The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Great Guitarists of the ‘80s
The glam-metal era was an amazing time in rock history. Music was fun, melodic and loud, and there were plenty of bands putting out great guitar-oriented rock.
But even if you didn’t like the glam thing so much, there is no denying the ‘80s were a time for tremendous leaps in the rock guitar world. Everywhere you looked there were exciting new guitarists, and many have gone on to indelibly write their names in music history.
If you were into hard rock, metal, and the electric guitar, these were good times.
Musicians like Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani began their rise to legendary status during the ‘80s. Eddie Van Halen was doing some of his best work, first with the original Van Halen cast, and later with a reinvigorated Sammy Hagar-infused version of the band. Even those who look down on the glam-metal scene have to admit guitarists like George Lynch, Richie Sambora and Slash made some incredible contributions to music during this time period.
But there were also some guitarists who were great players, yet will never be mentioned in the same breath as Van Halen, Vai, Slash or Satriani. It’s a shame, because, for me anyway, these guys were some of my biggest influences during my teenage years, and I’ve never quite understood why they’ve been allowed to fall by the wayside.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most underrated guitarists of the glam-metal era, and try to figure out what happened back then. Maybe you’ll discover some amazing music you never knew existed!
Hair Metal and Other Derogatory Terms
It’s all metal to me. Seriously. I first decided I wanted to be a guitar player when I was eleven years old and heard Quiet Riot’s Metal Health on the radio for the first time. The buzzsaw roar of those power chords in the opening bars hooked me for life. I knew I wanted to play guitar, and find a way to make that sound myself!
Like an addict, I eagerly grabbed up that sound anywhere I could find it. I discovered it in music by Van Halen, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, Dio, Judas Priest, Ozzy, and Motorhead. I loved Motley Crue, Poison, Ratt, and Cinderella when I first heard them, as I did Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth. To me, it was all metal, all about the guitar, and I couldn’t have cared less if they were singing about wizards or women.
But by the end of the ‘80s things had gotten pretty weird. There was a clear divide between metal that had a more pop-oriented feel and what some called true metal. By the time grunge came around in the early 1990s people were saying some fairly nasty things about mainstream metal, and heavy metal in general. The term hair metal came into vogue, but there are much worse names.
It’s all metal, and it’s all about the guitar. Don’t let fickle social trends deter you from exploring great music, and don’t let the negativity bring you down. Some talented guitar players were putting out great stuff during the glam era, and if you play guitar you’d do yourself a favor by checking them out. Here are ten of them.
Reb Beach of Winger
Winger is perhaps the band that suffered the worst when things went bad for glam metal. Their ultra-radio-friendly sound and slick looks made them the poster band for anti-‘80s backlash. The creators of Beavis and Butthead didn’t help anything when they pinned a Winger t-shirt on the dorkiest kid on the show. But guitarist Reb Beach had some serious chops, and stood out as one of the best guitarists of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
C.C. DeVille of Poison
For a long time, C.C. DeVille took heat as one of the worst guitar players in rock. Sloppy live playing probably started the ball rolling, but by the mid-‘90s it had become way too common to bash poor C.C. Fact is, DeVille is a solid rock guitarist with good tone who crafted some of the tastiest riffs of the ‘80s. With the resurgence of Poison, it seems like more young players are starting to realize what a key influence he was in glam metal.
Vernon Reid of Living Colour
Does Living Colour really fit into the glam metal genre? Who knows, but they were putting out some incredible hard rock back then, led by guitar wizard Vernon Reid. Living Colour was unique, one of the few African-American metal bands, with a funk influence and some strong social messages. Reid himself was pretty unique too, and his work at the time was part Hendrix, part Van Halen, and part something you’d never heard before.
Living Colour in the Early '90s
Akira Takasaki of Loudness
Loudness was a Japanese band, and a key part of the first wave of the glam metal movement along with bands like Motley Crue, Cinderella, and Ratt. They may not have been as visible as many of their contemporaries, but if you were into metal you knew who they were. Their song Crazy Nights, from the classic album Thunder in the East was an early-‘80s rock anthem, and guitarist Akira Takasaki was every bit as impressive as his American shred counterparts of the time.
