Classic Rock vs Modern Rock: What’s the Difference?

Classic Rock vs. Modern Rock: The Debate of a Lifetime

Looking at the history of the 20th century, music played a huge role in different cultural evolution all over the world. After World War 2, western countries began spreading their cultural influence around the globe. But technological advancement of the era brought more than the spread of culture. Music was changed by these innovations, and the development of electric instruments gave birth to a new genre known as rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s exciting to know that this genre, which emerged in the early 1950’s, is still largely popular to this day. Even now music fans around the world still listen to albums released 60 years ago. It even shifted some of the trends over the past decades as it brought new elements in other genres. Looking at mainstream pop artists and you’ll realize their musicians usually have some form rock or heavy metal influence.

The genre itself went through many changes over the past 65 years. It’s pretty insane to think artists like Chuck Berry and Motorhead are often labeled under the same category. Even bands like King Crimson and Metallica fall under “rock”.

There have been some discussions over the years about what are the distinctions between classic rock and modern rock. The differences are distinguishable, although people don’t bother to point them out. And sometimes you’ll find the same elements in both of these movements, making it difficult to make exact distinctions. With this in mind, we decided to dive into the topic and try and define classic rock and modern rock.

Where do we draw the line?

The terms “Classic and Modern Rock” were coined by the media and record labels for marketing. The term “classic rock” comes from the early 1980’s and is a radio programming format used to target certain demographics, the baby boomers. It is generally accepted that the classic rock is everything from the 1960’s to the mid-1980”s.

However, it is difficult to point out where the first movement stopped and the other began. It is generally accepted that “modern rock” traces its roots in the late 1970’s, with the emergence of punk, new-wave, and alternative bands. The “official” distinction between modern and classic rock was made in the 1980’s. Its purpose to differentiate between music of that time to the 60’s and 70’s. After all, the 80’s were known for being wild and experimental, as these were the times when rock music went into some unexpected directions.

These genre and subgenre labels were made by big companies or those in close association, such as music journalists and reviewers. Anyone who looked at music strictly as a soulless product. We will take a different approach by trying to make distinctions based on the genres’ artistic and musical aspects.

Classic rock

“Classic Rock” is rock music released in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. Although we could add 1950’s music in this category. While this is a three decade period with numerous changes over the years, many rock artists of that era rely on the same musical elements.

A basic element is classic rock has a strong blues foundation. Rock music and its sub-genres come from blues. Even some heavy metal musicians will cite artists like Robert Johnson as one of their main influences. As time went on, other elements such as inspiration from classical music found its way into rock. This is something bands like Deep Purple explored. However, not all bands followed suit. Bands such as The Rolling Stones and Judas Priest continued to use the same musical elements, including pentatonic and blues scales and similar song structures.

Another distinction that made rock music stand out in that era were the riffs. A riff also called ostinato, is a phrase, a motif, or a melody that repeats throughout a musical piece. It’s the same thing that we can hear in The Rolling Stones’ “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” in The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and in Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Of course, you can have one same riff or a few different riffs that repeat through one song. However, songs with multiple riffs are more common in what we know as modern rock.

Power Chords in Rock

Speaking of riffs, it’s impossible not to mention the use of power chords, something that became widely popular after The Kinks released “You Really Got Me.” The power chord is a simple chord featuring the root note and the natural fifth interval, with the occasional use of the higher octave. The natural fifth note can be played above or below the root note (the so-called inverted fifth). A vast majority of riffs in both classical and modern rock styles are based on power chords. Music became more complex in the 1970’s progressive rock movement and bands tended to include more intricate elements to their music.

Not all classic rock artists base their music on riffs and power chords. One example is The Beatles. There was still a classic approach in their music, with the main vocal melody performed over a chord progression. Aside from The Beatles, we can find other examples of big classic rock performers who didn’t solely revolve around the guitar riffs but rather the “melody-and-chords” formation. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legendary “Free Bird” also revolves around a vocal melody and a chord progression.

Towards the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the general trend for rock artists was to shift towards the riff and power cord form. One of the biggest innovators in this regard was Jimi Hendrix, who is still to this day is considered to be one of the best guitar players in history.

