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Heavy metal music
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Heavy metal music

Heavy metal is a form of rock music characterized by aggressive, driving rhythms, highly amplified/distorted guitars, and often dark thematic elements.

Heavy metal
Stylistic origins: Psychedelic rock and British blues
Cultural origins: Late 1960s United Kingdom
Typical instruments: Guitar - Bass - Drums
Mainstream popularity: Except for hair metal and New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, limited and sporadic in the USA, but extensively followed all around the world (especially in Europe, Japan, India and South America).
Derivative forms: Hard Rock, Classic Rock, 70s & 80s Pop;, Rock 'N Roll
Alternative - Australian war - Black - British - Christian - Circus - Death - Doom - Epic - Hair - Goth - Metalcore - Neo-Classical - NWOBHM - Power - Oriental - Stoner - Sludge - Thrash - True - Vedic
Grindcore - Industrial metal - Nu metal (Hotly Debated Issue) - Progressive metal
Other topics
Dance - Fashion - Musicians - Umlaut
Heavy metal is a development of blues music and blues rock and pop. Its first wave, between 1967 and 1974, was a product of pop and blues. By approximately 1991 most heavy metal had evolved into other hard rock genres, notably grunge.

Table of contents
1 Early examples and influences
2 Origins of "heavy metal"
3 History
4 Instrumentation
5 Themes
6 Classical influence
7 Key artists
8 Cultural impact
9 Subgenres and related styles
10 Heavy metal dance styles
11 Nicknames for heavy metal fans

Early examples and influences

American blues music was highly popular and influential among the early British rockers; bands such as the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds had recorded covers of many classic blues songs, sometimes speeding up the tempo and using electric guitar where the original was acoustic. (Similar adpatations of blues and other race music had formed the basis of the earliest rock and roll, notably that of Elvis Presley).

Such powered-up blues music received a push from a wave of intellectual and artistic curiosity that arose when musicians started to exploit the opportunities of the electrically amplified guitar to produce a louder, more discordant sound. Where blues-rock drumming styles had been largely simple shuffle beats on small drum kits, drummers began using a more muscular, complex, and amplified approach to match and be heard with the increasingly loud guitar sounds; similarly vocalists modified their technique and increased their reliance on amplification, often becoming more stylized and dramatic in the process. Simultaneous advances in amplification and recording technology made it possible to successfully capture the power of this heavier approach on record.

The earliest music commonly identified as heavy metal came out of the Birmingham area of the United Kingdom in the late 1960s as bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath applied an overtly non-traditional approach to blues standards and new music often based around blues scales and arrangements. These bands were highly influenced by American psychedelic rock musicians including Jimi Hendrix, who had pioneered amplified and processed blues-rock guitar, and acted as a bridge between black American music and white European rockers. Other oft-cited influences include Vanilla Fudge, who had slowed down and psychedelicised pop tunes, as well as earlier British hard rockers such as The Who and The Kinks who had paved the way for heavy metal styles by introducing power chords and more aggressive percussion styles to the rock genre. Another key influence was Cream, who exemplified the power trio format which would become a staple of heavy metal. Some also cite The Beatles as a key influence; they had increasingly used distortion and heavier arrangements as early as 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Perhaps earliest song that is clearly identifiable as prototype heavy metal is "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks (1965). By late 1968 heavy blues sounds were appearing all over: many fans and scholars point to Blue Cheer's 1968 cover of Eddie Cochran's hit, "Summertime Blues" as the first true heavy-metal song; Beatles scholars cite in particular the song "Helter Skelter" from The White Album (1968) which set new standards for distortion and aggressive sound on a pop album. The Jeff Beck Group's album, Truth (late 1968) was an important & influential hard-rock album that was released just prior to Led Zeppelin's first album, leading some (especially British blues fans) to argue that Truth was the first heavy-metal album.

However, it was the release of Led Zeppelin in 1969 that brought worldwide notice that a new genre had formed.

Origins of "heavy metal"

The origin of the term heavy metal is uncertain. According to one version, the term was coined by counter-culture writer William S. Burroughs. In his 1962 novel The Soft Machine, he introduces the character "Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid". His next novel in 1964 Nova Express, develops this heavy metal theme further, heavy metal being a metaphor for addictive drugs. Another aspect of these novels is the use of recorded sound to free oneself from a programmed life and the alienation caused by an increasingly mechanical world.

"With their diseases and orgasm drugs and their sexless parasite life forms - Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes - And the Insect People of Minraud with metal music"

Burroughs, William S, (1964). Nova Express. New York: Grove Press. Pp. 112

Sandy Pearlman, original producer, manager and songwriter for the Blue Öyster Cult;, claims to have been the first person to apply the term "heavy metal" to rock music in 1970.

