Classic Rock – What It Is, What It Isn’t?

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What makes Classic Rock classic rock? Time to tackle that controversial topic.

Wikipedia considers it a radio format. Certainly, Classic Rock radio is where you can hear a lot of classic rock. But these days, lots of people don’t listen to the radio to get their music.

I’d call it a music genre in itself. So…what makes Classic Rock classic rock?

It starts with rock music. So…no R&B, no jazz, no ballads, no rap, no country, no electronica, no dance, no techno, no doo wop, no new wave, no reggae, no classical, no contemporary Christian, no Christmas, no soul. I’ll allow the blues, since rock music is so inherently derived from the blues. But even with the blues, it must be guitar based blues – and Rhythm & Blues has already been disqualified.

Speaking of guitar – the guitar is the most fundamental musical instrument of Classic Rock. And almost always, it involves an electric guitar – though some Classic Rock songs will feature an acoustic guitar. Bass guitar and drums (no drum machines) are nearly as essential. Keyboards of some sort – piano, organ or synthesizer – are less essential but are often prevalent.

Also not required, but nearly essential, are vocals. Even better if they feature harmony.

An absolute key element of Classic Rock is when the song was released. It began with the British Invasion – so 1964. For all practical purposes, it ended in 1980, though I’m open to debate that it ran until 1985 or so. So…a Classic Rock artist who released songs after 1980 still is a Classic Rock artist, but the songs they released after 1980 don’t qualify.

The overwhelming majority of Classic Rock music is from white males. Like it or not, black artists back in the day were almost always labeled R&B artists. Doesn’t seem fair – B.B. King, Prince, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Issac Hayes, James Brown, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Al Green, dozens more black artists – they don’t get Classic Rock status. Jimi Hendrix seems to be the only black artist that does. Carlos Santana makes the cut as the only notable classic rocker from Latin descent. And…only a handful of women make the cut: Janis Joplin, Heart, Pat Benatar, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt come to mind.

Some of the greatest Classic Rock artists barely made it to the charts. The Grateful Dead only had four songs make the Hot 100 chart between 1966 and 1980, with their classic Truckin’ making it to #64 (note – Touch of Grey made it to #9, but that was in 1987 – too late).

Here are my ABCs of Classic Rock artists. Feel free to add names in the comments section.

A – Aerosmith, AC/DC, Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, The Allman Brothers Band

B – The Beatles, The Band, Boston, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, Bad Company, Blondie, Pat Benatar, Bachman Turner Overdrive

C – Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chicago (early), Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Alice Cooper

D – Dire Straits, The Doobie Brothers, The Doors, Deep Purple

E – Eagles, Electric Light Orchestra

F – Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner

G – Grateful Dead, The Guess Who, Grand Funk Railroad, Guns ‘N’ Roses

H – Jimi Hendrix, The Hollies, Heart

I – Iggy Pop

J – Billy Joel, Elton John, Journey, Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Jethro Tull

K – KISS, Kansas, The Kinks

L – Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd

M – Steve Miller Band, Johm Mellencamp

N – Stevie Nicks, Ted Nugent

O – Ozzy Osbourne

P – Pink Floyd, The Police, Tom Petty

Q – Queen

R – The Rolling Stones, REO Speedwagon, Linda Ronstadt, Rush

S – Bruce Springsteen, Styx, Steely Dan, Simon & Garfunkel, Santana, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger

T – Three Dog Night, James Taylor

U – U2

V – Van Halen

W – The Who

XYZ – Yes, ZZ Top

I will dare to rank the top three Classic Rock artists – in no particular order, how about The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin? Here’s the Rolling Stones performing one of the most classic of Classic Rock songs, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1966. Classic! Enjoy!


1 thought on “Classic Rock – What It Is, What It Isn’t?”

  1. Agree with you in most cases. Fringes are biggest question. I don’t think “classic rock” started until say 1968 although there are some songs earlier. Biggest issue is post 1980. Are hair bands classic rock? They can be and that goes until late 1980″s. Pink Floyd’s Division Bell was released in 1994. I think that type of music qualifies. Even some Foo Fighters? I guess I will include more later stuff but not nearly as much as late 60’s to early 80’s.

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