So with any explanation of the start of any genre, you are going to have some fuzzy history. Music is a constantly evolving, constantly changing amalgamation of influences. We have the influencees, and influencers forever interacting with each other. “Heavy metal” as in the stereotype of today, (the black shirts, the leather, the metal studs in jackets and belts) that all didn’t just start all of a sudden. It evolved from other sources into a culture that we know and think of today. That process took years, in fact decades. Although one thing that we seem to have a good handle on is what influenced the heavy metal sound, the beginnings, the “prototype” sound that was created and then influenced other bands. Below are the names of those bands and the people in them are solidified in heavy metal history for their contributions to the genre.
The 3 most commonly agreed on bands that helped kickstart the genre are Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, commonly referred to as the “Unholy Trinity of Heavy Metal”. These bands started in the late 60s and early 70s. Most people I know have heard of these bands, I guarantee you have as well although you may not know that you were listening to them. If you turn on the classic rock station they play these bands all the time. What made them unique is that they experimented with new sounds which in turn inspired the bands later, and a few years later after these bands entered the scene you’ll start seeing bands push that sound even further. A cycle of taking the old, adding some new, and pushing it forward.
The “Heavy Metal” sound was birthed from the sounds experimented with in the 60s. It wasn’t called that at the time either, basically people didn’t know a new genre was starting. Some of the songs I will mention a few people argue with me are classic rock songs, they are right. Heavy metal wasn’t a thing yet and the pieces that we can see in the music in the time wasn’t distinguishable from Rock and Roll and other genres of the time. The terms, this early on, are interchangeable. One of the first points in this new sound was the infusion of blues riffs into the music. Blues was an american genre out of the south that relied on slow, soulful, sad guitar playing. The rockers of this era took those same guitar riffs but sped them up. Fast guitar playing, oppressively loud sound, extended guitar riffs with heavy distortion and some angry sounding vocals all added to this new sound.
Heavy Metal got its start in the British music scene on the tail end of the first british invasion. Heavy metals fast playing and heavy distortion was not new when these bands came around. Jimi Hendrix and his guitar playing still influences the scene today, the Who’s wall of sound covers that loudness angle. The Door’s “Break on Through” has intense, explosive vocals. In-a-Gada-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly epitomizes acid rock’s distortion and psychedelic rock of the time. Point being is that come 1968 we have all sorts of bands experimenting with sounds that became standard to later metal, but no one band really breaking that threshold.
Black Sabbath first came on to the scene in 1968 but released their first album in 1970. Singing we have the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, guitar legend, Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. The music was dark and imposing. Iommi injured himself and lost a bit of his finger earlier on in his life. This event made him tone down his guitar making it deeper sounding and easier to play. This created a unique sound which influenced future metal bands. The new toned down guitar riffs paired with doom and gloom lyrics added a unique sound to punctuate the end of the “peace, love and rock and roll” hippy movement of the 60s. While being precursors to heavy metal they tend to be described more as psychedelic rock and acid rock this early on, a genre of the time that focuses on heavily distorted guitar that was meant to assault the senses and mirror the ups and downs of what I can only imagine drug use of the time felt like. To this day I have yet to meet a metalhead who does not know who Sabbath is. They are a founding member of the genre and pretty much at the highest peak of the pantheon of Metal Gods.
Led Zeppelin is another band whose members have gone into legend status in metal culture. Although personally I have always thought of them as a classic rock band, the guitarists and music they made inspire the metal culture to this day. Started in 1968 with legendary guitarist Jimmy Page, drummer John Bonham, singer Robert Plant, and guitarist/keyboardist John Paul Jones. The band actually had been around in some form since 1963 but were known as the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds launched careers for legendary guitarists Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck as well. The band broke up but was reformed under Jimmy Page as the New Yardbirds but later changed the name to Led Zeppelin when they got the above lineup. They experimented heavily with their music. They still were, at the time, considered psychedelic rock just like Black Sabbath. However they took a lot of inspiration from blues style riffs and tunings and changed their sound a lot. The suddenness of their playstyle paired with Robert Plant’s vocals created songs engrained not only in metal history, but in rock and roll history. Led Zeppelin is one of the best selling bands in american history. Selling 100’s of millions of albums and influencing countless bands inside the metal scene as well as outside. They are one of the best bands ever to play music, period.
Deep Purple was a band that had been around a bit before starting its run as a heavy metal origin story. Starting in 1968 just like the other 3 bands they didn’t start with the heavy sound known to the others right away. They were already mildly successful with a couple of albums under their belts by the time the Metal sound hit them in 1970. The band consisted of organist Jon Lord, rhythm guitar Roger Glover, Vocalist Ian Gillan, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, and rhythm guitar Ian Paice. The 1970 album “In Rock” showed off their switch in style. They were fast and loud. Distorted guitar solos tag teaming with organ solos all lead by high pitched howling vocals of Gillan set them apart from their peers as well as the sound they had before. They changed their sound over the years but their music during this time helped lead the way for other bands to form the metal genre.
Now these bands created something not together but individually that influenced others down the road. They took what they liked from past music but infused it with what inspired them to make something new. Together they formed a trinity that started a movement. That movement is still moving, the music they made isn’t exactly the same compared to some heavy metal today but that is ok. They evolved, they changed. Metal music took what they liked from these bands, a sound not before heard that spoke to them. They took it and added themselves in to it. It evolved and now we headbang in dark venues in black shirts with devil horns raised above our heads. I guarantee though that if you squint in the dark hard enough you will see someone wearing a Zeppelin shirt, a Sabbath shirt, a Deep Purple shirt. It is roots, it is history and these 3 bands command a lot of respect in the community.
Following is a short cherry-picked list to show off the sound of the time, the ideas that came in through music and maybe instead of reading, show you what I am talking about.
Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Child – 1970
Released after his death, this song has been redone multiple times by guitarists in the following decades as one of the pivotal guitar pieces of music in modern history.
The Who – My Generation – Live Ver. 1967
While the original album version is tame in comparison to other songs on this list, seeing them play this song live shows you the aggression of sound as well as some destruction of music equipment.
The Doors – Break on Through – 1967
This song sucker punches you, starting soft and quiet but then rises up out of nowhere to create wall of sound.
Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida – 1968
A 17 minute epic of a song. Takes you through soundscapes like a journey. Quest through lands filled with guitar solos and distortions and hard to understand lyrics.
Black Sabbath – Paranoid 1970
Off their first album. Iommi showing off his low tuning and heavy riffing. Ozzy singing about going insane. A song that set the tone for the band in later years. Classic.
Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love – 1969
A great introduction to the Zepp. Shows off the singing prowess and guitar prowess of the band. Starts with the deep riffing followed by Plant’s vocals. Be careful you might become a fan.
Deep Purple – Speed King – 1970
A mainstay of the band in later on in concerts. Starts off right away with squealing fast guitars. Fast and loud. Great song of the time that introduced fans to their new sound.