The 1960s represented change. Few areas were more affected than music.
Starting with The Beatles, the experimentation of numerous bands influenced multiple genres of music and produced hits that have lasted for decades. Here are the best rock bands of the 60s.
The Beatles set the trend for mixing rock-and-roll, blues, fledgling punk, and classical music to create a beat and sound never heard before.
While many of their earliest hits were covers, plenty of their own material was well-received. Indeed, The Beatles sold millions of records in the UK alone. Five of their hits were in the top ten of best-selling singles released in Britain during the 1960s.
By the end of the decade, The Beatles were unrecognizable from the fresh-faced group that wowed the world. Their style and sound underwent multiple changes, with their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band being decidedly psychedelic.
It’s hard to quantify just how popular The Beatles were during the 60s. Thongs of teenagers would inevitably go wild at the mere side of the Liverpudlian foursome. That passion became known as Beatlemania, which helped the band lead the way as part of the “British Invasion.”
Even today, younger people are still discovering The Beatles amazing sound, and every couple of decades, they enjoy a resurgence in popularity.
The Rolling Stones
Like The Beatles, The Stones were another trendsetter, mixing American blues and soul with a bit of funk and a sound that bordered on hard rock, but not quite.
In contrast to their counterparts, The Stones had an edgier sound and aesthetic from the get-go. What drove them was relatable lyrics and superlative instrumentation.
Their music ranged from tenacious (“Sympathy for the Devil”) to poignantly relatable (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) and everything in between. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Rolling Stones endured long after flower power was a distant memory.
Much like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin set trends for the rest of the 60s rock bands. There is a reason many consider them the greatest rock band of all time.
They started their tear in 1968 with an eponymous album that quickly reordered what was expected of rock music, set the traditional on notice, and awed listeners.
Most of their success, however, was because they were extraordinary musicians.
Jefferson Airplane embodied the San Francisco music scene in the 1960s. Specializing in psychedelic rock, the band was one of the first from the Bay area to achieve international success, eventually headlining Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival.
Their songs “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” have been two of the most highly regarded rock songs ever.
Like the Yardbirds, Cream was a slate of superstar musicians that were successful before, during, and after their time in Cream.
Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker comprised the band, and they produced the world’s first platinum-selling double album with “Wheels of Fire” in 1968.
Pink Floyd’s music was another trendsetter, mixing deep lyrics with an equally masterful sound.
The group’s music appealed to virtually everyone, from revolutionaries to stoners, and all emerged from a listen a little more relaxed and certainly more contemplative.
In the 60s, Pink Floyd had a distinctly psychedelic style, perhaps most vividly illustrated by their 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets.
The Byrds’ influence on rock music is as strong today as it was when they were actively releasing music.
While they blended raga, country, and psychedelic rock, they have the greatest influence on country-rock. In fact, the genre as it is known today wouldn’t be what it is without the group.
The Byrds produced beguiling harmonies and had an effortless capacity to reference other genres, like classical.
That gave the band a “cool” vibe that is just as apparent today when looking back on their aesthetic and sound back in the 60s.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Credence was about as close to an American-born Led Zeppelin as happened in the ’60s. Their music was a merger of blues, rock-a-billy, southern, soul, and folk-rock.
The band had an unmistakably unique sound, and their musical mastery was almost unparalleled. Credence undoubtedly embraced many of the political hot-topics of the day, and plenty of their songs have themes reflective of the time.
Yet, regardless of whether you agree with the messages, Credence was one of those bands whose music was so good that people were still happy to enjoy and listen.
Jimi Hendrix Experience
Hendrix was taken before his time. Had that not happened, who knows what he would have achieved. The Jimi Hendrix Experience left listeners awed by his skills throughout the 60s and through the present day.
Arguably, given his short stint at the top, no single musician has impacted rock the way Hendrix did, particularly with his use of amplifier feedback.
Talk to anyone around in the 1960s, and they will tell you The Beach Boys mixed rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, and classical music with fun to produce iconic songs.
They embodied “California Surfin’” culture and brought an upbeat, positive style to the music of that time. The Beach Boys brought that lifestyle into the mainstream at a point in time when rock was starting to get dark.