UNITED KINGDOM – FEBRUARY 24: ROYAL ALBERT HALL Photo of Jimi HENDRIX, performing live onstage, playing white Fender Stratocaster guitar (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns) – Source: Rolling Stones

Then bands like Led Zeppelin take the spotlight in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. “Communication Breakdown” and “Black Dog” were riff and power chord-oriented, as well as their cover of Jake Holmes’ “Dazed and Confused” which paved the way for the development of doom and stoner rock. Even their biggest hit “Stairway to Heaven” is a complex piece relying on melody and chord progressions.

But it was still clear that the use of power chords and riffs was becoming more popular. For instance, a rock anthem like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” became known for its distinctive riff and the song is one of the most famous representatives of the classic rock movement.

Guitar Solos in Classic Rock

The next important element of classic rock is the guitar solo. Although it’s an element that modern rock bands also use, it is an element that this era is well-known for. The major distinction is classic rock era solos were based on the minor pentatonic and the minor blues scale, with an occasional natural minor, Dorian, and a few chromatic notes.

While modern rock has some flashier solos, something that rock and metal fans would refer to as “shred,” the average classic rock lead guitar section relied more on a distinct and recognizable melody that would try and paint a certain picture or evoke a certain emotion. Some of the best examples include solos in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and “Time,” written and performed by David Gilmour.

Classic rock was also not a stranger to extended guitar solos, sometimes even taking up a huge portion of a song. Such was the case with Deep Purple’s “Child in Time” or the aforementioned “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. This was a big aspect for live performances, and a song could often be turned into a lengthy jam session during concerts. Take almost any live album from the 1970’s and there will be at least one song with an extended solo.

The 70’s were a time of experimentation, and the genre began splitting into several different directions. The most famous movement that emerged in rock music was heavy metal. Early bands of the genre began defining their distinct styles during this era. Bands like Black Sabbath began diving into darker riffs, melodies, and lyrical themes. Classic love stories were replaced with themes like the occult, war, pollution, mass extinction, and general hardships of living. The verse-chorus form was replaced with heavy riffing, down-tuned guitars, and the tritone, the sinister-sounding diminished fifth interval.

Groups like Judas Priest emerged, with their early 1970’s material still being closer to the classic rock formula than to what we know as heavy metal. Later, during the 1980’s, they would begin exploring heavier and faster styles, releasing the metal masterpiece album “Painkiller”.

In a lot of cases, the classic rock movement has catchier melodies and hooks, and the overall “conventional” approach to songwriting. There were some signs of experimentation and many bands tried to find new ways to push the boundaries. But, at the end of the day, it was deeply rooted in blues, even when it comes to the heavier music from the 1970’s.

Evolution/transition period: the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s

Speaking of the 1970’s, the last few years of the decade saw some drastic changes that led us into the crazy mess that was the 80’s. One of the first bands that come to mind is Van Halen as they led classic rock into new waters, bringing in more virtuosity and technicality. The soaring lightning speed solos by Eddie Van Halen inspired the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai – all three of which began their solo careers in the 1980’s.

Aside from the so-called “shredders,” there was the other side of rock music which saw the further development of punk into hardcore. The genre itself revolved around strong lyrics with political messages, gathering fan bases of young people dissatisfied with society. Hardcore punk was more “primitive” and “raw” compared to classic metal as it usually didn’t have any intricate lead sections and songs were based on power chord riffs.

Jamming to Glam and Metal

But the most prominent style of the 1980’s was the glam rock or glam metal and launched the entire genre into the mainstream. Music became visual-centric as the decade saw the rise of high-production music videos. This was expected, considering that pop music and other genres had the “in-your-face” attitude, also supported by the rise of (in)famous television station MTV.

Classic Rock vs Modern Rock:
Glam Rock Band - New York Dolls

Different movements within the rock and metal community began to rise faster compared to the previous decade. Another prominent style was thrash metal, with four major bands taking over the scene. There was Metallica, who released the ground-breaking cult album “Master of Puppets” in 1986 and further diversified in the 90’s. Then there’s Anthrax, New York City-based band led by guitarist Scott Ian with their distinctive style. Dave Mustaine-led Megadeth which became known for numerous virtuosic musicians in the lineup who drove the genre into more “progressive” territory. And, Californian-based Slayer, responsible for inspiring the extreme metal movement with their uncompromising attitude.

