Many rock bands have followed the drums, bass, vocals, lead guitar and rhythm guitar formula for their instrumental ensemble since the birth of the genre in the 1940s. Yet, in 2022, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a rock band. If an instrument is riff-capable, it more than has a place in rock or at least one of its now-countless sub-genres.
On the flip side, there are just as many rock duos capable of creating monstrous earworms; in the same dualistic vein as The White Stripes and The Dresden Dolls, some of our favourites include the London-based duo Glytsch, The SoapGirls, Cultdreams and Witch of the East.
With electronic production creeping further into the rock genre, the answer to the question, of what instruments are used in rock music has become increasingly less definitive. In this article, we will cover the rock instrument staples before moving on to the unsuspecting rock instruments that have made their way into the rock and roll hall of fame.
What Instruments Are Used in Rock Music?
When you see a rock band live, the drumkit may be at the back of the stage, but the drums are at the centre of the sound. The massive kicks and hits do their fair share of the heavy lifting when it comes to driving the pace and amplifying the intensity. Rock bands can keep it old school with a traditional acoustic drum set with snares, cymbals, a kick drum and toms, but there is an increasing number of rock bands using drum machines. Eyes Without a Face by Billy Idol, Heart of Glass by Blondie and Turbo Lover by Judas Priest were recorded with drum machines.
Rhythm & Lead Guitars
While the lead guitars take care of the riffs, solos and melodic lines, rhythm guitars work with the bass guitar and drums to bolster the rhythm and add more depth to the track by playing chords around the lead guitar lines. While a rock band *can* work without a rhythm guitarist, especially with a great bassist, that isn’t to say rhythm guitarists haven’t contributed plenty to the rock world. Some of the best-known rhythm guitarists in rock history include Keith Richards (Rolling Stones), Pete Townsend (The Who), Joan Jett and John Lennon.
Rock bassists have never got much respect, but without them, the rock genre would be infinitely less gnarly. Bass guitars in rock bands are responsible for bringing in the lower-pitched notes to play off the drumbeats, and they have been a pivotal part of the rock instrument lineup since the dawn of the genre in 1940. Although sadly, the presence of the double basses has diminished since the 1940s after being replaced by the electric bass. Going against the grain, some bands have done away with bassists by playing their guitars in a lower pitch instead.
Except for instrumental rock, vocals are one of the most prominent and versatile instruments in rock music. With the help of a microphone and maybe a few vocal effects, such as reverb, delay and chorus, vocals become one of the most dominant aspects of the rock track. And for anyone questioning the inclusion of a set of pipes as a rock instrument, the fact that they need to be in tune is enough for them to qualify in our book. If the vocalist isn’t committed to their frontperson duties, they may pick up an instrument and multitask by playing bass, lead guitar or rhythm guitar.
Keyboards & Pianos
After hit records from Marillion, Grateful Dead, Genesis, The Zombies, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, and Porcupine Tree featured keyboard and piano players there is very little room to question keys’ place in rock music. Piano-led melodies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there would be far fewer epic rock ballads without Elton John and Ben Folds. Fact.
Non-Staple Rock Instruments
With enough creativity and ingenuity, there are few, if any, instruments that can’t be used in a rock track. From saxophones in jazz-rock to violins in gothic-rock to ukuleles in indie-rock to mandolins in folk-rock to theremins in Avant-Garde rock, with enough drive and distortion, the instrumental world is your oyster.
Amplifiers & Effects Pedals
A band’s choice in amplifiers is just as crucial as the instruments they play. Every guitar has its timbre and sonic edge, but one of the biggest factors in the tone and drive is the amplifier used. From the Fender Blues Junior to the monolithic Marshall stacks to the iconic Orange Crush to the Vox AC30, without them, our favourite tracks simply wouldn’t be the same. To further add to the distortion, guitar effects pedals are also extremely popular, especially the ProCo Rat, the Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Pedal, and the Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive.
Digital Audio Workstations
With the rise in 100% DIY artists, DAWs are quickly becoming the new tape deck for rock artists wanting to make a serious impression with their demos. On a DAW, there is the capacity to produce, master and mix a rock track; there is also the opportunity to bring in instrumentals and samples from an infinite digital library. For a fraction of the price tag on a vintage 90s Gibson Les Paul Custom, you can purchase thousands of digital instruments. Rock traditionalists may bemoan this technological move, but don’t shoot Gen Z; Depeche Mode has been doing it since 1980, and Tangerine Dream went there in 1967. A recent BBC documentary went as far as to say that the introduction of electronic music equipment was the ultimate Punk movement. With the even more recent national embarrassment over John Lydon from the Sex Pistols, that statement rings just as true.
For the best idea of the current formation of contemporary rock bands, check out our best music rock blogs. Since 2012, we have championed rock bands from around the globe and had our finger on the pulse of some of the hottest new luminaries.