The best way to describe The Who is that of a middle child with a chip on their shoulder. Immensely talented, The Who produced arguably the largest number of timeless hits of any rock band and was one of the best bands of the 60s. Those songs include:
- “Who Are You”
- “Baba O’Reilly”
- “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
- “My Generation”
- “Squeeze Box”
- “Miles and Miles”
- “Behind Blue Eyes”
While they were one of the defining voices of the 60s, The Who flourished long after the decade ended.
Few rock bands had the quiet influence of The Kinks. They took American rhythm and blues and rock and roll and injected them with folk and country and in-your-face instrumentals.
The Kinks rivaled the titans of the mid-1960s and were part of the vanguard of the transformative British Invasion. What’s more, The Kinks did not affect the Americanisms that were associated with other UK bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
Jim Morrison was the pugnacious face of The Doors, but his persona often overwhelmed the artistry of their music.
There is a reason so many musicians from the early 1970s through today list The Doors as one of their inspirations. The amazing thing was what they accomplished in a little over four years before Morrison passed away.
Any group that included Jimmy Page as a bass guitarist because Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck played lead guitars was destined for greatness.
The Yardbirds were one of the first groups to master merging blues and rock while providing utter mastery of instrumentation. They were also one of the first “supergroups” that merged amazing talent into a single musical juggernaut.
The Moody Blues
The Moody Blues merged blues, soul, classical, and rock music, which set a new standard, leading to selling over 70 million albums worldwide.
Their heyday was in the 60s, but unlike many on this list, they produced hits in each of the following two decades.
Today, they are a staple on classic rock radio and in many retail store outlets' background music.
The Mamas & the Papas
The Mamas & the Papas were only around for three years, but their impact on the music of the counterculture of the 60s was lasting and profound.
Six of their 17 singles released during the group’s existence made the Billboard Top 10, and the group sold over 40 million records worldwide. Their two most popular songs were “California Dreamin” and “Monday, Monday.”
The Grateful Dead
When you think of iconic rock bands of the 1960s, it is hard to not think about The Grateful Dead. The group played just about every type of music and often did so in the same song.
Mixing elements of rock, country, folk, jazz, blues, gospel, reggae, and psychedelic rock, “The Dead” was known for long instrumentals and extremely devoted fans.
The Beatles started the British Invasion of the USA but Herman’s Hermits were right behind them. Indeed, they became one of the most successful groups of that period.
Their most famous song is “I’m Henry the VIII, I am,” but they also produced 11 US top ten songs, were ranked as the 1965 America’s Top Singles Act by Billboard, and had a hit every year from 1964 through 1968.
Their prime was between 1968 and 1972, but Steppenwolf’s impact resonates through the present day.
Two of their songs, “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” are still regular staples on classic rock radio. The former is considered one of the most impactful rock songs of all time and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It is impossible to discuss 60s rock bands and not mention Fleetwood Mac. Even though the group would not become rock icons until the mid-1970s, the 60s allowed them to lay the groundwork for what was to come.
At first, the group was composed of four guys and produced the instrumental Albatross and the single “Oh Well,” both of which topped UK charts.
The 60s allowed Fleetwood to hone its sound, eventually paving the way for Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks.
When those two were added, starting in 1970, the band took off and never looked back, racking up hit after hit, including “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” “Dreams,” and “Go Your Own Way.”
If The Who did not get the credit they deserved, The Monkees never were taken as seriously as they should have been. Initially, the group was created as a television sitcom that ran for two seasons (and session musicians mostly produced the music).
The individual band members eventually gained control of the music but then went their way.
What is remarkable and why they make this list is that The Monkees sold over 75 million albums in the 60s, making them one of the best-selling groups of all time.
Their hits included “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me,” “A Little Bit You,” and “Daydream Believer.”
The “House of the Rising Sun” is the most famous song by the Animals, but this group produced a slew of other hits, including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and “I’m Crying,” to name just a few. These still hold a place in the popular memory of the 60s.
Surprisingly, The Animals did not hit meteoric heights as epic mismanagement and a revolving door of talent held them back.
Formed in 1968, another collection of tried and true talent, Deep Purple was a pioneer of the hard rock and heavy metal genre.
Along with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, they were referred to as the “unholy trinity of British hard rock and heavy metal.” Their sound was faster, heavier, and more guttural than what most listeners of rock music were used to hearing.
Deep Purple has sold over 100 million albums, making them one of the most successful bands of all time.
