Rock music initially evolved in America in the 1940s. However, the 60s was undoubtedly the most important decade in shaping the future of this genre. The best 60s rock bands laid the very foundations for much of the music that followed. And for much of the music, we still listen to today.
So, who do I think should get a spot in this influential group of groundbreaking musicians? Let’s find out.
11 Best 60s Rock Bands
The Beatles are without question the most important Rock band of the 60s. No, wait, I got that wrong. I meant to say that The Beatles are the most important Rock band of all time. That’s better. It’s a lofty claim but more than justified.
The Beatles exploded onto the scene in the 60s following a period of cultural depression and conformity. They didn’t only bring with them changes in the way music was played and made, but also in societal attitudes.
The Beatles were one of the first bands to introduce the concept of albums as a whole piece of work rather than as a random bunch of songs. They were the first to introduce feedback into their recordings. They introduced experimental sounds that would usher in future Psychedelia.
Furthermore, they moved away from all songs having to conform to traditional drum and guitar combinations. Also, they challenged the need for all songs to be necessarily upbeat. And they championed simplicity despite their abundance of incredible musical talent.
A lasting impact around the world…
Culturally, they brought the fun back into music and into being young. Frequently questioning and testing the status quo of the establishment. They shook off the conformities of how to dress and behave. And ushered in the idea of a teenager or young adult as a separate group in society.
Of course, you could say they were the very first Boy Band. But so, so much more. To this day, they are not only the most critically acclaimed group of musicians but are also the best-selling band of any kind ever. They have sold a staggering 2.3 billion singles and 600 million albums worldwide.
These facts are all the more remarkable when you consider that if you listened to every Beatles piece of music ever released, it would only take you ten hours. That’s about the same length of time as an average Pink Floyd track, give or take.
Their best-selling album was the self-titled The Beatles, also known as The White Album. Released in 1968, it has sold over 24 million copies.
The best-selling single is, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Released in 1963, which has sold over 12 million copies. My personal favorite is, “The Long and Winding Road” which was released in 1970.
Still waiting on the official Beatles museum…
To fully detail all their achievement is what books are made of. Plus, most of you reading this will already be aware of the impact the four young lads from Liverpool had on the music world.
So, at this point, I will sign off by saying, I salute you, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Star. Without question one of the best 60s Rock bands ever to grace my ears.
The Doors were formed in 1965, like so many bands before and since, in Los Angeles. Following in The Beatles’ footsteps, they continued to challenge social norms. They weren’t afraid to raise off-limits topics such as sex and drugs in their work.
Additionally, like many of the bands of the new generation in America at the time, they were anti-war and very much anti-war in Vietnam. This can best be heard on the single, “Unknown Soldier” which was the first single to be taken off their 1968 debut album, Waiting or the Sun.
A new kind of Rock music…
Their music was a combination of Jazz, Folk, Psychedelic Rock, and Blues. They weren’t afraid to experiment or record long songs. Furthermore, one of their most famous recordings, “The End”, kept on getting longer and longer, with ultimately a 12-minute version being cut.
Much of the music was led by Ray Manzarek’s meandering keyboard playing. He pushed the frontiers of their psychedelic sound as they slowly migrated away from more popular styles of Rock. And during recording, Manzarek was the first musician to introduce a Moog synthesizer into the mix.
The 27 Club…
Tragically, Jim Morrison’s life was cut down all too soon. He died in 1971, having most likely succumbed to a drug overdose. Although, the exact circumstances surrounding his death are still unknown.
The band tried to carry on, but without Morrison’s enigmatic presence and poetic lyricism, they were doomed to obscurity.
Jim Morrison and The Doors left behind them a body of work that helped shift the trajectory of American music. Including their most memorable and best-selling hit, “Light My Fire”, taken from their debut album. They also left behind a legion of heartbroken female fans.
The Beach Boys
If we play a game of word association and I say to you, “The Beach Boys” I could safely bet you’d answer, “California”. If ever there was a band associated with The Golden State, this was it.
It is also fair to say although Dick Dale invented Surf Rock, which best describes their sound, it’s The Beach Boys who we most closely associate with it. And that’s what pushed them to the ranks of the greatest 60s Rock bands.
