The A-Z Of Rock: A Beginner's Guide To Sub-Genres

The A-Z Of Rock: A Beginner's Guide To Sub-Genres

Inspired by the psychedelic offerings of Reverence festival, we thought we'd have a look at the amazing diversity of sub-genres that make up the ever-expanding universe of Rock and Roll.

The task of covering all of them would be impossible, but here is a quick selection of fusion mixes still dominating our stages today, sub-genres that have become their own worlds altogether, along with sub-genres that are gone but not forgotten, or have and will play important parts in the artistic minds of rock musicians today and in the future.

A is for Acid Rock

Defying traditional song formulas, acid rock bends the rules with lengthy instrumental solos, heavy improvisation and lesser lyrics in comparison to the main genre that birthed it. Despite its wild nature the name for this genre was a very easy decision, born in the 60s the name for this sound arrived when many felt this music was the perfect companion for acid trips.

Seen as the heavier sister of Psychedelic Rock important names and influencers include Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Iron Butterfly and The Doors.

B is for Brit Pop 

Nothing will cause a bigger argument between fans of British rock music then the meaning and importance of Britpop. Many saw it as a scene or movement rather then an actual genre, whereas other love to debate who was better between Blur or Oasis, or argue over the past and/or present highlights of the likes of Suede, The Verve, Placebo and Pulp.

A reaction to the changing trends in the 90s such as the invading popularity of American Grunge, the tone of Britpop mixed cultural experiences of the British working class, with straight forward yet poignant lyrics and catchy riffs.

C is for Comedy Rock

Fusing music with the art of parody and satire, comedy rock presents a humorous escape from the usual emotional confines of its other brother and sister genres. As early as the 50s, voice actors, radio stars and comedians would appear in the charts with songs that were caricatures of stars such as Elvis Presley or word-play on lyrics and themes by famous authors and musicians.

Comedy Rock has spawned many respected careers such as the cult classic band Spinal Tap created for the mockmentary of the same name, as well as the many ventures of Tenacious D, the video spoofs of "Weird Al" Yankovic, the zany TV show of Flight Of The Concords, along with the unashamedly hair metal show experience of Steel Panther.

D is for Dark Cabaret

A decadent cocktail of moody theatrical piano and vaudeville tones, the Tiger Lillies were seen as the originators of sound inviting the charm of pre-war Berlin to mix with the ferocious side of punk. As the Neo-Burlesque movement arrived in the 90s and continue into the 2000s, The Dresden Dolls were seen as pioneers of the sound, as singer Amanda Palmer self-described their sound as "Brechtian punk cabaret".

Others who still carry elements of the dark cabaret sound or where important players include Vermillion Lies, Antony and The Johnsons, IAMX and Katzenjammer Kabarett.


E is for Electronic Rock

Like many of the sub-genres on this list, Electronic Rock itself has many cousin sounds from the dark alternative industrial sounds of Nine Inch Nails, to the floatier leaps of Synthpop.

The arrival of the Moog synthesizer in the late 60s/early 70s influenced many genres to introduce new sounds and ways to use them (including The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds album which was the first recorded use of the Tannerin on a rock album), the 80s saw the emergence of new wave and early art-rock bringing us acts like The Human League, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and Devo, whereas the 90s emergence of industrial rock saw elements of punk and metal welcome the marriage between guitar and machine.

Today electronic continues to develop with many new blends appearing every year from nu gaze to electroclash.

F is for Funk Rock

Mixing the soul, blues and rhythmn and blues of with with the sparks and noise of Rock, the union Funk Rock has been revived across many decades since it's 1950s beginnings from the likes of Little Richard and James Brown.

The involvement of any instrument complimentary to the sound is encouraged, however a definitive beat from bass, guitar or drum is the leading ingredient of funk rock's wild, distorted or chaotic sound.

Important names to listen to throughout the years include any project the "P-Funk Godfather" George Clinton was involved in such as Funkadelic and Parliament, along with Larry Graham and Graham Central Station, and Sly and the Family Stone.

You often hear strong Funk Rock influences in the early, continuing or dabbling sounds of a range of artists Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Faith No More, Primus, Jane's Additction and Lenny Kravitz.

G is for Gypsy-Punk

A powerful and vibrant hyrbid of raw punk with traditonal music of certain Gypsy tribes, many feel this genre was born out of mutual beliefs between various gypsy communities and many punk fans, where both movements felt passionate about social resistance, rebellion and a need for expression and reclaiming negative representations.

