Heavy Metal Music: Discover the History, Characteristics, and Subgenres

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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What is heavy metal music? It’s loud, it’s heavy, and it’s metal. But what does that mean?

Heavy metal music is a genre of rock music that features a particularly dense, heavy sound. It’s often used to express rebellion and anger, and is known for having a “dark” sound and “dark” lyrics.

In this article, I’ll explain what heavy metal music is, and share some fun facts about the genre.

What is heavy metal music

What Makes Heavy Metal Music So Heavy?

Heavy metal music is a form of rock music that is known for its heavy, powerful sound. The sound of heavy metal music is characterized by its use of distorted guitar riffs, powerful bass lines, and thunderous drums. The guitar plays a key role in heavy metal music, with guitarists often using advanced techniques like tapping and distortion to create a heavier sound. The bass is also an important component of heavy metal music, providing a strong foundation for the guitar and drums to match.

The Origins of Heavy Metal Music

The term “heavy metal” has a long and complex history, with multiple possible origins and meanings. Here are some of the most popular theories:

  • The phrase “heavy metal” was first used in the 17th century to describe dense materials like lead or iron. Later, it was applied to the dense, grinding sound of blues and rock music, particularly the electric guitar.
  • In the 1960s, a style of rock music emerged that was characterized by its heavy, distorted sound and aggressive lyrics. This style was often referred to as “heavy rock” or “hard rock,” but the term “heavy metal” began to be used more frequently in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  • Some people believe that the term “heavy metal” was actually coined by Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs in a review of the 1970 album “Black Sabbath” by the band of the same name. Bangs described the album as “heavy metal” and the term stuck.
  • Others point to the 1968 song “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, which includes the line “heavy metal thunder,” as the first use of the term in a musical context.
  • It’s also worth noting that the term “heavy metal” has been used to describe a variety of different genres over the years, including certain types of blues, jazz, and even classical music.

The Link Between Blues and Heavy Metal

One of the key elements of heavy metal music is its bluesy sound. Here are some ways in which blues music has influenced the development of heavy metal:

  • The electric guitar, which is a staple of both blues and heavy metal music, played a major role in the construction of the heavy metal sound. Guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton experimented with distortion and feedback in the 1960s, paving the way for the heavier, more extreme sounds of later heavy metal musicians.
  • The use of power chords, which are simple two-note chords that create a heavy, driving sound, is another element of both blues and heavy metal music.
  • The blues also served as a guide for heavy metal musicians in terms of song structure and character. Many heavy metal songs feature a bluesy verse-chorus-verse structure, and the themes of love, loss, and rebellion that are common in blues music also appear frequently in heavy metal lyrics.

The Positive and Negative Associations of Heavy Metal

Heavy metal music has long been associated with certain positive and negative traits. Here are some examples:

  • Positive associations: Heavy metal is often seen as a cool and rebellious genre, with a dedicated fan base and a strong sense of community. Heavy metal musicians are often celebrated for their technical skill and virtuosity, and the genre has inspired countless guitarists and other musicians over the years.
  • Negative associations: Heavy metal is also often associated with negative traits like aggression, violence, and satanism. Some people believe that heavy metal music can have a negative influence on young people, and there have been numerous controversies over the years involving heavy metal lyrics and imagery.

The Evolution of Heavy Metal Music: A Journey Through Time

The history of heavy metal music can be traced back to the 1960s when rock and blues music were the dominant genres. The sound of heavy metal music is said to be a direct result of the fusion of these two genres. The guitar played a significant role in forging this new style of music, with guitarists experimenting with new techniques to create a unique sound.

The Birth of Heavy Metal: A New Genre is Born

The year 1968 is widely regarded as the year heavy metal music began. It was then that the first recording of a song that could be described as heavy metal was made. The song was “Shapes of Things” by The Yardbirds, and it featured a new, heavier sound that was different from anything that had been heard before.