So, what is Surf Rock?
It’s a kind of music linked to surf culture and the beach. In particular, this is most commonly referenced in the Southern California area. Most of the subjects dealt with lyrically are all concerned with this one central theme.
Musically, the guitar sound is characterized by high levels of reverb but an otherwise clean sound. The vocals are typically in the high range and full of upbeat and catchy harmonies.
The Beach Boys capture this perfectly…
Their best song was, in my opinion, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” released in 1962, and “California Girls” released in 1965. If I had to bet on which was their most successful single, I’d have put my money on one of these.
Fortunately, it’s just as well that I checked with Google first since I was wrong on both counts. Their best-selling single was, in fact, “Kokomo”. This was a huge surprise since it was released in 1988 and has a lot less energy and excitement than the songs from the 60s.
I’d kind of forgotten how far removed it is from a lot of their other songs until I took another listen. However, once I realized it was linked to Tom Cruises’ hugely successful movie “Cocktail”, it all made sense.
A timeless Rock band…
What I still can’t get my head around is that even though they were formed in 1961, in Southern California, of course, they’re still going strong today. There have been plenty of changes and a couple of sadly deceased members along the way, but still…
Over a hundred million album sales are nothing to be sniffed at either. It’s safe to say they are one of the most famous Rock bands of the 60s.
I could have included the British group The Yardbirds here, but after a bit of quiet contemplation thought better of it. Cream made more sense since they’re much better known globally. So, why the need to include either?
Eric Clapton, that’s why…
Clapton played in both bands. However, the music released by Cream was not only more popular but better technically and musically than can be found in anything from The Yardbirds. Plus, it was Cream that helped to propel Clapton to international stardom and Guitar Rock God status.
The band was formed in 1966 and surprisingly only stayed together for a couple of years. Equally surprisingly is that most of the songs were written by the bassist, Jack Bruce. However, Clapton and the drummer, Ginger Baker, also contributed to both vocals and songwriting.
Cream of the crop of 60s Rock bands…
Considering their importance and influence, Cream sold a relatively modest 15 million records. In comparison to Eric Clapton’s solo career, this is even more modest. As a solo artist, Clapton went on to sell 280 million records, making him one of the world’s best-selling recording artists.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Name me one other band member other than Jimi Hendrix. Thought so. Frankly, you’re not alone, and I failed to answer my own question before I cheated and took to Google once more.
To save you the chore of an online search, I can tell you that the bassist was Noel Redding and the drummer Mitch Mitchell. The band first hit big-time fame in 1966 in the UK.
Jimi played in multiple bands in the US. But, despite his ridiculous talent, he never had any commercial success. This is thought to be because they just didn’t know what to do with him. The music scene was so segregated at the time that it seemed to have no place for him.
Luckily for all of us, Chas Chandler, from the UK group, The Animals, saw his potential and brought him over to the UK. During this period, he rubbed shoulders with The Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stoned, Pink Floyd, The Who, and others.
These meetings had a significant influence on his music and vice versa. Whatever way you look at it, this was a hotbed of musical talent that helped fuel Psychedelic Rock.
A limited musical catalog…
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released just three studio albums. Their debut album, Are You Experienced, was released in 1966 and is a multi-platinum-selling record in the US.
The second album, Axis: Bold as Love, was released in 1967, and their final album, Electric Ladyland, was released in 1968. Somewhat surprisingly, the most successful hit out of the eight singles released was “All Along the Watchtower”.
An unforgettable legend…
Jimi Hendrix is possibly the most influential and best Rock guitarist of all time. His contribution to music is huge. Sadly, like so many of his generation, he succumbed to a drug overdose in 1970 and met an untimely death at just 28 years of age.
We can only wonder what would have been if he was still alive today. Arguably as the greatest Rock guitarist of the 60s, Jimi’s fire is unlikely to ever be extinguished.
It’s frequently said that Led Zeppelin, in just one band, contained four of the best Rock musicians to ever walk the planet. If this is true or not is open to conjecture. But, what isn’t in doubt is their rightful inclusion on any best 60s rock bands list.
So, how good were the individual band members?