Speaking of extreme, the late 1980’s gave birth to black metal and death metal; subgenres that pushed rock and metal music to its limits. These extreme variants of the genre became popular in Europe, with the notorious scene in Norway causing countless controversies and being subject to many films and urban legends.

Progressive Metal and Censoring of Rock

Other sub-genres that emerged in the late 80’s and early 90’s, was the rise of progressive metal. What Queensrÿche did earlier in the decade, young and extremely talented group we now know as Dream Theater pushed it to a whole new level by bringing fusion jazz and classical music elements into metal. Of course, the addition of jazz and classical music to rock was nothing new, but Dream Theater brought new life with their style. Making even the fastest and most virtuosic shredders envious.

The 1980’s were also an important time for the fight against censorship. Al Gore’s wife Tipper Gore tried to censor (or ban) the obscenity in music lyrics, claiming it was making a negative impact on the youth. Her agenda failed and even the use of”Parental Advisory” Stickers backfired as albums with those labels performed better sales numbers.

Despite the extreme popularity, glam metal, the sub-genre began losing its traction in the early 1990’s. One of the first bands to set the stage for its demise was Guns N’ Roses, who brought the much needed rough edge of punk rock into metal.

Enter the Era of Grunge

Enter the grunge movement, led by bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. Although not long-lasting, grunge made a huge impact in the world of rock music. The grunge movement would need an entire article on its own to explain what it meant to rock.

Flashy hair spray-drenched and spandex-wearing macho dudes singing about partying, drugs, and alcohol were replaced by quiet kids. Both the music and the lyrical content changed drastically. Fast guitar solos were replaced by darker sounding riffs, and lyrics began addressing important issues concerning the struggles of the individual in modern society.

Often regarded as the biggest musician of the movement, Kurt Cobain took over the world in a matter of a few years with his band Nirvana. Despite his early death, his music and uncompromising attitude kept inspiring bands of all the different genres. And while the music sounds simple, there were numerous intricate riffs and rhythm sections that made this dark-sounding sub-genre stand out. These elements would later become important to the development of modern rock music.

Talking about rock and metal and the early 1990’s, we should also mention the band, Pantera.

Form Glam to Metal Band - Pantera

Metal Band – Pantera

Initially, they started as a classic cliche glam metal band. After adding Phil Anselmo as the lead singer, they began going into some heavier territory. However, it wasn’t until after their album “Power Metal” that they got rid of spandex and replaced it with denim.

Their powerful 1990 album “Cowboys from Hell” is regarded as one of the first modern metal pieces. Taking the best of both worlds, Pantera developed their style with heavy riffs, virtuosic guitar solos, heavy drum grooves, and more serious topics. And, of course, what Dimebag Darrell did for the world of guitar is something that’s praised even decades later.

Modern rock

Like “classic” rock, modern rock was defined as a radio format in the 1980’s. In some cases, the term also includes punk rock and new-wave from the late 1970’s.

As we’re getting near the end of the 2010’s, it’s a bit unusual to define something from the 1970’s and the 1980’s as “modern.” Looking at all the previous eras, we can see changes in the early 1990’s with the development of grunge and other rock and metal subgenres.

As we previously mentioned, Pantera made a huge breakthrough with its own “groove metal” style, bringing a breath of fresh air into the genre. This opened a way for modern metal and metalcore bands that would arrive in the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s.

Alternative Rock

Another important movement that emerged in the 1980’s, which saw further development in the 1990’s, was “alternative” rock. At first, the word “alternative” was used to define anything that didn’t fit into already defined subcategories of rock and metal music. Later on, the alternative label stuck with some of the bands that would later become recognized under the term nu-metal.

The leaders of this 90’s alternative rock movement include Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of course, bands like Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters would also fit under this label. This new sub-genre was commercialized throughout the 1990’s and later on found its way into the 21st century.