The Great Guitarists: A Guide to Heavy Metal’s Most Famous Musicians

Heavy metal music is known for its strong guitar presence, and over the years, many guitarists have become famous for their work in this genre. Some of the most famous guitarists in heavy metal music include Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, and Tony Iommi.

The Power of Heavy Metal: A Focus on Sound and Energy

One of the defining characteristics of heavy metal music is its powerful sound and energy. This is achieved through the use of a particular style of guitar playing that includes heavy distortion and a focus on strong, solid tones. The use of double bass and complex drumming techniques also contributes to the heavy, powerful sound that is associated with this genre.

The Negative Stereotypes: A Look at Heavy Metal’s Reputation

Despite its many positive attributes, heavy metal music has often been associated with negative stereotypes. It has been referred to as “devil music” and has been blamed for promoting violence and other negative behaviors. However, many fans of heavy metal music argue that these stereotypes are unfair and do not accurately represent the genre.

The Extreme Side of Heavy Metal: A Look at Subgenres

Heavy metal music has evolved over the years to include a variety of subgenres, each with its own unique sound and style. Some of the most extreme subgenres of heavy metal music include death metal, black metal, and thrash metal. These subgenres are known for their heavy, aggressive sound and often include lyrics that are focused on darker themes.

The Future of Heavy Metal: A Look at New Forms and Techniques

Heavy metal music continues to evolve and change, with new forms and techniques being developed all the time. Some of the most recent developments in heavy metal music include the use of new technology to create unique sounds and the incorporation of elements from other genres, such as electronic music. As the genre continues to grow and change, it is likely that we will see even more new and exciting forms of heavy metal music in the future.

Exploring the Diverse Subgenres of Heavy Metal Music

The heavy metal genre has evolved over time and has given rise to a number of subgenres. These subgenres have developed from the typical features of heavy metal music and have extended to include new elements that match the character of the genre. Some of the subgenres of heavy metal music include:

Doom Metal

Doom metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is characterized by its slow and heavy sound, low-tuned guitars, and dark lyrics. Some famous bands associated with this subgenre include Black Sabbath, Candlemass, and Saint Vitus.

Black Metal

Black metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music that began in the early 1980s. It is known for its fast and aggressive sound, heavily distorted guitars, and shrieking vocals. The style combines elements of thrash metal and punk rock and is associated with a particular aesthetic. Some famous bands associated with this subgenre include Mayhem, Emperor, and Darkthrone.

Sludge Metal

Sludge metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music that emerged in the early 1990s. It is known for its slow and heavy sound, which is characterized by its use of extended and distorted guitar riffs. The style is associated with bands like Eyehategod, Melvins, and Crowbar.

Alternative Metal

Alternative metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music that started in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is characterized by its use of alternative rock elements, such as melodic vocals and unconventional song structures. The style is associated with bands like Faith No More, Tool, and System of a Down.

9 Heavy Metal Music Examples That Will Make You Bang Your Head

Black Sabbath is often credited with starting the heavy metal genre, and “Iron Man” is a perfect example of their signature sound. The song features heavy, distorted guitar riffs and Ozzy Osbourne’s iconic vocals. It’s a classic that every metalhead should know.

Metallica- “Master of Puppets”

Metallica is one of the most popular and influential metal bands of all time, and “Master of Puppets” is one of their best-known songs. It’s a complex and fast-paced track that showcases the band’s musical skill and hard-hitting sound.

Judas Priest- “Breaking the Law”

Judas Priest is another band that helped define the heavy metal genre, and “Breaking the Law” is one of their most popular songs. It’s a catchy and energetic track that features Rob Halford’s powerful vocals and plenty of heavy guitar riffs.

Iron Maiden- “The Number of the Beast”

Iron Maiden is known for their epic and theatrical style of metal, and “The Number of the Beast” is a perfect example of that. The song features Bruce Dickinson’s soaring vocals and plenty of intricate guitar work.

