The 50 best rock bands of all time

20. Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

(Image credit: Photoshot / Getty Images)

The face of popular music was set to change forever when, on November 27, 1942 in Seattle Washington, James Marshall Hendrix was born. When his father bought him his first acoustic guitar when he was 15, events were set in motion.

After a stint in the army – wherein he formed a band with future Band Of Gypsys man Billy Cox – Jimi Hendrix was honourably discharged and free to pursue his musical ambitions. 

Like all the great overnight sensations, Jimi Hendrix took years to get off the ground. His was a long road to fame: from the little boy who, in 1958, used his beat-up guitar to imitate TV cartoon sound effects, to the 1964 guitar-slinger who hired out his talents to Little Richard, The Isley Brothers and others.

By 1965, Hendrix found himself in New York City playing with Richard and Curtis Knight & The Squires. In July of that year, he would meet with The Animals’ Chas Chandler, and it would set the course of Jimi’s short, sharp rise to stardom and rock’n’roll immortality allowing the development of the outlandish psychedelic six-string shaman who flew into London in late 1966.

Within weeks of Hendrix being launched to the Big Smoke’s goggle-eyed media at The Bag O’Nails club on Friday November 25, 1966, virtually every major British blues guitarist found themselves rethinking their musical direction. Inevitably, the purists would continue to recycle the past and the unimaginative would slavishly emulate Hendrix, but a handful of inspired innovators would choose to fashion their own unique styles until, out of that seething maelstrom of creativity, heavy blues would be born.

The amount Hendrix achieved in his seven years as a performer – and the amount he's inspired since his death – is astounding. When he died on 18 September 1970, Hendrix had released only three studio albums, one live album and a hits collection – but he'd completely changed the course of rock history in the process. 

19. Yes

Yes performing at a Crystal Palace Garden Party event, Crystal Palace Bowl, London, 2nd September 1972

Yes at Crystal Palace Bowl, London, 2nd September 1972 (Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

If there's a group that defines the pros and cons of the whole progressive genre, it’s surely Yes. Their back catalogue includes astonishing peaks which are the equal of any music of its type.

The core of Yes was always Jon Anderson and Chris Squire: Anderson’s unmistakeable clear, high vocals and Squire’s trebly and innovatively boisterous bass guitar had been central to all line-ups of the group, until Anderson left in 2008. And now Squire has gone for good. 

The often underrated first line-up of Anderson, Squire, keyboardist Tony Kaye, drummer Bill Bruford and guitarist Peter Banks recorded some excellent music. But when Steve Howe replaced Banks and Wakeman replaced Kaye in quick succession it opened up new dimensions in the band’s sound. After Alan White replaced Bruford in 72, Yes had unbroken success for the rest of the decade.

Cracks appeared in late 79 as they attempted to come up with a follow-up to the botched Tormato album and Wakeman and Anderson quit and were replaced by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, who’d had hits as pop duo Buggles. That move astonished everyone After this configuration dissolved, Squire and White demoed material with Jimmy Page as XYZ before opting to form Cinema with South African born guitarist/multi instrumentalist Trevor Rabin, the line-up completed by original Yes keyboardist Kaye.

Near to completion of their album, it was felt that Anderson’s return would cap it off vocally and stimulate interest. The resulting 90125 became Yes’s biggest selling album ever.

In 1988, Anderson quit to form Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman And Howe. That foursome would be reabsorbed into Yes for an eight-piece reunion tour in 1991 before the 90125 line-up regrouped.

Rabin subsequently retired from Yes after after more than a decade at the helm, and Wakeman and Howe were re-enlisted. Wakeman left for a brief period, and Billy Sherwood, a guitarist and singer who Squire, White and Rabin had recorded with was brought into the now six-piece version of the band with Russian keyboardist Igor Khoroshev. Wakeman was back by 2002 for a renewed spell of touring.

Since then, the merry-go-round has continued. In 2008 Canadian singer Benoit David joined the band, having previously fronted a Yes tribute act called Close To The Edge, but he left in 2011 to be replaced by Jon Davison.

More recently Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman joined forces in ARW (and then Yes feat. ARW) to play Yes material live. A planned album never came to fruition, and the band disbanded without releasing any studio recordings. Since then, Anderson has made noises about working with Yes again

It's complicated. But their impact on progressive rock as we know it? Undeniable. 

