top of page

What is progressive rock?

Progressive rock (prog for short) is a musical genre but is based on a fusion of many styles and influences throughout the whole of musical history.  It does not have any one recognisable style and no two progressive rock songs sound the same (even on the same album). It has existed as a genre since the late 1960s.  Art rock, psychedelic rock and symphonic rock are closely related genres with similar influences but have distinct differences to progressive rock.


The characteristics of progressive rock are below:


The most common line-up of a prog band is five members each playing vocals, guitar, keyboard, bass and drums respectively but there can be can be anything from a solo project to a group of twenty-five members for example. Some of the instruments used in a prog band include Hammond organ, synthesizers, mellotron, piano, electric lead guitar, electric rhythm guitar. Often only one guitar is needed as usually a keyboard player is there to fill in the space.



It is hard to understand how prog would sound if the Hammond organ had not been invented.  This electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond in 1933 and first manufactured two years later.  Until the mid-1970s, Hammond organs generated sound by using an electric current and a rotating metal tonewheel near an electromagnetic pickup. The signal was then strengthened with an amplifier to drive a speaker cabinet. Drawbars are used to control the volume of each individual sound component in a similar way to how a fader is used on an audio mixing board. Other organs such as the Farfisa and Vox Continental were also popular with keyboard players in the late 1960s, but the Hammond is the most famous.  Prog musicians would also play the pipe organ in churches and the harmonium and the melodica were also used on a few songs in the 1970s.


Clonewheel organs

Some keyboards are named ‘Clonewheel’ as they are clones of tonewheel organs but use solid-state circuitry or computer chips to generate sounds. Clonewheel organs are therefore much lighter and smaller than the vintage Hammond organs and are much easier to transport to live performances and recording sessions. Clonewheel organ also use drawbars to control the individual sound components of the organ. At the time of writing, I own a Roland VR-09 combi organ with around 200 sounds including synth and piano built in. It only weighs five kilograms and cost around six hundred pounds.



Synthesizers are electronic musical instruments that generate audio signals that are converted into sound (the actual science is too complicated to explain here). They have played a huge part in prog as they add colour and texture to the music in lots of different ways and are often used as a lead instrument for solos and riffs.  Some of the most used synths throughout prog’s history include the Minimoog, ARP 2600, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Korg Triton, Roland D-50, Roland JD-800, Roland JP-8000, Clavia Nord Electro, Clavia Nord Lead, Yamaha CS-80, Yamaha DX7, EMS VCS3 (more about this later), Solina String Ensemble, Oberheim OB-X and not forgetting Roland’s famous family of Jupiter 4, Jupiter 6 and Jupiter 8.



Grand pianos such as those made by Steinway and Bösendorfer are commonly used in the studio but are too heavy and expensive to take on tour so digital pianos and stage pianos have been used instead.  The Wurlitzer electric piano has a very distinctive sound that uses flat steel reeds that are struck by felt hammers. It was made famous by bands such as Supertramp and Pink Floyd. The Fender Rhodes is similar, but the hammers strike thin metal tines or tuning forks, which are then amplified. Clavinets and other clavichords and even harpsichords are also used from time to time.



The Mellotron is probably most famous for the opening intro of Genesis’ ‘Watcher of the Skies’ in 1972.  It is played by pressing the keys, but rather than a hammer hitting a piano string, the key presses a length of magnetic tape against a capstan and draws it across a playback head.  When the key is released, the tape is retracted by a spring to its initial position and different portions of the tape can then be played to access different sounds. 



The sad story of the Birotron needs to be mentioned. It was conceived by American musician and inventor Dave Biro and part-funded by Rick Wakeman. The keyboard has a similar technology to the Mellotron but is now considered to be the world’s rarest keyboard instrument in rock music and one of most difficult to find, seldom seen and least recorded of all keyboard instruments.


