Ten Greatest Rock Bands of All Time
There have been a multitude of spectacular rock bands, so who could possibly pick the best? Well, as a long-time rock 'n' roll fan, I'll give it a try!
This list only includes bands whose forte is good ol' rock ‘n' roll. Moreover, all of these bands has (or had) a distinctive sound that few can imitate (if they should even dare to try). All of these bands stayed together for years or decades (some are still performing) and made an indelible mark on the world of rock ‘n' roll.
Greatest Rock Bands of All Time
- The Beatles
- Led Zeppelin
- The Rolling Stones
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Pink Floyd
- Pearl Jam
(Please watch the videos below the text.)
1. The Beatles
Origin: Liverpool, United Kingdom
Year Started: 1960
What more can anybody say about The Beatles? John, Paul, George, and Ringo became household names back in 1964. Soon they became known as the Fabulous Four or Fab Four. By the late 1960s, many people thought they were sent here to save the world. Fancy that! Perhaps their best album, Revolver, was VH1’s pick for best album of all time. Back in 1967, during the psychedelic era, many of us marveled at their enigmatic, post-acid lyrics. Some examples were: “The walrus was Paul," "Lucy in the sky with diamonds," "When ignorance and haste may mourn the dead.” Yeah, right, gimme a hit!
Many people believe that Yoko Ono broke them up. But, did she? Perhaps a more likely possibility is that aspirations for solo careers sent them in other directions. At any rate, we’ll probably never see their like again. But, people must try to bring them back in some fashion. Currently, the Cirque du Soleil production of Love in Las Vegas is a musical production based on the Beatles’ music.
Oh yeah, I'll tell you somethin'
I think you'll understand
When I say that somethin'
I want to hold your hand— The Beatles, "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
2. Led Zeppelin
Origin: London, England
Year Started: 1968
I’ll never forget listening to the first album by Led Zeppelin. This was truly incredible music! I’d never heard anything like Jimmy Page’s searing, hyperkinetic guitar slinging or Robert Plant’s otherworldly screaming, chanting, and howling (and the other musicians were decidedly above average as well). The lead riff from the song “Dazed and Confused” is forever implanted in my gray matter—I may die contemplating it! Perhaps the band’s best album was Houses of the Holy, including its smash hits “Dancing Days,” “The Rain Song,” and “No Quarter.”
For 12 years, the Zep didn’t let me down. Although, there was a drop-off in quality material during and after the double album Physical Graffiti. That said, who can forget the tantric “Kashmir?"
In 1980, drummer John Bonham died and the band broke up. Incidentally, in 2000, VH1 voted Led Zeppelin the number one greatest hard rock band. The Zep had a reunion concert at the end of 2007, and plans for a reunion “tour” have been in the works, but it will probably never happen.
Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face
Stars fill my dream
I'm a traveler of both time and space
To be where I have been— Led Zeppelin, "Kashmir"
3. The Rolling Stones
Origin: London, England
Year Started: 1962
In 1962, Brian Jones brought together the members of a rhythm and blues band that would become The Rolling Stones. Their list of classic albums is long, including Out of Our Heads, Aftermath, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Mainstreet. Unfortunately, the band transmogrified after the death of guitarist/musicologist Brian Jones in July 1969. Some rock purists think the Rolling Stones were never as good afterwards. And, the Stones’ depressing Altamont concert in December 1969 (where a Hell’s Angel stabbed a black man to death) may also have damaged the group's psyche.
Be that as it may, around the same time as that fateful concert, the band began trumpeting themselves as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. Evidence of this can be heard on their live album Flashpoint, released in 1991. Rock never sounded so good! At any rate, their longevity certainly speaks for itself. The band performed at the 12/12/12 Concert, highlighting a tour to celebrate 50 years of rocking out.
Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he's doin' all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight— The Rollingstones, "Brown Sugar"
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Origin: London, England
Year Started: 1966
Reputedly, blues guitarist Eric Clapton’s jaw dropped when he heard Jimi Hendrix play Howlin Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” I’ll bet many jaws went south when The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the eponymous power trio, hit the music scene in the U.K. in the latter part of 1966. The group lasted only four years or so, changing bass players and drummers a time or two (Mitch Mitchell was the drummer on all albums except Band of Gypsies, on which Buddy Miles played drums and sang vocals), but their dominance over the genre was truly impressive.
The band’s leader, Jimi Hendrix, quickly established himself as the most explosive and inventive guitarist around and, to this day, he is often considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. (Rolling Stone magazine voted him as such in 2003.) “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Machine Gun” are often considered to be the band’s greatest songs.
Then, in the fall of 1970, Hendrix was planning to record an album with jazz great Miles Davis. Wouldn’t that have been incredible! Unfortunately, the band’s stardom was cut short by the death of Hendrix in September 1970. To use an astronomical metaphor (which feels appropriate somehow), Jimi was like a giant blue star, he was so enormous that he burned out in a relatively quick and spectacular fashion. His death was a cataclysmic explosion, like a supernova.
