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

 This article is an overview
of the heavy metal series.
 Heavy metal
 Thrash metal
 Black metal
 Power metal
 Nu metal
 Doom metal
 Christian metal
 Progressive metal
 Alternative metal
 Death metal
 Hair metal
 Stoner metal
Heavy metal is an evolutionary product of pop, blues and classical music. Its first wave, between 1967 and 1974, was a product of pop and blues, while the classical element came to the fore in the later 1970s. 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 Sub-Genres and Related Styles
10 Heavy Metal Dance Styles
11 Nicknames for Heavy Metal Fans
12 See also:

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.

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 Great Britain 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 Vanilla Fudge, who had slowed down and psychedelicized 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 people say The Beatles were a key influence; they had increasingly used distortion and heavier arrangements as early as 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and citing in particular the song "Helter Skelter" from The White Album (1968). This opinion, however, is open for debate. The earliest song that is clearly identifiable as prototype heavy metal appears to be "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks (1965).

In addition, the influence of Hendrix should not be discounted: acting both as a bridge between black American music and white European rockers, and as an innovator in the technical capabilities of the electric guitar.

Origins of "Heavy Metal"

The origin of the term heavy metal is uncertain. According to one version, it was coined by a critic for
Rolling Stone Magazine, who in 1967 said that the music of Jimi Hendrix was "like heavy metal falling from the sky". Others references have been the words "heavy metal thunder" in the 1968 Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild", or the William S. Burroughs story "The Heavy Metal Kid". 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,esp in the 1980s. Other historians 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, among others. Heavy metal further influenced the development of hardcore punk and alternative rock, among other genres.

The explosion of guitar virtuosity founded in the leadership of pioneer Jimi Hendrix a music generation earlier was ushered to the fore by Eddie Van Halen, and many consider his 1978 solo appropriately called Eruption as the significant new dawn in heavy metal history. Ritchie Blackmore (formerly of Deep Purple), Randy Rhodes (w/ pioneer Ozzy Osbourne) and Yngwie Malmsteen went on to solidify this explosion of virtuoso guitar work. All of a sudden, classical guitars, even nylon-stringed guitars, were commonplace at heavy metal concerts, and classical icons such as Liona Boyd 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" (recently MP3.com featured a collection of Ms. Boyd's music which featured her collaboration with such rock stars as Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and legend Eric Clapton, as further evidence of the open associations that cross musical genre divisions among the respective leaders).

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 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 Maiden, metal would push the limits of aggressive loudness in thrash metal, speed metal, black metal and death metal, and return full circle through the pop vanity of the L.A. hair metal lead by Motley Crue to the poppish Bon Jovi. Grunge evolved out of Seattle in the work of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. During the 1980s, hair metal dominated the music charts in much of the world, and superstars like Def Leppard 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.

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.

An 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 mold -- Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott and Living Colour are two examples, and the audiences can be quite mixed.


The most commonly used lineup 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 metal-ers 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 clean vocals to a high-pitched wail to a deep growl. The black and death metal scene tend to use distorted and guttural voices (for example try to listen to some songs of the Florida band Deicide). Generally it's 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.


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, while a symphony is an audible experience, 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, and 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.

If 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 more grave than fluffy 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 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 gray.

As heavy metal gave in to the dark, hopeless despair of reality, it evolved into heavier, more brooding forms like thrash metal and death metal.

Some 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 center, and metal denizens contend that the move towards the center 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 is consistently specific, including influences of Bach and Paganini rather than Mozart or Franz Liszt, though Metallica have stated that Cliff Burton's love of Mozart influenced their music. A classical influence became more pronounced in the 1980s, when Yngwie Malmsteen, among others, started playing "Neo Classical" music.

The 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

For many, heavy metal crystallizes in the British bands (i.e. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin considered the two most important progenitors of the genre) in the 1970s. However, the history of heavy metal, from its precursors to the most highly evolved and complex thrash, speed and death bands of the late 1980s, is pushed forward by three main British waves: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the 60s; Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in the 70s; and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in the 80s (from which sprouted thrash and its mutations (Metallica, Slayer) and Def Leppard). While these bands pushed forward the stylistic expectations of the genre, hair metal bands from innovators like Van Halen to later exponents like Ratt and Guns N' Roses brought a pop-friendly form to mainstream audiences to a mix of critical acclaim and purist disavowal.

The American band Grand Funk Railroad epitomised early heavy metal, and set an alternative benchmark in which 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.

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.

Sub-Genres and Related Styles

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 difference between them. Pure heavy metal is mainly blues-based, with pentatonic scales and a blues-like song structure; black metal (and other, more highly-evolved genres) is based 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 related form which arose from some of the pioneers, including The Stooges, Blue Cheer, Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols exploring the politically-charged reality of darkness. 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 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 heavy metal form with earlier metal symbolizing the upward slope, and subsequent derivative sub-genres dissolving into distant relatives of the original form. Sub-genres of heavy metal are numerous, though crossovers from other heavy metal and non-metal genres are frequent. See List of heavy metal genres for a list of subgenres.

Heavy Metal Dance Styles

Nicknames for Heavy Metal Fans

  • Headbanger
  • Metalhead
  • Hard rocker

See also: