When pondering hard rock’s glam phase of the 1980s, what comes to mind quickest is the look: multicolor makeup, dangling jewelry, animal prints, leather, studs, spandex, glitter, and, of course, that high-piled, mousse-lubed, teased-out, ingrown accessory that actually provided the genre with its most popular nickname.
Yes, indeed, we don’t refer to it as “’80s hair metal” for nothing.
In fairness, when rockers go to those visual extremes, it’s understandable that the actual sound of the music can be overshadowed.
Still, technical mastery of instruments, impassioned execution of finely crafted songs, and brilliant musical showmanship proved every bit as crucial to hair metal as style choices. Spearheading those elements, in any given glam band, was the lead guitarist.
For whatever reason—and, really, it’s most likely the neon face paint, tricked-out pirate get-ups, and yard-tall poodle-coifs—the brilliant musicianship of glam metal’s best players too often gets overlooked.
So now let’s furiously raise our horns with one hand and slowly wave our ignited lighters with the other in tribute to ten underrated hair metal guitar heroes.
Akira Takasaki – Loudness
As the New Wave of British Heavy Metal surged in Europe and American hard rock shifted toward glam by way of L.A.’s Sunset Strip, Loudness roared out of Osaka, Japan in 1981, led by founding six-string slayer Akira Takasaki.
For the remainder of the ’80s, Loudness ruled as mainstream metal’s premiere beast of the East; with Takasaki leading the charge with lightning speed fret work and booming riffs.
Check out Loudness’s biggest worldwide hit, 1985’s “Crazy Nights.” It’s a classic metal anthem in the vein of so many other songs of its era, but that lead, those licks, and the absolute tsunami of a solo could only be the work of Akira Takasaki.
Jake E. Lee – Ozzy Osbourne
Jake E. Lee is one of the finest and most admirable guitarists in the annals of heavy metal. Unfortunately, his peak work came sandwiched between the earth-shattering efforts of giants. Yes, Jake E. Lee is the guy who played guitar for Ozzy Osbourne in between the tenures of Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde.
That Jake’s name too often falls through the cracks is a travesty, particularly considering that he, more than any other single musician, built up and intensified Ozzy’s importance in the years following Randy Rhoads’ horrendous 1982 airplane demise.
Backed by a lesser ace on guitar, Ozzy may well have succumbed to personal demons and subpar material during the mad days of high ’80s hair metal decadence. Jake E. Lee, instead, played a profoundly pivotal role in the classic LPs Bark at the Moon (1983) and The Ultimate Sin. Jake even wrote the music for Bark’s title track, which remains solo Ozzy’s signature anthem second only to “Crazy Train.”
Reb Beach – Winger
Fronted by long, fluffy locks and chiseled features of Kip Winger, the New York-based band that shared Kip’s last name scored a healthy handful of radio and MTV hits (“Seventeen,” “Headed for a Heartbreak”), but they also took a lot of guff for falling under the “pretty boy” label. Not the least of it came from Beavis and Butt-head.
The shame of all that surface judgment is that wicked Winger guitarist Reb Beach got sold short in the hubbub. Winger’s music is pop metal to be sure, and the metal comes overwhelmingly from Reb. He is a genuine, steel-hearted ripper.
On the upside, Beach did get some due in his day, having been named “Best New Talent” by Guitar World magazine and designing a signature line of axes for Ibanez.
After Winger busted up in the mid-’90s, Reb rolled forward by touring with Alice Cooper and replacing George Lynch in Dokken (more on him in a bit). He also permanently joined Whitesnake in 2002 and still plays with the British legends as the band fitfully puts out new material.
Vito Bratta – White Lion
Say the words “White Lion” and most people think of two songs, the peppy, poppy “Wait” and the weepy ballad, “When the Children Cry.” They also, most likely, automatically picture the frosty perm and acid-washed allure of lead singer Mike Tramp.
There’s more to White Lion than just that, of course. There is symphonically sweeping, flying-fingered lead guitar maestro Vito Bratta.
So while teenyboppers gushed over White Lion’s chart-toppers in the ’80s, serious musicians listened with awestruck respect to Vito’s intricate, clever structure of those songs, topped only by the cascading wonder that poured out from his instrument once he took a solo.
Zakk Wilde once even told Guitar World: “Vito Bratta is the only guitarist I’ve heard who sounds cool doing taps. Vito’s solo on ‘Wait’ is excellent!”
Tracii Guns – L.A. Guns
L.A. Guns scorched the ’80s Sunset Strip scene with a complex, guitar-driven gravitas that delved darker and deeper than the bulk of their hair-hopping contemporaries. Driving the group through its greatest period was hurricane-force lead axe-man, Tracii Guns.
Tracii created L.A. Guns during a 1983 talent pile-up with the band Hollywood Rose that also begat Guns N’ Roses. For a brief spell in ’84, Tracii was actually GNR’s lead guitarist until he split to focus on the original band (he was replaced by an up-and-coming longhair named Saul Hudson, but you might call him something different).
For all that shuffling, L.A. Guns didn’t officially hit vinyl until 1988, but when they did, with their self-titled, debut, Tracii made it count.
The band’s best effort, Cocked and Loaded, followed a year later. It’s a cycle of gnarly, nasty celebrations of sleaze soaring up toward the stars from the gutters outside Gazzarri’s rock club and various adults-only Los Angeles county emporiums that soared. Tracii’s rich, evocative, but always down-and-dirty wailing infuses the scary, scummy trip with power, grace, and beauty.
Hollywood Vampires in 1991 is a last blast from L.A. Guns’ classic lineup and, looking back, may be the most elegant laying to both waste and rest of the ’80s glam metal moment.
Warren DeMartini – Ratt
The hard-working Midwestern background of Chicago-area native Warren DeMartini informed much of the guitarist’s chart-topping, boogie-blaring work with L.A. glam gods Ratt during the band’s remarkable decade-long run.
While Warren was naturally imbued with talent, he never stopped laboring to increase and expand his abilities and expressiveness. He ultimately hit upon a classical-music-rooted approach flared with the grooves and improvisational flights of heavy jazz.
DeMartini found the perfect outlet for his playing in 1981, when joined the rodent-monikered mayhem-makers Ratt, stepping in for the outgoing, Ozzy-bound Jake E. Lee.
The Ratt riffs that everyone knows best—including “Round and Round” and “Lay It Down”—came about from Warren’s creatively explosive teaming with Robin Crosby, Ratt’s other, relatively more familiar guitarist.
Together with frontman Stephen Pearcy, the twin six-string terrors formed a songwriting team virtually unequaled in the annals of ’80s glam.
George Lynch – Dokken
Pacific Northwest-spawned guitar deity George Lynch set the ’80s rockin’ with Dokken, starting with the band’s 1983 debut Breaking the Chains on through the classic LPs Tooth and Nail (1984), Under Lock and Key (1985), and Back for the Attackk (1987).
As with so many bands since time immemorial, much of Dokken’s best music resulted from creative tensions between intense, inner-looking guitarist Lynch and the group’s exuberant frontman, Don Dokken.
The 1988 Lynch-dominated live album Beast from the East, scored the group a Grammy nomination. That same year, Dokken played the touring Monsters of Rock festival with Van Halen, Metallica, and Scorpions.
These milestones, coupled with the band’s movie soundtrack favorite “Dream Warriors” from Nightmare on Elm Street 3, provided a triumphant moment for George Lynch and Don Dokken to part ways.
George’s next project, the Lynch Mob, came out swinging, delivering quite the one-two haymaker via the LPs Wicked Sensation (1990) and Lynch Mob (1992). Each is a blazing showcase for Lynch’s lead guitar greatness, functioning, as a unique bridge between Dokken’s hair metal and the more introspective path rock would take as the ’90s progressed.
Revered among his peers, Guitar World counted George Lynch at #47 in its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list, while the Gibson guitar website places him in their roster of The Top 10 Metal Guitarists of All Time.
Carlos Cavazo – Quiet Riot
When Carlos Cavazo joined Quiet Riot in 1982, he had some mighty huge frets to fill, as the band’s original guitarist had departed to back a ’70s vocalist who had recently decided to go solo. To be specific: Randy Rhoads quit Quiet Riot to play lead on the first two Ozzy Osbourne albums.
To his remarkable credit, Carlos didn’t have to contend with Randy’s long shadow as severely as Jake E. Lee would with Ozzy in later years, but the gone guitar guru’s presence did loom.
Carlos, even more to his credit, soared up with a style all his own, catapulting Quiet Riot to unprecedented commercial and cultural success.
The group’s 1983 landmark LP, Metal Health, was the first proper heavy metal album to hit #1 on the pop charts and Quiet Riot, for a loud, fast, dizzying spell, ruled as the biggest hard rock act on the planet.
That moment, of course, proved all too temporary. Outsiders might slag Quiet Riot as a “flash in the pan,” but the fact remains that Carlos Cavazo’s riffs blasted through the walls separating heavy metal from mainstream audiences. In large part, it was his sound, bolstered by the rest of Quiet Riot’s remarkable performers, that made the hair metal revolution possible.
Beyond the pioneering status, though, Carlos’s exquisite, innovative musicianship remains underappreciated. If you now revisit Metal Health, along with Quiet Riot’s two immediate follow-ups, Condition Critical (1984) and QRIII (1986), you’ll hear richer, deeper, more substantial, and even crazier guitar work than most casual fans even remember.
Vinnie Vincent – Kiss/Vinnie Vincent Invasion
Vinnie Vincent saved Kiss. No two ways about it.
As Kiss’s record sales and concert attendance dwindled in the early ’80s, former Vincent John Cusano started as a session player on the 1982 Creatures of the Night album before strapping on the requisite platform boots and painting his face to become the “Ankh Warrior” as departing guitar lord Ace Frehley’s official replacement.
The following year, Kiss famously ditched their makeup, emboldened not just by Vinnie’s daredevil guitar playing, but also by his absolutely top-tier skills as a songwriter. Just as Kiss has adapted to late-’70s disco with “I Was Made for Loving You,” Vinnie Vincent multiple talents would mega-successfully launch the band into the hair metal ’80s.
Vinnie co-wrote eight of the ten songs on 1983’s transitional smash Lick It Up, including the instant-classic title track, which remains one of Kiss’s true signature anthems, and the full-blown rump-stomper “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose.”
Alas, Vinnie’s Kiss tenure proved short-lived. Business tensions and some onstage antics such as an unexpected, off-the-wall guitar solo at a March 1984 Quebec gig at the end of the Lick It Up tour prompted Kiss to fire Vinnie immediately. He went on to form the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, which put out two albums that have become fan favorites: a self-titled debut in 1986, and All Systems Go, two years later.
In the years since, Vinnie Vincent has become a mysterious figure and even the object of cult devotion. Rolling Stone even ran a 2014 article titled “The Long Kiss Goodbye: The Search for Vinnie Vincent.”
Vinnie has certainly earned every bit of this admiration and fascination.
C.C. Deville – Poison
Although arguments can be made in favor of other contenders for the crown (the loudest probably being for Mötley Crüe), it’s not unreasonable to proclaim the 1980s’ ultimate hair metal band to be the one, the only Poison.
Poison’s foofy ’do’s towered the highest, their party-hearty mindset raged the most insanely, and their behemoth good-time riffs rocked out from the Sunset Strip to upend the entire planet with Japanese monster movie massiveness above and beyond what anybody else proved to be capable of at the time. Also, Poison definitely sported the prettiest makeup.
The group’s unique musical virtues erupted forth from the fret-board and brilliantly inventive finger work of C.C. DeVille, a guitarist of virtuoso talent with the irresistible personality of a vintage vaudeville comic and the incandescent flair of a pro wrestler mixed with a 1950s beauty queen.
C.C. himself has stated that the opening guitar onslaught he whipped up for Poison’s breakthrough hit “Talk Dirty to Me” is the greatest punk-rock riff ever written. It’s hard to argue against that stance.
The “Talk Dirty” riff reaches back into the Ramones’ elemental, bubblegum-melody building blocks and amps them up into a sonic assault that comes crashing down like a King-Kong-proportioned Sex Pistols (whose Steve Jones is second only to Eddie Van Halen as the ’70s-generated guitarist most frequently “borrowed” from by hair metal players).
What’s remarkable is that with “Talk Dirty to Me,” C.C. DeVille was just getting started. And we haven’t even addressed his leads, rhythmic skills, and sizzlingly shred-mad solos.
Poison’s first three blockbuster albums—Look What the Cat Dragged In (1986), Open Up and Say… Ahh! (1988), and Flesh & Blood (1990)—maintain their ability to ignite wild revelry the minute they’re played anywhere.
Listen closer, though, and what you’ll hear piloting the fireworks is one ingenious, inspired reinvention and redefinition of rock history after another by way of C.C. DeVille’s guitar—riffs and licks and solos and structures and proud moments of showing off that extend back to Chuck Berry and Les Paul and then hurl forward toward speed metal, thrash, grunge, and beyond.
On top of that, C.C. did it all while never messing up his fancy follicles.