A Comprehensive Guide for Creating Rock Music
What Is Rock Music?
Too many wanna-be rockers just want to stand in front of people with a guitar.
They see rock music as a way to "get chicks." I mean... yeah, it is. There's something timelessly magnetic about a guitar. Even odd looking guys often find themselves scraping girls off, once they take the stage.
Steven Tyler, for example, doesn't necessarily have classic, American good looks. He's a scrawny guy with a big mouth and cro-magnon ridge on his head. But, girls dig him even today, and the man is 65 years old. His quirky looks are part of his charm; they go together with the rest of his personality and his letting-it-all-hang-out, distinctive singing style.
However: there's much, much more to creating rock music than attracting the opposite sex. Standing up there on stage is (or, at least, it should be) the end result of long hours of both individual and collective practice, logistical coordination and the final result of going through the often maddening process of creative collaboration that occurs during practice sessions.
When you get up on stage keep this in mind: you're up there to play music. It's funny how many wanna-be rockers lose sight of that simple fact. You're not a Chip 'n' Dale; you're not grinding your booty against a stripper pole in some sweaty club. Bands who get that confused are gross. Rock is art. It's self-expression. It's not just about sex and drugs.
And If you don't know what you're doing, even if you look "hot" on stage, you're going to look like a moron up there to anyone who knows music.
The three main types of music
Critics say that rock is a "stupid" form of music. It is-- I mean, look at the stupid video that started playing when you clicked into this hub. I won't argue with the fact that many things about rock music are inherently dumb, but let's get smart for just a second.
Musicologist Philip Tagg identified three main types of music:
- art music,
- folk music and
- popular music
Art music is what is usually thought of as classical music, but it can also be any type of written music that contains a high degree of complexity and involves the application of music theory. Folk music is simple traditional music that is passed down from generation to generation, and popular music is any type of music that has mass appeal.
Rock is unique in that it is a hybrid form of music
To me, the ideal rock music should encompass art, folk and pop styles. I think rock should exist right in the middle of that triangle.
Rock music can incorporate classical and jazz techniques, but very few rock bands use sheet music-- and they shouldn't. The heart of rock is blues. Many blues musicians lacked musical education and relied on instinct and feeling to decide what to play next. Overly complex progressive rock music tends to lack feeling and soul. Progressive rock is still rock, but at some point overly cerebral progressive music begins to drift too far towards the art music corner of Tagg's triangle.
On the other hand, there is a certain type of rock music that is designed to appeal to as many people as possible. The rock songs that end up on heavy rotation on the radio are closer to pop music than rock, and drift too far towards the popular music end of the spectrum.
On the flip side of that you have extreme metal that sounds almost like pure noise. "Hardcore" forms of rock music are considered to be "cool" simply because hardly anyone can stand it, but most hardcore bands are more about identity than musical expression.
I compare people who love grindcore to the kind of like people who claim to love extremely spicy food. Eaters of insanely spicy hot sauce are really trying to prove a point, which is something along the lines of: "Hey, check it out. I can eat this extremely spicy salsa. And I love it." By the same token, many people who like grindcore pride themselves on being able to listen to and (supposedly) like extreme forms of music.
A former bandmate of mine is a grindcore fan who likes to brag that he often uses grindcore to help him fall asleep at night when he feels restless and can't keep his eyes closed. Whatever, he's a drummer. Drummers are weird.
Rock music was initially a rebellious new form of music for young people, but it's developed into a type of folk music. Folk music is defined as any distinctive traditional style of music that has mainstream origins and reflects a particular culture or time period. If you play rock, you need to accept the fact that you're a part of a greater musical tradition that goes all the way back to the 1950s. So, before you start making rock music you're going want to listen to a lot of it first. Get influenced by all types of rock, going all the way back to Chuck Berry. Even if you hate it, you need to know exactly what you're rebelling against before you strike out and make your own tunes.