Steve Brown of Trixter
Trixter’s rise to the top came toward the end of the glam movement, but they had been around for a while before they hit it big with their debut album. They were very good looking, very melodic and very radio-friendly, three things the grunge movement taught everyone was simply no good. They ended up as somewhat of a flash in the pan, but guitarist Steven Brown was definitely a bright spot.
Oz Fox of Stryper
Stryper was a Christian metal band who dressed like bumblebees. They hit it big in the later part of the ‘80s with a few sticky-sweet power ballads. But, especially in their earlier days, they also produced some fairly heavy stuff. They may have been sending out a Christian message, but the music was metal through and through. Oz Fox was an amazing guitarist, and really stood out among his contemporaries. Together with front-man Michael Sweet they made up a formidable guitar duo.
Stryper Still Rocks!
Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme
Doubtless, there were some Extreme fans in the early ‘90s who never even realized they were a heavy rock band. With tunes like Hole Hearted, and their number-one hit More than Words, all done acoustically, it’s no wonder. They were one of the most visible, and most successful, bands leading up to the grunge explosion. But Bettencourt’s tone, rhythm playing and searing lead runs on songs like Warheads showed what this guy was really capable of.
Vito Bratta of White Lion
Honestly, if I had to vote one guy the most underrated guitar player in rock history, it might be Vito Bratta. White Lion’s pop vibe, radio-friendly style, and pretty-boy look launched them to the top in the late-‘80s, but Bratta’s playing was the backbone of it all.
Vito Bratta is one guitarist who never got the respect he deserved. White Lion's Greatest Hits album offers a strong sample of his work, including a killer live version of Lady of the Valley. This is the place to start if you don't "get" how great glam metal really was.
Aside from absolutely ridiculous leads and solos, his rhythm work involved a busy, melodic styling reminiscent of early Van Halen. Seriously, go listen to some White Lion, tune out the vocals and all the other instruments and find yourself a new guitar hero.
Steve Lynch of Autograph
Autograph’s 1984 rock classic Turn up the Radio is one of those songs many people who don’t care about metal are perfectly willing to sing along with. Crank it up, roll down your windows, press down on the gas pedal and life is good.
Unfortunately, for Autograph this was about as good as it got. They didn’t make much noise for the rest of the ‘80s. However, guitarist Steve Lynch was one of the most technically proficient musicians of the time, with a very unique style.
Check Out Lynch's Mind-Blowing Solo on Turn Up the Radio
Carlos Cavazo of Quiet Riot
It sounds weird to say it today, but this is the guy who made me want to play guitar! As the years rolled by and I discovered more and more great music, and incredible players, Carlos kind of faded into the background.
But a few years back, when Dubrow was still alive (RIP) I had the chance to see Quiet Riot live at a local club. Needless to say, I was reconverted as a Carlos Cavazo fan that night and went back to review Metal Health. The guy has some serious skills and doesn’t really get the credit he deserves.
Mick Mars of Motley Crue
I had a reader comment on Mick Mars so I decided to make him #11 on my list. I have to admit, back in the '80s I really wasn't a fan. I loved Motley Crue, but I didn't really like Mars's tone or his playing. He sounded amazing on Too Fast for Love, but after that, I thought, kinda weak. Back then, in my opinion, it was a determent to the band's sound rather than an asset.
I also don't consider him "underrated". If anything, in the '80s I thought he was overrated. I recall he got a fair amount of acclaim, which I thought was due more to Motley Crue's popularity rather than his own playing.
However, about a decade ago my opinion started to change. Whether my tastes changed, or I just evolved as a guitar player, or maybe it is just because we are so starved for guitar talent over the last 20 years. Who knows why, but suddenly ol' Mick started sounding pretty darned good to me.
Revisiting all of those old 'Crue albums gave me a new appreciation for his playing. Dr. Feelgood in particular I think was excellent, and maybe the apex of his career.
