Classic Rock


When it comes to music genres, rock is one of the most popular. There are also many different types of rock music, such as country-rock, dance-rock, electronic rock, funk rock, and more. The genre dominated FM radio stations from the 1960s to the 1980s. In the present time, those music are grouped under the banner of classic rock. It is a blanket term that describes American and British rock music through the early 1990s. 

When do you think classic rock started, and what exactly is it? For a lot of people, it is something that describes the rock bands from the ‘70s. However, describing it that way would do grave injustice to the decades that lead up to and after the 1970s. Therefore, in this article, we are going to define classic rock and learn about the artists and bands that paved the way in its development.

The History and Evolution of Rock Music

Let’s take a look at the origins and history of rock music.

  • The 1940s to 1960s

The origins of rock music can be traced back to the late 1940s. During those times, the popular styles of music are country and blues, but they were morphed into new sound by adding electric guitars and a steady drumbeat. In the 1950s, pioneering rock artists like Chuck Berry leaned heavily on classic blues structures while representing a skill as natural-born entertainers. In contrast to the pop music of the 1940s, rock music has an aggressive attack that suggested sexual freedom. This was shocking during that conservative decade.

In the early 1960s, Chuck Berry’s followers, most particularly The Rolling Stones, expanded the scope of rock music by transitioning from single artists into musicians that can produce solid albums of songs. The Rolling Stones courted controversy as they embraced sex and youthful rebellion in their music, but they were also able to elevate rock music to new cultural heights. 

  • The 1970s

When rock music became the dominant form of popular music, new bands built on the strength of their predecessors while branching out into new sonic territory. One of the bands that gave rock music a darker and heavier tone is Led Zeppelin, which became one of the most popular bands in the 1970s. They helped kick-start a new genre that is known as heavy metal or hard rock. 

Pink Floyd added psychedelic elements and complex arrangements around the same time. They created concept albums tied together by a single theme and are meant to be absorbed in a single sitting. In the late 1970s, groups like the Sex Pistols and The Clash simplified rock to its core ingredients, which are enraged singing, loud guitars, and rude attitudes. With that, punk was born. 

  • The 1980s

When the 1980s began, mainstream rock started to lose commercial steam, and its sound grew stale. During these times, subgenres began to proclaim their dominance. Keyboard-driven English bands that are inspired by the outsider status of punk, like Depeche Mode, introduced a more introverted songwriting style, creating post-punk that is also described as the new wave. 

American groups like R.E.M. played with post-punk elements. They balanced introspective lyrics with traditional rock-band arrangements. These kinds of bands were called college rock due to their popularity on college radio stations. By the end of the 1980s, college rock has become such a profitable alternative to mainstream rock. With this, it has received a new moniker, which is alternative rock. It is also sometimes called indie rock as the bands were usually signed to small and independently owned labels. 

The cultural standing of alternative rock was cemented when the music magazine Billboard made a new chart for it in 1988. Its publicization was classified as modern rock. The terms modern rock, alternative rock, and indie rock are synonymous with describing the popular subgenre for music fans. 

  • The 1990s to Present

In 1991, with the rise of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” alternative rock became the dominant popular music. However, while other bands emerged as part of the so-called grunge movement, which was the merging of hard rock and punk rock, other groups like Soundgarden overlapped the worlds of alternative and mainstream rock music. 

With Kurt Cobain’s suicide, alternative music began to lose its gleam by the middle of the 1990s. This had set the stage for the reemergence of mainstream rock. One of the first bands to take advantage of mainstream rock’s comeback was Limp Bizkit. They melded hard rock and rap into a hybrid called rap-rock. They were followed by groups such as Puddle of Mudd and Staind, which focused on melodic hard rock. 

Other bands that became popular during grunge’s heyday are Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters. As rock music entered the 21st century, many artists and bands emerged like Linkin’ Park, 3 Doors Down, and more. 

