Since the 1950s, Rock & Roll has profoundly influenced music – especially the Rock genre. But is there a difference between Rock and Rock & Roll? Let’s find out.
Rock & Roll refers to the genre of music that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Artists such as Elvis Pressley and The Beatles were the stars of Rock & Roll. Rock music is an offspring genre that developed into a new sound, characterized by bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd.
Sometimes people are confused by the various similarities between Rock and Rock & Roll, but there are distinct differences, and they are not the same thing. Rock music evolved out of Rock & Roll music, but you’ll find they have distinctly different styles.
All music genres, by nature, are difficult to define. However, what most people understand as “Rock & Roll” today is that it was born after World War II in the 1950s and flourished in the 1960s. Rock & Roll was synonymous with youth culture at the time and propagated a counter-cultural narrative.
Elvis Pressley’s provocative hip movements, loud percussion, and, of course, the guitar captured the imaginations of a generation. At the time, this kind of music was highly controversial and was even banned on many radio stations. Nonetheless, once Rock & Roll took the world by storm and reached unprecedented success, starting with the great “British Invasion” by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other iconic bands and artists that dominated the charts throughout the 60s.
Rock & Roll, however, had seen its best days and served as an origin for countless genres, primarily due to the surge in popularity of an instrument introduced to us by Elvis himself: the electric guitar.
From the beginning of the 20th Century, people began experimenting with creating electric sounds through vibrations. For example, there are patents for telephone transmitters that were adapted to be placed inside violins. However, the first electric guitar was invented in 1932. Adopted initially by Jazz artists, Elvis Pressley incorporated the sound into his highly successful music, elevating its status as an instrument that would soon revolutionize Rock & Roll and conceive its offspring, Rock music.
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what Rock music is or where it originated, but many agree that The Who’s 1969 “Rock opera”, Tommy, is probably where Rock music as we know it hit the mainstream first. The popularity of full-length albums rose astronomically in a time when singles and EPs were the order of the day. This transition from singles to albums not only thrust The Who into the spotlight, but bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, David Bowie, and Genesis would be the products of the transition from Rock & Roll to just Rock.
Music critic Robert Christgau once said that Rock is “Rock & Roll made conscious of itself as an art form.” The simultaneous development that led to the emergence of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan was critical in forming the Rock genre on a conceptual level.
Christgau also credits The Ramones for the role that they played in taking the first steps away from the more prominent and prevalent category of Rock & Roll that came before it.
Throughout the 1970s, Rock bands sporting an emphasis on electric guitar, drums, beats, and loud and angry vocals would have a monopoly over the charts and was immensely popular.
Rock briefly fell from popularity when Disco music and synthesizers dominated the 1980s but made a comeback in the 1990s. However, the Rock music that was produced by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Green Day didn’t exactly resemble the popular tracks from the 70s.
Following Rock’s progression from Rock & Roll, the genre began to splinter further and gave birth to countless subgenres, from Punk Rock to Rap Rock to Arena Rock, Pop Rock, Progressive Rock, and Heavy Metal.
Beyond this, Rock continued and continues, to evolve into even more subgenres. Metal, for example, has diversified into Funk Metal, Nu Metal, Rap Metal, Black Metal, Death Metal, Crust Punk, and many more.
These subgenres effectively emerged from the principle of rebelliousness and rejecting the pretentious of Rock music, which was far more mainstream. Rock music bands traded in their arena performances for Garage Rock, Grunge, Alternative Rock, and other forms of the musical style that exemplify the counter-cultural elements of Rock.
However, all this splintering has broken down the popularity of Rock, and we’ve evolved beyond the heydays of Rock music, with Hip Hop eventually becoming the most commercially successful genre in the 21st Century. Rock music is most certainly not dead, but its popularity has waned. Rock music is being forced to undergo a transition to accommodate the new, emerging, and popular styles that have resonated with audiences through the emergence of new technologies like autotune and vocal distortion. Rock music, as it always has, is adapting and evolving.
For Rock and Rock & Roll to turn into such a colossal monolith that has been capturing the imaginations of generations of music fans, and youths in particular, for so long, its most critical components, of course, are the bands making the music. Here are a few bands that contributed more to Rock music than anyone else:
Elvis Pressley, The “King” of Rock & Roll, has been mentioned before, and there’s no question that he was the man that kickstarted it all way back in the 50s. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Yes, The Doors, and Jethro Tull would all break ground in the genre between the late 60s and early 70s. Bands like The Sex Pistols, Black Sabbath, Queen, Deep Purple, and Porcupine Tree carried the genre through the late 70s, the 80s, and into the 90s, where the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Soundgarden, Collective Soul, and Bon Jovi would lead Rock’s transition into the 20th Century.
From there, we see the rise of Pop Rock with Blink 182, Sum 41, The All-American Rejects, Simple Plan, and Panic! At The Disco ushering out the end of the age of Rock as the most popular genre.
In the late 2000s, the big trend among Rock bands was Emo Rock, with My Chemical Romance, 30 Seconds To Mars, Fall Out Boy, and the likes dominating the charts.
Since then, Hip Hop has reigned supreme. But Hip Hop also originates in Rock & Roll. There’s no question that it has been a positive influence for the successful genre that remained somewhat underground in its formative years, restricted to African American and Latino American communities for years. There have also been some prominent Hip Hop artists like Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, and Eminem that have explored adding Rock music elements to their music and yielded great success while doing so, proving that audiences still have a penchant for the genre when it’s used creatively to integrate with modern sounds.
If you’re looking for an all-encompassing definition of Rock & Roll or Rock music, you’re very unlikely to find one because Rock & Roll isn’t necessarily a music style. At the height of its popularity in the 60s, Rock & Roll was a marketing shorthand phrase for American youth culture. Rock & Roll music is an attitude more than anything. And Rock & Roll has split into and/or influenced so many musical styles, genres, and subgenres, so it’s hard to separate its offspring. However, Rock music is not the same as Rock & Roll, despite their clear resemblances.
- 1966 Vs. 1971: When ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ Became ‘Rock,’ And What We Lost | NPR
- Rock and Roll: Then and Now | A Blog About Music
- Difference Between Rock and Rock and Roll | DifferenceBetween
- On Words: What, Exactly, Is Rock ’n’ Roll? | UVA Today
- Electric guitar | Wikipedia
- Interview: Music Journalist Robert Christgau | Red Bull Music Academy Daily