Legendary Rock Artists and Bands That Changed Music History
Written by: Frank Iacono
For these legendary rock artists and bands, the title “greatest of all-time” truly embodies the spirit of a generation of people who just wanted to perform rock and roll. These top rock artists and bands include some of the best live acts of all-time including AC/DC, The Eagles, KISS and Van Halen. For those who got to see these amazing artists live, you’ll surely understand how they earned the distinction; for those who missed out, they’ll simply remain as one of the artists and/or bands you wish you could have seen live.
These top rock artists and bands were all hit-makers of their time and have rightfully earned a spot on this list of legends. Some of these famous bands have devoted followers, decades after they called it quits such as Led Zeppelin. Some are considered icons of music including singers like Elvis Presley and bands like The Beatles, Nirvana and Temptations, and some are even still touring like Chicago, Queen, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Yes.
Determined by a combination of album sales, radio airplay, touring history and degree of continuous popularity, here is our list of the legendary rock artists and bands that changed music history A-Z. However, please keep in mind that this isn’t the definitive list but it’s a good way to determine who should be on it.
AC/DC are an Australian rock band, formed in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1973 by Scottish-born brothers Malcolm and Angus Young. In addition to the Young brothers, other prominent band members have included lead singers Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, Guitarist Stevie Young, Bassists Mark Evans and Cliff Williams, and Drummers Phil Rudd and Chris Slade.
For almost half a century, AC/DC’s inimitable brand of high voltage rock ’n’ roll has served as one of the most defining sounds of hard rock and heavy metal in music history. As far as rock anthems go, their song “Black in Black” — AC/DC’s greatest hit — is as close to perfection as it gets. Starting with a scratchy guitar count-in, things go large when the song’s gargantuan riff kicks in — perhaps the most iconic guitar riff in rock history.
The Beatles were an English rock group, formed in Liverpool, England, in 1960. The Beatles (a.k.a. the “Fab Four”) consisted of an incredible line-up featuring Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Together these four lads went on to transform popular music as a creative, highly commercial art form over the next decade—producing classic songs like “Yesterday,” “Lady Madonna,” “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Day Tripper,” “Back in the USSR” and “Come Together.”
Between October 1962 and May 1970, they released thirteen albums and a number of historic tracks. From The Beatles’ 1967 release Magical Mystery Tour, emerged “Penny Lane”. To a melody so jaunty it’s sublime, Paul tips his cap to a barber, a nurse, and the people who come and go — a celebration of the joyful every day.
Chicago, originally known as the Chicago Transit Authority, formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1967. The self-described “rock and roll band with horns” blended elements of classical music, jazz, R&B, and pop music. Despite several personnel changes over the years, Chicago has never stopped, and their fan base remains among the most loyal of all. With 15 Top 20 albums including 5 that reached No. 1 and 21 Top 10 singles, Chicago has remained a consistent concert attraction and a mainstay on classic rock radio.
The track “25 Or 6 To 4” from their second studio album entitled Chicago hit No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 7 on the UK Singles Chart. It was the band’s first song to reach the top five in the US and quickly became a centerpiece of the band’s live shows. It features one of the greatest guitar riffs of all-time and it remains persistent from start to finish.
Def Leppard are an English hard rock band, formed in Sheffield, England in 1977 as part of the new wave of British heavy metal movement. Def Leppard have sold more than 100 million records worldwide, and their Pyromania and Hysteria releases both have achieved RIAA diamond certification. They are one of only five rock bands with two original studio albums selling over 10 million copies in the U.S. The band were ranked No. 31 in VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” and ranked No. 70 in “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
As far as hard rock songs go “Let It Go” from their multi-platinum album High ‘n’ Dry is truly a classic. It was one of two singles from the album and reached number 34 on the Mainstream Rock charts. Originally titled “When the Rain Falls,” the song was performed in 1980 before the band and their new producer Mutt Lange knocked it into shape. “Let It Go” truly became the auditory equivalent of a pure adrenaline rush.
The Eagles are an American rock band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1971. Featuring an incredible line-up consisting of founding members Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. Other prominent band members include Joe Walsh, Don Felder and Timothy B. Schmit.
With five number-one singles, six number-one albums, six Grammy Awards and five American Music Awards, The Eagles were one of the most successful musical acts of the 1970s. Hotel California, the bands their fifth studio album, is one of the best-selling albums of all-time. It has been certified 26× Platinum in the U.S. and has sold over 32 million copies worldwide. The title track “Hotel California,” a sweeping portrayal of the dark side of the American dream, is considered the most famous recording by the band and its long guitar coda was voted the best guitar solo of all-time by readers of Guitarist in 1998.