You Can't Kill Rock N' Roll
I mentioned a few great glam metal guitar players here, but there were legions of them. Bands like Ratt, Warrant and Skid Row featured dual guitar attacks and collectively put out some outstanding music. Zakk Wylde was a young up-and-comer with Ozzy back in the late ‘80s, who went on to become one of the greatest metal guitarists of all time. Def Leppard, a band deeply associated with ‘80s hard rock, had Steve Clark and Phil Collen, two vastly unappreciated talents even today.
With so many amazing guitar players around, what happened? Why did the music die? With the rise of grunge, most of these bands found themselves on the outs with the general public and the record industry. The careers of dozens of great musicians were suddenly derailed because public perception had shifted so radically in just a few short years.
Maybe the record industry and music writers threw these bands under the bus, or maybe the public binged on glam rock to the point where they just couldn’t stand it anymore. In any event, there was a massive and undeserved backlash against all things melodic that lasted nearly a decade. Unfortunately, in the end, the public focused more on the hair than the music.
But there is a silver lining to this story, and it is this: Regardless of the events over the past twenty years, today these bands are neither gone nor forgotten. Ozzy told us you can't kill rock n' roll, and apparently he was right. Most of the guitar players and bands mentioned here are still around, still touring, and in many cases even putting out new music. There has been a real resurgence of '80s hard rock in recent years, and it is awesome to see some of these musicians back again. Go check them out, not only their classic recordings but what they are doing today!
Labels don’t matter, and it seems ridiculous to sum up a generation of amazing talent based on the way they wore their hair. As a guitar player, it is worth your while to seek out inspiration wherever you can find it. What a shame it would be to dismiss an entire genre simply because of illogical social trends and whims of the ignorant masses.
In the end, it’s all metal and all about the guitar.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Tony B on May 08, 2020:
You chose some good ones .....
Great to see you really appreciate my favorite guitarist.....George Lynch...... not underrated but an incredible talent....
But my second favorite deserves to be mentioned..... Rik Emmett..... amazing talent that plays difficult riffs while also being lead singer of Triumph.... i have seen him play a couple different times in the last several years and still blows my mind...met him to real cool guy....
Buff Keystone on April 28, 2020:
So, I took the point of this article to be about 80's guitarists with very popular bands where the guitarists themselves weren't household names in their time. For example, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Slash, and Randy Rhoads would NOT qualify. You mention those names and my 40-something Michael Jackson-fan-wife knows exactly who you are talking about. And I agree with many of these listed in the article. I always loved Carlos Cavazo and Warren DeMartini (probably because of my age...they brought me into hard rock with their bands as I was a young teen at the time of Metal Health and Out of the Cellar), and at the same time I always underappreciated Mick Mars until very recently. Of the three of those, I feel like Warren got a little more guitar-community love than Carlos or Mick, back in the day. I also would agree with people who say that Tom Keifer and the Tesla guitarists were probably a bit overlooked, as well. Now, as a fan who used to get his monthly copy of Guitar Player Magazine, I know all these guys had their cover editions, too! It's not like attention totally escaped any of them. So for those of you clamoring for Yngwie or Tony Macapline types....sorry, they weren't in a "very" popular band. I can tell you that John Sikes was probably the most screwed-over guitarist of the era, in terms of getting credit for awesome riffs and licks for that Whitesnake album.
Erica Wynn on January 08, 2020:
Phil Collen???? Kee Marcello???? Adrian Vanderberg???? HELLO?????
Bubba on January 07, 2020:
Dave Menekettti from Y&T!! VERY UNDER RATED AND NOT TALKED ABOUT ENOUGH!!
Tricia on January 02, 2020:
Derek Frigo should be at the top. Paul Gilbert, too. How disappointing
Leroy on December 27, 2019:
Steve on December 25, 2019:
Jeff on December 21, 2019:
Mark Kendall of Great White...