The main ingredients
Most folk music is characterized by the use of a particular instrument or set of instruments. (For example, folk music from Scotland is characterized by the use of bagpipes.) In order to stay within the tradition of rock music, a band shouldn't deviate too far from the four main musical ingredients:
- electric guitar and
That's not to say that there aren't great rock bands that exclude one or more of those elements or incorporate new instruments, but if a band begins to incorporate too many experimental instruments, the music begins to sound like something other than rock. By the same token, it is definitely possible for rock music to become stuck in the traditions of the past. All rock musicians should definitely push the envelope and offer something new. Paying tribute to classic rock in small ways is fine, but attempting to emulate whatever your favorite band was in high school is pointless. Studies show that the diversity of note combinations in popular music has diminished over the past 50 years. It's your responsibility as an artist to introduce the world to new ways of understanding music.
Forming the Band
Traditionally, a rock band is composed of three or four musicians. In the vast majority of bands, each musician specializes in one instrument. There's usually a designated bassist, guitarist, drummer and vocalist. In a three piece, one of the musicians will sing while also playing an instrument-- usually lead guitar.
Rock musicians are usually self-taught. Self-taught musicians have their own idiosyncratic ways of understanding music compared to those who study music theory. Sometimes it is helpful, though, if at least one of the band members has studied music.
The best way to get to know rock musicians is to go to local shows. Many musicians are willing to work on side projects. If you are not in touch with the local music scene, there's no shame in posting a personal ad. The members of Black Sabbath found each other through personal ads, for example.
Some rock musicians venture off to start their own solo bands. Prince is (in my opinion) a rock solo artist who plays all the instruments on tracks that he produces. You can definitely go it alone like Prince, learn how to play all the instruments and make your own music. If at all possible, though-- find some like-minded musicians and start a band.
Creating a Song
Before you try to create a rock song, you should listen to plenty of rock music. Listen to many different styles and varieties of rock, and listen to both old and new music. Force yourself to get out of your comfort zone and explore new bands. If you only listen to old music, the music you create will sound stale. The biggest problem with local bands is that musicians are often too conservative and are content to mimic their favorite bands instead of creating something new. By the same token, if you only listen to new styles, your music will sound overly trendy.
I sometimes find it helpful to go back to the past and listen to classic rock bands that I dislike to find out what made them tick, or maybe read some of their biographical information. This is how I developed an appreciation for the Sex Pistols, a band that I didn't initially like. Now they are one of my favorite bands.
A rock song should be an expression of your essence. Rock can be raw and to-the-point, or completely abstract. Most of the music that I create has a humorous angle to it-- that's due to the fact that there are some very ridiculous elemental aspects of my personality. If you are more of a serious person, you'll want to let that show in your music. Strive to play your instrument in a way that brings out elements in your personality. Even a simple bass riff can be played in such a way that reflects you.
You should make rock music for yourself and not for anyone else. It doesn't have to be popular. One of the most interesting things about rock music is that it isn't perfect. Rock can be weird and broken.
Drum playing requires coordination and an innate sense of rhythm. Drums are one of the hardest instruments to learn, and it's notoriously difficult to dig up a drummer if you're putting together a band. If you're learning drums, you might benefit from having someone who knows how show you the basics.
The main thing about the drums is being able to develop limb independence. You need to be able to tap out complex rhythms with your feet while also hitting the snare, toms and cymbals. That just takes practice. Once you get the basics down, you can get a feel for how the best drummers use the set by (don't laugh) playing the video game Rock Band.
Rock Band comes with a plastic drumset. Playing Rock Band drums feels much more realistic compared to the corny plastic guitars that come with the game. I was able to take my drum skills to a competent level after working my way up to the hardest difficulty level in Rock Band.
In one band that I was in, our bassist left the band and we were left with two guitarists and a drummer. So, I hopped over to bass. When I was a guitarist I thought of the bass as a largely invisible force in the music. Then, when I started playing bass my ear started picking up on the bass lines of some of my favorite songs. It was then that I realized that bass really does matter.
You can be the type of bassist that hangs out in the background and follows the guitar note-for-note. There's nothing wrong with that; actually in some songs that's the route that you have to take. In other situations you might have some freedom to move around a little bit more.
Amateur bassists with above average chops are fond of overplaying bass lines. They take every opportunity to get wild and slap-happy. But sometimes, holding back is what you want to do. Barre chord powered punk songs, for example, sound awful if the bassist is back there admiring himself too much, pretending to be Flea.
