6 Rock Ballads That Tug at the Heartstrings

When a heartfelt ballad is on the setlist, that’s when the lighters—or phones—come out, the mosh pit calms down and the crowd starts slowly swaying back and forth. Even rock stars have a soft side and below are six songs to prove it.

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1. “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica

Written by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich

Heavy metal bands don’t typically start their songs with a gentle guitar intro featuring delicate fingerpicking. Metallica is different and has no regrets about their ballad. “Nothing Else Matters” is a staple during live performances and audiences never fail to sing along at the top of their lungs. The track from Metallica’s fifth self-titled album spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 34. In Europe it was even more successful, placing in the Top 10 in Denmark, Poland, The Netherlands, Germany, and other countries.

The song contrasts quiet moments and a slow tempo with a heavy metal attitude. Lead singer James Hetfield’s vocals traverse a wide range of emotions and while distorted guitar riffs stay in the background for most of the song, the track does feature a face-melting solo towards the end.

Hetfield told The Village Voice that the band never expected the song to be popular. “It was a song for myself in my room on tour when I was bumming out about being away from home,” said Hetfield. For the lead singer, it felt like a big risk to write honestly about his feelings. He struggled with “taking a gamble that someone’s either going to step on your heart with spikes on or they’re going to put their heart right next to it.”

Never cared for what they say
Never cared for games they play
Never cared for what they do
Never cared for what they know
And I know, yeah, yeah
So close, no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart
Forever trusting who we are
No, nothing else matters

2. “With Or Without You” by U2

Written by Adam Clayton, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr, The Edge

“With Or Without You” is about the tortured feeling of being in love and simultaneously wanting to end a relationship. It’s a reflection of the tension lead singer Bono was feeling at the time. “I had some difficult emotional stuff going on,” he said in an interview with Mojo magazine. “I didn’t understand at that point the freedom that I would receive from a committed relationship. I was feeling guilty if I was talking to somebody in their record company who was really attractive.”

The band was already successful in their home country of Ireland, when “With Or Without You” was released. The ballad pushed their fame across the Atlantic and the song became their first hit in the US. Apart from this song, U2 only had one other No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Both songs climbed to the top of the charts in 1987 and are from the band’s fifth album, The Joshua Tree.

My hands are tied
My body bruised, she’s got me with
Nothing to win and
Nothing left to lose
And you give yourself away
And you give yourself away
And you give
And you give
And you give yourself away

3. “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses

Written by Duff McKagan, Jeffrey Isbell, Saul Hudson, W. Axl Rose

This emotional roller coaster of a song is over eight minutes long and as the story goes it was originally longer and had to be edited to bring down the run time. It features not one, but two guitar solos by Slash. The instrumentation goes way beyond a simple rock band setup. The arrangement features strings and other orchestra instruments. Axl Rose typically performs the song sitting at a grand piano in the middle of the stage.

In the lyrics, Rose sings from the perspective of someone who confesses their undying love for their sweetheart even though the relationship isn’t always easy. As was the case with many songs released in the ’90s, the release of “November Rain” as a single in 1992 was accompanied by an epic music video. The production cost exceeded a million dollars.

In 2023, Axl Rose performed a solo version of the song at Lisa Marie Presley’s memorial service. The two were friends and she had told him that she would want him to play the song at her funeral.

Sometimes I need some time on my own
Sometimes I need some time all alone
Ooh, everybody needs some time on their own
Ooh, don’t you know you need some time all alone
And when your fears subside
And shadows still remain, oh yeah
I know that you can love me when there’s no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way
‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain

4. “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

Written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

“Stairway To Heaven” was not released as a single and started life as a sort of sleeper hit on the band’s fourth album, Zeppelin IV, which was released in 1971. The song’s arrangement slowly gets bigger and bolder throughout the track. It starts out with the sounds of an acoustic guitar and recorders and culminates in screaming vocals and a guitar solo. While radio stations loved the song despite its length, some people spread rumors that it contained satanic messages when played backward. 

Jimmy Page told the BBC that the goal of the composition was to “keep unfolding to more layers.” He explained: “The intensity would accelerate as it went through on every emotional level, every musical level and so it just keeps opening up.” As far as the lyrics go, Robert Plant has shied away from explaining them in detail. When asked why the song was so popular, he told Songfacts it could be its “abstraction,” adding, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics.”

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to Heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh ooh and she’s buying a stairway to Heaven

5. “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner

Written by Mick Jones

“I Want To Know What Love Is” has quite a unique arrangement. It combines a rock band with a gospel choir, the New Jersey Mass Choir. People loved it and so the first single from Foreigner’s fifth album, Agent Provocateur, became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time, Mick Jones was often having trouble writing songs because his life had become so busy, he recalls in an interview with Classic Rock magazine. During that time, he would often sit at the keyboard at night to compose.

“The song was an expression of my tempestuous private life over the three years before,” Jones said. “I’d been through a divorce, and met someone else who I was going to marry.” The band had been fighting and Jones moved back to England from New York. “It was an emotional time that stirred up a lot of things.”

In my life, there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far to change this lonely life
I wanna know what love is, I want you to show me
I wanna feel what love is, I know you can show me

6. “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” by Aerosmith

Written by Diane Warren

When it was released as part of the soundtrack for the movie Armageddon, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” became about the world ending. Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, stars in the 1998 science fiction film. Her character is on a space mission as an asteroid is heading toward planet Earth.

The origin story of the song is less dramatic. Songwriter Diane Warren wrote a love song and thought it would be a great track for “someone like Celine Dion,” she said in an interview with ShortList. She had heard Barbara Streisand’s husband say how he misses his wife at night once they go to sleep. The title was born, the lyrics followed and the songwriter imagined a woman singing it. When she handed the song to Aerosmith, “it became a different thing,” said Warren. “It’s so much cooler to hear someone like Steven Tyler—this gruff, macho rock star, this amazing tough guy—for him to say that lyric.”

I could stay awake just to hear you breathing
Watch you smile while you are sleeping
While you’re far away and dreaming
I could spend my life in this sweet surrender
I could stay lost in this moment forever
Where a moment spent with you is a moment I treasure

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for P+ and MTV

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