math rock


Unconventional Rhythms and Jarring Guitars

A Comprehensive Guide For The Uninitiated

With the plethora of genres, sub-genres and niches being thrown about by fans, music industry types and bands themselves, it can sometimes get a bit confusing staying on top of the new flavour of the month. Math rock, a derivative of alternative rock, progressive rock and post-hardcore music, has been around for quite some time, is ever-evolving and it doesn’t seem like it’s going disappear from the music radar any time soon.

But what is this mathematical rock music? Well, read on, and I’ll tell yer!

What Is Math Rock?

Math rock is just that – a sub-genre of alternative rock music that sounds quite mathematical. The interplay between instruments creates an algebraic, pythagorean mess of sound that can be hard to unravel – to the untrained ear. Band members rarely accentuate the parts of their colleagues, preferring to create instead a dynamic web of music that is constantly moving and evolving.

Why Is It Called Math Rock?

The term math-rock refers to the unconventional time signatures and rhythmic patterns used by bands to create often jarring, syncopated, but also very danceable music. Meter such as 5/4, 6/8, 7/4 and many others have been used by bands often in combination with alternating time signatures at the same time. The drummer may be playing a 4/4 beat while the rest of the band overlay it with 6/8 to cause the listener to feel like something is “wrong” while everything fits perfectly.

Listening to math rock for the first time can sometimes feel like attending a university math lecture for the first time. You can see the blackboard, but the numbers and symbols don’t make any sense! Math rock can be an acquired taste, but once you get it, you feel it and it never let’s you go!

Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos. CC Photo by Mancake

What Are The Main Elements Of Math-Rock?

1. Odd Time Signatures and Mixed Meter

Math rock’s absolute identifier is the use of odd time signatures and mixed meter. Instruments often oppose each other rhythmically creating syncopation and a jarring feel. The listener is often torn between the drums, guitars and bass, as each instrument is playing a different rhythm or time signature. The focus is on the collective and the interplay between each part.

2. Modern Math Rock is often (but not always) Instrumental

There are many exceptions to this rule, but modern math-rock bands tend to be purely instrumental. Each instrument and band member is given equal space to perform, without the prominence of a lead singer, lead guitarist or songwriter. A math-rock band is the sum of it’s parts (pun intended).

This has by no means always been the case – the forerunners of the genre featured vocals as a prominent part of their music.

Instrumental math rock bands focus more on sound textures and rhythms than melodies and hooks. The mechanical sound is achieved by playing each instrument rhythmically rather than harmonically. The use of dissonance is widespread, more so than in any other genre of rock music.

3. Organic, Minimalist Music Production

To go with the humble, lowbrow vibe, the production of math rock is traditionally minimalist and organic. Guitars sound like guitars, drums are clean and sound like acoustic kits. Math rock records are often recorded live, giving them an in-your-face, organic sound.

There are exceptions to this rule, with many bands of the past 20 years using effects such as synthesizer pedals to mask the sounds of their instruments and create new textures. Bands such as Battles have perfected this art, turning guitars and vocals into completely foreign-sounding mechanical instruments.

4. Progressive Song Structures

Just like the related genres progressive rock and post rock, math rock uses song structures that deviate from the norm of intro, verse, chorus, etc. The tracks are generally of a progressive nature, meandering from one part to another, building up intensity and then backing off again, often with surprising breaks and interludes.

There is no one true song style in the math rock genre, each band creatively builds whatever soundscape, groove or cacophony they need, disregarding all norms and conventions. Some bands stick to a more conventional style, yet blend in their own rhythmic and instrumental elements. It is fair to say most math rock bands create dynamic and ever-evolving songs, always keeping their listeners on their toes.

A Brief History of Math Rock

Math rock can be traced quite easily back to groups of musicians and bands in a few key regions of the USA. These were melting pots for angular guitar music in which similar bands influenced each other and formed the genre.

Chicago, Steve Albini and the Electrical Audio Recording Studio

It is not necessarily the city of Chicago itself that formed the focal point of the alternative rock and punk scene of the 1990s, but the fact that Steve Albini lived and worked there. His Electrical Audio recording studio provided the home base for many a band looking to produce raw and in-your-face records. Albini contributed to the emergence of the math rock scene like no other with his unique production style, as well as with his own music in Big Black and Shellac.

Steve Reich

It is a coincidence that another Steve is responsible for influencing the formation of a genre. Many members of the math rock scene point directly to Steve Reich as an inspiration – traces of his repetitive, hypnotic, pentatonic noodling can be found time and time again on records with alternative guitar music as the main focus.

Steve Albini on stage with Shellac. Photo by Cássio Abreu. CC


The city of Louisville played a similar lead role in the emergence of math rock, with bands like Slint, whose 1991 LP Spiderland is seen by many as a milestone for math and post rock. Rodan‘s 1994 album Rusty merges punk and hardcore with sweet & sour melodic interludes, featuring guitar harmonics, which have since become a kind of unofficial trademark of the genre. Gastr del Sol‘s Camoufleur was also influential for modern bands like Toe with their eclectic mix of energetic drumming, acoustic guitar, strings and ethnic music.

