The most iconic classic rock bands weren’t just the proficient musicians with the most addictive sounds—though that certainly holds true for every band on this list. They also most personify the times in which they lived: rebellion, forward-thinking, open-mindedness, and unbridled creativity. Here are some of the best classic rock bands whose influence continues to this day.
- The Rolling Stones
- Led Zeppelin
- Bruce Springsteen (with and without) the E Street Band
- The Who
- The Doors
- Pink Floyd
The Rolling Stones
Dubbed “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,” the Stones have produced brilliant music since 1962.
How the hell have they managed to stay together for almost 60 years? John, Paul, George, and Ringo only managed to stand each other’s company for a decade.
Yes, some members have come and gone, but the big three (Mick, Keith, and Charlie) have been a constant. The combination of the quality and quantity of the rock music they produced places them at the top of this list.
(You can argue all day about how influential the Beatles were just because of Sgt Pepper’s, but be honest: is “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” really rock ‘n roll?)
Mick and the boys melded their love of blues, country, and early rock to create a new genre of music. While they occasionally and briefly experimented with new instruments and sounds, like most bands do, they always returned to guitar-driven rock with a slight bluesy edge.
They will forever be the kings of classic rock itself—and, indisputably, the greatest of classic rock bands.
Okay, they may have done vile things to both a fish and woman simultaneously, and Page did date a 14-year-old girl for a while. And they should have credited the people they “borrowed” some of their songs from.
Awful as it all is, none of it detracts from their musical greatness. Hell, Physical Graffiti alone gets them on this list, as does the inclusion of “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok and School of Rock.
It’s hard to argue that there were four more talented rock musicians in the same band…ever. Even that fourth guy, John Paul Jones, played keyboard and bass better than most.
And not only did they push hard rock down the road towards heavy metal, but they also forced journalists to include “sex” and “drugs” with “rock ‘n roll” whenever they wrote about the band. They essentially created the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, until Guns N’ Roses came along and redefined it.
Simply put, Zeppelin could rock, beginning with the first song on their first album, “Good Times Bad Times.”
Okay…their seventh album, Presence, didn’t exactly kick ass. And “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” from their third album, sucks. But they’re certainly the exceptions to Zeppelin’s outstanding music library.
Bruce Springsteen (with and without) the E Street Band
“Born to Run” is the best American rock song ever written (although “Hotel California” and “LA Woman” are close behind). Jersey hot rod kids hanging out at the shore is a metaphor for their aspirations and fears.
Springsteen has a knack for writing songs that describe the hopes, dreams, and despairs of common Americans with a dizzying mix of folk and rock.
Springsteen and the E Street Band first coalesced in 1972, although the band wasn’t called such until 1974. They released Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. early the next year.
The Boss speaks to people through rock ‘n roll in a manner unlike any other. Common people relate to his music, whether it’s “The River,” “Glory Days,” or “Johnny 99.” He explored, and continues to explore, class and race dynamics in America, but he can be brooding at times.
Just listen to Nebraska—you’ll be depressed for days.
And to clear up a common misconception: “Born in the U.S.A.” is not a patriotic song, although that misinterpretation probably contributed to the song’s and album’s stunning success.
That album was also partially responsible for launching the career of Courtney Cox, who appeared in the “Dancing in the Dark” video. And for that, Springsteen can never be forgiven.
Roger Daltrey belonged in Hollywood or on the cover of GQ. Pete Townshend, with his manic genius, was a perfect candidate for a case study on the essentiality of psychotherapy.
John Entwistle should have been a classical musician or artist, and Keith Moon belonged in jail based solely on the number of toilets he blew up.
However, the four went on to create one of the best rock bands ever assembled.
The Who are second only to the Stones in terms of longevity and the breadth of their rock library. They formed in 1964, and became leaders in the British mod scene á la Austin Powers.
Unconventional behavior on stage became the norm for The Who. Daltrey used the mic cord as a whip. Moon began throwing his sticks into the crowd and kicking his kit over.
And Townshend, after accidentally breaking his guitar, smashed the rest of it on stage. Thus, auto-destructive rock as art was born.
