The History of Heavy Metal – Origins, Bands, and Early Influences

While heavy metal music “officially” kicked off in the late 1960s, some earlier works of music were the main driver behind the birth of this genre. 

These songs included heavy guitar riffs and distorted sounds that led the heavy metal genre to evolve dramatically throughout its existence. It’s a pretty diverse genre with dozens of subgenres that continued to pop up well into the mid-1990s.

What Defines Heavy Metal?

Just like any music genre, heavy metal has a unique style that makes it easily identifiable. 

Characteristics and Instruments

Metal music is characterized by fast tempo, heavy distortion, powerful rhythms, and dense guitar and bass sounds. 

The instruments used in heavy metal music include electric guitars, bass guitars, and drums. In some metal subgenres, bands may use organs, electronic keyboards, or other instruments. 

Style and Themes

The lyrics and themes used in heavy metal songs usually have a dark nature. War, death, depression, remorse, justice, and guilt are some of the most popular themes from which heavy metal music takes inspiration. 

However, it’s not uncommon for metal songs to have lighter themes like love or joy. Many heavy metal songs are also classified as power ballads. 

On a side note, a few heavy metal bands use themes that revolve around satanism and the worship of the devil. This is why heavy metal music is often associated with the devil. The famous “sign of the horns” hand gesture that metalheads use might just be another reason. 

Why Is It Called Metal Music?

There are several stories on how heavy metal music got its name. The American band Steppenwolf used the term for the first time in the lyrics of its “Born To Be Wild” song. Others trace back the origin of the name to the hippie movement because “heavy” used to be a synonym of “deep” or “profound”. 

Another theory is that the name was related to steelmaking because the genre’s pioneers came from cities where the steelmaking industry prevailed. For example, Black Sabbath was founded in Birmingham. Some also think that the genre got this name simply because its sounds are as loud and heavy as metals. 

Music That Inspired the Rise of Metal Music (the 1950s and 1960s)

Since heavy metal is a subgenre of rock, it’s a no-brainer that the genre took inspiration from early works of classic and hard rock. 

Pieces from the early 1950s that featured heavy guitar riffs sparked the birth of the genre. These songs include Link Wray’s instrumental song “Rumble”, The Kingsmen’s take on “Louie Louie”, and James Cotton’s “Cotton Crop Blues”. 

Later on, with the emergence of rock subgenres like acid rock and psychedelic rock, the first roots of heavy metal music came to life. Releases like Cream’s “Fresh Cream” and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Are You Experienced?” inspired Black Sabbath’s early works of heavy metal music. 

And even though both psychedelic and acid rock featured heavier sounds than other subgenres of rock, they were nowhere as revolutionary as Black Sabbath’s creations.

Who Was the 1st Heavy Metal Band?

Black Sabbath is generally credited as being the first heavy metal band. The band’s lead vocalist, “Ozzy Osbourne”, is often credited for being ”The Father of Metal”. 

However, there’s another side to that story, where people and critics credit Led Zeppelin for inventing heavy metal music. 

Both bands made their debuts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with Black Sabbath releasing their “Black Sabbath” album in February 1970 and Led Zeppelin introducing their “Led Zeppelin” in January 1969. 

Those who credit Black Sabbath argue that the band influenced dozens of other metal bands and subgenres that emerged in the following years or even decades. Led Zeppelin had a major influence over the genre, but the band is viewed as more of a hard rock band than a heavy metal one.

Mainstream Heavy Metal Music from the 1970s

The 70s was indeed a great decade for heavy metal music, with some of the most inspiring pieces being released during that period. The heavy metal genre truly matured in the 70s as it witnessed the formation of high-profile bands like Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, and KISS. 

Some of the most inspiring works of heavy metal music from the green decade are Steppenwolf’s “Steppenwolf 7”, Deep Purple’s “Deep Purple In Rock”, Machine Head’s “Machine Head”, and Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” and “Paranoid” albums. 

Other notable albums like Judas Priest’s “Sad Winds of Destiny” and “Hell Bent for Leather”, and Motörhead’s “Overkill” have contributed greatly to the genre, too.

