What Types of Music Influenced Rock 'n' Roll?

By Robert Russell ; Updated September 15, 2017
Rock 'n' roll had a variety of influences.

Rock 'n' roll is the archetypal American music, but it didn't emerge in a vacuum. Rock 'n' roll was the product of earlier American musical forms. Rock represents the point where white and black music blended together. The early pioneers of rock 'n' roll were influenced by blues, rhythm-and-blues and country, as well as other types of music. Blues was a major influence on Elvis Presley, and country music had a profound impact on Chuck Berry.

Rhythm-and-Blues

Rhythm-and-blues was one of the most significant influences on rock music. The dividing line between rhythm-and-blues and rock 'n' roll is still open to debate. One argument is that when whites began playing rhythm-and-blues it was renamed rock 'n' roll. Rhythm-and-blues produced a number of stars who had a direct influence on the early pioneers of rock music. Louis Jordan had 18 number one records between 1943 and 1950. Fats Domino had 59 singles on the rhythm-and-blues charts, and his crossover appeal to white audiences made him one of the first rock stars. Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" was a hit in 1951 and considered by some as the first rock 'n' roll song. Bill Haley, the first white rock 'n' roll star, covered several songs by the rhythm-and-blues singer Big Joe Turner.

Blues

Blues was another major influence on rock music. The blues played by artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf differed from the more sophisticated rhythm-and-blues artists in a number of ways. Waters and Wolf's blues came from the more primitive acoustic tradition of the Mississippi Delta. The vocal and guitar styles were substantially different. The rhythm-and-blues singers and bands had a significant jazz and swing element that was influenced by the big band tradition. The Delta blues usually centered around one or two guitars, often played with a very percussive style, and a harmonica. Delta players often used a slide to play "bottleneck" guitar. Muddy Waters transformed Mississippi blues into cranked-up electric Chicago blues. He had a number one hit with "Hoochie Coochie Man" in 1943. Muddy Waters and his peers had a profound influence on rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and the Rolling Stones.

Country Music

White country music also had a significant influence on the early development of rock 'n' roll. Sam Phillips' record label, Sun Records, is considered to be one of the birthplaces of rock 'n' roll. Phillips originally record black blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner. Southern white musicians, such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Feathers, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, found their way to Sun Records. The early recordings created a style of rock 'n' roll referred to as rockabilly. Rockabilly is a blend of country and hillbilly music with blues and rhythm-and-blues. Gospel music, both white Southern gospel and black gospel, was another essential ingredient. The early Sun artists all listened religiously to the "Grand Ole Opry" radio show out of Nashville.

Les Paul

Les Paul had one of the strongest impacts on the development of rock music. Les Paul built one of the first solid body electric guitars, he incorporated jazz guitar and country guitar licks in his playing and he was the leading pioneer in recording studio technology. All of these elements had significant influences on rock music and on rock guitarists in particular. The Gibson Les Paul guitar is one of the iconic guitars of rock music. Les Paul's recording tricks, such as multi-tracking, overdubbing, speeding up the tape to raise the pitch and layering harmonies on top of each other paved the way for much of the rock music of the 1960s. The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" are difficult to imagine without the influence of Les Paul.

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.