A Beginner’s Guide to Punk Rock

beginners guide to punk rock

Watch today's video playlist

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to write this post…I just thought it would be fun. We’ll go over a little punk history, what it means to be punk rock, significant punk rock bands, and the future of punk. But the ironic thing is, trying to create a guide to punk rock is an oxymoron, since punk rock never likes to have boundaries.

But the truth is, punk rock has a lot of characteristics that are repeated over and over again, to where we can kinda structure an outline as to what punk rock is. So the point of this guide is to introduce anyone who is wondering what is. Now this of course is my own interpretation and therefore holds zero weight. But maybe you will find some value in it!

The Technical Definition

Punk rock can be multiple things. For example it can be:

  • An attitude
  • A way of life
  • A fashion style
  • A genre of music
  • A political mindset
  • A way of doing things

But, I’m pretty sure the most technical way to define punk rock is:

A genre of music, usually played at a high tempo with distorted electric guitar. Most punk rock songs use simple 4 chord progressions.

That’s it. Just fast, distorted rock music.

I also like to describe it as: “Kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare.”


A Brief History of Punk Rock

Punk rock didn’t really start until the 1970s, but for the sake of argument we could say it started decades before. I kinda think of the Doors as the real first Punk Rock band, simply because they were one of the first totally “un-restrained” bands. I mean c’mon – Jim Morrison disobeyed Ed Sullivan, and decided to use the lyrics “higher” on national t.v. Ruining your relationship in show business, just to stay true to your own lyrics is pretty punk rock.

I also think The Kinks and the Velvet Underground were part of the emerging punk rock roots that started in the 1960s.

I’m sure some argue that Johnny Cash was the first punk rocker, because of his delinquent behavior and bad boy image. Even though he played Country music, a lot of people say he was a punk rocker at heart.

And then there are those who say Jazz was the first punk rock, because some Jazz is so “undefined” and follows no pattern. In addition to the fact that most Jazz musicians came from truly oppressed backgrounds, which is also a root/characteristic of punk rock music.

But the most significant landmark was the spawning of the Sex Pistols in 1976. This is when the “punk rock sound” and image really became defined.

sex pistols poster

A Defining Moment in Punk Rock History: The Arrival of The Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols were from Britain – and immediately influenced dozens of other bands to spring up immediately after their debut. This was the official first wave of U.K. punk rock.

And not long after the Sex Pistols arrived, punk rock started to emerge in the United States. By the mid 1980s punk rock seemed to lose a bit of momentum, as new wave and alternative rock began emerging.

There were a few bands that carried punk along through this quelling in the mid and late 1980s. The Pixies were one, Operation Ivy was another.

But just as the Sex Pistols exploded out of nowhere in 1976, in 1991 Nirvana repeated the same process.

You see there is a really important set of events that I believe occur before any major cultural explosion. I would venture to say that in the mid 1970s, music was starting to get really soft. You had “soft rock” from bands like Fleetwood Mac and America, and you also had disco becoming popular.

Punk rock was a great contrast to those two dominant genres of music at the time. If you’re a 14 year boy, and all you hear on the radio is disco and soft rock, and then out of nowhere comes something with the energy and in your face-ness of punk rock, you can easily build a large audience!

The same thing happened in the early 1990s. MTV and the top-40 machine were ramming musical groups like MC Hammer, New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson and Paula Abdul down our throats. Constantly repeating them on televisions and well as radio.

And out of nowhere, Nirvana debuts (right at the end of summer, which is a very interesting time to debut by the way) and all of a sudden punk rock is in full force again. Of course, the called Nirvana “grunge” music, but it was effectively punk rock.

So it’s these moments in history where musical culture starts to get a little slow, a little boring and a little commercialized, that gives punk rock a launch pad to blast onto the scene.

I call the early 1990s the second wave of punk rock (Nirvana, The Pixies, Bad Religion, Pennywise, Green Day) which lasted throughout the decade.

I probably haven’t been paying close attention, but it seems that punk has been on a consistent course since the 1990s. A few new punk bands emerge here and there, and about the same amount of kids get into it year after year. It doesn’t seem like a huge punk resurgence has happened in the while though…

Significant U.S. Punk Rock Bands from the 1970s / 1980s

Bad Brains

Bad Brains

dead kennedys

Dead Kennedys

Black Flag

Black Flag

The Ramones

The Ramones

Significant British Punk Rock Bands from the 1970s / 1980s



joy division

Joy Division

The Clash

The Clash



Here’s a huge list of punk rock playlists you can listen to (and watch): http://toobbox.com/genre/punk-rock

What does it mean to be “Punk Rock”

Occasionally, you’ll hear someone say: “wow – that’s punk rock!”.