18. Eagles

Eagles in 1972

(Image credit: Henry Diltz / Getty Images)

‘Song power’ was their catchphrase – they had it printed on T-shirts. And it was no idle boast. With iconic songs such as Hotel California, Take It Easy and Life In The Fast Lane, The Eagles rose in the early 70s to become one of the biggest rock acts of all time.

In a career that has so far lasted almost 50 years, the band have sold in excess of a whopping 120 million albums worldwide. Until 2009, when the death of Michael Jackson boosted sales of his Thriller, The Eagles had the biggest-selling album in American history with their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which alone has shifted more than 42 million copies.

Formed in Los Angeles in 1971, The Eagles would define the California rock sound of the 70s with a blend of rock and country music and a melodic sensibility attuned to pop radio. But none of the group’s founding members were native Californians – guitarist Glenn Frey was from Detroit, drummer Don Henley from Texas, guitarist Bernie Leadon from Minneapolis, and bassist Randy Meisner from Nebraska.

While the band members all shared vocals, it was Frey and Henley who were The Eagles’ creative powerhouse from the start. They were the principal songwriters and lead vocalists – on stage, Henley sang lead on many of their biggest hits from behind his drum kit – and it was the two of them who led The Eagles to huge success as other band members came and went.

It was in the second half of the 70s that the band reached their artistic and commercial peak, scoring five US No.1 singles and attaining global superstardom with 1976’s now classic Hotel California. But by 1980 a combination of drugs, money, ennui and ego led The Eagles to split, with Henley calling it “a horrible relief”.

Solo careers followed, Henley’s the most successful. And then, in 1994, the previously unthinkable happened: The Eagles reunited. The 1980 line-up – Frey, Henley, guitarists Joe Walsh and Don Felder and bassist Timothy B. Schmit – recorded the jokingly titled album Hell Freezes Over

Although Felder was fired in 2001 and Frey passed away in 2016, The Eagles have continued, and while they may not have recorded since the double Long Road Out Of Eden album in 2007, they remain a live act capable of filling stadiums. Close to half a century after taking flight in Los Angeles, The Eagles remain the ultimate testimony to ‘song power’. 

17. Aerosmith


(Image credit: Fin Costello / Getty Images)

Having formed in 1970, it took Aerosmith several years to shake of the ‘Stones copyists’ tag. Frontman Steven Tyler’s Jagger-esque gob didn’t help, but by 1975’s Toys In The Attic the band from Sunapee, New Hampshire, had carved their own niche and were sounding – and looking – like the band that stadium concerts had been invented for.

Given that in the 70s Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry snorted enough showbiz sherbet to keep the whole Colombian army marching, it’s a wonder they’re still here 40 years on. “It’s totally in the genes, my friend,” Perry said in 2002 by way of explanation. “We’re the worst possible advert for the dangers of drug abuse, because people look at us and say: ‘Okay, you had a great time and made it through, why shouldn’t we try it?’ But it doesn’t work like that.” 

Except for a three-year blip in the early 80s, Aerosmith – Tyler, Perry, guitarist Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer – have enjoyed a stable line-up. They’ve also undergone various reinventions.

When in 1986 producer Rick Rubin teamed them with hip-hop act Run-DMC for a reworking of Walk This Way, for example, it paved the way for Aerosmith’s comeback album, Permanent Vacation. Then, the ’Smith collaborated with Eminem. And with the acclaimed album of blues covers, Honkin’ On Bobo, the band retraced their roots.

Aerosmith are a cartoonish institution, and an inherently loveable tour de force who have greatly influenced Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi and scores of other hard rock bands. What they’ll do next is anybody’s guess. Nearly five decades into their stellar career, they remain a must-see live act. Tyler is one of the few 50-something rock vocalists whose range and power is still spectacular, and Perry remains the epitome of foot-on-the-monitor cool. 

“Occasionally I think: ‘Why us? How did we find each other?’” the guitarist has said. We’re just glad they did.