Slayer- “Raining Blood”

Slayer is one of the most extreme metal bands out there, and “Raining Blood” is one of their most iconic songs. It’s a fast and furious track that features plenty of heavy riffs and aggressive vocals.

Pantera- “Cowboys from Hell”

Pantera brought a new level of heaviness to the metal genre in the 90s, and “Cowboys from Hell” is one of their most well-known songs. It’s a powerful and aggressive track that features Dimebag Darrell’s incredible guitar work.

Arch Enemy- “Nemesis”

Arch Enemy is a female-fronted metal band that has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. “Nemesis” is one of their most popular songs, featuring Angela Gossow’s fierce vocals and plenty of heavy riffs.

Mastodon- “Blood and Thunder”

Mastodon is a more recent addition to the metal scene, but they’ve quickly gained a reputation as one of the best bands in the genre. “Blood and Thunder” is a heavy and complex track that showcases the band’s musical skill and unique sound.

Tool- “Schism”

Tool is a band that’s hard to categorize, but they definitely have a heavy and complex sound that fits in with the metal genre. “Schism” is one of their most popular songs, featuring intricate guitar work and Maynard James Keenan’s haunting vocals.

Overall, these 9 examples of heavy metal music provide a pretty good overview of the genre’s history and current state. From the classic sounds of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to the more complex and experimental sounds of Tool and Mastodon, there’s plenty of variety within the genre to match any particular taste. So turn up the volume, check out these songs, and get ready to bang your head!

5 Heavy Metal Musicians You Need to Know About

When it comes to heavy metal music, the guitar is a key element in creating that powerful sound that we all love. These five guitarists have taken the task of making the perfect heavy metal sound to a new level.

  • Jack Black, also known as “Jables,” is not only a regular in the world of heavy metal, but he’s also a versatile musician. He started playing guitar in his teens and later formed the band Tenacious D, which features his incredible guitar skills.
  • Eddie Van Halen, who sadly passed away in 2020, is a legendary guitarist who changed the sound of rock music forever. He was known for his unique style of playing, which included tapping and using his fingers to create sounds that were difficult to replicate.
  • Zakk Wylde is a powerhouse of a guitarist who has played with some of the biggest names in the heavy metal genre, including Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society. His fast and powerful playing style has earned him a dedicated following of fans.

The Dark and Heavy

Some heavy metal musicians take the genre to a darker place, creating music that is both powerful and haunting. These two musicians are known for their unique sound and their ability to stir up emotions in their listeners.

  • Maynard James Keenan is the lead singer of the band Tool, but he’s also a talented musician in his own right. His solo project, Puscifer, features a darker, more experimental sound that combines elements of rock, metal, and electronic music.
  • Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, is known for his dark and brooding music that combines elements of industrial and metal music. His music has influenced countless musicians and continues to be popular today.

The Black Sheep

Despite the differences between heavy metal musicians, there are some who are simply known for being a little bit different. These two musicians have created their own unique sound and have gained a following of fans who love their unconventional approach to music.

  • Devin Townsend is a Canadian musician who has released a number of solo albums featuring his unique blend of heavy metal, progressive rock, and ambient music. His music is difficult to classify, but it’s always interesting and innovative.
  • Buckethead is a guitarist who is known for his incredible speed and range on the guitar. He’s released over 300 studio albums and has played with a wide range of musicians, including Guns N’ Roses and Les Claypool. His unique sound and quirky stage presence have made him a popular figure in the world of heavy metal.

No matter what kind of heavy metal music you’re into, these five musicians are definitely worth checking out. From the power players to the black sheep, they all bring something unique to the genre and have left their mark on the history of heavy metal music.


So there you have it, the history and characteristics of heavy metal music. It’s a genre of rock music known for its heavy, powerful sound, and you can hear it in songs like “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf and “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. 

Now you know everything you need to about heavy metal music, so go out there and listen to some of your new favorite bands!

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

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