Fleetwood Mac are a British-American rock band, formed in London in 1967. Featuring an incredible line-up consisting of founding members Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and Jeremy Spencer. Other prominent band members have included John McVie, Christine McVie, Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. They have sold more than 120 million records worldwide, making them one of the world’s best-selling bands. The discography of Fleetwood Mac consists of 18 studio albums, 9 live albums, 23 compilation albums, one extended play single and 62 singles.
Shortly before Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac, she picked up a novel called Triad at an airport. The book told the story of a Welsh woman who believes she’s been possessed by another woman, named Rhiannon. She wrote the “Rhiannon” song, their first American Top 10 hit, and made her into what she thought was an old Welsh witch.
Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses, often abbreviated as GNR, is an American hard rock band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1985. When GNR were originally signed to Geffen Records in 1986, the band comprised vocalist Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler. Today’s lineup consists of Rose, Slash, McKagan, keyboardist Dizzy Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer and keyboardist Melissa Reese.
The GNR debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987), reached number one on the Billboard 200 a year after its release, on the strength of the Top 10 singles “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, the band’s only single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Billboard ranked “Sweet Child o’ Mine” the number 5 song of 1988.
Heart is an American rock band, formed in 1970 in Seattle by Steve Fossen, Roger Fisher, David Belzer and Jeff Johnson. Heart evolved from an existing band, White Heart. Since 1973, the vocalists for Heart have been sisters Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson. To date, Heart has sold over 35 million records worldwide, including over 22.5 million in album sales in the U.S. They have had top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2010s. Heart was ranked number 57 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock”.
The song “Barracuda” from their second studio album, Little Queen (1977) was released as the album’s lead single. The song peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it spent 20 weeks. In 2009, “Barracuda” was named the 34th Best Hard Rock Song of All Time by VH1.
Iron Maiden are an English heavy metal band, formed in Leyton, East London, in 1975 by bassist and primary songwriter Steve Harris. In addition to Harris other prominent band members include Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Nicko McBrain and Janick Gers. The discography of Iron Maiden has grown to thirty-nine albums, including sixteen studio albums, twelve live albums, four EPs and seven compilations.
The song “Run To The Hills” from their third studio album, Number of the Beast (1982) featured the debut of vocal powerhouse Dickinson and their last with drummer Clive Burr. This track, their first Top 10 hit, reaching No.7, outlined the story of European settlers’ travails in the so-called New World told from the perspective of both the foreign invaders and the oppressed Native Americans. VH1 ranking it No. 27 on their list of the 40 Greatest Metal Songs and No. 14 on their list of the Greatest Hard Rock Songs.
Journey, originally called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section, is an American rock band, formed in San Francisco, California in 1973. The original lineup consisted of Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie formerly of Santana as well as Ross Valory and George Tickner formerly of Frumious Bandersnatch along with drummer PrairiePrince from The Tubes. Other prominent band members include Steve Perry, Steve Smith, Jonathan Cain and Aynsley Dunbar. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Journey has sold 48 million albums in the U.S., making them the 25th best-selling band. Their worldwide sales have reached over 75 million records, making them one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time.
The track “Don’t Stop Believin” from their seventh album Escape (1981) registered at No. 13 in the overall poll of the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs having sold more than 5 million digital tracks. Written by Cain, Perry and Schon, the song’s multi-generational attraction lies partly in its inspirational message and partly in its arrangement, which appeals equally to fans of hard rock and vocal-oriented pop.
KISS is an American rock band, formed in New York City in January 1973 by Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. Well known for its members’ face paint and stage outfits, KISS rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 1970s with their elaborate live performances, which featured firebreathing, blood-spitting, smoking guitars, shooting rockets, levitating drum kits and explosive pyrotechnics.
KISS is one of the best-selling bands of all-time, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide, including 25 million RIAA-certified albums. Additionally, they also hold the title as America’s #1 Gold record award-winning group of all time, having earned 30 Gold albums. “Detroit Rock City,” from their album Destroyer (1976), is one of their most famous tracks and is truly a classic rock staple. The guitar solo is famous for its flamenco style and being a duet between Stanley and Frehley, it has since been a large influence on rock music and heavy metal, in particular Iron Maiden and Pantera.
Led Zeppelin were an English rock band, formed in London in 1968. The iconic group consisted of vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham. With their heavy, guitar-driven sound, Led Zeppelin are regularly cited as one of the progenitors of heavy metal, although their style drew from a variety of influences, including blues and folk music.
In 2004, the song ‘Whole Lotta Love” was ranked number 75 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and in March 2005, Q magazine placed it at number three in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. It was also placed 11 on a similar list by Rolling Stone. In 2009 it was named the third greatest hard rock song of all time by VH1. In 2014, listeners to BBC Radio 2 voted “Whole Lotta Love” as containing the greatest guitar riff of all time.