Quite frankly, they were phenomenal. John Paul Jones was one of the top ten multi-instrumentalists of all time. Robert Plant would also easily fit into the top ten best vocalists of all time. Jimmy Page is a top-five Rock guitarist, and there are plenty who’d argue he’s The GOAT.
Hang on, though, because I’d argue against this…
I dispute this as having watched plenty of his live performances on YouTube. There’s no doubt that he’s sloppy at times.
Additionally, I’ve also seen him live in 1990 when he performed with Robert Pant as a duo, and frankly, on that particular occasion, he was sloppy too. In his day, though, he’s incredible and pretty much unparalleled.
So, what about the drums?
I’ve saved the best till last here. John Bonham, the band’s drummer, was without a doubt, the best Rock drummer of all time. He was The GOAT for sure. An incredible talent and such a tragic loss to the music world when his life was cut short at just 32 years old.
The sum of the parts of this quartet of extraordinary talent happily transformed into possibly the greatest Rock band of all time. Their commercial success places them in the all-time top ten for the most records sold. In total, they’ve sold more than 300 million copies.
Just what were those albums?
They formed in 1968 and, during the 60s, released two albums. In 1969, the self-titled Led Zeppelin, and then later in the same year, Led Zeppelin II. However, they’ll probably be best remembered for the Untitled Album, also referred to as Led Zeppelin IV.
Led Zeppelin IV contained their best-known song, “Stairway to Heaven”. Although, on the whole, they were more known as albums rather than a singles band. Other huge songs off the album include “Black Dog”, “When the Levee Breaks”, and my personal favorite, “Going to California”.
I know, I know…
A lot of you are probably shouting at your screens, questioning my choice here. To pick a favorite Led Zep song that doesn’t include the sublime drumming of John Bonham, I have to concede, is a little odd.
My second favorite song, though, is ”Kashmir”, which does contain some of John Bonham’s most epic drumming. I hope I’ve redeemed myself somewhat.
We’re now moving from one ridiculously talented group of musicians to another. Pink Floyd is another British group formed in 1965 in London.
From Syd to David…
The original line-up was Syd Barett on guitar and lead vocals, Roger Waters on bass and vocals, Richard Wright on keyboards and vocals, and finally Nick Mason on drums. This line-up remained unchanged until David Gilmour joined the band in 1967. Sadly, Syd Barrett subsequently left due to mental health issues thought to have been brought on by the overuse of drugs.
Syd Barrett’s influence on the band was huge and was reflected in some of their later music. Most notably from the album, Wish You Were Here, released in 1975.
The original Progressive Rock band…
Pink Floyd is most known for its psychedelic sound and is also often referred to as a Prog Rock group. Although not specifically credited with being the founders of either, they are still undoubtedly one of the most important contributors to both genres.
When I look back on their remarkable history, I’m often struck by the development of their sound. The talent in the early days was undeniable. But, the difference between the music produced between the mid-60s to mid-70s seems vast.
Their early work, and debut album, The Piper’s at the Gates of Dawn, released in 1967, laid the foundations for future releases. It’s now easy to see many of the musical elements from this album in their future work. However, the music world was still in for a huge surprise come 1973.
An album that redefined music…
The release of The Dark Side of the Moon was nothing short of mind-blowing. I can still remember taking it out of the sleeve on release day and putting it on my Garrard SP25 turntable. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to hear. And nothing since has had such a huge impact.
Put simply, The Dark Side of the Moon was a game-changer. It was and remains a musical masterpiece. It’s one of the most successful Rock albums of all time.
It’s sold over 45 million copies and stayed on the US Billboard charts for over 14 years. The success around the world was phenomenal.
The following three albums were also pieces of art…
In 1975, they released Wish You Were Here; in 1987, Animals, and in 1979 they released the double Album, The Wall. They did release more music after 1979, but quite frankly, it was garbage and hardly worth listening to. They seemed to have lost their way and split up early in the 80s.
Pink Floyd has always been known as an albums band. Their work is essentially conceptual, with each album having a central theme and flow to the narrative from start to end. Listening to a single track in isolation tends to make much less sense than listening to the album in its entirety.