The main job of the bass is to glue the guitar to the drums. The very best bassists are in lock-step with the drum hits. (A good example of a solid rhythm section duo is Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine.)
The bassist and drummer should practice together until they sound good alone. Get it tight until you sound like a machine. Add a guitarist that sounds like a circular saw and a vocalist that sounds like its shrieking, maniacal operator and the result will be, well... a band that sounds fairly badass.
Guitarists are snobs when it comes to equipment. They should be. If you play guitar, treat your guitar like your baby. Polish it. Wax it. Set it up. Buy it fancy new effects pedals. Take it out to dinner.
If you're just starting out, though, start off with a crappy guitar. Even if you have the money, you shouldn't roll into Guitar Center and buy an American made Fender Stratocaster. You should slide on down to the pawn shop and buy a beater. Something that's difficult to play; the filthiest guitar of the lot. Make sure that the strings are difficult to press and that it sounds awful, and then get a good deal on it.
Next, take it home and start practicing.
Learn how to do a barre chord, and how to play the basic chords: E, D, C and the always evil-sounding E. Once forming those shapes with your hand becomes second nature, start moving them around over the fretboard. See what kinds of sounds you get. There are no wrong answers, just go with whatever sounds good to your ear.
Pick out individual notes, and then go up and down the neck, over and over again. It'll take a while for your left hand to get limber, and for your right hand to figure out how to grip the pick and pluck the string. Once you get a decent amount of speed going, learn the pentatonic scale. You'll be surprised how familiar that scale sounds, once you play it. You can use notes from the pentatonic scale to improvise your own guitar solos. Try soloing over your favorite songs. It's helpful to try to match note-for-note what is being played, because that's how you learn all the tricks: where to bend the notes, how to build up tension and vary pitch, etc. Eventually you'll be able to make up your own solos.
If you do all of this learning on a crappy pawn shop guitar, your fingers will compensate to overcome what they are working with. Your ear will become accustomed to the dull tone that you're getting from your dusty axe. Then, when you take it apart, clean it up, set it up, maybe buy new strings or even new pickups, and put it all back together again you'll be amazed by how much better everything sounds and how much easier it is to play.
There are many YouTube videos out there that will show you how to tweak your particular guitar. If you have an acoustic guitar, check out kawikachann's hub for tips.
Once you fine-tune that dirty pawn shop guitar and get it sounding good, you might be able to sell it back to the pawn shop for more than what you bought it for. What's more, you can apply that cash toward the purchase of a formidable electric guitar. I recommend either a Fender Strat or a Fender Tele. They are both excellent, versatile guitars that are perfect for almost any kind of rock music.
To be a rock vocalist, you don't necessarily have to know how to sing but you do have to be completely shameless. Not everyone is going to like your voice. You have to be okay with that. You have to work on your own voice until it sounds good to you. And, you have to be willing to be a little bit weird.
Time and time again, I see local rock acts with competent bands, but there's one big problem: the singer is SHY! I've seen vocalists hide behind the drummer, look at the ground the whole time, or even turn away from the audience. That's not the way to do it.
To be a rock vocalist, you can't worry about whether or not everyone in the room likes you. You need to have an attitude; you need to be up in the audience's face. (And please, don't cheese and make jokes between songs just because you're nervous and you have a microphone in front of your face.)
I always appreciate it when a band just gets up there, runs through their songs and gets out of the way. Even if they suck, I can respect that.
As far as learning how to sing goes, you can always practice while driving around in your car. That's what Chris Cornell does to keep his pipes in shape, and that's what I did when I was a lead singer. I also practiced in my apartment because I had a cool roommate. She thought that my caterwauling was amusing and never complained.
When you first start out as a vocalist, you're going to suck. Sucking, actually, is fine. This isn't opera, it's rock music.
The key to being a good frontman, I think, is to avoid being annoying. If you can belt out something that doesn't grate on your own nerves when you listen to a recording of it, then chances are that someone else will like it too. And if you can fulfill the frontman role without trying to hide from or hog the spotlight, you are worlds ahead of the game.
