washburn all started to bring out guitars that held the ‘HUMBUCKER’ a double coil pickup.

When combined with distortion effects, it delivered a real growl and snarl in the sound unheard of in the early days of rock n’ roll where most guitars have single-coil pickups.

With multiple settings on the guitar, a player could shift from a clean, easy tone to a thunder of overdrive with a flick of a switch and the click of a pedal.

Classic bluesmen like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, BB King, and later Joe Bonamassa wielded their guitars like orchestral virtuosos, using only mild distortion and so keep the soul of the blues in their music.

Many of these players like Vaughn, Hendrix, and Clapton swore by the Strat, while others such as BB King, Bonamassa, and Gary Moore elected the Les Paul configuration for their sound.

On the rock side, players like Eddie Van Halen, Brian May, Carlos Santana, Ritchie Blackmore, Prince, and others experimented with different configurations of setups.

By doing so, they defined their sounds and styles that then influenced the development of new tech for both guitars and pedals.


The simple reality is that hard rock delivers a more edgy, darker, more intense emotional experience than rock does.

Rock music itself has lighter versions like Pop which is more mainstream and provides and gentler musical engagement than hard rock does.

Differences in sound levels and distortion clearly define a song as being rock or hard rock.

With the advent of metal as its own genre, the boundaries between rock and hard rock have become easier to distinguish.


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