When/why did vocals-guitar-bass-drums become the vast majority of rock music group makeups? Even with the occasional keyboardist, bands are almost entirely the same instruments.


When/why did vocals-guitar-bass-drums become the vast majority of rock music group makeups? Even with the occasional keyboardist, bands are almost entirely the same instruments.

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It goes back to Rock’s root in 1930’s Jazz bands, who at the time frequently had a guitarist, bassist (though often this was a stand-up bass rather than bass guitar), drummer, and vocalist, along with keys and sometimes horns. This is also why if you pick a sixth instrument to add to a rock ensemble for a while it was most likely to be some sort of trumpet or saxophone.

Another consideration is the technology that was happening around those times – the drum kit was first innovated in the 1920s-1930s from a bunch of percussion, and the innovation was a setup that allowed one seated percussionist to play all those instruments at once; At the time of the depression, guitars became a favorite of folk musicians over banjos and mandolins as they were cheaper to produce (and therefore didn’t need as much money to buy), which led to more jazz ensembles having a guitarist; then in the 1950s and 60s Les Paul and Leo Fender made big strides in electric guitars, and musicians of every genre wanted to play with the next big innovation in music technology, especially since the depression was behind them.

The last piece of technology and culture to consider is the television – people at home were able to watch live concerts and this was huge in homogenizing music to a large degree – an act like The Beatles would have been hugely popular in any other era in Liverpool and the surrounding areas that they toured in, but their style of music probably wouldn’t have found as many fans as it did when they played on live TV across America.

And as it happened, the Beatles had that same basic composition. Other bands that were inspired by them had people who picked up an instrument so they could play like their favorite Beatle. Multiply this across the bevy of talented guitarist, drummers, and bassists to come out of the rock era, and you ended up with a cycle of people who picked up a guitar because their favorite part of their favorite song was a guitar solo, or people who picked up a bass because they were really into a funky bass riff, or people who learned to sing their favorite songs, etc etc….

It was a confluence of all of that and more at a specific time. It’s impossible to know, but my guess is that if broadcast TV had come about a few decades sooner, we’d have electric banjos and mandolins as standard fare per the folk and bluegrass bands of the eras just before Rock came along.


This structure isn’t all that unusual musically. Drums, bass, and piano/guitar are known as the rhythm section in larger jazz and symphony orchestras. It’s sort of the minimum you need for a full sound especially for such a rhythmic genre as rock music.

The holy trinity of any popular music (at least before full-on digital production) is:

1. Something to keep time (drums of some kind)
2. Something to lay the musical foundation (bass)
3. Something to play the melody (guitar, keys, vocals, horn, etc.)

With more people, you often dedicate one of the instruments that can play multiple notes at once (guitar, piano) to outlining the chords that underlie the music.

Rock music developed when the most exciting new percussion instrument was a drumkit, and the most exciting new tonal instruments were electric basses and guitars. Voice is eternally relevant in popular music because just about anyone can “play” it at some level, and it’s the only way to communicate more than vague feelings and sonic ideas.

Amplification. Vocals, Bass and Drums are essential to almost all music. When we started overdriving guitars and getting feedback, sustain and distortion through the amps. Rock was made.