Modern Rock - Alternative Rock Band Nirvana
Modern Rock Band; Foo Fighers

Credit: Ed Miles/NME

In the late 90’s, many metal bands from the previous decade got buried and lost underneath this new music. Hair metal bands like Poison, Ratt, LA Guns, and Motley Crue almost got to the point of obscurity. Even thrash legends like Megadeth struggled throughout the 1990’s. You would either need to “sell out” and succumb to the new trends to be ready to risk going into complete obscurity.

But it wasn’t that simple. The gatekeeping elitist fans of these old metal bands would make it hard for them to try new styles. Even Metallica had their issues after the release of their successful “Black Album.” Not to mention all the bad rep they got after “Load,” “Reload,” and the infamous “St. Anger.”

The progressive side of music was also on the rise and Dream Theater kept plowing on through the decade. However, a different kind of progressive metal music emerged in the 1990’s, which relied on the seriousness and darkness of grunge. One of the biggest bands of this style was Tool. The absence of fast shred solos was filled with intricate polyrhythms, unusual riffs, and strong bass lines, all paired with the unique vocals and lyrics by Maynard James Keenan.

New Elements in Rock

Combining rock and metal with unorthodox elements also became prominent in this era. While some old bands tried this approach by adding rap into their music, the style worked better with newer artists. This fusion of rap and rock was typical for bands like Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Limp Bizkit, Fate No More, and Linkin Park. However, this movement transformed and some bands fused with the nu-metal sub-genre.

While it takes its influence from the 1980’s bands like Primus, nu-metal started sometime in the mid-1990’s. The inception of the genre is often attributed to Korn who became known for their less melodic and more rhythmic approach, down-tuned guitars, and an overall rough and raw tone. By the time the 1990’s came to an end, the genre blew up with bands like Slipknot, Mushroomhead, Mudvayne, and even female-fronted groups like Evanescence.

The mid to late 1990’s was also the time of big rock lineup reunions, those who rose to fame in the 70’s and 80’s. Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, even Deep Purple regrouped during the decade. The main motive behind these reunions was monetary gain as most of the industry was struggling due to the rise of the internet and piracy.

Resurgence of 70’s rock and Debut of Punk Rock

In some way, it was a “throwback” decade to the 1970’s, with bands often relying on heavy riffs in the style of early Black Sabbath. There was an emergence of stoner rock, with bands like Kyuss, Sleep, Electric Wizard, Monster Magnet, and Fu Manchu making slow sludgy pentatonic-based and tritone-filled music. Sleep even attempted making their ultimate stoner masterpiece, the ultra-slow and heavy one-hour-long piece called “Dopesmoker.” These stoner bands inspired modern groups like Mastodon, who fused the heavy riffs with more intricate lead guitar and vocal parts.

Punk also evolved, and the movement that emerged in the 1970’s and the 1980’s was reinvented during the 1990’s and the 2000’s. Bands like Green Day and Blink-182 began adding some pop elements to punk and shifted the genre in a new direction.

Modern Rock Band - Green Day

Today, in the late 2010’s, not only do we have older music at our disposal, but also a new approach to writing and producing rock and metal music. For instance, classic metal and death metal fused into metalcore. Progressive metal went into the down-tuned “djent” movement pioneered by Meshuggah. Nowadays, newer bands don’t shy away from experimenting.

Yet, some would argue that rock and metal are now dying. While metal and rock doesn’t have the momentum it did in the 60’s through the 80’s, there is still a high demand for new releases and live shows.

Classic Rock vs Modern Rock: Musical differences and distinctions

The line between classical and modern rock is blurry and it’s difficult to determine when one movement ended and the other began. But it is certain that modern rock is more open to adding new unexpected elements compared to classic rock.

By adding new elements to their music, they were trying to defy the generation that came before them. However, we would still need to find and pinpoint some of the differences, both musically and lyrically. Of course, we could write a whole book detailing all the individual elements, but we’ll try to keep this brief and see how it all compares.

Let’s start with classic rock; Classic rock was still rooted in blues. Anything from The Beatles to Judas Priest still had that old bluesy vibe to it. Comparing it to modern rock, we notice these traits in classic rock:

  • There is a more melodic approach
  • Bass-lines don’t stick out and complement the melody and chord progressions
  • Chord progressions and harmonic movements are different
  • Form of the song still rely on verses and choruses

While classic rock was the birthplace of heavy guitar riffs, many of the songs still had the classic approach of melodies over chord progressions. In some cases, the riff would also serve as a chord progression, but a large portion of the riff-based songs “duplicated” the vocal melody with guitar parts.

