What is Stoner Rock? It’s a big question—bigger than any riff you could spot in a Kyuss or Sleep record. Stoner Rock is a difficult genre to define, partly because of its roots in the Desert Rock scene, when numerous bands emerged at the same time from the same area of California. Many of these musicians played together, but their resulting products varied wildly. Kyuss. Queens of the Stone Age. Karma to Burn. Masters of Reality. Sleep. Yawning Man. Each of these bands offered a distinct sound, but each of them could be catalogued under a single insufficient moniker: Stoner Rock.
Music journalists haven’t helped solve the problem either. We’ll admit it: We’re part of the problem. Although Monster Riff is supposed to be a celebration of Stoner Rock, our album reviews have covered a wide range of sounds.
We’ve made the waters even murkier.
Now we’re ready to help. We’re ready to give Stoner Rock a definition—one that goes deeper than explaining what makes it different from other genres.
Stoner Rock (and Stoner Metal, for that matter) contains three key ingredients: riff, tempo, and groove. When we mix these together, we get an exceptional genre of music.
Stoner Rock Ingredient One: The Riff
Stoner Rock, at its most fundamental level, hinges upon the establishment of a riff. The riff drives the song forward, and it’s often repeated over and over. When it’s a great riff, it’s literally scientifically pleasing.
But this brings us to an important question: What’s a riff?
If you’re here, you likely know what a riff is when you hear it, and you probably have a few favorites (we certainly have our own), but let’s go deeper. How is a riff different from, say, a lick or a phrase?
Google’s dictionary offers a simplistic definition of riff: “a short, repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or a refrain in a song.” Ah, well that makes sense. Except in virtually every single Stoner Rock song, where the main riff generally lasts the entirety of the song and isn’t relegated either to the beginning or the refrain. Now, if you’re The Atomic Bitchwax, and you spew fat riffing grooves at every turn of phrase for albums on end, this definition might suffice, maybe, but it doesn’t do anything for our purpose. Further, is Stoner Rock popular music? Or Jazz? Though it might incorporate elements of both, I’m leaning towards a fairly hard no.
Ask any classically trained musician and in his unmatched wisdom he’ll tell you a riff is simply an ostinato. Well, I guess it’s as simple as that, then. (Not.) Google defines an ostinato as “a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm.” In our current quest, however, this two-dollar word offers nothing to further qualify “riff,” and between you and me, your classically trained friend seems a bit pretentious. As he’ll find out later in life, using jargon might make you sound smart, but it won’t help you be understood, especially here, what with all these stoners.
A riff is indeed a repeated musical phrase, but to clarify as it relates to Stoner Rock, we’ll add:
- It’s normally played on guitar and/or bass (and in a lower register)
- It’s normally a sequence of notes as opposed to a chord progression (though it may comprise a chord progression)
- It’s normally built from the minor pentatonic scale
- It’s normally rhythm-focused (or syncopated—a fancy word for your pretentious friend), and
- Its repetitive nature is knowingly used as a tool in composition. The band isn’t repeating the same thing over and over just because they haven’t bothered coming up with anything better. They’re using it for an intended effect.
In short, the riff in Stoner Rock is the foundation on which the rest of the song sits; it is the theme. Sonically, it is the listener’s frame of reference for the song’s structure. This frame of reference, similar to many other art forms, is then manipulated by deviations from and variations upon this theme. Perhaps, in Stoner Rock, the riff is of greater importance than in other genres of music, where it might appear relegated to a refrain. The riff is why we’re fans, and it’s why we keep coming back.