Gogol Bordello is often the first name that springs to mind, while pioneers Motherhead Bug are crutial mentions, along with the electronic, dancehall and hiphop seasonings of Balkan Beat Box.

H is for Hard Rock

Amongst this list the idea of "Hard Rock" is one that is forever changing, before many of the sub-genres on this list developed their own name, "Hard Rock" was used to describe them such as the heavy metal sounds of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC.

Bands of the 80's such as Guns 'N' Roses and Def Leppard were also referred to as Hard Rock, however as rock genres continued to diversify, critics and musicians began to drop the phrase altogether. The 2000s however saw bands that straddle elements of rock and metal described as Hard Rock such as Audioslave, or bands with collective feet in the pools of pop and rock like the Foo Fighters.

While it can be argued Hard Rock is more of a descriptive phrase then a definable genre, it can't be denied it's importance in the story-telling of rock development.

I is for Indie Fusions

While the term "indie" can refer to independent acts and bands existing without the need of major commercial investments, the indie style of music began in 1980s United Kingdom, and aside from Grunge and Britpop, Indie originally existed as an alternative escape from the commericalism of the former genres mentioned.

The growth of the internet and indie music fame lead to original and new fans to then question the ideal of what really is independent music, however the passions that remain encouraged indie rock, indie pop, indie folk and indietronic to grow and develop. Important names include Primal Scream, The White Stripes, The Strokes, Beck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and many more.

J is for Jersey Shore Sound

For many sub-genres a special location or area is what inspires the sound, while plenty of people today hear "Jersey Shore" and think of the infamous reality TV show, however the beach and it's surrounding Mid-Atlantic states were the creative birthplace of many influential artists today.

From its strong Italian-American communities to the urban industrial surroundings, the Jersey Shore Sound was either danceable with R&B roots, or often had a strong romanticism attached to the trials and tribulations of personal life struggle.

Frankie Valli and The Four Season right up to 'The Boss' himself Bruce Springsteen are crucial names to mention when discussing Jersey Shore Sound.

K is for Krautrock

Ironically the word "Kraut" was used as derogatory slang by the British describing German soldiers in both World Wars, however the word "Kraut" became attributed to food descriptions and later as part of a music genre celebrating and highlighting particular styles of German bands.

Originated in Germany around the late 60s / early 70s, Krautwork is an electronic rock compound mixing the contrasting mindsets of minimalism and improvisation. This sound has taken on many personas from the melodies and rhytmes of Kraftwerk, to the psychedelic and progressive sounds of Amon Düül II.

The genre is seen as being instrumental to influencing David Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" , and also adding to the post-punk sounds of Joy Division and Simple Minds.

L is for Latin Rock

Sometimes referred to as "alterlatin", Alternative Latin is an incredibly broad receipe that mixes latin tones and rock music with anything else complimentary to the traditional latin sounds present.

Sometimes mixing in instruments native to latin music such the quenas or maracs, pivotal names of the genre include Santana, Maldita Vecindad, Cafe Tacuba, Juanes and Los Amigos Invisibles, and to a certain extent the phenomenal Rodrigo y Gabriela.

The sub-genre is so popular there is an annual event the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC), where concerts, showcases, talks, exhibitions and parties take over various venues of New York.

M is for Metal

Much like indie and punk, this genre born from rock could equally have its own article dedicated to it, where the many forms it takes includes thrash metal, gothic metal, speed metal, progressive metal, black metal, glam metal, death metal, industrial metal and even christian metal.

Proudly loud with competing variation of riffs, solos and distortion, there is constant argument whether metal began in the UK or US first, but both countries have spawned bands that have contributed to the blueprint that continues to span many creations and subcultures.

Themes vary from war, death and trauma to sex and politics with fans at show sporting the traditional hand gestures like "devil horns" along with head-banging.

Essential first listens must include the classics of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeath along with game changers Slipknot, System of a Down and this author's personal favourite, Opeth.

N is for Noise Rock

If there was ever a genre that kept disrupting the conventions of its mother genre it would be Noise rock, with an avant-garde sound mixing the rebellion of punk rock with the mainstream.

The performances are confrontational in energy and the sound set-up aims to be ear-shattering matching the angst and power within the content. Video art on stage is sometimes a feature, the japanese culture of noise rock often encourage outlandish outfits, whereas some bands choose to forgo any particular style or look on stage altogether. While born out of punk-rock influence recent bands like Fuck Buttons also include an electronic twist.