Seattle, San Diego and Sacramento

Often acclaimed as the home of grunge, Seattle was also a focal point of math rock on the west coast with bands such as Unwound who perfected the mix of dissonant guitar with driving drumming and prominent bass riffing. Minus the bear influenced and continues to influence a whole host of guitarists taking the tapping technique from metal virtuosos and applying it to clean guitar.

Hella‘s Spencer Seim. Photo: Dino Dumandan – CC

San Diego’s Drive Like Jehu took angular, dissonant guitar music to the next level with their 1994 album Yank Crime. The influence of Sacramento’s Hella can be heard to this day, their hypercharged, jazz-infused riffing and drumming ever-present in the music of modern math rock bands. Their neighbours Tera Melos take it a step further, with guitarist Nick Reinhart adding an infinite number of pedals to the mix, pushing himself into the limelight as the guitar effects godfather.

The Best Math Rock Bands

The following is a non-exhaustive list of the finest math rock artists. It is also just a starting point for those new to the genre. There maybe several or many of your favourites missing – not to worry, drop us a line and we’ll add them to the list.

Slint – jangly, dissonant guitar music with spoken word vocals. Their album Spiderland was the big bang for math rock and post rock.

Shellac – Minimalistic rock trio of producer Steve Albini with angular guitars, repetitive rhythms and asymmetric time signatures.

Rodan – One of the many bridges between punk and post-hardcore music and the math rock genre, with in-your-face vocals, ear-splitting guitars and animalistic drumming.

Don Caballero – Belonging to the Godfathers of post and math rock alongside Shellac and Slint, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were continually acclaimed by critics and listeners despite the multitude of line-up changes over the years. Energetic “Octopus-Style” drumming by Che, clean and mechanical guitars and ever-changing rhythmic meter.

Gastr del Sol – Eclectic mix of energetic drumming, acoustic guitar, strings. Ethnic music plays a dominant role, with traditional rhythms and melodic patterns of regional folk music from around the world.

Hella – Jazz-infused rhythms, intricate and complex guitar work obviously influencing a number of modern bands such as ASIWYFA.

Drive Like Jehu – angular, dissonant guitars and energetic drumming.

Tera Melos – Noisy, chaotic three piece with virtuoso guitarist and effect pedal wizard Nick Reinhart on vocals.

CHON – Virtuoso guitars underscored by almost free-jazz drumming, energetic, innovative. You cannot help to dissolve in a happy, dream-like state while jolting body parts in every direction. It is said the Chon gigs are comparable to dropping e.

TTNG – Squeaky clean counterpointed guitars and clockwork drumming of the band formerly known as This Town Needs Guns has pushed the Manchester trio to the forefront of the modern math rock movement. This band is one big exception to the unwritten law of “no vocals” in post and math-rock music. Henry Tremain’s melodic lead vocals lead the music and form the focal point but it is the blend of the syncopated rhythms between guitar, baritone guitar and drums that makes this band so exciting.

Battles – Evolved out of Don Caballero, Helmet and Tomahawk to form one of the most formidable lineups in the history of alternative rock music. Their 2007 album Mirrored was a benchmark for mechanical, melodious, mathematical rock music. Since the departure of keyboarder and vocalist Tyondai Braxton, they have never quite achieved the same level of brilliance, yet are still very much on top of their game.

Standards – The new poster boy for impossible guitar riffs. This instrumental 2-piece had a large following before even releasing an album, due to the high engagement on social media. Lightly overdriven guitar riffing, tapping and sliding along the fretboard with a solid rhythmic foundation on the drums.

Rumah Sakit – A now defunct tour-de-force of sonic, mathic noise. Rumah Sakit, which means hospital in indonesian, mixed jazz with avant garde, dissonant guitars, dropping drumsticks onto the studio floor, and built songs slowly before slamming them into your eardrums unexpectedly. Oh, and be careful with that fax machine!

And So I Watch You From Afar – The energy of this Belfast four-piece (a.k.a. ASIWYFA) is phenomenal. Audible influences include raucous punk and emo styles with whoa-ohs and near-impossible guitar riffs. Perfectionists in effects pedal tap-dancing.

Alarmist – in a nutshell, math rock with synths. The Irish four-piece blend lush, effect-laden guitars with dreamy synth pop melodies and jazzy drumming. Their music is very upbeat and energetic and much less abrasive than other bands who have emerged from the post-hardcore spectrum.

Mutiny On The Bounty – Mechanical, futuristic, art-rock from Luxembourg. They love their Pog pedals on their guitars and like Alramist, do not shy away from the good old synth to mix it up a little. Delay, reverb and other effects play a prominent role in their instrumental music.