In more popular music genres, a song will likely be comprised of a chord progression, melody, and harmony, all of which is divided into verse, chorus, and bridge sections. In Stoner Rock, a song will likely be comprised of a riff, variations on the riff, another riff, and then maybe a melody, which is then divided into verse, chorus, and bridge sections. Our riff fulfills the role of the chord progression, and it must do in Stoner Rock as much as the chord progression and harmony would do in popular music. So, not only does the riff demand to be musically intriguing, it must fill more sonic space. Various bands accomplish this in various ways, but the ways most common in Stoner Rock include distortion, downtuned instruments (lower frequencies equal longer wavelengths which means the resulting sound occupies more physical space), and extremely high volumes. Notable practitioners here include Sunn O))), Sleep, and Melvins, though you don’t have to dig very deep to find plenty of other examples. Also, each of these techniques complement one another: high volumes tend toward distortion because the components of an amplifier must work harder to produce louder sound, and lower frequencies require higher volumes to achieve the same definition as higher frequencies. Sonically speaking, Stoner Rock is not background music. Stoner Rock announces its presence and is not afraid to commandeer the listeners’ attention.
Now, the riff itself does not necessarily set Stoner Rock apart from other subsets of heavy metal, but it is without a doubt an integral component. Perhaps the key word from Wikipedia’s definition is “fusion”: early examples of what has come to be called Stoner Rock, such as Sleep and Kyuss, successfully fused aspects of Rock, Metal, and Punk into this new form. In many cases this fusion occurred in the span of a single song—see, for example, Sleep’s “Dragonaut.”
Not only are different riffs combined into a single song, but notable shifts in tempo and feel take place to accommodate each riff. Here, it seems even the song itself must yield to the authority of the riff. In Kyuss’ “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop,” the song transitions into a variant of the main riff in a half-time feel for the ending section.
When the ending riff kicks in, even though the riff differs from any of the song’s previous riffs, we feel its familiar presence. In contrast to both these examples, you’d be hard pressed to find virtually any tempo changes in popular music, period. These shifts and elaborations, these fusions of styles and song structures, are endemic to how we define Stoner Rock today
Stoner Rock Ingredient Two: Tempo
Tempo is critical to Stoner Rock. In case you’re unaware, “tempo” comes from the Italian word for “time.” Tempo, then, is the pace or speed of a song. Although a song can change tempo, it usually remains consistent in Stoner Rock—where it’s typically rooted in place by the drummer and bassist.
Tempo in Stoner Rock
In general, the tempo in Stoner Rock is slow- to mid-tempo. To give you some reference, most Rock music is 110-140 beats per minute. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is 116 BPM. Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is 176 BPM. Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is 113 BPM. Most Stoner Rock won’t be much faster than these songs.
Stoner Rock gets really slow when you start slipping into the Doom scene.
Take a look at Electric Wizard’s “Funeralopolis”:
Notice how slowly Mark Greening hits the drums here (at least until the 4:55 mark when the song transitions). “Funeralopolis” is 63 BPM—almost half the speed of “Smells like Teen Spirit.”
Occasionally, Stoner Rock gets a little faster than most Rock standards. Although Black Sabbath’s stoner touchstone—”Sweet Leaf”—is 148 BPM. That’s a pretty good clip, even for a Rock song.
Why Tempo Is Important
By its very nature, Stoner Rock typically isn’t fast. Speeding up would take us further into the Metal territory, even Thrash Metal. Think of “Ride The Lightning” from Metallica’s debut album of the same name. That song is slightly faster than “Sweet Leaf,” clocking in at 149 BPM. Pantera’s “Domination” is 141 BPM.
Although Stoner Rock can overlap with other genres in its tempo, the speed is important for creating the overall mood and feeling. Tempo helps generate emotion.
Scroll back up to listen to “Funeralopolis” again, but this time set it to play twice as fast. Notice the enormous difference? With the increased tempo, some of the Doom is removed, replaced by more Stoner and Metal tendencies. Instead of simply being a gloomy, depressing song, there is a tinge of authority and self-reliance in the sound, offering a glimmer of hope in the overall delivery.
A slower tempo also supports the genre’s drug culture. A slower tempo puts more space in between the notes. When you’re higher than Willie Nelson in a hot air balloon, a guitar riff delivered at 60 BPM can become mind-blowing, especially when your perception of each individual note is heightened.
Tempo is critical for capturing emotion, and it also plays a critical role in influencing another aspect of Stoner Rock: the groove.
