What Is Heavy Metal Music? With 9 Top Examples & History
Haunting vocals, electric riffs, pounding drums, and dark lyrics. Is it any wonder heavy metal music gets you headbanging while flashing the devil horns?
Many bands have recorded heavy metal songs but are not directly associated with the genre because they changed styles over the years and have a more diverse catalog. Queen, Van Halen, and Def Leppard are a few that come to mind.
But what is heavy metal music? This is what we explore below.
Definition: What Is Heavy Metal Music?
In 1968, hard rock band Steppenwolf included the line “heavy metal thunder” in their song, “Born To Be Wild.” That seems to be a good definition of heavy metal music: thunder.
Heavy electric guitar riffs accompanied by a thumping bass line, aggressive drumming, and powerful, energetic vocals are what create the greatest heavy metal bands.
Heavy Metal Music Characteristics
The classic heavy metal band lineup consists of a lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and a lead singer with a set of pipes and an energetic stage presence. Another essential element of heavy metal is volume. This music is designed to be played loud.
Electric guitars are the essential backbone of heavy metal. A rhythm guitar’s crunching chords and the lead guitar ripping electrified solos create the power behind heavy metal music.
The interplay between the bass guitar and electric guitars is also a key element of heavy metal. The instrument is not just providing a bass line in the background to keep the musical transitions on point. Instead, the heavy metal bassist plays alongside the guitars, providing a heavy, thumping beat you can feel in your belly.
Heavy metal drumming is loud, aggressive, and vital to the genre. Speed and power are driven from behind the kit, as some of the best heavy metal bands will attest. The drum setup is often enormously over the top, with various cymbals providing the opportunity to crash emphatically.
Heavy metal music is not about screaming the lyrics. Heavy metal frontmen are some of the most gifted singers with tremendous vocal range. Ronnie James Dio, Bruce Dickinson, and James Hetfield, just to name a few. The number of records sold between the trio is a sign that heavy metal music is commercially one of the best-selling genres of any style of music.
9 Examples of Heavy Metal Music
So many great heavy metal bands came to be in the late 60s and early 70s that it is a difficult task to narrow down the very best heavy metal songs.
One common denominator with this list is that each heavy metal song has withstood the test of time. If you are dabbling into heavy metal for the first time, you cannot go wrong by starting with these tracks.
Here are nine of the all-time great heavy metal songs ever recorded. Turn it up loud!
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, came up with the unforgettable riff for “Whole Lotta Love” while chilling on his houseboat. The song highlights Robert Plant’s incredible vocal range and John Bonham’s manic drumming style.
The lyrics are all about loving your woman, literally. Plant’s moaning and heavy breathing accentuate Page’s guitar licks. Who says heavy metal can’t be sexy?
“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
One of Black Sabbath’s signature songs, “War Pigs,” is a track from their 1970 album, Paranoid. The sound of sirens warning of impending war set up the heavy guitar and drum beats.
Ozzy Osbourne’s haunting vocals tell the story of the war pigs, creating destruction for humankind and making war just for fun. The only one laughing is Satan. Unfortunately, the song is timeless and applies to the conflict in the world today.
“Highway Star” by Deep Purple
Deep Purple’s 1972 album Machine Head was an international success, reaching #1 on charts in several countries, including the UK. One of the band’s signature songs from the album is “Highway Star.”
Ritchie Blackmore wrote the riff for the track spontaneously on the band’s tour bus. It is, in effect, a love song to a fast car before it shifts to the love for a woman. The addition of fast-paced organ instrumentation gave Deep Purple their unique heavy metal sound.
“Heaven and Hell” by Black Sabbath
When Ozzy Osbourne was fired from Black Sabbath in 1979, the band replaced him with one of heavy metal’s preeminent vocalists: Ronnie James Dio. “Heaven and Hell” was the title track from the first studio album recorded with Dio.
The track has all of the characteristics of a great heavy metal song. Dio’s power vocals tell the listener that everyone has both heaven and hell residing within them. He warns of those that are out to blind eyes and steal dreams.