Robert Elam on December 17, 2019:
Vinnie A on December 15, 2019:
Jake E Lee
Christopher Nowak on December 14, 2019:
STEVE LUKATHER from TOTO.
JOHNNY COLLA and CHRIS HAYES from HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS?!!
Mark on December 11, 2019:
Good article, but the implication that grunge wasn't melodic is a bit of a head-scratcher. I understand that this trope is widespread in the world of those who appreciate 80's metal/hard rock, but every time I hear it I have to assume it's coming from someone who hasn't really listened to much of the actual music that came out of the so-called grunge scene. And apart from Nirvana, the other big grunge bands had oodles and oodles of guitar heroics to boot.
Bobby on December 06, 2019:
How bout Neal schon
Guitar Gopher (author) on December 03, 2019:
@Charles - Do you think Randy Rhoads was underrated? I don't. He is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential metal guitarists of all time.
As suggested in the title, this article is about underrated guitar players, not the best guitar players.
Charles David Mitchell on December 02, 2019:
Any writing about guitar playing in the 80s that doesn't talk about the King of Rock, MR. RANDY RHOADS, I FIND HARD TO READ! ✌
Guitar Gopher (author) on November 29, 2019:
@CRF - The focus of the article is *underrated* guitarists, not the best guitarists. Lynch, MacAlpine and Gilbert certainly aren't underrated. They have always gotten a ton of respect and deservedly so. This is about the guys who, in my opinion, are often overlooked.
@William - I agree that Clark and Campbell would be good additions here. Since we're in the Def Leppard neighborhood, I'd say Phil Collen may even more so.
CRF on November 29, 2019:
Mick Mars, CC DeVille...but no George Lynch, Tony MacAlpine, Paul Gilbert? Sure we all have different tastes, but anybody that actually plays will tell you these guys leave Mars and DeVille so far in the dust you can’t even see them. List becomes worthless.
William on November 28, 2019:
Where can we put Steve Clarke of Def Leppard , for that matter Vivian Campbell ? Your list is impresive but it lack's some the players of the day .
Patrick on November 12, 2019:
Steve Stevens should be on the list!
Kevin on November 04, 2019:
Most if these guys are right where they should be. Competent guitarists in awful bands. Some of them are nit underrated, ie very respected. Like Nuno. Vito. Reb. Though they were also in awful bands. Anyway, subjective aeticles are just that but most of these guys are properly rated, whether they are outstanding and respected or average and not.
Sam 1313 on October 24, 2019:
My opinion is that tom keifer was way underrated, i really love his playing, he singlehanded carried that band, and i always thought brian forsythe and ronnie younkins from kix were underated as well, i was glad to se oz fox on the list, i always thought of his playing as "explosive"
Hoch on October 24, 2019:
I definitely would have included Brad Gillis on this list
Brian on October 24, 2019:
So many great underrated, under-appreciated guitarists from that era....
Jake E Lee
Ronnie Le Tekro
...and sooo many more!...
sissyslut5150 on August 25, 2019:
no one EVER mentions mr. keifer from cinderalla. or the 1st. lead guitarist for nazareth...or even the guy playing lead for them nowadays....
Kendall Gould on April 23, 2019:
I was fortunate enough to catch the band Anvil at a local club in Chicago a couple of months ago, talk about underrated! They rocked as hard or harder as any band I've seen in a long time.
Jeff on January 11, 2019:
Great list. I think one guy that gets passed over often is Pat Travers. When there is a disclaimer on an album "All sounds you don't recognize are made by Pat's guitar." says a lot. People hear PT and think of Snortin Whiskey..great song, definitly captured a moment in my life, but his catalog is so much deeper. A 3 piece power band, until Heat in The Street added keys that just kicked ass. Pat is just a way more Blues ROCKER than...don't kill me... SRV. SRV is blues personified. PT is Blues Rock and he's got that shit down.
What about Michael Shenker of UFO? Wanna hear an opening riff? Turn up Rock Bottom to 11, and its all finger speed. In the 70s not many bands were puttin out music like PT band and UFO.
