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Improvising in a rock style

Rock music is a genre which originated as rock’n’roll in 1950s USA. Stemming  from 1940s and 1950s rhythm and blues and country music, rock music is influenced by a number of other genres, such as blues, folk, jazz and classical music. The creation of rock’n’roll during the 50s also encouraged a wave of fandom with teenagers and inspired a new style of dancing, which lead to disapproving parents worldwide thinking it was a bad influence on their children.

Debate surrounds which should be considered the first rock’n’roll record and it has been argued that Elvis Presley’s first single with Sun Records, ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ was the first. However, in 1955, Bill Haley’sRock Around the Clock’ became the first rock’n’roll song to top Billboard magazine’s main sales and airplay charts. 

The ‘British Invasion’ was also a key aspect in the development of rock music. During the mid-1960s rock and pop music acts from the UK, such as The Beatles, started to become popular in the USA, by drawing on elements from other styles of distinctive music, including soul, rhythm and blues and surf. In the late 1960s during the classic rock period, a number of sub-genres emerged, including hybrids like blues rock, folk rock, country rock, jazz-rock fusion, progressive rock and glam rock. Subsequently, this was the introduction of the types of rock groups we know today; who produce their own material and consist of guitarists, drummers and vocalists.

In the mid-late 1970s, punk rock became stronger and started to introduce a rawer, livelier style of music which focused on social and political problems within society. Punk rock was also a huge influence in the 1980s and resulted in the development of other sub-genres, such as new wave, post-punk and the alternative rock movement. However, from the 1990s a new style of alternative rock started to prevail within rock music and also break through into the mainstream; this included a number of sub-genres such as punk rock, grunge, Britpop, and indie rock.


Musically, rock is focused around the electric guitar, which usually forms part of a rock group with electric bass and drums. Typically, a rock song has a 4/4 time signature using a verse-chorus form, but the genre has become extremely diverse over the years. Lyrics are often about love, but they also address a wide variety of other themes that are frequently social or political. Rock places a high degree of emphasis on live performance and an ideology of authenticity.

Improvising in the style

When improvising in a rock genre it’s good to remember that rock is characterised by a driving rhythm and uses straight quavers, so you should use these within your improvisation and keep it in time with the beat. It’s more important to be accurate and confident rather than complex, so don’t worry too much about showing off with fast runs of notes, just keep them simple, in order to capture the driving energy of rock.

In the Rock & Pop parameters, the genre is described as ‘simple rock’, but this just means that the backing track will have a standard rock feel and won’t be anything too exotic or unusual. You might come across rock at Initial onwards.

Watch videos with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner JJ Wheeler and session musician Harry the Piano:

Influential artists

Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the greatest rock guitarists, and it is said he pioneered the use of the electric guitar within the genre. Hendrix also liked to use overdriven amplifiers with high volume and gain, and was instrumental in the development of the technique of guitar amplifier feedback. He additionally helped popularise the use of a wah-wah pedal in rock and was the first musician to implement stereophonic phasing effects in his recordings.

A number of British bands from the late 60s were hugely influential within the rock genre, such as The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones were at the forefront of the British Invasion in 1964 and 1965 and were a big influence within the rebellious counterculture of the 1960s. They also helped to introduce blues as a major part of rock’n’roll music. Pink Floyd were additionally very significant during this period and were famous for their new dynamic music and their use of philosophical lyrics. They were also said to be one of the UK’s first psychedelic rock bands, and they used aspects of other genres such as hard rock, blues, country, folk, and electronic music within their songs. Led Zeppelin were also extremely significant within the creation of rock music and were also said to be one of the originators of the heavy metal genre. Their music focused around a guitar driven sound and their music was influenced by a number of other genres, including blues and folk music.

The alternative rock band Muse are often associated with space and progressive rock, with their music including styles from a number of genres such as electronic music, hard rock, experimental rock, classical music and rock opera. Many Muse songs are recognisable by lead vocalist Matthew Bellamy’s use of vibrato, falsetto, and melismatic phrasing. Muse songs often use the broken chords technique on the piano, as well as a variety of electronic effects to the bass tone. The bass line is also frequently featured as the central theme of the song, in order to add embellishments in the lower register. They additionally use an arpeggiator and pitch-shift effects on the guitar, to help add to their signature electronic sound.

Examples of rock songs in the syllabus are:

Heroes‘ by David Bowie (bass, drums, guitar, vocals and keyboard), ‘YYZ‘ by Rush (bass and drums), ‘My Generation‘ by The Who (bass and drums), ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash‘ by The Rolling Stones (drums), ‘Time Is Running Out‘ by Muse (bass and drums) and ‘All Day And All Of The Night‘ by The Kinks (bass, drums, guitar, vocals and keyboard).

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams.

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation.

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