“Hallowed Be Thy Name” by Iron Maiden
Iron Maiden was at the forefront of what was labeled the “new wave of British heavy metal” of the late 70s and early 80s. From The Number of the Beast album, “Hallowed Be Thy Name” may be the perfect heavy metal song.
It was the first album featuring Bruce Dickinson as lead singer. His operatic-like vocal range hauntingly narrates a prisoner’s final moments as he is led to the gallows.
“Ace of Spades” by Motörhead
Motörhead’s approach to heavy metal is simple: play it fast, play it loud. With his raspy voice and heavy-crunching chords on bass, lead singer Lemmy Kilmister flirts with the line between heavy metal, thrash, and hardcore punk.
“Ace of Spades” has extensive gambling references that can be construed as a metaphor for the risks we take in life. You win some; you lose some.
“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne
From his first solo album after leaving Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne showed his heavy metal chops with one of his signature songs, “Crazy Train.” Released on Blizzard of Ozz, the track features a legendary heavy metal guitar riff from the late Randy Rhoads.
Osbourne’s lyrics lament living in the shadow of the Cold War, fearing the end of the world. But, with millions of people living as foes, Osbourne wonders if it’s not too late to change the feeling of hate into one where we can all love one another.
“Shout at the Devil” by Mötley Crüe
Mötley Crüe broke onto the heavy metal scene with their 1983 album, Shout at the Devil. Originally, the track was to be titled “Shout With the Devil,” based partly on songwriter and bassist Nikki Sixx’s interest in Satanism. The Devil’s Pentagram was a common symbol for the band.
“Shout at the Devil” is a heavy metal anthem. Crunching guitar riffs, a heavy drum beat, and the screaming vocals of Vince Neil instructing us to shout at the devil make the song an interactive favorite at Mötley Crüe concerts.
“Enter Sandman” by Metallica
“Enter Sandman” was the first single from Metallica’s 1991 self-titled release. It propelled the record to being certified platinum 16-times over and #1 on charts worldwide.
Frontman James Hetfield growls the lyrics to a terrified young child unable to fall asleep, worried about the sounds from under the bed, gripping his pillow tight. Nightmares and heavy metal go hand in hand. Say your prayers.
5 Top Heavy Metal Musicians
Whether they can belt out high-energy vocals or rip blazing guitar solos, here are just a few of the most influential heavy metal musicians to have ever stepped on stage.
Ozzy Osbourne is arguably one of the most recognizable heavy metal musicians ever. His eerie vocals and dark lyrics earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness.”
Osbourne was the lead singer of Black Sabbath for over a decade, recording eight studio albums while pioneering the heavy metal genre. Despite their dark content, the band became one of the most commercially successful acts.
By 1979, Osbourne was indulging a little too heavily in drugs and alcohol and was subsequently fired by Black Sabbath. However, that did not slow him down. Osbourne went on to release another 13 studio albums, many of which went multi-platinum.
Osbourne's total album sales exceed 100 million when combining his solo work with his years in Black Sabbath. His longevity in the genre has earned him the updated moniker, “Godfather of Metal.”
Osbourne became a household name to a new generation, appearing in the MTV reality television series, The Osbournes. The show followed the domestic lives of Ozzy, his wife Sharon, and children Jack and Kelly. The show was immensely popular, running from 2002 to 2005.
Ronnie James Dio
Ronnie James Dio has a voice made for heavy metal music. His powerful and versatile vocals easily put Dio in the top three when considering who is the best heavy metal vocalist.
Dio started his first rock band in 1957 at the age of 15, the Vegas Kings. By 1967 he had formed The Electric Elves, later known as simply Elf. Elf would become a regular opening act for Deep Purple. When Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple to form his own band, he recruited Dio as his lead singer.
When creative differences split him up with Blackmore, Dio was looking for another gig. Black Sabbath had parted ways with Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, and Dio was a qualified replacement. Dio and Sabbath recorded three studio albums together with commercial success.