Japanese Math Rock Bands

Toe – Emotionally charged, melodic, japanese math rock band with upbeat, energetic, jazz-infused drumming. Toe bring a vulnerability to math rock and a rare element in the form of a female vocalist.

Ruins – Listening to the remastered compilation 1986-1992 transports you immediately to a dimly lit dive bar with a band squeezed up on the stage in the far corner hammering out a tour-de-force on drums, bass and guitar, the vocalist howling into the overdriven PA. Ruins sound like they would ruin everything they come into contact with – mics, instruments, gear, studios, everything.

Downy – One of the more atmospheric bands on this list, Downy’s music is often deep, lush and laden with noise. The guitars are thick and fuzzy, the synths bring in an electronic element often missed in the genre, and the band provide a much more laid back and ponderous vibe.

Tricot – Often closer to post punk than math rock, Tricot bring an element of pop to the mix. The female lead vocals are so on point, they give the arrangements a jazzy vibe, despite the accessibility of the pop melodies. The drums are heavily infused with a drum’n’bass vibe, adding to the eclectic, genre-bending mix.

Jyocho – Jyocho have the ability to mix cinematic, soundtrack-esque vocals with jazzy, syncopated drums, while the guitars are noodling away on either side of the stereo image, without anything seeming out of place. It’s very clean cut and beautiful, but the guitars and drums really do well to keep the arrangements interesting and enigmatic.

Math Rock Instruments


Guitars are not to be missed in the math-rock genre, and you will be hard pressed to find a band without at least one six-string. Guitarists often use non-standard tuning to be able to play new and unconventional chords and harmonies by using open strings.

Typical Math Rock Guitars

Typical guitars for math-rock include the Fender Telecaster, known for it’s angular, jangly tone. Other favourites are the Ibanez RG or S series guitars. The slender fretboards are useful for fast riffing and licks, which is why you see it often in metal and hardcore lineups.

Best Amp For Math Rock

Math rock calls for clean, overdriven, distorted and effect-laden guitars. It all depends on exactly what flavour you are trying to achieve when selecting the right amp for the job.

Amps that can provide those, jarring tones and take pedals well could be found amongst the Fender Twin or Deluxe Reverb, a Vox AC15 or AC30, an Orange TH100 or a Supro 1970RK Keely.

Effects Pedals

Effects pedals play a huge part in modern math rock music. Pedals that turn a guitar into an organ or synth are almost a staple part of a guitarists rig. Some guitarists focus solely on producing weird textures and rhythms with the help of delay, reverb and looping effects.

A truly unique math rock guitarist move is the tap-dance, performed when switching multiple pedals within milliseconds to bring in a cascade of different effects for the next part of a track. Perfectionists in this discipline are probably And So I Watch You From Afar – every section of their live set is accentuated with the old switcheroo on the pedalboard!


Drums are next to guitars the main focus of math rock music. Drummers of the genre are often very dynamic, tight and experimental. They form the core of the band, constantly pinging off the other instruments and keeping the groove flowing.

Battles drummer John Stanier is the perfect example of a metronomic math rock drummer, who keeps the band in check even when tasked with keeping in time to click and playback with the myriad of loops and effects live on stage.

John Stanier’s trademark crash cymbal position. Photo: Liz Bustamante, CC


Bass players are often the butt of musician jokes, yet the quality of a math rock bassist will make or break a group. They are not just responsible for the foundational low end, but often take the role of rhythmic partner of the drummer, accenting and juxtaposing the off-kilter rhythms while harmonically supporting the guitars and other instrumentation.


Have become ever more prominent in math-rock music, deepening the sound from the early 90s barrage of guitars. From soft pad textures to sawtooth waves and dancey, stabbing leads, innovative math rock bands such as Alarmist, Mutiny On The Bounty and Battles put keyboards to good use, widening the spectrum of the genre.


FAQ: Are Math rock and Midwest emo the same?

Not necessarily. The key to math rock is the use of unconventional time signatures and mixed meter. Midwest emo does portray several key elements such as raw and organic guitar work, dissonant and laid back song styles, so bands with these traits could be math rock, but if there is no “mathematical” rhythm, it doesn’t make sense to classify it as math.

FAQ: Is American Football A Math Rock Band?

This is debatable. As stated above, the math element must be present. American Football are definitely within the spectrum of post rock or post hardcore music, but due to the absence of intricate rhythmic complexity, it is probably safer to label them as part of one of these genres instead. But to tell you the truth, it’s not far off. Call them what you want!

FAQ: Is Tool Math Rock?

Tool is definitely a rhythmically-charged band. Odd time signatures are a stalwart in their music and the intricate, juxtaposed interplay between guitar and bass is something found often in math rock music. It is probably safer to place them within the progressive rock spectrum, but bordering closely on the overlap to math rock.


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