In the late 1960s, Birmingham, England was still a centre of industry and (given the many rock bands that evolved in and around the city, such as Led Zeppelin, The Move and Black Sabbath) some people suggest that the term Heavy Metal may have some relation to such activity. Biographies of The Move have claimed that the sound came from their 'heavy' guitar riffs that were popular amongst the 'metal midlands'.

Another, possibly apocryphal, version, credits the term to a rock critic who in 1967 said that the music of Jimi Hendrix was "like heavy metal falling from the sky". Other references have been the words "heavy metal thunder" in the 1968 Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild":

"I like smoke and lightning
Heavy metal thunder
Racin' with the wind
And the feelin' that I'm under"

The word "heavy" (meaning serious or profound) had entered beatnik/counterculture slang some time earlier, and references to "heavy music" -- typically slower, more amplified variations of standard pop fare -- were already common; indeed, Iron Butterfly's 1968 debut album was entitled Heavy. The fact that Led Zeppelin (whose moniker came partly in reference to Keith Moon's jest that they would "go over like a lead balloon") incorporated a heavy metal into its name may have sealed the usage of the term.

Regardless of its origin, heavy metal may have been used as a jibe initially but was quickly adopted by its adherents. Other, already-established bands, such as Deep Purple, who had origins in pop or progressive rock, immediately took on the heavy metal mantle, adding distortion and additional amplification in a more aggressive approach.


The 1970s history of heavy metal music is highly debated among music historians. Some would call the period an era of "selling-out", in which bands like Blue Öyster Cult achieved moderate mainstream success and the Los Angeles hair metal scene began finding pop audiences, especially in the 1980s. Others ignore or downplay the importance of these bands, instead focusing on the arrival of classical influences, which can be heard in the work of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads and such like. Others still highlight the late-70s cross-fertilization of heavy metal with fast-paced, youthful punk rock (e.g. Sex Pistols), culminating in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal around the year 1980, led by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. In the 1980s and onwards, heavy metal further influenced the development of hardcore punk and alternative rock, and spawned a host of new "metal" genres such as death metal.

explosion of guitar virtuosity (pioneered by Jimi Hendrix a musical generation earlier) was brought to the fore by Eddie Van Halen, and many consider his 1978 solo "Eruption" (Van Halen, 1978) a milestone. Ritchie Blackmore (formerly of Deep Purple), Randy Rhoads (with pioneer Ozzy Osbourne) and Yngwie Malmsteen went on to solidify this explosion of virtuoso guitar work, and in some cases, classical guitars and nylon-stringed guitars were played at heavy metal concerts. Classical icons such as Liona Boyd also became associated with the heavy metal stars as peers in a newly diverse guitar fraternity where conservative and aggressive guitarists could come together to "trade licks". Such collaborations came to the mainstream, as MP3.com recently featured a collection of Ms. Boyd's collaborations with such rock stars as David Gilmour and Eric Clapton as further evidence of the open associations between exponents of diverse musical genres. 

This explosion would cool down in the music of Ronnie James Dio (who himself had a tenure at lead vocals with the legendary Black Sabbath) and continue to settle towards Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, who may be the final and complete consummation of "pure" heavy metal in the lineage of the "grandfathers" - Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. After Iron Maiden, metal would push the limits of aggressive loudness in thrash metal, speed metal, black metal and death metal.

In a separate development, taking place mostly in the U.S., heavy metal would return full circle through the pop vanity of the L.A. hair metal scene, led by Mötley Crüe. During the 1980s, hair metal dominated the music charts in some parts of the world, and superstars like Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Poison, and Guns n'Roses helped lead the way. While their music has endured as representative of a particular view, time and place, hair metal is not typically considered a particularly pure or well-executed form of metal. Grunge music appeared as a popularized endpoint of the punk rock-influenced alternative rock music of the 1990's which fought any mainstream influence (seen as "selling out") articularly reacted against overly-aggressive and increasingly formulaic hair metal bands from Ratt to Extreme. Grunge evolved out of Seattle in the work of Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Cover versions of classic rock songs would become a standard part of many metal bands' repertoire. Notable is Mötley Crüe's version of "Helter Skelter" which very strongly brings to the fore the heavy metal undertones that the Beatles original song implied but failed to explore in their time.

important element to be remembered is that heavy metal is considered by many to be primarily white, in opposition to the blues-based rock which derives from African-American music. This only means that the majority of the audience and the players are white. There are, however, examples of bands that have broken this mould  -- Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott and Living Colour are two examples, and the audiences can be quite mixed.


The most commonly used line-up for metal is: a drummer, sometimes using a double bass-drum, a bass guitar, a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar (in early metal bands a single guitarist often sufficed -- see power trio), and a singer (who is sometimes also one of the instrumentalists); sometimes a keyboard player can also be found. Guitar playing is very important in heavy metal. Amplification of guitars, as well as innovative effects and electronic processing is used to thicken the sound. The result was a simple yet powerful impact (although some of the original heavy metallers joked that their simplified sound was more the result of limited ability than of innovation.).

