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What Is Neoclassical Metal?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Neoclassical metal is a form of guitar-oriented hard-rock music that utilizes many elements derived from traditional classical music, particularly works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and a few others. The style had its most fundamental beginnings in the late 1960s and generally peaked in the mid to late 1980s before becoming increasingly less popular. Neoclassical metal had a big influence on hard-rock music as a whole, and even though its popularity ultimately declined, many echoes of its influence remain in the metal music genre and elsewhere.

The origins of neoclassical metal can actually be traced to the late 1960s, a time when heavy metal was just beginning to develop. It was during this period that the progressive rock movement started to become popular, a musical style that incorporated elements of jazz and classical music, combining them with a hard-edged rock sound. Some of the more popular bands in this style included groups like Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson, along with artists like Frank Zappa. This music, which continued to have a significant audience all the way into the late 1970s, was known to be technically challenging and complicated composition-wise. Some of the sounds from this musical style ultimately influenced many heavy metal artists, either directly or indirectly.

Most musical experts agree that the first serious incorporation of classical music and heavy metal was in some of the work by the pioneering heavy metal group Deep Purple. The band’s guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, and the organist, Jon Lord, both had an interest in classical music, which they incorporated into many of their songs, often as a way of creating a dark and doom-filled melodic atmosphere. Deep Purple was popular and ultimately very influential for many other groups. As the 1970s continued, groups like Iron Maiden and The Scorpions continued the tradition of creating heavy metal music with the infusion of classical elements.

The technical exploits of guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore and Michael Schenker had already made neoclassical metal a very guitar-oriented movement, and this became even more true in the 1980s. The work of guitarist Randy Rhoads with Ozzy Osbourne, along with the pioneering work of Swedish metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, eventually helped bring the neoclassical metal movement to new heights of technical excellence. In some respects, it could be said that the most influential aspect of the neoclassical metal movement came in the area of guitar. Many technical achievements and stylistic elements of neoclassical guitarists in the 1980s eventually became a standard part of the hard-rock and heavy metal guitar repertoire. Several groups during the following decades continued to push aspects of neoclassical metal, and echoes of the style can be heard in music by a diverse range of acts, including progressive metal groups like Dream Theater, and other heavy acts such as Avenged Sevenfold.

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