O is for Ostrock

Yet again German history plays an interesting part in the history of rock. In the early 70s when West German rock styles had jumped the border to it's East German neighbours, the creation of East German rock began, a creation process often referred to as Ostrock. Seen as more poetic in lyrics and philosophical than its predecessors, this was a scene of underground bands which would later provide the beginnings for the incredibly successful Rammstein.

P is for Punk

As mentioned earlier like Metal and Indie, Punk appreciation musn't be rushed but we can at least mention it. With beginnings in the US, UK and Australia in the 1970s, Punk was a riotus alternative to the popular music of the era, with its political messages, stripped down techniques and a DIY mantra where many bands where self-supported and promoted.

London and New York where becoming hotspots for the punk explosion gifting us with the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Patti Smith and The Ramones. Aside from the music was also a strong subculture of rebellioius clothing and looks.

As well as the bands mentioned earlier, other important listens include the pop punk energy of Green Day and Blink 182, along with the crossover sounds of Suicidal Tendencies and the hardcore tones of Black Flag. Today punk remains an important platform for political discussion, social awareness and alternative dialogue.

Q is for Queercore

Another example of sub-genres influencing each other was the punk beginnings of Queercore. A response to the societal disapproval of LGBT citizens, Queercore was one of the many music communities created in the US and UK which provided cultural exchange between members and allies.

Beyond the music there was also zines, poetry, film and art all dealing with themes of prejudice, identity and social rights. Queercore is in fact an umbrella term which included LGBT divisions of electropunk, powerpop, disco and other forms of experimental music

Early films by Andy Warhol & John Walters were also seen as part of the Queercore movement. Important bands include Pansy Division, The Slits, Limp Wrist, The Gossip, Le Tigre, Lesbians On Ecstasy, Vaginal Davis, The Dicks and Sapphic Sluts.

R is for Rockabilly

One of the earliest examples of rock fusion, rockabilly drew in elements of swing music, bluegrass, hillbilly and jump blues arriving in around the early 1950s. Aside from the jumpy rhythms there is also a focus harmonies and playful twangs in other vocals.

Important artists include the early of full works of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee. In today's rock world the rockabilly subculture influences everything from food chains to fashion stores. There is also a fantastic range of blends such as Gothabilly and Psychobilly, check this out by Volbeat: 

S is for Shoegaze

A heavy use of effects pedals, huge distortion, distinctive use of feedback and an ethereal use of melodies are the qualities that best described the complexities of Shoegaze rock.

Originated in the late 1980s and exploding in the 1990s, essential listens include Slowdrive, Ride and My Bloody Valentine. The earlys 2000s revivial saw fans and critics dub the new era the "Nu Gaze" movement.

T is for Tex-Mex

Tex-mex or "Tejano" is hybrid of folk and popular music adored by the Mexican-American populations of Texas. While its beginnings come from the late 19th century, artists like Maz, Elida Reyna, Los Palominos and "The Queen of Tejano" Selena encouraged a widespread 20th century resurgence. With a rich history based in migration from Mexico to Texas, there is a wealth of influence to be found in it's sound from mariachi and corrido music, as well as continental european styles from those who migrated to Mexico such as polka and the use of accordions, flutes, guitars and drums.

While the genre saw a decline in the 90's due to lack of radio play, internet radio helped to reinvigorate interest, and today Texas still holds annual festivals every Spring inviting national and international fans and performers from around the world.

U is for Unblack Metal

While naive understanding of heavy metal assumes that it is all satanic, Unblack Metal or Christian Metal has proved that the sound can be explored through other spiritual meanings. Early pioneers of this "bringing light to darkeness" include Trouble, Horde and Admonish.

While other bands like Antestor, Vaakevandring and Kekal arrived in the late 90s, the early 2000s is when many felt the scene really took off on an international scale with scenes being establish in Scandinavia, Central Europe, USA and South America.

Antestor, Admonish, Frosthardr and Crimson Moonlight are also important names from a scene that features dark heavy metal characteristics exploring proclamations of Jesus Christ, as well as lyrics about salvation, conversion, bible quotes and internal struggles with faith.


V,W,X,Y & Z is for it would be VERY eXtremly WISE for YOU to go to ZURICH OPEN AIR

Ok we cheated on this one, but we saw it as a great excuse to link to all of our festivals that you should check out featuring rock and all its glorious sub-genres. Thanks for reading!


Sign up to Festicket newsletter and you’ll get festival offers and recommendations direct to your inbox. We’ll also keep you updated with the latest festival news and features from Festicket Magazine.