Early Sub-Genres of Heavy Metal (the 1980s to 2000s)

Over the years, heavy metal evolved into various subgenres, with each of them having its unique style and overall theme. Here’s a quick overview of some of these subgenres: 

Black Metal

Black metal first emerged in the 1980s, with bands like Venom, Celtic Frost, Mercyful, Hellhammer, and Bathory. These bands originated in Europe, verifying that the subgenre first emerged outside of the United States. 

Black metal songs usually have a dark nature. They’re characterized by distinctive background hiss, and distorted guitars accompanied by fast alternate picking, and ambient noise. Lo-fi production isn’t uncommon, either. 

Death Metal

Contrary to popular belief, death metal music isn’t named like that just for using death-related themes. The themes usually revolve around religion, philosophy, politics, and science fiction.

The term originated when Possessed’s vocalist and bassist Jeff Becerra used it in one of his English class assignments in 1983. Later on, the band used the term as a title for their 1984 demo. 

Alternate picking, heavy guitar distortions, low tunes, and palm muting are some of the most common characteristics of death metal. 

Power Metal

Power metal has some controversial elements that deviate from traditional heavy metal music. For example, power metal ditches the heavy sounds in favor of lighter tones. It’s also dominated by strong choruses and melodic harmonies. 

Some notable power metal pieces include DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” and Gamma Ray’s “Rebellion in Dreamland”. 

Thrash Metal 

Thrash metal is known for its super-fast tempo, accompanied by low guitar riffs. It’s one of the most aggressive subgenres of heavy metal. 

Some of the early works of thrash metal include Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe”, Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy”, and Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?”. Those pieces were released before the term “thrash metal” was even popularized. 

Who Are the Big 4 Thrash Metal Bands?

The big 4 thrash metal bands are Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth. These bands are credited for creating and popularizing the sub-genre in the early 90s. They still perform live concerts and release albums to date.

Slayer performing in 2007

Recent Sub-Genres of Metal

Along with the highly established and popular metal sub-genres, some relatively new sub-genres have emerged in the 1990s. These include Nu metal, symphonic metal, technical death metal, groove metal, folk metal, and metalcore.

Among the above mentioned, Nu-metal and Metalcore are the ones that are separated from the pact as being more successful than the others.


Nu-metal is a subgenre of heavy metal that combines elements of other genres, such as hip-hop, alternative metal, and groove metal. Nu-metal was at its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s with bands like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Staind, and Papa Roach.

While nu-metal is not as popular as it once was, there are still bands out there that make it their own. Some notable nu-metal bands today are I Prevail, Asking Alexandria, and Beartooth.


Metalcore is a subgenre of heavy metal that combines elements of hardcore punk and extreme metal. Metalcore was at its peak in the early-mid 2000s with bands like Killswitch Engage, Atreyu, As I Lay Dying, Trivium, and Bullet for My Valentine.

Metalcore is still going strong today with bands like Architects, Bring Me the Horizon, While She Sleeps, and Parkway Drive leading the way.

New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal

During the 1990s, grunge music had taken over the airwaves, and heavy metal was all but forgotten. This was known as the long drought for the heavy metal community. However, by the early 2000s, metal fans were ready for a resurgence of their favorite genre.

Bands like Disturbed and Slipknot brought heavy metal back into the mainstream, and soon other bands were following in their footsteps. Notable bands that brought upon this new wave are Ambush, Enforcer, Ghost, High on Fire, In Flames, Killswitch Engage, Parkway Drive, and more.

Today, heavy metal still thrives as a genre, with new bands emerging all the time. Most notably, those who lead the way are Manacle, Riot City, Traveler, and many more with much more familiar names like Avenged Sevenfold, Mastodon, etc.


Fans just love the way heavy metal music sounds. With so many artists, bands, and sub-genres, it’s no wonder why heavy metal is so popular. 

And while the recent sub-genres are different from what heavy metal initially sounded like, the legacy of early works of heavy metal music is still alive. 

Pretty much every metalhead on the planet still listens to metal songs recorded decades ago. This just proves one thing: metal music is like wine; the more it ages, the better it gets!

Image Credits:
Black Sabbath photo: Robson Batista, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Slayer photo: Francis from Groningen, Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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