Characteristics of Rock 'n' Roll Music

By Robert Russell
Rock and roll evolved with the electric guitar.

Muddy Waters sang, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.” This tells part of the story of rock and roll, but its origins are a little more complicated. Country music, Appalachian folk music, gospel and the Tin Pan Alley tradition of music all contributed to what was later named rock and roll. The Cleveland DJ Alan Freed is credited with giving rock and roll its name, which comes from a well-known slang term for sexual intercourse in rhythm and blues circles. When rock n' roll became the dominant musical trend in the 1950s, teenagers loved it, but the older generation hoped it was just a passing fad.

An Infectious Rhythm

One of the characteristics of rock and roll that appealed to teenagers in the '50s was an infectious beat or rhythm. Rock and roll was primarily dance music that followed in the traditions of rhythm and blues and the earlier tradition of swing music. Trends in jazz, such as be bop and cool jazz, employed more sophisticated rhythmic patterns that were not for dancing. Swing music and rhythm and blues were based on a syncopated beats rather the straight beats more commonly found in European styles of music. The strong emphasis on the rhythmic nature of the music caused strong condemnation among white Americans who condemned it as “jungle music.”

Original Songs

Buddy Holly was one of rock and roll’s first superstar musicians, who wrote and performed his own music, something new in the music industry. Sinatra and other singers typically sang tunes penned by professional songwriters. Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley helped initiate this paradigm shift in music, which inspired new and upcoming musicians, as they could write and perform their own music. The Beatles, who took the inspiration for their name from Buddy Holley's Crickets, the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys helped turned rock and roll songwriting into an art form respected by musicians from other musical genres.

The Guitar Hero

One of the other significant characteristics of rock and roll was the stripped down instrumentation, and the emergence of the guitar as a solo instrument. Prior to rock n' roll, music had been dominated by big bands and sophisticated arrangements. Jazz had evolved into smaller units with stripped down instrumentation as well, but jazz was played primarily on acoustic instruments. Leo Fender helped birth rock and roll with his pioneering work in electric guitars and guitar amplifiers. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Scotty Moore and James Burton created a different style of guitar playing that helped give rock and roll its identity. The 1960s saw the emergence of the guitar heroes such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimmy Page.

Cultural Impact

Rock and roll has a larger cultural impact beyond its musical influence. Early rock heroes like Elvis and Little Richard were revered for a sense of rebellion and cultural ethos. American youth soon began to emulate their rock heroes in terms of hairstyle, clothing and attitude. Rock and rock played a significant role in the cultural revolutions and social movements of the 1960's. Glam rock, punk rock, new wave rock and other forms of rock music influence the way kids dress, think and feel about society.

About the Author

Robert Russell began writing online professionally in 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is currently working on a book project exploring the relationship between art, entertainment and culture. He is the guitar player for the nationally touring cajun/zydeco band Creole Stomp. Russell travels with his laptop and writes many of his articles on the road between gigs.