You got my pride
hanging out of my bed
You're messin' around with my life
So I bought my lead
You even mess with my children
And you're screamin' at my wife, baby
Get off my back— Jimi Hendrix, "Freedom"
5. Pink Floyd
Origin: London, England
Year Started: 1965
Few rock bands have been as influential as Pink Floyd, which formed in 1965. Pink Floyd has sold over 200 million records and still performs from time to time. Their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was released during the Summer of Love in 1967. Perhaps the album’s greatest hit was “Interstellar Overdrive,” a decidedly psychedelic title and tune, during a very trippy time, if you remember. In 1965, lead guitarist Syd Barrett, suffering from mental problems, was replaced by his friend David Gilmour. The band has produced numerous hit albums over the years, such as The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. After breaking up in 1996, Pink Floyd reunited for the Live 8 concert in 2005. Sadly, Syd Barrett died in July 2006, but Pink Floyd’s space music will never perish.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way— Pink Floyd, "Time"
Origin: Dublin, Ireland
Year Started: 1976
U2 seems to be one of the most popular musical acts in the world (they also have a social conscience). One of their first songs, 1983’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” commemorated the slaughter of civilians during upheavals in IRA-embattled Ireland. The band was also prominent at the Live-Aid (for Africa) concerts in 1985. Bono, the lead singer of the group, remains a social activist on the world scene, visiting troubled spots with the regularity of a United Nations ambassador. Of course, U2 has written ballads too, perhaps most prominently “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” featured on their album Joshua Tree, rated number 15 on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time, compiled in 2001. If any rock group lasts as long (or even longer) than the Rolling Stones, it may be U2.
By the way, U2 puts on a spectacular live show, particularly when performing in arenas or stadiums. In that regard, The Edge, A.K.A. David Howell Evans, U2’s lead guitarist, seemingly uses a different guitar for every song U2 plays. Small wonder, since it appears every guitar has a unique tone the artist must utilize to its fullest.
A man will beg
A man will crawl
On the sheer face of love
Like a fly on a wall— U2, "Fly"
Origin: Boston, Massachusetts
Year Started: 1970
No American rock band has won more awards and honors—and sold more albums—than Aerosmith. Formed in the early 1970s, this Boston-based band developed a hard rock cutting edge that rivaled that of other hard rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC (though some critics considered them nothing more than a poor man’s Rolling Stones). Perhaps the band’s greatest hit is “Walk This Way,” which has been covered by numerous groups, including the hip-hop band Run D.M.C.
But, even with all of their success, it has been a bumpy ride for these guys. By the middle of the 1980s, virtually every band member ended up in drug rehab. The band didn’t rebound until the end of the decade, when every member had finally sworn off the contraband. Since then, they've rocked. So, regarding rock longevity, only the Rolling Stones top these aging, though potent, rockers.
Cruised into a bar on the shore
Her picture graced the grime on the door
She's a long lost love at first bite
Baby, maybe you're wrong
But you know it's all right, that's right— Aerosmith, "Dude (looks like a lady)"
Origin: San Francisco, California
Year Started: 1966
Santana is an example of one San Francisco Bay Area group that went supernova! The band’s Latin-flavored rock ‘n’ roll quickly became a sensation in San Francisco’s concert scene. Notably, the band became famous before the release of its first album by playing at Woodstock in August 1969. Over the years, their top-grossing albums have been Abraxas in 1970 and Supernatural in 1999, something of a comeback effort after many years of low record sales and no recording contract. Santana has undergone numerous personnel changes over the years, but Carlos Santana certainly hasn’t retired to the old folks’ home. He’s recorded and toured with such notables as Buddy Miles, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Alice Coltrane, Stanley Clarke, Herbie Hancock, Vernon Reid, and Eric Clapton. And, in 2016, classic band members regrouped, releasing the album Santana IV and its hit single “Anywhere You Want to Go.”
9. Pearl Jam
Origin: Seattle, WA.
Year Started: 1990
A multitude of rock fans fell in love with Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam's first album. Ten, released in 1991, is certainly one of the greatest rock albums of all time. VH1 listed it as number 79 on the list of 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time. (Way too low, don’t you think?)
Members of Pearl Jam thought enough of their fans to sue Ticketmaster for charging too much for tickets to their concerts (they wanted to keep the price below $20 per ticket). Unfortunately, the band lost the lawsuit. After many changes in personnel over the years (though lead singer Eddie Vedder remains the group’s main man) the band continues touring and cutting albums. Moreover, many of their performances have been recorded and released on CDs (bootlegs of such are available too).
In 2017, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Origin: London, England
Year Started: 1970
Queen is certainly one of the most innovative, progressive and experimental rock bands of all time, producing such timeless hits as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “We Are the Champions,” and “We Will Rock You.” Having sold over 300 million albums worldwide, Queen has been one of the most commercially successful rock bands.
Forming in 1971 and producing their first album in 1973, Queen’s best days featured Freddie Mercury on lead vocals, Brian May on lead guitar, and Roger Taylor on drums. Generally, critics have loved Queen’s music too, as their singles and albums have landed on numerous “best of” lists. (A Night at the Opera was voted number 16 on Q magazine’s list of the 50 Best British Albums Ever, compiled in 2004.)
Since the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991, Queen has continued recording and touring. They are now legendary rockers with a list of accolades and awards too long to put in this meager space.
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality— Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Questions & Answers
Why is Queen so far down on the list?
Queen is great but not as great as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix.Helpful 70
Why is AC/DC not on this list of greatest rock bands, but Santana is?
In my judgment, AC/DC is not a top ten band, because Carlos Santana is a better lead player than the one in AC/DC.Helpful 32
Do you have any knowledge of music history?
Yes, I've studied the history of rock and roll, the blues, R&B and jazz, and I've read numerous biographies of such musicians and bands. In fact, I just read Pete Townshend's autobiography.Helpful 9
Why isn't Guns N Roses included in your "Ten Greatest Rock Bands of All Time" list?
Because they'd be in the top 20 or 30 for me.Helpful 20
Why is no song by the Grateful Dead on this list?
The Grateful Dead had many good songs but none good enough for this list.Helpful 4
© 2008 Kelley Marks