Black Sabbath was another major player in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As one of the aforementioned trinity, Black Sabbath released a string of hits led by the iconic Ozzie Osbourne
They formed with the intention of being a heavy blues group. In fact, their original name was the more serene sound Earth.
However, when they got mistaken for another band, they promptly switched to Black Sabbath. That name took inspiration from their song “Black Sabbath,” which was written after seeing people queue up to see a horror film of the same name.
The lyrics were much darker than what they had thus far produced, and the direction the band took ended up being just as macabre at times. The rest is history as Black Sabbath became one of the most influential pioneers of the heavy metal genre.
With the release of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in 1968, Iron Butterfly announced themselves as part of the fledgling hard rock migration to heavy metal. They produced music fans loved, but more importantly, served as an inspiration for several legendary acts, including:
- Alice Cooper
- Uriah Heep
- Stone Temple Pilots
- Queens of the Stone Age
As a band, Iron Butterfly was unpredictable. It had a constantly changing lineup, and each person seemed to have his idea of the direction the band should go. Scheduled to perform at Woodstock, the band ended up stuck at LaGuardia Airport.
Steve Miller Band
The Steve Miller Band was started in 1966 in San Francisco as primarily a blues band.
Over the years, it migrated to a more rock sound and produced classics like “Space Cowboy,” “The Joker,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Abracadabra,” and “Jungle Love.”
Jethro Tull started as a fusion of blues and jazz that incorporated English folk, hard rock, and classical music to create a progressive rock sound.
Always bizarre, Jethro Tull’s most famous song, “Aqualung,” is as creepy as it is iconic.
The Guess Who
Canada’s The Guess Who were one of the best 60s bands who were best known for producing a unique sound that merged blues, rock, and psychedelic rock.
Their catchy tunes were particularly emblematic of the era, with many containing political elements. Hits included “American Woman,” “These Eyes,” and “No Time.”
Blue Oyster Cult
Blue Oyster Cult is the band that no one remembers that sold over 25 million albums. The hits of BOC, as the group’s fans called them, still get playtime today.
Those included “The Reaper,” “Burnin’ for You,” and “Godzilla.” Turn on any classic rock radio station today, and you are just as likely to hear a song from BOC as anything else.
Buffalo Springfield was another contribution to rock music from Canada, with a North American twist. Their mix of intricate instrumentalization and absorbing lyrics had a transformative effect on the development of folk-rock.
The band was short-lived as they disbanded in 1968, just two years after forming. Still, Buffalo Springfield eventually led to the creation of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Santana was created in 1966 by Carlos Santana, who has remained the only consistent member of the band through multiple lineups.
Each form of Santana has had at least one hit, and the band collectively has sold over 50 million records in the USA and 100 million internationally. In 2000, Santana won six Grammy Awards, tying Micheal Jackson.
Jeff Beck Group
After the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group. It was a unique sound for the day and age, mixing blues, rock, hard rock, and rhythm and blues.
That blend played a major role in influencing the direction of popular music. The first iteration of the group featured Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, both iconic luminaries of the 60s.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
From the ashes of Buffalo Springfield came Crosby, Stills & Nash and then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The former was good; Neil Young made the latter great.
The band played at Woodstock, and their first album, Déjà vu, sold over eight million records. On that album, “Woodstock,” “Teach Your Children,” and “Our House” were their biggest hits.
The Ten Years After
Yet another British band, The Ten Years After were catapulted to global fame after a monumental performance at Woodstock defined by their song “I’m Going Home.”
While they might not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries, they are still remembered as one of the most significant blues-rock bands of the 60s.
The Bee Gees
The Bee Gees started in the late 50s and successfully navigated several popular music genres.
Their music was mostly upbeat, fast-paced, and jaunty. The Bee Gees wrote all their hits, with their music typically being infectious.
Despite being long-lived (they disbanded the first time in the late 70s), Procol Harum is perhaps best known for their epic song “A Whiter Shade of Pale”
Procol Harum started out riding on the wave of psychedelia, but claimed their own status as being a central part of the prog-rock and art-rock scene.
The Great Society
The Great Society was a pioneer in acid rock. Indeed, their rise to prominence was inextricably linked to the acid rock scene that was flourishing in the San Francisco Bay area as part of the city’s counterculture movement.