Townshend also began experimenting with feedback and his signature windmill move, all in 1965. The band then released “I Can’t Explain.” The rest, as they say, is rock history.
If Morrison hadn’t devolved into an excess of drinking, drug use, and donut-eating, the Doors would be at the top of this list.
From the time they came together in 1965, until his untimely death in 1971, Morrison was the face of the Doors. He melded Nietzsche, Kerouac, raw sexuality, and leather pants to create a successful rock ‘n roll recipe never duplicated.
The Doors bum-rushed the show (props to Public Enemy) with their self-titled debut album in early 1967.
This was soon after they had been fired as the house band at LA’s Whiskey a Go-Go when Morrison described a boy who desired to kill his father and f*#k his mother (somewhere, Sophocles and Freud were smiling) at the conclusion of their magisterial song, “The End.”
The Doors also had the stones to defy the king of 1960s television, Ed Sullivan, when the band agreed to remove the word “higher” from “Light my Fire” and then included the word during the live performance in defiance.
Morrison was later arrested twice, once in 1967 for inciting a riot (the charges were later dropped), and again in 1969 for wagging his junk at the crowd, and pretending to blow Krieger.
All these distractions, however, could not detract from the artistry of the Doors’ music. It’s art disguised as rock ‘n roll.
An English rock band founded in 1965 by Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright quickly gained an early following as one of the first British psychedelic groups. Distinguished for their extended compositions, sonic experimentation, philosophical lyrics, and elaborate live shows, they became a leading band in the progressive rock genre.
In December of 1967, Barrett was replaced with David Gilmour and in 1968 officially cut ties with the band. Then in 1984 Waters departed the band in pursuit of a solo career which ultimately led to the Gilmour-led era of Pink Floyd.
Gilmour’s guitar work was not only integral to the sound of Pink Floyd, but to the rock genre as a whole. In fact, it’s been said that Gilmour has been described as the most important guitarist of the 1970s, and “the missing link between Hendrix and Van Halen”.
Selling more than 200 million albums since 1967, it’s no wonder that Pink Floyd is considered one of the best classic rock bands of all time.
AC/DC is an Australian rock band formed in Sydney in 1973 by Scottish-born brothers Malcolm and Angus Young. Their music has been variously described as hard rock, blues rock, and heavy metal, but the band themselves call it simply “rock and roll”.
Throughout the band’s career, their songs have been criticized as simplistic, monotonous, deliberately lowbrow, and sexist. Members of the group have generally been dismissive of claims that their songs are sexist, arguing that they are meant to be in jest.
Regardless, AC/DC’s theatrical high-energy shows placed them among the most popular stadium performers of the 1980s. Deservingly so, the band was introduced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
Rush was a three-piece rock band that existed from 1968 to 2018. Rush officially impacted five decades of musical entertainment, making them one of the most enduring bands of all time, especially when one considers the level of quality across the board.
The entire rock world suffered when it endured the loss of Neil Peart in 2020. He was one of the greatest drummers ever, and few people realize he was the band’s primary lyricist. Given the band’s uniqueness and contributions to metal, progressive rock, and pop music, it is surprising that Rush’s albums and discography work was held out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 20 years before the trio finally got inducted.
It may take some listeners much time to become adjusted to the sound of Rush, to fully appreciate the band’s influence, abilities, and transformations. They are great for what they are, unmistakable, and something that rewards you the deeper you dive into the discography. And since the trio will never play again, there is no better time to get into such a legendary band.
Everyone, inevitably, reaches an age where their favorite band winds up on some classic “oldies” station, even if the band is still making music and touring. You can catch groups like Green Day or R.E.M. on these stations already, which proves the category is never static.
As a genre, however, it’s finite. There are prime examples that come to mind when classic rock bands are mentioned—and it’s the groups that came first and did it best, forging a new path in pop culture’s most impressionable decades.
To expand your knowledge of classic rock bands, be sure to look over the best music documentaries and rock biopics. After watching a documentary or two, throw on some tunes, whether it’s your favorite emo band or rock song to smoke to; Sit back, relax, and enjoy the music.