Despite this, they did release some singles…
The most successful was “Another Brick in the Wall” from the album, The Wall. Although not as successful, “Comfortably Numb” did contain what is widely considered to be the best guitar solo of all time.
I wholeheartedly agree with this and was lucky enough to have seen them play it live at Earls Court in 1994 as part of their “Division Bell” tour. Not only was this the greatest guitar solo of all time, but the live version was probably the greatest Rock solo to have ever been played.
The Rolling Stones
We’re staying in the UK for one another British Band, and for a good reason. That’s because The Rolling Stones are amongst the top ten most successful bands of all time. Moreover, they unquestionably helped to mold the musical landscape in the 60s both in the UK and around the world.
So, how successful were they?
After The Beatles, they are the third most successful band of all time. Just for clarity, I’m not including individual artists here. Otherwise, there would have been Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and Madonna before them.
They’d have Queen in front of them, too. And, since they’re a band from the 70s, it’s unfortunately not a band I’ll be looking at today.
It’s also worth mentioning that Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd would rank at number four and five on the same list. This is why any list containing the best 60s Rock bands will always have a British bias.
Back to The Rolling Stones…
They were formed in London in 1962. As most of you probably already know, they are made up of Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts. Bill Wyman left the band in 1993 and was replaced with Ronnie Wood.
Sadly, Jones quit the band in 1969, just before his death, and Charlie Watts died in 2021, with a permanent replacement currently uncertain.
A Hard Rock group…
Their sound is founded on The Blues and early Rock n’ Roll. It’s a sound that hasn’t deviated from over their sixty years in business. And it’s a sound that has brought them huge commercial success.
The Stones have released a jaw-dropping 92 albums and 121 singles. 34 of the albums were live, and a further 30 were compilation albums. It is still an astounding body of work and a good reason why they are one of the most successful 60s Rock bands.
What’s even more impressive?
Their stamina for touring. At the age when most of us would be in front of the TV with a hot drink and wearing comfy slippers, they are still out there ripping it up. As a frontman and performer, it’s hard to believe, at 80 years, where Mick Jagger gets his energy from.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The group has its roots going back to 1969, when they were originally named Blue Velvets. Later, they changed their name to The Golliwogs. Then, in 1967, they settled on the name Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Their music can best be described as a combination of Roots Rock, Southern Rock, and Blues Rock. The most surprising is the Southern Rock element since they came from the San Francisco area. So, it seems strange to hear frequent lyrical references to the deep south in much of their work.
Lyrically, most of their music was centered around the social issues of the day. They were very much a politically aware band, and many of their songs had a strong anti-war message. This was squarely aimed at the US military involvement in Vietnam during the 60s and 70s.
Their stage shows were pure Rock…
They were very much regarded as one of the best live acts of the time. An interesting fact is that not only did Creedence Clearwater Revival play at Woodstock, but they were the very first band to be signed up to perform. What a piece of history to have associated with your band.
To their credit, they have three of the most popular 60s Rock songs in “Proud Mary”, “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”, and “Fortunate Son”. However, it’s probably the latter of these that will be most remembered. Not least because of its strong association with anti-war sentiment at the time.
Creedence Clearwater Revival only played and recorded for five years between 1967 to 1972. So, their influence and impact within the US are not to be underestimated. Although they only had limited success outside of the US, they still managed to sell over 26 million records, which is no easy feat.
They were formed in 1965 and like Creedence Clearwater Revival, were also from San Francisco. However, their style of music was very different. They played what can best be described as Psychedelic Rock. This was likely due to influences from bands like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.
Jefferson Airplane was an integral part of the music scene in California and America in the 60s. They were part of The Summer of Love hippy era and very much another anti-war band.
The clearest indication of this can be found in the lyrics of their fifth album, Volunteers, which pulled no punches when it came to their stance on Vietnam.
A very American band…
They had a reasonable amount of commercial success, but this was mostly confined to America. The fact is, they sold four and a half million records in America, but just over a hundred thousand in the UK. No wonder they’ve always been so closely linked to 60s America.
Their breakthrough album came shortly after Grace Slick was brought in as a replacement for Signe Tole Anderson in 1965. The following year their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was released. And although it only charted at #128 on the US charts, it paved the way for future success.