In 1982, Dio would form a band under his own name. The band Dio’s first studio album, Holy Diver, would be certified double-platinum. They would continue to record with various lineups until Dio’s death in 2010.
Ritchie Blackmore is always in the conversation when discussing the greatest heavy metal guitarists.
In 1968, Blackmore helped create one of heavy metal’s pioneer bands, Deep Purple. Combining unique guitar riffs with organ sounds, Deep Purple stood apart from other heavy metal acts at the time. They have sold over 100 million records worldwide.
Blackmore left Deep Purple to form the supergroup Rainbow in 1975, recruiting Elf frontman Ronnie James Dio. Rainbow went through several lineup changes over the years, but the one constant was the classically-trained guitar sound of Blackmore.
In 2016, Blackmore was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Deep Purple. He is still considered one of the most influential heavy metal guitar players of all time.
Bruce Dickinson is known for his powerful, wide-ranging vocals as frontman of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden.
Born in Nottinghamshire, England, Dickinson was the lead singer for Samson before joining Iron Maiden in 1981. He was the lead singer for the group from 1981 until 1993, when he left to pursue solo projects. He rejoined Iron Maiden in 1999 and continues to front the band to the present day.
The first studio album featuring Dickinson, The Number of the Beast, was released in 1982. It received critical and commercial success, although the lyrics and album’s artwork did stir up controversy among conservatives in America.
Dickinson is not like every other heavy metal frontman. He is a licensed commercial pilot and flies Iron Maiden's charter airplane, a Boeing 747, during their world tours. Dickinson has also hosted his own radio show, created an Iron Maiden beer, and is competitive at fencing.
James Hetfield is considered one of the great heavy metal vocalists and metal guitarists of all time.
In Los Angeles, Hetfield answered a newspaper ad posted by drummer Lars Ulrich, and in 1981 Metallica was born. Hetfield is the band's lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and primary songwriter.
Metallica’s self-titled album, also referred to as the “Black Album,” was released in 1991 and propelled the band to international stardom. It reached #1 on charts around the world.
Despite his struggles with addiction, Hetfield continues to be a major force in heavy metal music. Metallica has won nine Grammy Awards and is one of the most commercially successful bands.
History of Heavy Metal Music
Heavy metal emerged from the mid-60s sounds of psychedelia, blues, and rock and roll. Bands like The Who, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were at the forefront of what could be classified as “hard rock.” However, heavy metal turned it up a notch.
Heavy metal music is as popular as ever. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple are still and will always be in regular rotation on classic rock stations. Iron Maiden and Metallica are still touring.
Heavy metal has spawned a wide range of sub-genres that continue to be played worldwide, particularly popular in Germany, Finland, and Japan.
Some of the most common sub-genres of heavy metal include:
Thrash metal is an aggressive sub-genre of heavy metal with a fast tempo drum beat, shredding guitar riffs, with anti-establishment lyrics akin to hardcore punk. Pioneers of the genre include Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Megadeth.
Death metal takes thrash metal to the extreme. Heavily distorted guitars, powerful drumming, abrupt tempo changes, and aggressive vocals are key elements of death metal. Lyrically, death metal themes include violence, criminal activity, and war. Pioneers of the genre include Possessed, Death, and Morbid Angel.
Goth or gothic metal is a fusion of heavy metal with gothic rock. The lyrics of goth metal are often dark, gloomy fantasies, with bands dressing in all-black clothing accentuated with ghostly makeup.
Rap metal combines hip hop with heavy metal riffs. Hip-hop acts that sampled heavy metal music was the precursor to the genre. Pioneers of rap metal include the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, and Rage Against the Machine.
What Is Heavy Metal Music? Final Thoughts
Our list of heavy metal songs only scratches the surface of the great metal bands that have laid down some of the greatest music of all time.
Heavy metal has a memorable spot in the history of music. It has not only stood the test of time, but it continues to influence up-and-coming artists while spawning new genres.
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