Metallica is an American heavy metal band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1981 by vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. Other prominent current band members include Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo. Metallica’s fast tempos, instrumentals and aggressive musicianship made them one of the founding “big four” bands of thrash metal, alongside Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer.
They have released ten studio albums, four live albums, a cover album, five extended plays, 37 singles and 39 music videos. The band has won nine Grammy Awards from 23 nominations, and its last six studio albums (beginning with Metallica) have consecutively debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. When the tile track “Master of Puppets,” from their third studio album, first came out in early 1986, heavy metal had never heard anything like it. To date, it remains the perfect crystallization of what Metallica was all about in the ’80’s, in which intricacy, intensity, energy, power, and melody coalesced in astonishing, unprecedented fashion.
Nirvana was an American rock band, formed in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987. The band was founded by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. Dave Grohl also played a big role in the success of the band too. Through their recording career, Nirvana was awarded an American Music Award, Brit Award, Grammy Award, seven MTV Video Music Awards and two NME Awards. They have sold over 25 million records in the United States and over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. They have also been ranked as one of the greatest music artists of all time, with RollingStone ranking them at number 27 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004, and at number 30 on their updated list in 2011. Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility in 2014.
Their track “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from the second album Nevermind (1991), swelled into a culture-defining moment that eclipsed Nirvana itself. Perhaps, there isn’t a more expertly crafted rock song to emerge from the entire decade. From its dark, enchanting vocal melody to its quiet-loud leap to its signature power-chord churn — a minor-key surge that has inspired countless teenagers to pick up a guitar and rock out.
Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince of Darkness, is an English born singer, songwriter, actor and reality television star who rose to prominence during the 1970s as the lead vocalist of heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath. In 1979, the band fired him due to alcohol and drug problems, but Ozzy went on to have a successful solo career, releasing eleven studio albums, the first seven of which were all awarded multi-platinum certifications in the US.
The track “Crazy Train” was Ozzy’s first solo single from Ozzy’s debut solo album, Blizzard of Ozz. The iconic song was written by Osbourne, Randy Rhoads and Bob Daisley. In the United States, the song reached No. 9 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart. The song was ranked ninth by VH1 on the list of the 40 Greatest Metal Songs and in 2009 it was named the 23rd-greatest hard rock song of all time also by VH1, the highest placement by a solo artist on the list.
Elvis Presley was an American born singer and actor from Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis, regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, is often referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll” or simply “the King”. Presley is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. He was commercially successful in many genres, including pop, country, blues and gospel. He won three competitive Grammys, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36 and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame.
The track “Can’t Help Falling In Love” was recorded in 1961 for the album and film Blue Hawaii. The single is certified Platinum by the RIAA, for US sales in excess of one million copies. In the United States, the song peaked at No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 behind Joey Dee and the Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist”[and went to No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart for six weeks.
Queen are a British rock band, formed in London in 1970. Queen’s classic line-up featured Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor. Their earliest works were influenced by progressive rock, hard rock and heavy metal, but the band gradually ventured into more conventional and radio-friendly works by incorporating further styles, such as arena rock and pop rock.
Total record sales range from 170 million to 300 million records, making them one of the world’s best-selling music artists. In 1990, they received the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music from the British Phonographic Industry. In 2001, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Their legendary track “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from the 1975 release entitled A Night At The Opera, became Queen’s most popular song and is considered one of the greatest rock songs. In 2004, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are an English rock band, formed in London in 1962. The first stable line-up consisted of bandleader Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Ian Stewart. Other prominent members include Ronnie Wood and Mick Taylor. The Rolling Stones were at the forefront of the British Invasion of bands that became popular in the US in 1964 and were identified with the youthful and rebellious counterculture of the 1960s. In 1989, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2004. Rolling Stone magazine ranked them fourth on the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” list. With estimated record sales above 250 million, The Stones have released 30 studio albums, 23 live albums and numerous compilations.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in the second spot on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The single entered the Billboard Hot 100 charts in America in the week ending 12 June 1965, remaining there for 14 weeks. The song was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2006.
Carlos Santana is a Mexican and American guitarist who rose to fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his band Santana, which pioneered a fusion of rock and roll and Latin American jazz. Carlos has won 10 Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards, and was inducted along with Santana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2015, Rolling Stone magazine listed Santana at number 20 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.
In 1968, Fleetwood Mac wrote and originally recorded “Black Magic Woman,” when they were still a cult British blues band. Two years later, on their second album Abraxas, Santana pumped a Latin groove into the mix and the rest is history. For years, that song was their biggest single reaching No. 4 until “Smooth” featuring Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas, from Santana’s 1999 smash comeback album entitled Supernatural, made it to No. 1. To date, “Black Magic Woman” remains one of the most representative pieces of Carlos’ signature guitar and Santana’s sound.