It was the following album released in 1967, Surrealistic Pillow, that put them near the top. It reached #3 in the US and produced two of its most successful singles, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”.
The impact of Woodstock…
There’s no doubt that along with being remembered for the Summer of Love, they will also forever be associated with Woodstock. As one of the headline acts for Saturday, they are a band never to be forgotten.
When it comes to Southern Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd is the real deal. They formed in 1964 with an initial line-up of Gary Rossington and Allen Collins on guitars, Larry Junstrom on bass, Bob Burns on drums, and Ronnie Van Zant as the lead vocalist. At this time, they performed under the name My Backyard.
They performed locally over the following five years. During that time, they saw several comings and goings within the band. They also underwent several name changes before eventually settling on Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969.
The quintessential Southern Men…
The band is best known for its unique style of Southern Rock. Through the 70s, they continuously refined their sound by cleverly blending a combination of The Blues, Country, and Hard Rock.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s success, like many other Southern Rock bands, is mostly confined to the US. However, this still hasn’t prevented them from selling over 28 million records.
Their best-selling album, Skynyrd’s Innyrds, was released in 1989 and sold over five million copies. Their best-selling single is “Sweet Home Alabama” released in 1974, and reached #8 on The Billboard Charts.
“Sweet Home Alabama” has a strong country element to it that is not typical of the band’s music. However, not only does it remain immensely popular, but it has almost become somewhat of a de facto anthem for all things Southern Rock.
The day the music died…
One of the saddest aspects of the band’s history was the crash of 1977 that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant and two other band members.
The band then understandably went into a hiatus for ten years until, unexpectedly, in 1987, they reformed with Ronnie’s brother, Jonny, taking over on lead vocals.
The switch worked well, and with Gary Rossington still being an ever-present member of the original line-up, it feels like the heart of the band remains. Jonny has also done an amazing job in what must be incredibly difficult circumstances. I’m sure his brother will be looking down and smiling with approval.
Can’t be chained…
Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of my favorite bands, with my all-time personal favorite song being “Freebird”. The guitar solo is as epic as it is long and a true testament to the quality and musicality of this legend of a band.
It’s difficult to choose such a small selection of the best 60s Rock Bands. However, it would seem wrong to not include such a prolific and popular band. Selling over a hundred million records over their career makes them one of the most popular 60s Rock bands, so their inclusion is a must.
This British Rock band was formed in 1964 in London. As many of you will know, the line-up includes Roger Daltrey as lead singer, Peter Townsend on guitar, John Entwistle on bass, and the amazing Keith Moon on drums.
The Who experimented with their sound and incorporated a series of new techniques into their playing. Pete Townsend harnessed the use of feedback and was also the pioneer of the power chord. Where would we guitarists be without that, eh?
Additionally, they were one of the first bands to use live stacked systems. Plus, they developed the concept of Rock Operas. Basically, a group of songs that’s put together as part of a common thread of a story.
And then there was Tommy…
In this respect, the release of the album Tommy in 1969 was groundbreaking. The album sold over 20 million copies and was subsequently converted into a stage show. This first appeared in Seattle in 1971 but later appeared on Broadway in 1992.
It was also released as a movie, also named “Tommy” after the album. This was a huge commercial success making over $35 million at the box office. I’m sure you’ll agree not bad for a movie back in 1975 and with a budget of just $5 Million.
Tommy was by far their best-selling album and also featured one of their best-known songs, “Pinball Wizard”. However, WHO ARE YOU, which was released in 1978, and despite selling “only” two million copies, is often considered by their fans to be their best album.
Never going to stop…
Incredibly, The Who are still together today. Although, the only two survivors are Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey. They still perform live, and if you get the chance, you should go and see them.
They may be advanced in years, but these two legends of Rock still have the magic of their younger years and still play uncompromising Hard Rock.
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Best 60s Rock Bands – Final Thoughts
So, there you have it. Make no mistake, choosing a top dozen of the best Rock bands of the 1960s was no easy task. Although I think there are a few amongst them that are hard to argue against, I accept that everyone’s list is likely to be different. I hope some of your favorites were among them.
Until next time, happy listening.