Grace Slick got her start with them, and the band incorporated flute, bass, saxophone, guitar, and drums to produce an eclectic sound. Interestingly, despite their irrepressible style, their inspiration at the beginning was The Beatles and Jefferson Airplane.
Manfred Mann was part of the British Invasion and enjoyed commercial and artistic success through much of the 1960s.
The band was the first southern England-based band to top the Billboard 100, and produced several hits, including “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Pretty Flamingo,” and “Mighty Quinn,” as well as “5-4-3-2-1.”
Sly and the Family Stone
No band was more instrumental in helping merge funk, soul, rock, and psychedelic rock than Sly and the Family Stone.
Their hits included “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” and “Stand.” Sly and the Family Stone are routinely cited as inspirations for pop and hip-hop.
Initially formed in 1964, Velvet Underground was a band that was never appreciated when it was around but is revered today.
Lou Reed and his bandmates mixed rock, underground, experimental, punk, new wave, and alternative rock music to create an iconic sound.
Country Joe and the Fish
This band specialized in psychedelic rock and exacted a heavy influence on the San Francisco music scene.
The group focused on anti-war, free love, and recreational drug use themes. Today, Country Joe and the Fish are considered one of the founding bands of acid rock.
Paul Revere & the Raiders
Paul Revere & the Raiders mixed psychedelic pop with garage rock to create a fast-paced sound with a heavy rhythm and blues emphasis.
They had top 100 hits like “Just Like Me,” “Kicks,” and “Hungry.”
Vanilla Fudge was another link from psychedelic rock to heavy metal.
Known for long, slow, and extended heavy rock songs such as “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” the band lasted for less than five years yet produced five albums.
Canned Heat’s contribution to rock bands of the 60s was a heavy emphasis on the blues.
That led to two primary hits, “Going up the Country” and “On the Road Again.” The latter song featured a guitar-boogie riff that became a standard in the rock world.
It might seem flippant, but Traffic’s greatest contribution to 60s rock bands was to serve as a launching pad for Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, and Dave Mason.
Traffic introduced elements of jazz, classical and improvisational rock into their music.
Free is another part of the British Invasion and is known for their anthemic mega-hit “All Right Now.”
They also produced “Wishing Well,” another 60s-era staple. The band was known for nonstop touring and raucous live shows.
West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band
This band was strange, even by 60s standards.
A psychedelic rock band, West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band produced music that was unashamedly political, counter-culture, folky but also avant-garde.
The Zombies came up with their name because no other band had it.
Created in 1961 in England, the band produced multiple hits, including “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There,” and “Tell Her No.”
The Zombies developed a cult following that still endures today.
One of the unsung bands of the 60s, The Youngbloods only produced one hit that broke the US top 40: “Get Together.”
They were known for using multiple instruments in their arrangements, including piano, banjo, mandolin, and mandola, in addition to guitar, bass, and drums.
Rush was formed in 1968. While they did not experience rockstar success until their Moving Pictures album, the band was known for complex arrangements.
Their evolution over the years from bluesy rock to guitar-driven hard rock and finally into progressive rock helped the band sustain their popularity.
The Stone Poneys helped launch Linda Ronstadt. The band crossed over genres, delving into country, rock, light opera, and+- Latin music. Their first hit was a cover of” Different Drum.”
Syndicate of Sound
This band produced psychedelic rock, and their most significant single was the US national hit Little Girl.
The band went through multiple lineups and broke up in 1970.
The Fabulous Wailers
The Wailers, as they were also known, were popular in the 60s and early 70s around the Pacific Northwest. The Fabulous Wailers are often credited with being the first great garage band.
The Lovin’ Spoonful
This American band had a quirkiness that merged well with a distinctive interpretation of folk-rock that incorporated instrumentation and blues.
Their feel-good sound made them particularly popular in the 60s, and their most noted songs of the 60s included “Summer In The City,” ”Do You Believe In Magic,” and “Daydream.”
King Crimson emerged in the latter days of the 60s. Their style was eclectic and even included elements of classical and jazz genres.
However, the band was typically classified as a prog-rock group. The band’s debut release, In the Court of the Crimson King, was their most successful album.
Top Rock Bands Of The 60s, Final Thoughts
So, now you know some of the best 60s bands of all time. Every one of these rock groups laid the groundwork for the music of the next five decades. Each is more than deserving of being in your playlist!