Stoner Rock Ingredient Three: Groove
Riff and tempo are relatively simple to cover from a technical standpoint. In short, a riff is a collection of notes played in succession and tempo is the speed at which notes are delivered. But there’s another critical element of Stoner Rock that’s much more difficult to hammer down: groove.
Groove is tricky to define because it’s one of those things that’s hard to point to in sheet music or even in a soundbite. It’s something you feel.
Around the Monster Riff office, we use a simple definition: “Groove is anything that makes you want to move your hips.”
Examples of Groove in Stoner Rock
Before we get a little more technical about a primarily untechnical topic, it’s helpful to explore a couple of examples of groove in Stoner Rock.
Example 1: ‘Moroccan Honey’ By Ultima Radio
We started with “Moroccan Honey” (from the Austrian band Ultima Radio) because it’s one of the easiest songs to really feel the groove. The heavy bass line is infectious. Even now, after hearing it dozens of times before, we feel compelled to at least tap a foot along with it. Another bonus to this music video: Seeing someone else move their hips to the thumping bass makes it a little easier to move your own.
To be fair, groove isn’t limited to involuntary hip swinging. You could feel that slow, momentous movement in your shoulders and neck as well.
Example 2: ‘Spacegrass’ By Clutch
Like “Moroccan Honey,” “Spacegrass” (from none other than Clutch) features a heavy, infectious bass line. While relatively steady, the delivery is slightly different. Go watch “Spacegrass” in concert (it’s a crowd favorite at Clutch shows)—you’ll see everyone nodding along, not moving their hips. Although the cool factor of the bass line is undeniable, the way it slips through the body is different than the sex appeal of “Moroccan Honey.” Instead, “Spacegrass” pushes us closer to headbanging.
This is an important distinction. Groove is not what makes us headbang at a ferocious pace. Groove isn’t a Rancid or a Black Flag concert. Groove works within the riff and tempo to deliver sounds that are both relaxing, enticing, exciting, and mesmerizing.
A Lesson in Etymology: ‘Groove’
The term groove was frequently used in the phrase “In the groove” in the ‘30s and ‘40s to describe popular Jazz performances in the Swing movement. Historically, “groove” has been used to denote the feeling we get from music. It’s often subjective, and certain albums, songs, and genres might have more groove for one person than another.
In fact, the word “groovy” (one you might have heard as a sort of hippie and disco slang in movies set a couple of decades after the original Swing craze) comes from the idea of an entire band fitting together in the groove of a record and getting nudged along by the needle.
Regardless, groove is often produced by the underlying current in the rhythm section—both in and out of Stoner Rock. Think about the blend of drums, bass, keyboards, and maybe even the rhythm guitar working together in Funk (just about anything by Parliament), Rock (Red Hot Chili Peppers, anyone?), Soul, Jazz, Fusion, or Salsa.
In the early 1990s, the world saw the explosion of the Groove Metal genre. Groove Metal smoothed out some of the rougher edges found in Thrash and slowed the tempo to deliver something that was a little more radio-friendly. Bands like Pantera, White Zombie, and Machine Head rose to prominence under this style (Pantera’s 1990 album, Cowboys From Hell, is widely considered the first Groove Metal album).
Groove Metal made its biggest impact on the Nu Metal scene, but there’s no denying its influence on its sonic cousin, Stoner Rock. Bands like Down and Corrosion of Conformity helped bridge that gap between Stoner Rock/Stoner Metal and harder Metal early in the 1990s when Stoner Rock was just getting off the ground.
Bringing It All Together
Sure, there are some other important elements. Distortion pedals are essential for that classic Stoner Rock sound, and you probably don’t need a theremin or didgeridoo (though it is possible to incorporate one). As important as these are, they’re still secondary to our primary focus for this article.
Here’s the bottom line: Without riffs, a slow/mid tempo, and a touch of groove, we probably don’t have Stoner Rock. These elements combine to create a style of music that can unite us. From concerts with Clutch, Truckfighters, or OM, we all stand in the crowd for the same reason: To have that sweet, sweet sound wash over us.