16. Kiss

Kiss in London, 1976

Kiss in London, 1976 (Image credit: Chris Walter / Getty Images)

Kiss were not the first rock’n’roll band with a strong visual identity: The Beatles had their mop-tops and dandyish suits. They were not the trailblazers in rock theatre: David Bowie and Alice Cooper went before them. But if there is one band that has understood and exploited the power of image in rock’n’roll, and the importance of putting on a show, it’s Kiss.

With painted faces, outlandish costumes and seven-inch stack-heeled boots, Kiss arrived in the 70s like superheroes straight out of a comic. They had superhero names: rhythm guitarist/lead vocalist Paul Stanley was The Starchild; bassist Gene Simmons, The Demon; lead guitarist Ace Frehley, The Space Ace; drummer Peter Criss, The Catman. What they presented in concert was the greatest show on Earth, with explosions, blood, fire-breathing, a rocket-launching guitar… At a Kiss concert, it was possible to believe a man could fly.

And at the heart of it was a great all-American rock band. While derided by serious music fans (and, of course, critics) as nothing more than a circus act, Kiss didn’t sell 100 million records by fluke. In the band’s vast catalogue are some of the greatest and most influential rock albums of all time.

In the 45 years since the release of the first Kiss album, there have been over 20 more studio albums, numerous live albums and compilations, and – most ambitious of all – four solo albums from the original band members, released on the same date: September 18, 1978.

Much of the classic Kiss material dates from the 70s, but in the following decade – without Frehley and Criss, and more importantly, without the make-up – Kiss rode the glam-metal wave they had done so much to inspire.

When Stanley and Simmons founded Kiss in New York City in early 1973, their primary influences were British, from The Beatles and the Stones through to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Slade. In turn, Kiss influenced a generation of rock musicians, especially in America. Their music was an inspiration for such diverse acts as Mötley Crüe, Anthrax, Pantera and Stone Temple Pilots.

Currently on a lengthy farewell tour – which they promise will be their last, but we've all heard that before – it's looking like July 17, 2021 in New York City will mark the end of the band for good. In terms of the legacy they'll leave behind, it's hard to find another quite like theirs. 

15. Van Halen

Van Halen in Japan in 1978

Van Halen in Japan in 1978 (Image credit: Shinko Music / Getty Images)

If ever a band epitomised the American Dream, it’s Van Halen.

Formed in Pasadena, California in 1974 by four teenage kids from families that had migrated across the Atlantic in the pursuit of a better life, Van Halen were loud, brash, shamelessly ambitious, larger-than-life, classically all-American. And so was their pioneering spirit.

Van Halen revolutionised hard rock music. When the band’s debut album was released in 1978, punk had unsettled rock’s old order; giants such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were on their last legs. But Van Halen had seen the future. “This is the 1980s!” declared singer David Lee Roth, boldly if prematurely. “And this is the new sound – it’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent.”

The key to that new sound was Eddie Van Halen, whose innovative two-handed ‘tapping’ technique made him the most influential guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. But Van Halen wasn’t a one-man show. Eddie’s brother Alex went at his drum kit like a prizefighter. Bassist Michael Anthony underpinned Eddie’s histrionics and provided killer backing vocals that had him rightly described as the band’s “secret weapon”. 

And then, of course, there was ‘Diamond Dave’, a wisecracking, split-jumping, super-toned blond Adonis, son of second-generation Jewish immigrants, and hard rock’s greatest showman. 

With Roth as cheerleader, Van Halen were America’s favourite party band, their high- octane turbo-pop songs the soundtrack to the ‘me’ decade. But when Roth left the band in 1985 amid mutual hostility, much of the magic went with him, even if his replacement, Sammy Hagar, was a better singer.

Nevertheless, the new-look ‘Van Hagar’ proved just as successful as the former model, while Roth’s solo career stalled in the 90s.

Hagar lasted 10 years. His successor, former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, was out after one album. Hagar returned for a chaotic reunion tour in 2004, and two years later came the announcement that Roth was rejoining the band with, shockingly, Eddie’s 15-year-old son Wolfgang replacing Michael Anthony.

As their placing here confirms, Van Halen’s place in the pantheon of rock acts is secure. With close to 60 million albums sold, they are high on the list of biggest-selling acts in the US. And at their best (with Roth), Van Halen ruled.

