The 10 Definitively, Inarguably, Unassailably Greatest Classic Rock Bands of All Time

They’re the few, the proud, the legendary. They’re the bands that left a mark not only upon their own generation but the generations that followed, too. They’re the 10 greatest classic rock bands of all time. (What, you don’t agree? We welcome members’ comments below!)

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10. Van Halen

Fronted by David Lee Roth during the band’s first decade in the spotlight, Van Halen found a balance between technical precision and Vegas-caliber showmanship. “Runnin’ with the Devil” and an amped-up cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” along with electric guitar playing unlike anything anyone had ever heard before from Edward Van Halen, put the group on the map in 1978. The years that followed were stellar, and set the stage for the band’s poppy peak, “Jump,” in late 1983. Sammy Hagar took over frontman duties during the second half of the ’80s and extended the band’s hit streak by another decade (although the hardcore fans seem to prefer the older stuff). 

9. AC/DC

With a massive sound rooted in snarl and stomp, AC/DC chased down global success during the mid-1970s before hitting a new peak in 1980 with Back in Black, which became the fourth best-selling record in American history. Whether it was the raw rasp of founding singer Bon Scott, who died in early 1980, or the rusty-throated gravel of Brian Johnson, who debuted with Back in Black, the pride of Australia’s anthemic vocals were a big part of their worldwide appeal, as were the entwined guitars of brothers Angus and Malcolm Young.

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 

Tom Petty’s timeless songwriting steered the Heartbreakers through four decades of changing trends. The band formed during the heyday of classic rock, with songs like “American Girl,” “Refugee,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” establishing the band’s signature mix of ringing electric guitars, pop hooks, and heartland sweep. Those ingredients were so classic, in fact, that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became one of the few acts established during the 1970s to reach even greater heights during the 1980s and beyond, when MTV replaced FM radio as pop culture’s main gatekeeper. 

7. Fleetwood Mac

Formed as a British blues band in 1967, Fleetwood Mac enjoyed success in the U.K. before leaving London, relocating to California, and becoming one of the quintessential acts of the 1970s. Like their West Coast peers, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac’s classic lineup featured multiple singers with distinct personalities, allowing the band to cover a wide range of styles. They tackled pop ballads, folk songs, rock anthems, and even marching band music, sweetening everything they touched with lush, stacked harmonies. 

6. Aerosmith

Aerosmith’s blend of rock ‘n’ roll raunch, soulful sleaze, and bluesy boogie-woogie resulted in some of the most enduring hits of the 1970s, from “Sweet Emotion” to the signature power ballad “Dream On.” A decade later, as years of hard living halted the band’s progress, Aerosmith cleaned up its act and tightened its sound, resulting in a streak of pop-influenced super-hits that lasted all the way into the 21st century with the 2001 single “Jaded.”

[RELATED: Aerosmith Guitarist Joe Perry Says Van Halen’s Debut Album Is Part of the Reason He Left the Band in 1979]

5. The Who

From guitar windmills to exploding drums, The Who reset the standards for rock ‘n’ roll showmanship. The band’s emergence during the 1960s may have technically pre-dated the arrival of classic rock, but albums like Who’s Next and Quadrophenia arrived during the 1970s, turning The Who into one of that decade’s hardest-hitting acts. They continued to tour for decades, albeit without drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978) and bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002). 

4. Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd certainly didn’t create psychedelic music, but they steered the genre toward a trippy peak during the 1970s. Landmark albums like The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here inspired numerous listeners to turn on, tune in, and drop out. For those who listened with intention, though, the records struck a balance between atmospheric spaciness and sharply deliberate songwriting, with the band’s lyrics tackling thorny topics like capitalism, society, and sheer madness.   

3. Led Zeppelin

Although praised as pioneers of heavy metal and hard rock, Led Zeppelin also maintained a soft spot for European folk music. This made the band’s sound not only mighty, but mystical, too, like a Tolkien novel sprung to life and funneled through a Marshall amplifier. Zeppelin’s first four albums were all released between 1969 and 1971, introducing the world to the rock ‘n’ roll archetypes of the long-haired, god-like frontman and the Gibson-wielding guitar hero of shred. 

2. The Rolling Stones

Originally brought together by a mutual appreciation for American blues music, The Rolling Stones became a rock ‘n’ roll institution. The band’s music was dangerous, rebellious, and greasy from the very start, held together by loosely entwined guitars and the rough bark of Mick Jagger’s voice. The Stones expanded their sound throughout the six decades that followed, making room for everything from psychedelic rock to disco, but they never abandoned their bluesy roots. Generations of iconic acts followed in their wake, from Guns N’ Roses to The Black Crowes.   

1. The Beatles

If “Rock Around the Clock,” the 1954 chart-topper from Bill Haley & His Comets, brought rock ‘n’ roll music into the mainstream, then the genre was still in its elementary school years when The Beatles debuted in 1963. The Fab Four radically reshaped the genre, essentially giving it a college education. Their harmonies were sublime, their songwriting was transcendent, and their albums grew increasingly sophisticated as the 1970s approached. Of all the bands on this list, The Beatles’ career was the shortest, but that didn’t stop them from changing popular music as we know it. 

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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