Electric guitar

The electric guitar has six strings which are tuned to a standard tuning of (from low to high) E, A, D, G, B and E. They are common in all types of rock music and some guitarists such as Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, John Petrucci, Steve Rothery, Alex Lifeson and David Gilmour are very innovative on their chosen instrument.  It is common considered that Gilmour and Rothery have created some of the most beautiful guitar solos in music history. Guitars including the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul and Gibson ES-175 are popular. The double neck (twelve string above and six string below) such as the Gibson EDS-1275 is also used a lot. 


Bass guitar

With four strings tuned to E, A, D and G in standard tuning, bass guitars can be played either with a plectrum or fingerstyle and even with just one finger. Bassists often play melody lines along with the lead guitar and sometimes bass solos. For this reason. prog bass players such as the late Chris Squire of Yes, Geddy Lee (Rush), John Myung (Dream Theater), Tony Levin (King Crimson and many others) and Pete Trewavas of Marillion, Kino and Transatlantic are some of the most talented musicians in rock music. Bass guitars include the Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Precision Bass, Rickenbacker 4001 and.



Drumkits can be anywhere in size from four drums and three cymbals (bass drum, snare drum, floor tom and rack tom, hi-hat, ride cymbal and crash cymbal) to a large kit with two bass drums, two snare drums, two floor toms, four or even six rack toms, two hi-hats, and a forest of cymbals of different sizes. There may even be percussion instruments in there too. Some of prog’s finest drummers include Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson, Phil Collins of Genesis, Ian Mosley of Marillion, Carl Palmer of ELP and Mike Mangini of Dream Theater among many others. Drum and cymbal manufacturers include Gretsch, Pearl, Mapex, Tama, Zildjian and Paiste.


Other instruments

Some other common instruments include six-string and twelve-string acoustic guitars, bass pedals such as the Moog Taurus and Roland PK-5, flute (most famously played by Peter Gabriel of Genesis and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull) and even traditional and world instruments and percussion. 



It is not uncommon for a musician to be totally dedicated to their instrument and known as a virtuoso (there are many of these people and are mentioned on numerous occasions in the reviews).



Progressive rock within the last fifty years has been influenced by blues, classical, jazz and even electronic music and metal


Song lengths

Prog songs vary in length.  Some songs are around twenty to twenty-five minutes (and often fill the entire side of a vinyl record) whereas others may only be a couple of minutes long.  I would say that the average length of a prog song is around eight minutes.


Time signatures

Time signatures are an essential part of prog and there are so many time signatures that it would too boring to list them all. Some of the most common examples are 5 / 8, 6 / 8, 7 / 4, 3 / 4 (also known as triple time), 9 / 4.  The famous 4 / 4 or ‘common time’ is also used a lot (Pink Floyd’s Money is in 7 / 4 and then switches to 4 / 4 during the guitar solo).  You will often have five or more different time signatures within one fifteen-minute song and


Concept albums

Examples include Marillion’s ‘Brave’, Genesis’ ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and Rush’s ‘Clockwork Angels’.  Contrary to popular belief, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of The Moon’ and ‘The Division Bell’ and Supertramp’s ‘Crime of The Century’ are not concept albums but that all the songs have the same topic and with a running order that enables the songs flowing into each-other. 



Some of the most famous album artwork in prog has been created by Roger Dean who designed many Yes album covers.  The late Storm Thorgerson was a graphic designer who created work for Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes as well as many others. A special mention should go to Mark Wilkinson who airbrushed many of the early Marillion album covers and many of Fish’s solo albums and Paul Whitehead who designed many Genesis covers.


Stage shows

There are some very elaborate stage productions and costumes in prog.  Keyboard player Rick Wakeman of Yes often plays wearing a long cape, Genesis’ former lead singer Peter Gabriel will often have many costume changes during a performance of Supper’s Ready and Fish wore face paint in the Marillion’s early days. 



Lyrical themes can be both original stories and inspired by those throughout history.  These include classical literature, science fiction, fantasy and folklore.  Social commentary and politics are also very common.  Humour appears quite frequently but it is very rare to find lyrics about love, sex, violence, the macabre and acts of rebellion for example.

bottom of page