18 Best California Rock Bands of All Time
California rock bands are 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!
18. The Runaways
Formed by drummer Sandy West, guitarist Joan Jett, bassist/singer Micki Stelle and guitarist Lita Ford in 1975, the Runaways, often billed as a punk rock band, hit the club circuit in LA and managed to land a recording deal in 1976, soon releasing The Runaways (1976) and its single “Cherry Bomb,” which became their signature song, particularly in Japan, where they became a sensation. The Runaways produced a total of four studio albums and Live in Japan (1977). Notably, after the demise of the band in 1979, Joan Jett went her own way, forming Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and also started Blackheart Records, making her the only female rocker with a recording label. In the 1980s, Lita Ford went solo too, producing such hit singles as “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Close My Eyes Forever.”
17. Little Feat
Formed in Los Angeles in 1969, Little Feat was one of the greatest rock bands of the 1970s, having an eclectic sound few bands could match. The band was led by guitarist/singer/songwriter Lowell George, who had wanted to join the Mothers of Invention but Frank Zappa told George he was so talented he should form his own band, which George promptly did. Little Feat released its self-titled debut album in 1971, which featured the country-rock hit “Willin’.” The band rocked onward, while changing personnel - and its sound, from rock to jazz-rock - throughout the Seventies. Then George passed away from a heart attack in 1979, ending the band - until 1987, that is, when it reformed, adding guitarist Craig Fuller, and then released the album Let It Roll (1988.) These days, comprising of some the band’s original members, Little Feat still tours and has produced numerous studio and live albums over the decades.
16. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Beginning as band members of the Golliwogs in the early 1960s, guitarists and songwriters John and Tom Fogerty then formed Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1967, eventually spawning a string of hit singles and albums from 1968 to 1972. CCR was one of the most popular rock groups in the US at this time, producing such chart-hopping hits as “Susie Q,” “Proud Mary,” “Born on a Bayou,” “Fortunate Son,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” "Keep on Chooglin" and “Down on the Corner.” They produced five number two singles on the Hot 100 and nine top 10 singles. CCR even appeared at Woodstock, though their set wasn’t used in the movie or albums. After CCR broke up, the multi-talented John Fogerty, the obvious leader of the band, began an impressive solo career that continues to this day.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
15. Tower of Power
Formed in Oakland, California, in 1967, Tower of Power (TOP) began a career as an R&B/Funk and Soul band of worldwide renown that’s been producing cutting edge records since 1970, and continues doing so in the current day with the release of the album Step Up (2020) and its hit single of the same name. TOP’s personnel has changed dramatically over the years and decades; only horn players Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka have remained with the band since the beginning. Speaking of horns, TOP’s horn section is considered one of the best in the world and has been used by countless acts such as Graham Central Station, Carlos Santana, Jermaine Jackson and Jefferson Starship. And TOP has produced many popular singles over the years: “You’re Still a Young Man,” “What Is Hip,” “Down to the Nightclub,” “Only So Much Oil in the Ground,” “Back on the Streets Again” and “Sparkling in the Sand.”
Tower of Power
14. Doobie Brothers
Hailing from San Jose, the Doobie Brothers developed their easy-going style while performing in northern California in 1970. The band emphasized the use of R&B strumming, three-part harmony and the rhythmic pulse of two drummers, as singer/songwriter Tom Johnston sang the lead. Johnston wrote one of their greatest hits, “Listen to the Music,” which appeared on their second album Toulouse Street (1972). Johnston left in the group in 1975 and was replaced by Michael McDonald, who led the band into its blue-eyed soul period, as heard on the album, Takin’ It to the Streets (1976), particularly on the song, “It Keeps You Runnin’.” The Doobies broke up in 1982 and then reunited in 1987. Led by their first lead singer Tom Johnston, they returned to their original sound, which continues to the present day, as the band still tours and records.
Incidentally, the name of the band does refer to the use of pot. The band members were unable to come up with a name for the group, so musician Keith “Dyno” Rosen suggested they call themselves the Doobie Brothers, because they were always smoking pot, and the name stuck.
13. 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
12. 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
11. 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.
10. 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.
9. 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.
8. 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.
7. Jefferson Airplane/Starship
The Jefferson Airplane was certainly one of the most successful psychedelic rock bands from the San Francisco Bay Area. Formed in 1965, the band released their second album Surrealistic Pillow in 1967, which included perhaps their greatest hits – “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” Amazingly, the Airplane, as they were often called, may have been the only rock band to play at four of the greatest rock festivals of the 1960s: the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Woodstock and Altamont in 1969, and the initial Isle of Wight Festival in 1968. In 1996, the Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2016 they were given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1974, members of the Jefferson Airplane, including singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin and guitarist Paul Kantner, formed the Jefferson Starship, a more pop-oriented band that had much commercial success, particularly the albums Dragon Fly (1974) and Red Octopus (1975), which produced such hits and “Caroline” and “Miracles.” Notably, the Starship produced more albums (10) than the Airplane (8). And in 1984, Starship, an offshoot of both bands, formed and still performs, though without any of the original lineup.
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.
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Formed in 1983, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, purveyors of punk rock, hip-hop, funk, reggae, hard rock, shred metal and psychedelic rock, are one of the most commercially successful bands of all time, selling over 80 million records around the planet and winning six Grammy Awards along the way; they’re also considered the greatest alternative rock band ever, having 13 number-one singles and 25 top-ten tunes within the alternative rock genre. Their most commercially successful album to date is Californication (1999), which sold over 16 million copies, and the song “Under the Bridge” was one of the most popular songs of the 1990s. Infamously, at Woodstock 1999, the band covered “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix, after which a conflagration erupted, and then much looting and destruction followed. So the band was vilified for seemingly starting the trouble.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
One of many fabulous San Francisco Bay Area bands, Journey, generally considered an arena or progressive rock band, sprang forth in 1973, with a lineup that’s changed many times over the ensuing decades, though perhaps their greatest lineup included Steve Perry (vocals), Neal Schon (lead guitar), Steve Smith (drums) and Ross Valory (bass guitar and backing vocals). From the late 1970s into the late 1980s, Journey released seven straight platinum albums and numerous hit singles, including “Don’t Stop Believin’,” found on the album Escape (1981). Journey’s worldwide sales have reached 75 millions records, cementing them in place as one of the greatest selling bands in history. Journey still performs and their latest studio album is Eclipse (2011). And in 2017, Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the lineup including all of the aforementioned members.
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.
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.
© 2014 Kelley Marks