Jon Five on April 30, 2017:
List is great. Reb Beach is awesome in particular
Guitar Gopher (author) on April 07, 2015:
Thanks Nate! The Winger thing is such a shame. Fortunately, I think to some extent people are finally moving past the "hair band" stigma and recognizing these bands and guitarists for how good they really are.
Nate on April 06, 2015:
I appreciate your list! I have been telling people forever that Reb Beach is the most underrated guitarist of all time. People can't get past the "Winger" and actually listen to the music. Pull is such a great album musically. He is amazing live as well. Not many can make their live solos sound exactly like an album, he is one that can!
Guitar Gopher (author) on January 09, 2015:
Reid is truly an amazing guitar player. I was already playing guitar for a while when Living Colour arrived, but it's easy to see how you would be inspired to pick up the instrument by Reid's playing.
Jason C on January 08, 2015:
Like you said, it sounds funny to say it now, but it was actually Vernon Reid that inspired me to buy my first guitar. I was actually into hip hop (Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, etc., etc.) and just thought it was so cool to see a black guitar player / black rock band — even though, btw, I myself am white. (Of course, I would later discover Hendrix, Robert Johnson, etc. — and come to realize that black musicians were enormously influential to rock music as a whole.)
Anyway, these days I play mostly bluegrass! But I still hold Reid in high regard simply bc of his role in my becoming a guitarist (25yrs+).
Guitar Gopher (author) on November 26, 2014:
Thanks Tom. You mentioned a few great additions there! Ratt and Warrant are still a couple of my all-time favorite bands!
Tom on November 25, 2014:
But what about Chris Holmes or Warren DeMartini? The guys from Warrant even? Not sure they actually played on the record (heard a few rumours they didn't) but I still love their stuff, songs like Big Talk and Down Boys etc. Sweet list and the inclusion of Turn Up The Radio was great too, love that song.
Tom on November 25, 2014:
Guitar Gopher (author) on August 07, 2014:
I totally agree Marc, but he's not underrated. Gilbert gets a lot of respect even today, unlike some of the guys on this list who unfortunately seem to be a bit forgotten. Except by those of us who know better, of course! :-)
Marc on August 06, 2014:
Dude, how could you leave out Paul Gilbert of Race X/ Mr. Big?! He ws one of the most technically proficient players of his time and could hang with the best of 'em.
Guitar Gopher (author) on July 18, 2014:
Hi Vinnie. This is a list of the most underrated guitarists of the '80s. I don't consider George Lynch underrated in any way. Lynch has always gotten a lot of respect for his playing, even from players you wouldn't otherwise identify with the '80s glam scene.
Believe me: If I were to make a list of the best guitarists of the '80s (in my opinion of course) Lynch would be up there near the top.
Vinnie on July 17, 2014:
This list lost my respect when I saw that George Lynch wasn't here. C'mon the guy had like the best tone and his solos are crazy great.
Guitar Gopher (author) on February 13, 2014:
Interesting about Mick Mars, I've been a Crue fan since Shout at the Devil came out, and always though he was an okay guitarist. Maybe my tastes have evolved in my elder years, but now the more I listen to him the more I appreciate him. His tone on the album Dr. Feelgood is epic, too.
darkprinceofjazz on February 12, 2014:
I agree with you about Vito Bratta, had he been an Ozzy Guitarist he would be a household name. I remember hearing Van Halen clone remarks some, that was very shortsighted.
I always thought Mick Marrs was underrated a bit too.
Guitar Gopher (author) on February 12, 2014:
Thanks ravenrage! Yngwie took a thrashing in the '90s, partly, I think, because people just didn't get him. But I also think all things shred were looked down on at the time. He's a great musician, and even if people don't dig his style, he deserves to be appreciated for his skills.
John Fox from Richmond, VA on February 11, 2014:
Yngwie Malmsteen is underrated by the mainstream for his skills. His album Trilogy and Odyssey were very glamish. I have played in a lot of nu-glam bands playing all the classics. Great hub voted up, shared and following!