How did heavy metal — or just metal, as it's colloquially called — become the term that identifies the outgrowth of rock music that's more powerful and aggressive, with distorted guitars, thunderous drumming and intense vocals?

We don't mean which artists were the first to play metal or coin the musical style itself, which is a whole separate origin story on its own. But how did the turn of phrase "metal" actually come to identify the music?

Much like the origins of the terms rock 'n' roll, jazz and even hip-hop, the genesis of "heavy metal" to describe heavy guitar music is like a tree with multiple roots. There are specific instances of "heavy metal" being used that we can point to definitely. (The earliest examples regarding music often have a negative connotation.) But there remains a haze of uncertainty that precludes flat-out saying that one particular instance is the true origin.

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Several have tried to nail it down, though — even scholars. Deena Weinstein, a professor of sociology at DePaul University, has been one of the leading researchers on this front. She wrote the book Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture. In her 2013 paper "Just So Stories: How Heavy Metal Got Its Name — A Cautionary Tale," she went through all the usual suspects of the term's origins before landing on one that appeared most likely.

Why Is Metal Music Called Metal?

What are those usual suspects? Well, to start, we have to consider that the term "heavy metal" already describes literal heavy metals. Metals with relatively high densities, such as gold, silver and copper, are all heavy metals. But how did the term get connected to music? Indeed, "Who named the genre called heavy metal?" Weinstein asks in her paper.

One usage of "heavy metal" comes in the early 1960s writings of Williams S. Burroughs — "Uranian Willy The Heavy Metal Kid" is introduced in Buroughs' Nova trilogy (1961-1964). However, it's not identifying music. Another possibility sometimes offered by listeners is Steppenwolf's 1968 hit "Born to be Wild," which uses the lyric "heavy metal thunder," albeit seemingly to describe a motorcycle.

Steppenwolf, "Born to be Wild"

The Etymology of Metal Music

"An etymological inquiry into the origin of the term 'heavy metal' to name a genre of rock music yields the surprising result that the conventional accounts of the term's origin are mistaken," Weinstein writes.

"Tracking down the actual origin, through research in the rock press and correspondence with participants in the naming, reveals the term, in part and as a whole, was in the cultural air of the times," she explains. "There were competing terms for the kind of music that came to be called 'heavy metal.' But none of them would have given the genre the same configuration and sensibility."

As far as rock journalism goes, writer Lester Bangs often gets attributed with bringing the first mention of heavy metal to a music magazine, and that indeed seems to be the case. However, fellow rock writer Mike "Metal Mike" Saunders (also the singer of the band Angry Samoans) started using it around the same time.

Saunders used the term "heavy metal" in a May 1971 Creem review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come — sometimes this is concluded as the first printed mention — but he had used it even earlier. In the issue of Rolling Stone from November 12, 1970, Saunders calls the band Humble Pie a "noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band."

Heavy metal
JovanaMilanko, iStock, Getty Images /

Bangs mentioned it even earlier. Reviewing The Guess Who's Canned Wheat in the February 7, 1970, issue of Rolling Stone, Bangs writes, "With a fine hit single, 'Undun,' behind them, they're quite refreshing in the wake of all the heavy metal robots of the year past."

It's worth noting that these early written examples describe the music as "heavy metal" to insult it. "Although Bangs and Saunders each borrowed the term heavy metal from very different sources," Weinstein writes, "both critics deployed it in a negative sense in the first reviews in which they used it."

Regardless, Bangs and others continued using the term, even though Bangs never seemed to enjoy heavy metal music. But the usage seeped into the journalism milieu, propagating from there. And with legitimate reason — there had to be some terminology to describe the style of music. Before that, some were just saying "hard rock" or even "downer rock" — a term also used in rock rags — to describe metal.

Weinstein also writes that "heavy metal" was simultaneously being used in places to describe things such as the political state of the world or as a reference to industry and machinery. So it stands to reason that, in the late '60s into the early '70s, "heavy metal" was employed to describe all manner of things considered weighty or significant.

Further, there are other rock journalism examples from around the same time as Bangs as Saunders. But, at least when looking back, those two seemed to have the most authority in the national music press. Other writers picked it up from there.

In Conclusion

Did you know all of these stories about how "heavy metal" came to describe heavy guitar music? Perhaps you know of another tale of how the term came to be. Because there are many.

With all that said, though, it seems the main reason that "heavy metal" came to describe this type of music is that the term was already floating around in countercultural dialogue at the same time that a new, heavier type of guitar-driven music was emerging. When joined together, the catch-all term for heavy metal music was born.

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Gallery Credit: Philip Trapp