There is a great variety of ways that heavy metal singers sing, from mid-range clean vocals to a high-pitched wail to a deep growl. The black and death metal scene tend to use distorted and guttural voices (as exemplified by the Florida band Deicide). Generally it is hard to understand what the singer is "singing". Often, the text is considered to be too crude to be spoken out clearly (such as in Cannibal Corpse), but there are some bands that will have very good lyrics obscured by the style of the singing.

Intricate solos and riffs are a big part of heavy metal music. Guitarists use sweep-picking, tapping and similar techniques to obtain amazing fast playing. Heavy metal is not limited, however, to the standard outfit of guitars and drums. The Finnish cello quartet, Apocalyptica, has created their own version of heavy metal, difficult to categorize but leaning towards the darker side of metal. They apply various familiar effects to their sounds such as the all-familiar distortion, chorusing, flanging, etc. to create their style, which has fallen under a mixed assortment of applause and criticism due to their deviance.

The American band Grand Funk Railroad was one of the early proto-heavy metal bands (along with The Who, etc.) who set new benchmarks for volume levels during shows. The volume of the music was seen as the important factor rather than its musical qualities; though this influence is often denigrated as pointless extravagance, it has proven enormously influential and still dominates many people's perceptions of the genre. Motörhead and Manowar are more recent examples of bands that pride themselves of keeping the volume very high (cf. Manowar's 1984 song "All Men Play On Ten").


Heavy metal, as an art form, is more than just music; it is as much visual as it is audible. Album covers and stage shows are almost as important to the presentation of the material as the music itself. Thus, through heavy metal, many artists collaborate to produce a menu of experiences in each piece, offering a wider range of experiences to the audience. In this respect, heavy metal becomes perhaps of a diverse art form than any single form dominated by one method of expression. Whereas a painting is experienced visually, a symphony experience audibly, a heavy metal band's "image" and the common theme that binds all their music is expressed in the artwork on the album, the set of the stage, the tone of the lyrics, in addition to the sound of the music.

Rock historians tend to find that the influence of Western pop music gives heavy metal its escape-from-reality fantasy side, as an escape from reality through outlandish and fantastic lyrics, while African-American blues gives heavy metal its naked reality side, focusing on loss, depression and loneliness.

the audio/thematic components of heavy metal are predominantly blues-influenced reality, then the visual component is predominantly pop-influenced fantasy. The themes of darkness, evil, power, and apocalypse are fantastic language components for addressing the reality of life's problems. Further, in reaction to the "peace and love" hippie culture of the 1960s, heavy metal developed as a counterculture, where light is supplanted by darkness, and the happy ending of pop is replaced by the naked reality that things don't always work out in this world. While fans claim that the medium of darkness is not the message, critics have accused the genre of glorifying the negative aspects of reality.

Heavy metal themes are typically more grave than the generally airy pop from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, focusing on war, nuclear annihilation, environmental issues, political and religious propaganda. Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", Ozzy Osbourne's "Killer of Giants" are examples of serious contributions to the discussion of the state of affairs. The commentary on reality sometimes tends to become over-simplified because the fantastic poetic vocabulary of heavy metal deals primarily with very clear dichotomies of light and dark, hope and despair, good and evil, which don't make much room for complex shades of grey.

might differentiate by observing that pure heavy metal doesn't generally sing about love, while many hair metal songs are focused on love. In some respects, one might argue that the hair metal scene of the 80s was the logical endpoint of the glitter or glam rock movement of the 70s; the visual similarities between the two, with the make-up and fanciful costumes, makes the argument more compelling. Glitter rock, however, was lyrically focused on sexual ambiguity, free expression and individuality, while hair metal was unambiguously macho and heterosexual, with little room for diversity of political or social opinions.  Ultimately, "pure" heavy metal would position itself at the periphery of pop culture, never quite at centre, and metal denizens contend that the move towards the centre was a commercialism that compromised both the artistic integrity of the form and the opportunity for messages to be taken seriously.