14. Def Leppard

Def Leppard

(Image credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

If there’s one rock band, above all others, that can truly be described as heroes, it’s Def Leppard

AC/DC overcame the death of singer Bon Scott to make the biggest selling rock album of all time in Back In Black. Metallica recovered from the loss of bassist Cliff Burton to become the most successful and influential metal band of the modern era. But Def Leppard have suffered two tragedies: the car crash on New Year’s Eve, 1984 in which drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm, and the alcohol-related death of guitarist Steve Clark on January 8, 1991. 

The fact that Def Leppard are still together now, still making great music and playing to audiences of thousands, is testimony to the extraordinary courage and resolve of this great British rock band. In 2019 alone, they were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in March, completed a European tour with headline slot at the UK’s Download festival, went on a summer tour of Canada and enjoyed a 12-date Las Vegas residency at Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.

Formed in Sheffield in 1977, Def Leppard were thinking big from the very start. Their name was inspired by Led Zeppelin, and the blueprint for their music was, as singer Joe Elliott has stated: “AC/DC meets Queen”. 

In 1979, Leppard rose to prominence alongside Iron Maiden in the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, although Leppard’s glam-inspired hard rock was radically different to most NWOBHM fare. “We wanted to be a pop rock band,” Elliott says. “We wanted to do what Bowie and Bolan did. We had more in common with Duran Duran than Iron Maiden!”

Leppard knew instinctively where their biggest audience was: they even wrote a song called Hello America. And when they teamed up with AC/DC producer Mutt Lange in the early ‘80s, they hit the jackpot. 

With Lange’s creative input earning him unofficial status as the band’s sixth member, Leppard conquered America with 1983’s Pyromania and 1987’s Hysteria, the first albums ever to sell seven million copies back to back. Hysteria even made Def Leppard a household name back in Britain, a proud achievement for a band that famously sported Union Jack t-shirts during their American tours.

13. The Who

The Who

(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Many of the basics of rock began with the Who: the emphatic clang of Pete Townshend’s guitar, the ardent histrionics of singer Roger Daltrey, the dexterity
of John Entwistle’s bass playing, the exuberant pummelling of madcap drummer Keith Moon. Also as pioneers of longer-form musical ideas from 1966, The Who massively expanded the lexicon of the music.

While Tommy remains The Who’s archetypal concept album, their greatest achievement, Who’s Next, stems from Townshend’s failure to top that idea. He sketched out Lifehouse – a project so complex it made the fractured narrative of Tommy seem as straightforward as their song I Can’t Explain. But finishing Lifehouse proved beyond the limits of his confidence – and the band’s patience (it was eventually completed in its intended form in 1999). But at the time, The Who were left with a batch of extraordinary songs which they captured in a studio with unprecedented clarity and energy – those songs became the Who's Next album.

From the mid-70s onwards, a disenchanted Townshend suffered an unfortunate tendency to publicly disparage his abilities and achievements and also those of the group. The Who initially survived his sour attitude, and even the death of Keith Moon in 1978, replacing this singular drummer with the able yet clearly unsuitable Kenney Jones (ex-Small Faces/Faces), but they eventually disbanded in 1982.

Subsequently there was little activity (the odd bad-tempered reunion such as at Live Aid) until 1989, when they regrouped as an expanded touring unit and worked intermittently. But it wasn’t until the late 90s, when they reconstituted themselves as a compact five-piece with long-term keyboardist John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick and Moon disciple Zak ‘Son Of Ringo’ Starkey on drums that they began to build the kind of momentum needed to overcome the mental hurdle of recording again.

Those aspirations suffered a massive setback with the death of John Entwistle in June 2002, immediately prior to The Who embarking on a major US tour. Still, they battled on. In 2006 they released Endless Wire, their first new album in 24 years, while their 12th studio album, Who, is imminent

12. Guns N' Roses

Guns N' Roses backstage at Fenders Ballroom on March 31, 1986 in Long Beach, California

Guns N' Roses backstage at Fenders Ballroom on March 31, 1986 in Long Beach, California (Image credit: Marc S Canter / Getty Images)

Guns N' Roses were once referred to as ‘The Most Dangerous Band In The World’. Following a career that's spanned over three decades, there isn’t a rock or metal band on the planet that hasn’t been affected by the Hollywood hard rock pioneers. 

