Rock and Roll, like most styles of music, has debatable origins, but it is safe to say that it has been around as a popular music for over sixty years. A quick scan through local radio stations reveals that it's not yet ready for retirement. The genre has gone through several transformations since starting out, and perhaps will continue to evolve and stick around a bit longer. Rock and Roll was a welcome alternative to the acceptable forms of popular music in the early 1950s. The language was simple: harmonically, usually no more than a few chords; rhythmically, a danceable four-four time without much syncopation; lyrically, meanings that were only veiled when it came to taboo subjects. So if Rock and Roll is the language of rebellion, is there room for artistic expression that exceeds the simple, yet powerful intent of the music, and can the genre support a refinement that it rebelled against in the first place?
Musicians that seek to play Rock music that has more artistic aims than originally intended must also transform the aesthetics of the genre. The raw elements must be refined because as they are, they limit this approach. The instrumental technique and lyrical intent must be refined to achieve meanings not possible with the raw elements. Other genres have been faced with this problem. Country artists merged the harmonic complexity of jazz and the rhythmic variety from swing music to create a new style within their genre.
Rock and Roll musicians began to realize similar possibilities as artists began to yearn for the ability to create serious music in a genre that was not intended to support such designs. Besides the social and political pulls that affect music from any period, there were two other elements that supported this evolution: technology and one-upmanship.
Rock musicians are always on the lookout for some new way of expressing themselves through adding unique elements to their music and there is never a shortage of creative spirit to provide new tools and toys to meet that demand. The list is probably most impressive in the realm of the guitar and guitar accessories.
Outboard effects helped enhance the sought after overdriven sound. Modulation effects such as the Wah Wah gave the guitar new expression. Time delay effects such as the Echoplex went beyond reverb to add another dimension of sustain to the instrument. Changes to the instrument itself followed. High gain pickups were essential to increasing the sustain of the instrument that paved the way for the modern performance practice.
The vibrato arm (often mislabeled tremolo) that was simply a novelty in most early Rock and Roll had been refined from affecting the strings with a mild change of pitch to the floating tremolo which could drastically alter the tension on the strings higher or lower and allowed for the “dive bomb” effect popular in guitar music from the 1980s and 90’s.
Higher gain guitar systems also allowed the playing style to evolve. The sustain and compression of high gain setups allowed legato lines to be reproduced almost as clearly as picked or strummed notes. For example, where an acoustic player is required to pick each note in a series of several notes for the line to be heard, electric players have the option to pick the first note on each string and hammer-on or pull-off to the next note as in a trill. This was even taken the point where simply fretting a note and pulling off gave the string enough energy to be heard clearly without picking. Players could now use the picking hand to hammer-on, or “tap” a fretted note. This two handed tapping technique was exploited by players in the late 1970 (most notable Eddie Van Halen) and is still popular today.
The other instruments of Rock and Roll have similarly been transformed by technology. Pianists no are longer limited by the obvious logistics the large instrument creates, or whether the one available at a performance would be of a certain quality (or in tune) thanks to the digital age. Sampling technology and portable keyboards made the instrument easier to set up than an average guitar rig, and it was always in tune. Rock musicians often turned to the organ or electronic keyboards before synths and digital pianos were available, but now the acoustic palate is only limited by what presets are available in the memory banks.
Similar advances have been made in bass guitar and drum technology, studio recording, and live sound reinforcement. All of these changes have created new possibilities while transforming the genre.
The other element that has contributed to the evolution of Rock and Roll is simply a matter of trying to outdo the last generation or even just the latest release by another artist. This has been happening in many other styles throughout history as well, so it’s not surprising to find it in this highly individual genre. It is often this drive that causes a certain style of playing or sound to be in vogue and another passé. It has also driven Rock musicians (mainly guitarists and drummers) to strive to be the fastest and most technically developed player. These efforts are periodically undone when other players come into the spotlight that change the aesthetics of the genre to stress other areas of music and move technical ability to the background. A recent example of this is the “Grunge” movement which supplanted virtuoso Rock styles and Hair Metal.
Even in the relatively early days of Rock, the technological advancements and the quest for new forms of expression led to high volume instrumentation that spawned a new harmonic vocabulary. Guitarists began using the power chord. This device was both a convenience and a necessity. The chord removed the third scale degree form the root-third-fifth composition of the conventional major/minor chords. Removing this note made the chord easier to play and reinforced the ambiguity between major and minor tonalities that was inherited from the blues. The necessity lies in the overdriven sounds created when amplifiers were driven to distortion. The overtones created by the third in a chord when distorting the electric guitar clash with the other harmonics of the chord, especially when played in the tenor and bass ranges of the instrument. Though this new vocabulary seemed simpler, it generated a more powerful sound (especially when the root is doubled in the bass) than more complex harmonies. The new possibilities of this simplified harmony made heavy metal music possible. Early groups in this genre relied heavily on power chords combined with unison single note lines. These elements were combined in a cyclical theme that would usually repeat every four or eight measures and constituted the "riff," which is the melodic part of a song that serves as the hook. This method of simplification of materials actually created more possibilities.
Along with expanding the genre’s capabilities through technology, players also wanted a deeper musical expression than Rock and Roll is capable of. The most recognizable adaptation is the expansion of the form beyond the three minute Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Solo-Chorus formula. Some Rock artists went so far as to recreate large classical works as well as composing original music that was on that scale. Often, in these large arrangements, the melodic instrument, mainly guitar or keyboard, would play a larger role than simply being spotlighted during the solo of a three minute tune. This approach led to a renewed popularity of the Rock Instrumental. This style of playing has more in common with classical music and strayed from the pure Rock form. This sub-genre of Progressive Rock retained some of the core elements such as instrumentation and playing style, but the refinements came at the expense of the overall stylistic carefree youthful vigor that Rock and Roll was based on.
Broadening the scope of the possibilities inherent in Rock and Roll has led to some memorable achievements in composition and instrumental technique. Pop Rock artists have become more sophisticated in how they reflect the culture of their time and Progressive Rock groups continue to stress the importance of precision in performance that is similar to the tradition found in other art music. There seems to be a countless number of sub-genres of Rock music and each one has its own unique take on the aesthetics that define it. At the core are the elements that define Rock and Roll, but the more complexity that is added, the further it gets from the original. It often comes down to complexity versus raw expression through simplicity, each being an important stylistic element and often found in combinations of varying proportions. Through all of the transformation Rock has gone through, it would appear to be difficult at this point to match the spark that set the whole thing in motion in the first place. But this is not a such a bad thing: it’s good to know that Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly will always be relevant.