What is classic rock? Now that albums that came out in 2003 are 20 years old, the line between what's considered "classic" and contemporary seem to become blurred more and more. But is classic rock defined by a timeframe, or is it a particular sound?

Classic rock is often associated with popular '60s and '70s bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Van Halen, Queen, Heart and some others. A lot of '80s bands are lumped into the classic rock sphere as well, including Guns N' Roses, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi. Some classic rock radio stations also play '90s rock and alternative bands on their stations, such as Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins — and even newer acts such as Greta Van Fleet, Dorothy and Mammoth WVH have been put into the rotation.

There were also a lot of other subgenres that developed throughout the decades, so what makes one artist a classic rock artist instead of one with a different label? Or can they fall under both? First, we'll define what classic rock is, explain what it sounds like and then take it from there.

Where Did Classic Rock Come From?


Live About notes that classic rock is a radio format that started in the 1980s and was derived from a previous format known as album-oriented rock (AOR). At the time, it primarily played '70s hard rock, but over time it expanded to include rock from other decades, too.

What Is the Definition of 'Classic Rock'?

According to Master Class, classic rock "encompasses rock music made over three decades, from '60s psychedelia and ’70s album-oriented rock (AOR) to 1980s college rock, heavy metal and 1990s grunge." It also adds that many of the songs are guitar-driven, and the bands are known for having iconic vocalists, such as Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose.

What Does Classic Rock Sound Like?

As previously mentioned, Master Class states that classic rock is guitar-driven, but there's also vocals, a bass guitar and drums. To break down the guitar sound even more, many classic rock guitarists created overdrive, distortion or fuzz with their instruments, adding a bit of extra personality to their riffs and solos.

There was definitely a focus on the lyrics, whether they were inspired by personal situations, pop culture or world events, but they tended to be more lighthearted than the songs written by the later grunge bands, for example, who mostly wrote about their societal observations.

And finally, a lot of the bands had a rebellious nature that went against the norms — trashing hotel rooms, starting riots, going on rants onstage — you get the idea.

Is Classic Rock an Era or a Genre?

If you take the rather vague definitions that exist of classic rock and its sound, then there can be an argument made for a lot of bands to fall under its umbrella. Generally speaking, "classic rock" describes many of the bands that rose to prominence during the '60s, '70s and '80s, but as we mentioned earlier, some newer groups are even praised for having a "classic rock sound."

READ MORE: 11 Bands That Are Leading the Classic Rock Revival

When Greta Van Fleet became popular around 2018, we saw a wave of younger bands start receiving similar attention because they were bringing back a lot of the vintage elements that the giants of the '60s and '70s became famous for. Dirty Honey became the first unsigned band in history to have a song go No. 1 on the rock charts. Crown Lands have put out some of the most critically acclaimed records over the last few years, and most of their music is about historical events that took place on the Indigenous lands in Canada.

Because a lot of the "classic rock" artists have stood the test of time, and because there are a lot of younger groups that are being described as having a classic rock sound, it's safe to say that it wasn't, in fact, an era, but is a genre of its own. Strong vocals and musicianship paired with well-crafted lyrics and distorted, overdriven guitars make up the sound, while rebellion, love and freedom make up much of its attitude.

The Best Hard Rock Album of Each Year Since 1970

Going year by year, looking at the best albums in hard rock since 1970.

More From Loudwire