I always interpreted that to mean either:

  • Raw
  • Awesome
  • They just didn’t give a F*&!
  • They did something awesome, and they just took charge and did it by themselves; didn’t follow any rules

There is definitely, a “do-it-yourself” mentality that is synonymous with punk. This kind of ties into the whole “anarchy” thing which I’ll get into later.

Being punk rock usually means “without authority”, not following rules, and being an individual. So as you can see, “do-it-yourself” relates pretty easily here.

This is further illustrated by a lot of the early Punk Rock show flyers:

old punk rock flyer

The entire style behind flyers like these, was to show that these shows weren’t being promoted by a large record company or some super professional promotion team. They serve as a community notice for anyone who’s interested in an inexpensive good time!

What’s All This Business About Anarchy?

anarchy symbol

Chances are you’ve heard the song “Anarchy in the U.K.” or you’ve seen the black and red anarchy symbol floating around other “punk” related material.

Well punk rock and anarchism share a lot in common. If I had to guess, it probably all began with the Sex Pistols song “Anarchy in the U.K.” I’m fairly certain that the punk rock and anarchy movement in Britain didn’t really associate before this point. I could be wrong…

Since being punk rock is usually associated with doing it yourself, and not following rules. Well, that’s exactly what the Anarchist movement is all about. It’s about no government.

Anarchists believe that individuals are capable of governing themselves without a governmental body to do it for them. The reason why they are so opposed to governments is because:

  • Governments are notoriously corrupt
  • Governments are notoriously abusive
  • Governments are notoriously oppressive
  • Governments tend to behoove the rich over the poor
  • Governments create black markets
  • Governments can be deadly
  • Governments make war
  • Governments tax

“But wait a second – don’t governments create order?”

That’s subject to debate. The question is “If there were no governments, would we just go crazy and go around killing each other? Are governments really preventing us from doing that now?”

Anarchism is a really interesting subject to mull over. Perhaps in the future we’ll do a more in depth article.

How to Play Punk Rock

Most punk bands consist of 4 members:

  1. A lead singer
  2. A lead guitarist
  3. A bass player (bassist)
  4. A drummer

Punk Guitar: Is generally pretty easy. Most punk songs are simple 4 chord (power chord) progressions. A power chord is a simple chord where you play the root note, and you bar down the two strings underneath the root note, while holding down the second and third string one step up.

Here’s an image of a power chord:

Power Chord

Here's a power chord!

Punk songs usually consist of sliding this power chord position up and down the fret board, while strumming fast (usually 4 strums per power chord) – and of course all the while using a heavily distorted amplifier.

Punk Bass – can be as complex as the bassist wants it to be. But usually you can get away with playing the same root notes as the lead guitarist. As the lead guitarist plays 4 strums per chord, the bassist will pluck 4 root notes.

Punk Drumming – This may be the most difficult part of playing punk rock. Since punk songs are played at a high tempo, the drummer usually must play fast. Most punk beats simply consist of a “kick snare kick snare” beat.

How to “Look” Punk Rock

Now, this is something that borders on the ridiculous. Trying to look punk rock is another oxymoron. Being punk rock is all about not following, being an individual, and thinking for yourself.

But there is a “punk” look. And I’ll never give anyone crap for dressing punk. People can dress anyway they want. If you wake up one morning and feel like dressing up in leather jackets and spiking a mohawk – go for it!

Mohawk Hairstyle

The Infamous Mohawk Hairstyle

punk rock jacket

A leather punk rock style jacket

Dr. Martens Steel Toed Boots

punk rock jean jacket

A more affordable alternative to leather...

punk rock patches

Punk Rock Band Patches

Punk Rock Pins

And of course....punk rock pins

this is punk rock

But then again...this guy is punk rock as anyone else...

Selling Out

Ah yes – the most controversial topic in punk.

Selling out is whenever you throw away your punk rock ethics for money. This can happen when your punk rock band signs with a major record label and they decide to kick out your drummer because he doesn’t have the “right look”.

Or if you’ve been punk rock your entire life, go to college, and then take an unethical job for a nice cushy salary.

Or you run a punk rock style business, but you decide to go corporate and make all your decisions based on the bottom line.

Your friends, fans and followers will notice when you sell out and call you on it.

Besides, what good is money when you’re dead?

Listen to Today’s Punk Rock Video Playlist:

We made a LONG playlist of some of the greatest punk songs ever. You can check it out here: http://toobbox.com/playlist/best-punk-rock-songs-of-all-time

About the Author: Sean Traba is the Co-Founder of toobbox.com. Feel free to chat with him on Twitter at @toobbox.com.

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