Alternative Rock is a large sub-genre of rock & roll that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an ‘alternative’ version of the classic rock genre that was previously popular. The term’s meaning is quite broad, consisting of music that differs in region to sound to social context, however, at a broad level, alternative rock tends to be a little slower and less in your face than classic rock music despite the two often using the same instruments and setups. This video explains some of the unique differences in a little more detail;
The main point I want to focus on when differentiating classic rock music and alternative rock music is the fact that original rock was very, very hardcore. You hear the word rock and you often think AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, hardcore rock & roll guys who own the stage and have the crowd lost in awe at their music and their character. Now I want you to compare these two videos. The artists are there to perform. They’re the to put on a show and the audiences love it. But what are the differences even though Nirvana and AC/DC are both considered rock bands?
This song by Nirvana, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, topped the charts in the early 90s and so the genre emerged, as the classic guitar, drum sounds became more grungy, more droning and more influenced by other genres such as punk, new wave and various other sub-genres of the classic rock music.
Ironically, most alternative rocker’s were born in the late 50s and early 60s and grew up during the 70s “amid the head-spinning studio refinement and growing social acceptance of the earliest rock music.” (Hunter, 2018). Growing up listening to these eternally great bands meant that they craved something a little different, thus giving birth to alternative rock. What made alt rock so great and so popular, is that the young people who listened to classic rock began to grow tired of the similarly sounding music and tones of classic rock. Guitars began to get a little grungier, vocals became, more (or less) prominent ranging from band to band, and although, overall, rock was still the core inspiration for this music, different influences and the want and need to be different, not the same as the rest, pushed alt rock in heaps of different directions.
So what does alt rock sound like? There are so many bands that you’ll all know that were alternative rockers. The great Aussie legends, Powderfinger, the Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Green Day, are all Alternative rock bands that have had their time in the spotlight. So what makes them alternative and what makes their music unique and different from the classic rock sounds that we generally class these bands under? Well let’s take a look;
Powderfinger was comprised of Ian ‘Hoggy’ Haug (guitar), John ‘JC’ Collins (bass), Bernard ‘Bernie’ Fanning (vocals), Darren ‘Darius’ Middleton (guitar) and Jonathon ‘Cogsy’ Coghill (drums). Bernard, the lead singer-songwriter of the band was not your classic rock singer. His voice is very bluesy and folk sounding, inspiring some of his solo work like ‘Wish You Well’ and ‘Songbird’ in his solo album ‘Tea & Sympathy’. At the beginning of the band’s career, after ‘Hoggy’s’ formation of the band and during has time as the band’s primary leader, they did generally emulate a rock band, with some differing guitar sounds that were more out of the norm. But as Bernard became more of the leader and front-runner, his soulful voice became what set the band apart. Songs like ‘Lost and Running’ from their album ‘Dream Days at the Hotel Existence’ and ‘Sunsets’ from the album ‘Vulture Street’ are some primary examples of this.
This is just one example of many of what really sets alt rock out from the norm.
Overall, it can be hard to identify a classic rock song from an alternative one, however the elements are there and if you listen closely you can find them.
So, now I’ve (hopefully) convinced you there’s a difference, what does an alternative rock song consist of? Like technically, what elements are present? What’s the time signature? Generally, a song is in 4/4 time signature with beats landing on the 2nd and 4th. Rock is defined by rhythm.
Generally, a rock song will be composed of several instruments to create the overall mix. These include, but are not limited to;
- Lead Guitar – A lead guitar was used to create melody, fill instrumental passages and guitar solos and really drive home a punchiness that vocals couldn’t do alone. Generally, the lead guitar had been run through several pedals, all depending on the type of sound a band was going for.
- Rhythm Guitar – The purpose of the rhythm guitar is to provide all or part of the rhythmic pulse in conjunction with singers or other instruments and to provide all or part of the harmony overall.
- Drums – Create and keep the beat. Provide pulse and progression of the track.
- Bass – Crucial element of a song. Was used to make the track ‘heavy’, providing low-end frequencies much needed in a track generally full of mid range vocals and guitars.
If you go and listen to any alt rock song, I guarantee you 99% of them have all of these elements. The reason I haven’t included vocals is because I personally don’t believe they are a crucial part of the song. Yes they provide melody and convey important messages to audiences, but the things that drive home the real meaning and the real message of this genre of music is the instruments.
Thank you for reading and I hope I gave you a little bit of insight into the world that is Alternative Rock and what it sought of ‘means to me’. I grew up listening to these bands and it is an honour and a privilege to be writing about them.
Hunter, J. (2018). Alternative rock | music. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 20 April 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/art/alternative-rock
Bernard Fanning. (2018). Bernardfanning.com. Retrieved 21 April 2018, from http://www.bernardfanning.com/
Powderfinger. (2018). Powderfinger. Retrieved 21 April 2018, from http://powderfinger.com/
song?, W. (2018). What makes a song a “rock” song?. Music.stackexchange.com. Retrieved 21 April 2018, from https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/7223/what-makes-a-song-a-rock-song
Walker, A., & Allen, E. (2018). The Foo Fighters Face Their Greatest Challenge Yet: BlizzCon 2011. Kotaku Australia. Retrieved 21 April 2018, from https://www.kotaku.com.au/2011/09/the-foo-fighters-face-their-greatest-challenge-yet-blizzcon-2011/