10 Best California Rock Bands of All Time

Updated on August 6, 2017

California rock bands are certainly among the greatest in the world

Rock bands from the United Kingdom - The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, et al. - often top the lists of the greatest rock bands in history, but rock bands from California should do just as well. If you don’t think that’s true, then check out the following compilation and maybe you’ll change your tune.

Please keep in mind that all of these fabulous bands started their recording careers in California, whose two primary spawning grounds for rock and roll have been the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Therefore, it makes great sense that so much incredibly good music has come from this wondrous region - this California, often called the Land of Opportunity or the Golden State.

So, please give this list a go!

10. The Grateful Dead

The San Francisco Bay Area of the middle 1960s beget numerous great rock bands, particularly The Grateful Dead, whose eclectic, folk/acid rock sound heralded a counterculture movement that continues to this day. Their first album was among many classics to come. It included the 10-minute jam titled “Viola Lee Blues.” Such long songs were becoming the rage. Of course, the Grateful Dead became famous for such extemporaneous marathons. Interestingly, the Grateful Dead created a generation of followers known as the Deadheads, who trailed the group as they toured around the country. Incidentally, the band’s only Top 10 single was “Touch of Grey,” released in 1987. Unfortunately, this itinerant lifestyle for the Deadheads ended with the passing of lead guitarist/singer Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia in 1995. However, the Grateful Dead continues in some fashion to this day. Oh, yes, The Dead will always be with us!

The Grateful Dead

9. Guns N’ Roses

Guns N’ Roses formed in Los Angeles in 1985, and from the get-go their energizing hard rock sound kicked some serious tail. In fact, Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite for Destruction (you gotta love that title) quickly went to number one on the Billboard 200, spurred onward by the hit single “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” This album, selling 28 million copies around the world, became the best-selling debut record of all time in the U.S. The best known members of the band, singer Axl Rose and lead guitarist Slash, led the band through their heyday in the late 1980s to early 1990s, the group eventually garnering the nickname “The World’s Most Dangerous Band.” Regarding names, Guns N’ Roses may be the greatest name for a rock band ever!

Guns N' Roses

8. Green Day

Green Day is a punk revival band that emerged from Berkeley in 1987. Beginning with members Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and drummer John Kiffmeyer (replaced by Tré Cool in 1990) the band struck pay dirt in 1994 with the release of Dookie, their third studio album, which sold 10 million copies. Along with punk bands such as Sublime, Offspring, Bad Religion and Rancid, Green Day is credited with the rejuvenation of the punk genre in the U.S. But Green Day’s popularity dipped somewhat in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, though surging again with the release of the rock opera American Idiot in 2004, and the band later helped produce a stage version of the album. Altogether, Green day is considered one of the top selling rock groups of all time and has won numerous Grammy Awards.

Green Day

7. The Doors

One of the top rock bands ever to emerge from Los Angeles in the 1960s, The Doors first album came out during the iconic Summer of Love in 1967. On a disk full of great songs, the best of the best was “Light My Fire,” certainly one of the most incendiary rock singles of all time. After that, The Door kept churning out the hits, relying on the superior talent of Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Robby Krieger and, of course, singer Jim Morrison, who impressed with his wild, poetic, charismatic, profane stage persona, which got him and the band in trouble at least a few times. The band remained a potent rock force into the early 1970s, when Morrison died of mysterious circumstances in Paris, France. (Since there was no autopsy, nobody knows for sure what killed him!) Now Jim Morrison remains forever in the Rockers Dead at 27 Club. Anyway, soldiering on as a trio, The Doors survived until 1973.

The Doors

6. Mötley Crüe

Often identified as one of the best heavy metal bands of all time, Mötley Crüe formed in Los Angeles and soon became known as one of the prominent so-called hair metal groups of the 1980s, releasing their debut album, Too Fast for Love in 1982. From the beginning, the band’s crew became known for living licentious, hedonistic life styles. Their brushes with the law were numerous and many members struggled with drug addiction. During the worst of it in 1984, singer Vince Neil was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and spent 18 days in jail and was fined $2 million. But the band partied on, while selling tens of millions of records. Then the crew collectively entered rehab in 1989 and subsequently released Dr. Feelgood, perhaps their greatest album ever. To conclude, Mötley Crüe has won many awards and is included on numerous ‘best of the metal bands” compilations.

Motley Crue

5. The Byrds

Billed as America’s answer to the Beatles, the Byrds attained great success, rivaling that of the Fab Four – but for only two years, from 1965 to 1966. Formed as a quintet in L.A., the Byrds included guitarist/singer David Crosby and frontman Roger McGuinn, whose chiming, twelve-string, Rickenbacker electric guitar gave the band its signature, folksy rock sound. The band created numerous Top 40 hits, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “Eight Miles High” and “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” But the departure of David Crosby in 1966 – soon joining Crosby, Stills and Nash - took much from the band, though the Byrds flew onward until 1973, at one point joined by Gram Parsons, who give the unit a decidedly country rock sound that Parsons labeled “Cosmic American Music.” Incarnations of the Byrds existed until as late as 2000.