If you are writing lyrics for an original song that you intend to perform live, you should know that hardly anyone is going to understand you. PAs are often low quality, and there is often so much going on during a performance that will distract from the words. So, if you're writing lyrics, write for yourself.
Rock lyrics that are partially hidden or cloaked in metaphors are more interesting than those that are laid out for everyone to see and understand. Sometimes, though, it may feel good to directly say whatever is on your mind.
Certain ways of thinking can't be known by everyone. Trying to water down your message for public consumption will make it worthless. Attempting to be unknowable for the sake of being mysterious will also result in a meaningless creation, though.
Personally, I appreciate artists that keep a little something for themselves. Anyone can jump up onto a stage and shout out a series of opinions, but that gets tired after a while. Also, keeping some of the meaning hidden allows the singer to avoid coming off as preachy or tiresome. If whoever hears the song is free to create their own meaning, they may wonder about what you are trying to say but they also have the option of making something up for themselves.
Rock music is about music, but having some visuals around to go with it can be helpful for getting your ideas across. Part of the reason why I liked rock music when I was young was because of the cool and interesting music videos that drew me in to the band's world.
I remember seeing Soundgarden's video for Black Hole Sun in high school. The psychedelic visuals caught my eye, but the way the band just stood there, pointedly not "rocking out," was very cool to me at the time. In high school, I just wanted to get through the damn thing and move on to other things. For other people, it was all about "self discovery" and "coming of age" or something. I didn't relate to any of that. I was bored and I wasn't impressed by anything I saw at my high school. Everyone seemed dumb, even the teachers, and I didn't see any point in being there. I just wanted to get out. And Soundgarden seemed liked a band in the same position as me-- standing there, almost like they had to be there for the video but they really wanted to do something else.
If you make a video for your song, try to capture the mood you were in when you created it. A big part of rock music is communication. If you can convey your particular vibe effectively, other people who feel the same way will relate to it and you'll make friends. Some bands try to earn "fans" instead of making an attempt to make friends and that's the reason why they produce crappy try-hard, fake music.
How to get famous
Don't try to get famous. It won't happen. The heyday of rock and roll is over, and it's unlikely that you'll be filling up stadiums with screaming fans. But I believe a remnant of rock music will stick around.
Take a look at jazz music, for example. Just as with rock, there was (and still is, depending on the circumstances) an association with drugs, sex and an emphasis on live performances. When jazz first came out, it was a rebellious, mysterious, ecstatic new kind of music. Jack Kerouac wrote of the new sound worshipfully:
"Here’s a guy and everyboy’s there, right? Up to him to put down what’s on everybody else’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somwhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing."
Later, rock took over as the new rebellious music and the youth flocked to it, because it was different than the old stuff that their parents liked. Now the trend is away from rock, but both jazz and rock still exist. Some of it is watered down and lame, but there's also good stuff depending on where you look. At D.C. clubs like H.R. 57, you can get a jazz experience that comes pretty close to being authentic. You'll see actual jazz musicians there, guys who live and breathe jazz.
The lure of hitting the road with some friends and going on a DIY tour will always be compelling. There will be bands that do it, always, because it's a great adventure. And there will always be an audience for rock because out-of-town strangers who play big, loud music are exciting.
New bands like Sleepies are drifting around, keeping the rock tradition alive. They won't be playing stadiums anytime soon, because rock is out of fashion, but that's not stopping them from being a damn good band.
Check out... Sleepies!
The ones that paved the way...
When I first saw a badly-drawn image of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin on a ride at the state fair, I thought: what a perfect metaphor for the death of rock.
Here we have the rock gods that were considered to be dangerous rebels in their time, but now have their faces painted all over kiddie rides at the fair. Where's the rebellion, where's the mystery? It's easy to pronounce the death of rock and roll, after seeing something like that.
Maybe it's better that way, though. Maybe the best days of rock and roll are right here, right now. Maybe new bands can benefit from living under the shade of the long-dead (or at least, long-toothed) rock and roll trailblazers of the 1960s. The fact that they already did what they did means that any group of like-minded kids can hop into a van with guitars and go play music for strangers in bars nearly anywhere they want, all over the U.S.