If you want to learn about rock and roll, you can check out our list of the Key Events in Rock and Roll History for more information. In the present time, the rock music, rock bands, and rock artists that became very popular back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s are all under the genre called classic rock. But what is it exactly? 

What Exactly is Classic Rock?

Classic rock, before it developed as a genre, is a radio format from the album-oriented rock or AOR format in the early 1980s. In the US, the classic rock format features rock music that ranges from the mid-1960s to the 1980s and focuses on commercially successful hard rock and blues-rock popularized in the 1970s AOR format. This means that before, classic rock is a radio format and not considered a musical genre. 

audience enjoying a rock concert

Most classic rock songs are guitar-driven. With this, there are lots of guitar heroes in the classic rock genre, including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen. In addition to that, classic rock bands are also famous for their iconic lead vocalists, such as Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones

There are many artists grouped into the classic rock radio format as the rock era unfolds. In the past, groups like the Jackson 5, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., and Bonnie Raitt may have been heard on different radio stations, but today, their songs are played on the same classic rock stations throughout the United States. 

What Does a One-Hit Wonder Mean?

A one-hit wonder is anything that achieves mainstream popularity but only for one piece of work. One-hit wonders are those that become known within the general public solely for that momentary success. The term is usually used for music performers who have only one hit single that outshines their other work. 

There are also times when artists are labeled as one-hit wonders in a certain country where they have had great success in other countries. One-hit wonders typically see their popularity declining after their hit listing. And most of the time, they don’t ever return to hit listings with other songs or albums.  

Here are some examples of one-hit wonders:

Top Classic Rock Bands of All Time

Determined by their radio airplay, touring history, album sales, and degree of continuous popularity, here are the top classic rock bands of all time:

  • The Beatles

The Beatles has a record sales estimated at over one billion worldwide. There is no other band out there that has had a greater influence on the course of rock music and the history of music in general than The Beatles. If you want to learn more about this classic rock band, read our article about The History of the Beatles, the First Classic Rock Band.

  • Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd has sold over 200 million albums from 1967 at the vanguard of the progressive rock movement. They are also one of the first bands to use light shows and fireworks during their live concerts. You can read more about this band in our article, Classic Rock History: The Story and Music of Pink Floyd.

  • The Who

The Who was a band that’s innovative both culturally and musically. That also involves fashion. It is a British band that is popular for wearing the Union Jack on their clothes. This band was also among the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock N’ Roll by Rolling Stone magazine because they smashed a guitar in 1964 at their Railway Hotel performance. If you want to know about the story of this band, read our post, Classic Rock Legends: History of The Who.

  • Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are referred to as the original bad boys of rock and roll. They are among the most durable of classic bands out there, too, as they were recording and touring with few breaks since they started in 1961. In addition to the fanfare that has always surrounded them, their prodigy cannot be denied. They were able to reinterpret classic American blues, folk, rock, country, and R&B, which led to some of the most thrilling music in rock and roll. Learn more about this band in our article, The History of the Rolling Stones.

  • Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin is a British band that created some of the heaviest music in the genre. Their song, “Stairway To Heaven,” had received more radio airplay than any other song in history, even when they did not release it as a single. You can read more about this classic rock band in our article, Led Zeppelin – One of the Pioneers of Heavy Metal and Classic Rock

  • Eagles

The Eagles are one of the longest-lasting acts of rock music. In 2018, their 1976 greatest hits album defeated Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” when it became the biggest-selling album of all time. That album had over 38 million copies sold. Read our Introduction to the Eagles to learn more about the band.

  • Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead is one of the first flower-power bands in San Francisco. Even though the band disbanded in 1995, they still have a strong fan following up until today. You can read our Introduction to the Grateful Dead to learn about these rock legends.

  • Jefferson Airplane

The band Jefferson Airplane is one of the pioneers of the psychedelic rock genre. They were in the frontline of the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture. Discover how this band started on our article, Classic Rock Legends: The History of Jefferson Airplane.

  • Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac can be described as the quintessential California rock band of the 1970s. Their album titled “Rumours” is one of the top 10 best-selling albums ever released. You can check out our Introduction to Fleetwood Mac to learn more about the classic rock band.

  • AC/DC

AC/DC also has a huge influence on the fans of rock music. It is a pioneering hard rock group that has sold around 100 million albums all over the world. You can learn more about them in our article, AC/DC.

  • Def Leppard

Def Leppard is a famous classic rock band due to its futuristic-sounding guitars, power vocals, and turbo-charged drumming. They are always among the top all-time best-selling album charts for a quarter of a century. You can check out all the albums and hits of this band on our post, Def Leppard.

  • Aerosmith

Before, Aerosmith was tagged as an imitator of Rolling Stones. But they have ventured their claim in classic rock history. For more than thirty years, the band has consistently produced multi-million-dollar-selling albums. To know more about their amazing works, read our article, Aerosmith – One of the Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Bands.

  • The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band are the pioneers of Southern rock. They became successful with their fusion of hard rock, jazz, classical music, and blues. To learn about their humble beginnings, read our article about The History of the Allman Brothers Band.

  • Queen

Queen is also one of the most popular classic rock bands out there. It is an English rock band that has a brand of pseudo-operatic rock, kitschy style, and humor in its songs. They were able to sell hundreds and millions of records around the world. Check out our article about The Legend of Queen to learn more about their story. 

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival

This band emerged at the height of the British Invasion. They became the leading American rock band of the era. They made songs about political corruption and war that resonated with Vietnam-era youth. Until now, they still remain powerful symbols of musical protest. Learn more about them in our article, Classic Rock Legends: Creedence Clearwater Revival.

  • Guess Who

Guess Who is one of the most popular rock bands in Canada. Through the years, they evolved from playing soft rock to hard rock. They began in the early 1960s and through the mid-1970s. If you want to learn more about them, read our Artist Biography: The Guess Who.

  • Kiss

The classic rock band Kiss is very popular for its over-the-top appearances and stage antics. They are still one of the major influences on kids today who are dreaming of being famous in the world of rock and roll. If you want to know more information about their career and fame, read our post about the History of Kiss.

  • Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd is the definitive Southern rock band, according to All Music Guide. The band was reunited ten years after the deaths of three original members in a 1977 plane crash. They are still performing today. You can read our article, Southern Rock Greats Lynyrd Skynyrd, for more information about the band.

  • The Police

The Police is one of the most iconic classic rock bands in the world. They are very popular as they achieved mainstream success by playing experimental rock. The lead singer of the band, Sting, also became one of the most famous solo artists of all time. You can read more about them in our article, The Police – An Iconic Rock Band.

  • Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath is among the most successful hard rock bands to ever come out of England. It is known as the first heavy metal band. They are also an influence on different musical genres, such as grunge and punk. Learn more about the band on our Introduction to Black Sabbath.

These are just some of the best classic rock bands of all time. If you want to discover more, you can check out our list of The Top Artists and Songs of Classic Rock. There are still many other classic rock bands and as well as artists out there that have made a name in the industry from years ago aside from the bands that we’ve mentioned here. Some of them are Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Bee Gees, Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi, and so much more. 

Also, if you want to view the top-selling bands and artist of each decade, you can visit these links:


Classic rock bands and artists indeed have a huge influence on the kinds of music and artists we have today, and as well as on music fans. In fact, even those who were born around 1990 can feel strong personal associations with music released in the past. 

This can be due to the influence of older people in their lives, like their parents, or the influence of social media. It’s because, in the present time, if you want to listen to classic rock songs, you can do it easily by using online music streaming apps and websites. We hope this helped you learn more about classic rock. If you need more information, you can check our classic rock articles below. 

Here at MentalItch we have almost a thousand profiles of classic rock and oldies music artist and bands.


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