The Temptations are an American vocal group, formed in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan. The Temptations released a series of successful singles and albums with Motown Records during the 1960s and 1970s. Over the course of their career, the Temptations released four Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles and fourteen R&B number-one singles. Their music has earned three Grammy Awards. Having sold tens of millions of albums, they are among the most successful groups in popular music.
Three classic Temptations songs, “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The Temptations were ranked at number 68 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of all time.
U2 are an Irish rock band from Dublin, formed in 1976. The group consists of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. Initially rooted in post-punk, U2’s musical style has evolved throughout their career yet has maintained an anthemic quality built on Bono’s expressive vocals and the Edge’s effects-based guitar textures. U2 have released 14 studio albums and are one of the world’s best-selling music artists, having sold an estimated 150–170 million records worldwide. They have won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band, and in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Rolling Stone ranked U2 at number 22 on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”.
The group’s fifth album, The Joshua Tree (1987), made them international superstars and was their greatest critical and commercial success. Topping music charts around the world, it produced their only number-one singles in the US to date: “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
Van Halen is an American rock band, formed in Pasadena, California in 1972. At that time, Van Halen consisted of Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony. Other prominent members have included Sammy Hagar, Wolfgang Van Halen and Gary Cherone.
Van Halen is 20th on the RIAA list of best-selling artists in the United States; the band has sold 56 million albums in the States and more than 80 million worldwide, making them one of the best-selling groups of all time. As of 2007, Van Halen was one of only five rock bands with two studio albums that sold more than 10 million copies in the United States. Additionally, Van Halen has charted 13 number-one hits in the history of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. VH1 ranked the band seventh on a list of the top 100 hard rock artists of all time.
The group’s sixth studio album, 1984 was a commercial success, going five-times platinum after a year of release. The lead single, “Jump”, featured a synthesizer hook and anthemic lyrics, and became the band’s first and only No. 1 pop hit, garnering them a Grammy nomination.
The Who are an English rock band, formed in London, England in 1964. The Who’s classic line-up featured Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Selling over 100 million records worldwide, The Who are widely considered one of the most influential rock bands of the 20th century. Appearances at Monterey and Woodstock helped solidify them as one of the greatest live rock acts. Their major contributions to rock music include the development of the Marshall stack, large PA systems, use of the synthesizer, Entwistle and Moon’s lead playing styles, Townshend’s feedback and power chord guitar technique and the development of the “rock opera”.
The group’s fifth studio album, Who’s Next (1971) featured the track “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, first released in the UK and quickly climbing the charts reaching the UK Top 10. In 2011, the song was ranked #134 by Rolling Stone as one of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. As of March 2018, it was certified Silver for 200,000 sold copies in the UK.
XTC were an English rock, band formed in Swindon, South West England in 1972. Fronted by songwriters Andy Partridge (guitars, vocals) and Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), the band gained popularity during the rise of punk and new wave in the 1970s, later playing in a variety of styles that ranged from angular guitar riffs to elaborately arranged pop. Partly because the group did not fit into contemporary trends, they achieved only sporadic commercial success in the UK and US, but attracted a considerable cult following. They have since been recognized for their influence on Britpop and later power pop acts.
Between 1979 and 1992, XTC had a total of 10 albums and 6 singles that reached the UK top 40, including “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)” (1980) and “Senses Working Overtime” (1982). In the US, “Mayor of Simpleton” (1989) was their highest-charting single, while “Dear God” (1986) was controversial for its anti-religious message.
Yes are an English progressive rock band, formed in London, England in 1968. The original lineup featured Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Tony Kaye and Bill Bruford; however, they’ve undergone numerous formations throughout its history. Since June 2015, it has consisted of Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood. Yes are one of the most successful, influential, and longest-lasting progressive rock bands.
They have sold 13.5 million RIAA-certified albums in the US. In 1985, they won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance with “Cinema”, and received five Grammy nominations between 1985 and 1992. They were ranked No. 94 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. The group’s fourth studio album Fragile (1971) featured the single “Roundabout” which peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 10 on the Cash Box Top 100. This single cemented their popularity across the decade and beyond.
ZZ Top is an American rock band, formed in Houston, Texas in 1969. The band has, since 1970, consisted of vocalist/guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard. In 1971, the band released its debut album, ZZ Top’s First Album. Beginning with blues-inspired rock, the trio later incorporated new wave, punk rock and dance-rock by using synthesizers. Their songs have a reputation for containing humorous lyrics laced with double entendres and innuendos.
The band’s top-selling album is Eliminator (1983), their eighth studio album, which sold more than 10 million copies in the United States and featured the commercially successful singles “Got Me Under Pressure”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “TV Dinners,” “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’”.
Total record sales of 25 million place ZZ Top among the top-100-selling artists in the United States, according to the RIAA. That includes eleven gold, seven platinum and three multi-platinum albums as of 2016. ZZ Top was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.