Classical influence

The appropriation of classical music by heavy metal typically includes the influence of Bach and Paganini rather than Mozart or Franz Liszt. Though Deep Purple/Rainbow guitarist Ritchie Blackmore had been experimenting with musical figurations borrowed from classical music since the early 70s, Edward Van Halen's solo cadenza "Eruption" (released on Van Halen's first album in 1978) marks an important moment in the development of virtuosity in metal. Following Van Halen, the "classical" influence in metal guitar during the 80s actually looked to the early eigtheenth century for its model of speed and technique. Indeed, the late Baroque era of western art music was also frequently interpreted through a gothic lens. For example, "Mr. Crowley," (1981) by Ozzy Osbourne and guitarist Randy Rhoads, uses both a pipe organ and Baroque-inspired guitar solos to create a particular mood for Osbourne's lyrics on the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley. Like many other metal guitarists in the 80s, Rhoads quite earnestly took up the "learned" study of musical theory and helped to solidify the minor industry of guitar pedagogy magazines (such as Guitar for the Practicing Musician) that grew up during the decade. In most instances, however, metal musicians who borrowed the technique and rhetoric of art music were not attempting to be classical musicians. The resounding exception to this is Yngwie Malmsteen. Malmsteen's first album, Rising Force (1984) is a tour-de-force display of gothic-tinged metal virtuosity that, along with his comments about metal and art music, showed him to desire a spot in the pantheon of "great composers." A talented and gifted performer who's unafraid to demonstrate his abilities, Malmsteen's aesthetic frequently engenders virulent love-him or hate-him responses from fans and critics.

Encarta encyclopedia claims that "when a text was associated with the music, Bach could write musical equivalents of verbal ideas". As heavy metal uses apocalyptic themes and images of power and darkness, the ability to translate verbal ideas into musical ideas that successfully convey the ideas of the words is critical to heavy metal authenticity and credibility. An excellent example of this is the theme album Powerslave, by Iron Maiden. The cover is of a dramatic Egyptian pyramid scene, and many of the songs on the album have subject matter that requires a sound suggestive of life and death, including a song entitled "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", based on the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Key artists

The above discussion of the history of heavy metal, from its 60s precursors to the proliferation of heavy metal sub-genres of the late 1980s, can be summarized in the following key artists from three main waves of bands that to a large extent came out of Britain: 1) influential rock bands like The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones in the 60s; 2) "early" heavy metal exemplified by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in the early and mid 70s; and 3) the New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneered by most successfully by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in the late 70s and early 80s. Importantly, it was this last generation of metal musicians who first self-consciously marketed themselves as "heavy metal" bands. By the mid-1980s, as the term "heavy metal" became the subject of much contestation, heavy metal had branched out in so many different directions that new sub-classifications were created by fans, record companies, and fanzines, although sometimes the differences between various sub-genres were unclear, even to the artists purportedly belonging to a given style (see List of heavy metal genres). Notable early 80s sub-genres where the overarching term "heavy metal" is occasionally still in use include the faster thrash metal, pioneered by key U.S. artists like Metallica and Slayer, and hair metal, from U.S. bands like Ratt and Guns N' Roses that brought pop-friendly music to mainstream audiences (to a mix of critical acclaim and purist disavowal). Later styles of heavy rock music in the 1990s, such as grunge (the typical example being Seattle's Nirvana), show influences of heavy metal but are typically not labelled sub-genres of heavy metal, as opposed to thrash metal and hair metal. The general absence of virtuosic guitar solos is perhaps one reason grunge bands haven't been considered heavy metal bands.

Cultural impact

Heavy metal's bombastic excesses, exemplified by hair metal, have been parodied numerous times, most famously in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. However, see also the phenomenon of the heavy metal umlaut.

Douglas Adams neatly satirised this propensity for excessive volume in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy with the fictional rock band Disaster Area — creators of the loudest sound in the known universe. It should be noted however, that Adams was satirising Pink Floyd stage shows specifically, rather than metal in general.

Subgenres and related styles

Heavy Metal has proven somewhat difficult to categorise. Some fans and musicians have a firm concept of genre and subgenre, but others reject such categorisation as limiting or useless.

Heavy metal is the progenitor of the "metal-family" of genres including black metal, death metal, thrash metal and others. Most metal derives directly from blues and rock, while some sub-genres include an evident influence of Western classical music. Thus, even if classical heavy metal and avant-garde black metal belong to the same family, there are important differences between them. Pure heavy metal is mainly blues-based, with pentatonic scales and a blues-like song structure; black metal and related forms often draw on classical music, even if at a first glance it seems to be only distorted guitars playing a very fast repeating melody.

Glitter rock, a short-lived era in the mid-1970s, is the extreme exploration of the fantasy-side of the reality-fantasy parents of heavy metal. Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Kiss are among the more popular standard examples of this sub-genre. 

Punk rock is a sometimes closely related form, established by The Ramones The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols . Though punk rock and heavy metal began as linked genres of disaffected youth, punk quickly diverged as a reaction against the perceived bombastic arena rock of 1970s heavy metal bands. Heavy metal also had an important influence on grunge which, like punk, was partly a reaction to the perceived slickness and corporate nature of much rock music.

In the early 80s the New Wave of British Heavy Metal made metal music very popular (especially in Europe) with bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motörhead. This period is often considered the pinnacle of the original heavy metal form.

There are numerous, often overlapping subgenres. See List of heavy metal genres.

Heavy metal dance styles

Nicknames for heavy metal fans