As for modern rock, it is often less melodic and more rhythmic (with some exceptions to this rule). Take the alternative or nu-metal subgenre as an example and you’ll hear aggressive riffs, strong static vocal melodies, and riffs that usually don’t follow a specific chord progression.

Musical Structure of Classic and Modern Rock

Classic rock and metal usually rely on lead guitar sections. While there are still many bands that enjoy the fine art of a guitar solo, most of the modern rock landscape is riff-oriented. Now, contrary to belief, this doesn’t mean that modern rock music bad, it’s only different.

Let’s take industrial rock and metal with bands like Ministry and Rammstein. The structure of the song itself is different compared to classic rock. Although there are still some hooks, vocal melodies are simpler, riffs are more static, and usually lack guitar solos. Everything relies on a somewhat straightforward rhythm, almost no syncopation, and more static chord progressions.

Syncopation is another element more typical of the classic rock genre. Even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones once went on a rant slamming bands like Metallica and Black Sabbath for their “endless thudding away” and the lack of syncopation. While he might have overlooked a huge part of both bands’ discographies (and while Sabbath falls more into the classic rock category) this is another indicator of differences between the older and the newer genre.

We should also mention that there are some progressive metal bands today that still rely on lead guitar sections, intricate melodies, and complex chord progressions. These groups don’t have as many catchy melodic hooks in the style of The Beatles but rather parts that take inspiration from fusion jazz.

Modern Rock can be Unpredictable

Many modern rock pieces don’t have choruses and will often include some unexpected parts. Furthermore, modern rock bands are often less afraid of getting closer to mainstream pop music. Concept albums are less common in modern rock with a focus more on the singles.

Further analyzing the differences, the use of a power chord became more complex. In classic rock, you’d have a riff comprised of power chords. The more you go towards the present day, you can hear more variations in the riffs, like single notes riffs or different notes added to the power chord (like the 9th power chord). This is especially true with modern progressive rock bands.

Multiple Elements of Modern Rock Music

Generally speaking, the modern rock went into several different directions over the years. It has diverged further from the genre’s bluesy roots. While there are some throwback bands these days, like young and perspective Greta Van Fleet, most modern rock groups still rely on the formula made in the 1990’s and the early 2000’s. For instance, grunge is no longer a popular genre, but its impact heard in a majority of rock subgenres. Those “Sabbath-like” riffs were pushed into new territories and merged with some progressive elements.

The differences between classic and modern rock:

  • Song structures
  • Lyrical themes and production.
  • Use of syncopation, melodic and rhythmic structure.
  • Chord progressions
  • Overall approach to songwriting.

These differences require deeper analysis, as this is a simplified way to point out some distinctions between the two movements.

Conclusion

Rock n' Roll

At the end of the day, it’s best to listen to music that interest you and not worry about labels. After all, there are numerous styles and there’s no need to compete over which is “better.” It’s always good to know a little bit of history behind your favorite genres. This way, you’ll be able to get some context behind the music that you’re listening to and analyze it from a different perspective.

You might even end up falling in love with new music.

Stay safe and Enjoy Life

2 thoughts on “Classic Rock vs Modern Rock: What’s the Difference?”

  1. lol never thought there was a thing like ‘stoner rock’ let alone song named ‘dopesmoker’

    the band probably had a hard time with the label releasing something under that name. first time im hearing such a song, sounds weird

    Reply
    • Yeah, there’s a bunch of weird sub-genre’s of music out there. Mainstream media doesn’t like to categorize it as “stoner rock” for obvious reasons lol
      It gets weirder when you start looking at sub-genre’s in other countries. Things get weird really fast. For example, in Japan there is a genre of music called “Visual Kei”. The music sounds great, but the style is a mix of 80’s hard rock, with heavy metal. And musicians have the fashion style of glam-rock musicians, but even more hardcore. Some literally look like women. It’s wacky and crazy, but I love it!

      Reply

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