The Byrds

4. Metallica

Metallica is another heavy metal band emerging from La La Land. Formed in 1981, the band soon became known as one of the best “thrash metal” groups, along with Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax. Perhaps Metallica’s first great album was Master of Puppets, produced in 1986; it’s considered one of the most influential heavy metal albums of all time. Moreover, Metallica’s fifth record, its so-called Black Album, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. In fact, many of Metallica’s albums have debuted there! Not just an underground band for headknockers, Metallica has sold over 120 million records worldwide. It has also won numerous awards and garnered countless accolades, eventually making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.


3. Van Halen

Formed in sleepy Pasadena (one of the ‘burbs of L.A.) in 1972, Van Halen was initially discovered by bassist Gene Simmons of Kiss, though the band didn’t cut a record until late in 1977. Van Halen, the album, featured some of the band’s classics, notably “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Eruption,” which highlighted Eddie Van Halen’s stunning, finger-tapping lead guitar, the renown for which eventually made him one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. David Lee Roth supplied the vocals in those days, garnering accolades as a flamboyant and sexy frontman all the girls seemed to adore. But, because of friction with band members, Sammy Hagar, formerly of Montrose, replaced Roth in the middle 1980s. Over the years and decades, Van Halen has produced countless hit albums and singles and sold over 80 million records.

Van Halen

2. The Beach Boys

Spawned by the Wilson brothers, Brian, Carl and Dennis, the Beach Boys came together in Hawthorne, California way back in 1961. The Beach Boys’ forte was creating surfing songs, odes to muscle cars and sweet ballads, all of which essentially idealizing life in California, particularly Southern Cal, maybe the most popular place to live in the U.S.A. in those halcyon days. The Beach Boys weren’t really known for their musicianship, but their harmonies were just about the best in mainstream rock and roll, and Brian Wilson could write a song as well as anybody in the business.

Interestingly, during the middle 1960s, the Beach Boys seemingly swapped hit albums with the Beatles, each band seemingly trying to top the other. After the Fab Four released the classic Rubber Soul in 1966, the Beach Boys produced Pet Sounds, often considered one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Then the Fab Four created another album about as good - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band. Hey, maybe the Beach Boys didn’t come out equal in that exchange, but for those sandy-haired guys, the surf will always be up!

The Beach Boys

1. The Eagles

In 1971, singer Linda Ronstadt was looking for a backup band, enlisting studio musicians Don Henley and Glenn Fry, among others. This assemblage helped Ronstadt make her eponymous album, and then Henley and Fry formed The Eagles or simply, Eagles. Released in 1972, their first album included the hit singles “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Desperado, their second release, soon followed with more hits, “Tequila Sunrise” and “Desperado.” Along the way, the band added guitarist Joe Walsh, who can rip on the guitar like the devil, evidence of which can be found on the Eagles' hit single, "Hotel California." By this time, the song writing duo of Henley and Fry became one of the best in the country, and the band sold many millions of dollars in recordings. The Eagles broke up in 1980 but reformed in 1994, sounding as good as ever. Their easy-going, country rock sound has never been equaled by any other American band.

The Eagles

© 2014 Kelley


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    • profile image

      D C Garr 2 months ago

      If we're talking about "Best of all time" do you really wanna put Motley Crue ahead of bands like Jefferson Airplane, CCR, Santana, War, Steve Miller Band, etc. I realize these are all from 60's and 70's but, really?

    • profile image

      mytubular 15 months ago

      What order is this in? Someone must be kdding

    • profile image

      Skyll7737 16 months ago

      Red hot chili peppers?

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 22 months ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, nifflefoot. Please keep in mind, the order of the list isn't real important. I you like one better than the other, good for you. Later!

    • profile image

      nifflefoot 22 months ago

      To list Motley Crue ahead of The Doors is mind boggling if not downright embarrassing.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 2 years ago from California

      Thanks, Chris. Your list could be endless, couldn't it? Later!

    • profile image

      Chris 2 years ago

      Some other great CA bands, many of which I'd put on a top 10 list: Journey, Santana, The Doobie Brothers, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Sammy Hagar/Montrose, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Eddie Money, Huey Lewis and the News.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 3 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, MarshFish. I had lots of fun creating this hub. California is so cool, ya know? Later!

    • MarshFish profile image

      Marshall Fish 3 years ago

      Nice Hub, Kosmo. Enjoyed your choices of video clips, too. Thumbs up!

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