They were built on chaos. In late 1982, a 20-year-old kid from the hick city of Indiana named Bill Bailey arrived in Los Angeles in search of fame, fortune or anything in-between. One of the first people he met in Los Angeles was another Indiana transplant, an old schoolfriend and budding guitarist named Jeff Isbell. Within a few months, both had renamed themselves: Bill Bailey became Axl Rose; Jeff Isbell became Izzy Stradlin.

They may have had fake names, but Guns N’ Roses were all too real. They waltzed with the Devil down Sunset Strip, danced with Mr Brownstone in long-vanished clubs, and rose above Hollywood on a pillar of flame that would go on to engulf the world. 

They were – and still are – the great leveller; a seminal force in rock and metal’s evolution over the past three decades. Ask any musician from any band in any genre, and they’ll pretty much all tell you how important Guns N’ Roses are to them. In terms of music, in terms of attitude, in terms of lifestyle. Thirty years on, the impact of their turbulent inception is being felt as keenly as ever.

Guns N’ Roses didn’t invent rock’n’roll or carnage, but they did perfect it. At their cliché-defying best – that is, at any point between 1985, when they formed, and 1991, when they got so big and bloated you could see them from space – they truly were the most dangerous band in the world. “We were a train wreck,” said original drummer Steven Adler. “But you couldn’t take your eyes off us.”

Guns N’ Roses still exist, of course, though in radically different form. It's been 11 years (and counting) since the wildly divisive Chinese Democracy, though the band are still an active touring concern, and continue to pack out arenas all over the globe. 

11. Deep Purple

Deep Purple

The MK III Deep Purple lineup with David Coverdale (Image credit: Anwar Hussein / Getty Images)

The story of Deep Purple is truly one of rock’s great soap operas. (No wonder they decided to put Fairy Liquid bubbles on the cover of 1973 album Who Do We Think We Are.) 

The band’s roots can be traced back to ’68 (some say ’67) when Searchers drummer Chris Curtis contacted London businessman Tony Edwards to pitch the idea of creating a British rock supergroup. Curtis had the foresight, but he also had a penchant for LSD and unpredictable behaviour – as evinced by his decision in ’69 to quit the music business and join the Inland Revenue. (Boy, were people’s tax returns fucked up that year.)

Still, Edwards took up the baton. In cahoots with partner John Coletta, and along with a hot young keyboard player called Jon Lord, he began recruiting musicians to realise Curtis’ somewhat frazzled vision. Briefly called Roundabout (a remnant of Curtis’ plan to form a band around a small core of players, who would be joined by a revolving guest-cast who’d jump on and off a musical ‘roundabout’), Deep Purple debuted in ’68 with their Shades Of… album. 

Fearsome tracks such as Mandrake Root and the cover of Hush promised much, but something was amiss; in truth, they couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be Iron Butterfly or the Moody Blues, plus singer Rod Evans’ style was grounded in the hip-swinging 60s.

The arrival in ’69 of frontman Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover (replacing Nick Simper) improved things beyond belief. Thus the band’s classic Mk II line-up was born, the new pair joining Lord, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and drummer Ian Paice in a match made in heaven… and, later, hell. The Purps have always thrived on musical tension, but internal aggravation would eventually rip them asunder. Blackmore and Lord were at loggerheads initially; then the Man In Black turned his flinty-eyed attention to Gillan. Still, that didn’t prevent Mk II reuniting not once, but twice.

All that festering resentment seems a long time ago now, with the current DP line-up – Gillan, Glover, Paice, guitarist Steve Morse and keyboard player Don Airey – having enjoyed many years of stability. 

They’ve survived an ill-fated ‘funky period’ spearheaded by onetime bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes. They’ve reeled from the deaths of US guitarist Tommy Bolin, who some claim was badly suited (well, he did wear kaftans), and Jon Lord. They’ve resisted the clamouring from a small but vociferous hard-core of fans to get Blackmore back in for one final fandango. (As has Ritchie himself, to be fair.)

Deep Purple – specifically Blackmore, Lord, Paice, Gillan, Glover, David Coverdale, Evans and Hughes – were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, and are continuing world tour dates into 2020.

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