The Early Roots of Heavy Metal Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


In the early 1970s, a new style of music emerged that would come to be known as heavy metal. This genre was characterized by its aggressive sound and themes of rebellion and excess. While heavy metal had its roots in earlier styles of rock music, it quickly developed into its own distinct sound. Today, heavy metal is one of the most popular genres of music in the world.

The Birth of Rock

Rock music has its roots in the early 1950s when it emerged as a blend of blues, country, and rhythm and blues. The first rock and roll song, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets, was released in 1955. By the end of the decade, rock and roll had become the dominant form of popular music in the United States.

The Beatles

The Beatles were an English rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960. With members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they became widely regarded as the foremost and most influential music band of the 20th century. They were integral to the development of 1960s counterculture and popular music’s recognition as an art form. Rooted in skiffle and 1950s rock and roll, their sound incorporated elements of classical music and traditional pop in innovative ways; the band later explored psychedelic rock and laboriously elaborated orchestrations. By early 1964, they had become international stars, leading the “British Invasion” of the United States pop market. Though they initially split up after 70 years together, they have occasionally regrouped for live performances such as Live Aid in 1985; with recorder sales estimated at more than 800 million units worldwide, they are history’s best-selling band.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are an English rock band formed in 1962 in London. The first stable line-up consisted of Brian Jones (guitar, harmonica), Ian Stewart (piano), Mick Jagger (lead vocals, harmonica), Keith Richards (guitar), Bill Wyman (bass guitar) and Charlie Watts (drums). Jones led the band until Jagger and Richards assumed leadership after teaming as songwriters.

The Rise of Heavy Metal

The early roots of heavy metal music can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a number of bands began pushing the boundaries of rock music. These bands were influenced by the hard rocking sounds of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, as well as the more extreme sounds of bands like the Stooges and the MC5.

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath is a British heavy metal band formed in 1968 by guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, singer Ozzy Osbourne, and drummer Bill Ward. The band is often cited as pioneers of heavy metal music. Though the band’s first two albums, Black Sabbath (1970) and Paranoid (1970), are commonly regarded as the beginnings of the heavy metal genre, critics have argued that earlier bands such as Blue Cheer, Cream, and Atomic Rooster were more influential in developing the sound.

Deep Purple

Deep Purple was an English rock band formed in Hertfordshire in 1968. Although the band’s early work was deeply influenced by the developing psychedelic rock and hard rock scenes of the time, they are best known for their late 1960s and early 1970s work which incorporated elements of progressive rock, and for their pioneering work in heavy metal.

Deep Purple were ranked number 22 on VH1’s Greatest Artists of Hard Rock programme. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. In January 1968, keyboardist Jon Lord and drummer Ian Paice joined singer Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper in a new band called Roundabout. The band spaces prior to use of the name Deep Purple. The first gig under their new name took place on 30 June 1968 at the Roundhouse in London.

In October 1968, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore joined Deep Purple, replacing Eric Clapton in Cream (Blackmore had also been asked to join Beatles as a replacement for George Harrison). With Blackmore on board, Deep Purple quickly found their own style differentiating them from cream. By January 1969 they had secured a recording contract with EMI/Harvest Records.

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin was an English rock band formed in London in 1968. The group consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. With their heavy, guitar-driven sound, they are often considered a pioneer of heavy metal music.

The band’s style blended elements of blues and rock music, and their sound has been described as “heavy” and “brutal”. Their songs were often long and drew on a range of influences, including folk,psychedelia, and Indian music. They were known for their live performances, which were often described as “intense” and “unpredictable”.

Led Zeppelin’s debut album, Led Zeppelin (1969), was a commercial success; it was followed by five more successful albums: Led Zeppelin II (1969), Led Zeppelin III (1970), Untitled (1971; also known as Led Zeppelin IV or ZoSo), Houses of the Holy (1973), and Physical Graffiti (1975).

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal

The early 1970s saw a new wave of British heavy metal bands emerge. Led by Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, these bands Melded together the sounds of hard rock, blues, and even classical music to create a new genre of music. This new style of music would go on to influence many of the biggest metal bands of all time.

Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden is often credited as being one of the earliest and most influential bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement. Formed in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, the band is known for their speed, aggression, and catchy songwriting. Iron Maiden’s debut album, 1980’s “Iron Maiden”, was a critical and commercial success, and cemented their place as one of the leaders of the new heavy metal movement. Over the next few years, Iron Maiden would release a series of highly successful albums, including 1982’s “Number of the Beast”, 1983’s “Piece of Mind”, and 1984’s “Powerslave”. These albums would solidify Iron Maiden’s reputation as one of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time.

Judas Priest

British heavy metal band Judas Priest was one of the most influential bands of the genre’s early years. The band formed in Birmingham, England in 1969 and released their first album, ‘Rocka Rolla,’ in 1974. Judas Priest’s distinctive sound – a mix of metal, hard rock, and blues – helped to pioneer the heavy metal genre. The band’s popularity increased throughout the 1970s and 1980s with the release of such classic albums as ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ (1976), ‘Stained Class’ (1978), ‘Unleashed in the East’ (1979), and ‘Defenders of the Faith’ (1984). Judas Priest remains an active force in the metal community, with a new album, ‘Firepower,’ set for release in 2018.


British heavy metal band Motörhead is often credited as being one of the earliest and most influential bands in the genre. Formed in 1975, the band was a major force in the late 1970s and early 1980s, releasing a string of highly successful albums that helped to shape the sound of heavy metal. Motörhead’s music was characterized by its raw energy and powerful, driving rhythms, as well as its dark, aggressive lyrics. The band was also known for its wild stage shows, which featured excessive pyrotechnics and ear-splitting volume levels. Motörhead continued to be active until 2015, when founding member and vocalist/bassist Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister passed away. The band’s impact on heavy metal music is undeniable, and they remain one of the most revered and influential bands in the genre.

The Americanization of Heavy Metal

Heavy metal music has its roots in both the United Kingdom and the United States. American bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were some of the first to gain popularity in the genre. However, it was British band Judas Priest that truly defined the sound of heavy metal with their 1976 album Sad Wings of Destiny.


Formed in 1981 by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, Metallica is often cited as one of the most influential heavy metal bands of all time. Their massive success in the 1980s and 1990s made them one of the biggest bands in the world, and their 1991 self-titled album – commonly known as “The Black Album” – is one of the bestselling albums of all time.

While Metallica’s sound has evolved over the years, they have always been a heavy metal band at heart. Their earlier work was particularly influential on the thrash metal subgenre, and they are credited with helping to popularize metal music in the mainstream.

today, Metallica is still going strong, and they continue to be one of the most popular and successful heavy metal bands in the world.


Megadeth is an American heavy metal band from Los Angeles, California. The band was formed in 1983 by guitarist Dave Mustaine and bassist David Ellefson, and has since released fifteen studio albums. Megadeth is known for its distinctive, fast-paced guitar style and for its controversial lyrics.

The band has achieved commercial success with their 1994 album, Countdown to Extinction, which debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 chart. Megadeth has also been nominated for twelve Grammy Awards, and won four of them. The band has sold over 38 million albums worldwide, making them one of the best-selling heavy metal bands of all time.


Slayer is an American heavy metal band from Huntington Park, California. The band was founded in 1981 by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya. Slayer’s fast and aggressive musical style made them one of the founding “big four” bands of thrash metal, alongside Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Slayer’s current lineup comprises King, Araya, drummer Paul Bostaph and guitarist Gary Holt. Hanneman died of liver failure in 2013.

Slayer’s first two albums, Show No Mercy (1983) and Hell Awaits (1985), which were distributed through Metal Blade Records, attracted a small underground following. The band’s third album, Reign in Blood (1986), was released through Def Jam Recordings, and was the band’s first album to gain mainstream attention. The album was well received by fans and critics alike, and was responsible for bringing Slayer to the attention of a wider audience. Reign in Blood reached the Billboard 200 chart at number 94; it has been cited as one of the most influential metal albums of all time.

Since its debut album in 1983, Slayer has released twelve studio albums, two live albums, a box set, six video albums, thirty-five singles and twenty-two music videos. Four of their studio albums have received gold certification in the United States; two have been certified platinum and one has been certified double platinum. As of 2018, Slayer is reported to have sold over 10 million records in the United States alone.

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