Gothic rock takes the guitar and synthesizer sounds of post-punk and uses them to construct "foreboding, sorrowful, often epic soundscapes". According to music journalist Simon Reynolds, standard musical fixtures of the genre include "scything guitar patterns, high-pitched basslines that often usurped the melodic role; [and] beats that were either hypnotically dirgelike or 'tribal'". Reynolds described the vocal style as consisting of "deep, droning alloys of Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen". Many goth bands use drum machines that do not stress the back beat in the rhythm. Siouxsie and the Banshees tended to play the flanging guitar effect, producing a brittle, cold, and harsh sound that contrasted with their psychedelic rock predecessors.
Gothic rock typically deals with dark themes addressed through lyrics and the music atmosphere. The poetic sensibilities of the genre led gothic rock lyrics to exhibit literary romanticism, morbidity, religious symbolism, and/or supernatural mysticism. Musicians who initially shaped the aesthetics and musical conventions of gothic rock include The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and The Sex Pistols. Nico's 1969 album, The Marble Index, was also particularly influential. Gothic rock creates a dark atmosphere by drawing influence from the drones used by protopunk group The Velvet Underground, and many goth singers are influenced by the "deep and dramatic" vocal timbre of David Bowie, albeit singing at even lower pitches. J.G. Ballard was a strong lyrical influence for many of the early Gothic rock groups; The Birthday Party drew on Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.