Play Dirty: Lead Guitarists Who Shaped the 80s & 90s Glam Metal-Era

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In recent years, retrospective reverence for the 80s and 90s glam and sleaze metal era has grown to unexpected levels, with formally disbanded and dormant bands regrouping across stages around the globe.

For those that lived through the era, the parties, the wild times, and more, they will remember that while this era was to be defined by good times, and general excess, if we dig deeper, from a critical standpoint, some of the greatest rock and metal music of all time came out of the 80s and early 90s.

For those of us that weren’t there, AKA those of us that did not grow up during this music’s height, we came into it via our own means. For myself, and my cohort, Andrew DiCecco, rock music has always run through our veins, coursing through as lifeblood, which fuels us both, day in, and day out.

At the heart of all of that, is the guitar, more specifically, lead guitar, and so, Andrew and I set forth on a journey to rank our own personal fifteen greatest players of the era of glam metal. It was no easy task, and while there are a great many lists of this ilk out there, neither myself nor Andrew will claim ours is the be all end all.

At the end of the day, taste is subjective, we all have our opinion, and no matter how critically, and intellectually thought out it may be, opinion is just that – opinion.

Our aim from the get-go was to highlight the era, and its finest players based on merit first and foremost. Without bias, through careful dissection of their contributions, influence, and of course, technical skill, we’ve done just that. While we have our favorites, many of which were left on the cutting room floor, we painstaking have delivered a list, which we can comfortably stand by.

The era of 1980s and 90s glam metal was one of triumph, flamboyance, interesting personalities, and most importantly (to this list), fierce guitar sorcery, and this list will certainly deliver all of that and more. Come what may, Andrew Daly, and Andrew DiCecco present to you, Play Dirty: Lead Guitarist Who Shaped the 80s & 90s Glam Metal-Era.

15) Steve Lynch of Autograph (Daly’s Pick):

Often regarded as the “other Lynch” of his era, Steve Lynch‘s prowess as a lead guitarist cannot be understated. A latecomer to the scene, Lynch’s band, Autograph, didn’t hit it big until the rocker was nearly thirty with the release of the band’s mega-hit debut, Sign In Please (1984), followed by That’s The Stuff (1985). Lynch’s Hendrix-inspired playing evolved over time, and eventually, Lynch pioneered his two-handed, eight-finger tapping technique, which can be heard on full display via tracks such as the era-defining “Turn Up The Radio,” instrumental track, “Hammerhead,” and the hard-edged “Crazy World.”

While Lynch is often disregarded, the reality is, from a sheer shredding standpoint, the guitarist has few equals. Lynch’s intricate phrasing and concise targeting of chord tones set him apart from the pack, making him a truly singular player. It’s these characteristics that made his solos larger than life in his era, and still timeless present day.

Vinnie Vincent of KISS/Vinnie Vincent Invasion (DiCecco’s Pick):

It’s easy to forget that Vincent was ever anything more than an over-indulgent maverick, who couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. Delving beneath the surface, however, you’ll find a brilliant, perhaps misunderstood musician longing for another crack at the limelight following years of reclusiveness. If you’re willing to look beyond Vincent’s imperfections – and often one-dimensional playing – you’d likely acknowledge the undeniable talent that was most evident during his brief tenure in KISS.

Vincent didn’t make my list because of those over-the-top Vinnie Vincent Invasion albums. I mean, I enjoy both of those records as much as the next person, but it doesn’t exactly move the needle. Instead, Vincent is here because I thought his work on Creatures of the Night and Lick it Up was exceptional and warranted a slot. Vincent was at his best when he had Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons presiding over him to ensure he showed restraint in his soloing, and songs like “I Love It Loud,” “War Machine,” “A Million to One,” and his lead work on “Exciter” further exemplify his capabilities.

14) Harry Cody of Shotgun Messiah (Daly’s Pick):

Glam turned industrial virtuoso, Harry Cody, can cover just about any genre of music thrown his way with subtle ease not possessed by most of his contemporaries. With Shotgun Messiah, Cody, along with partner in crime, Tim Skold, formed a dynamic songwriting duo that repeatedly crossed genre barriers over the course of the band’s three records, Shotgun Messiah (1989), Second Coming (1991), and Violent New Breed (1993).

Cody’s compositional skills are first-rate, and his hybrid playing, which is accented by his use of oftentimes chipped copper picks, is complex and distinctive. As a band, Shotgun Messiah was one that was only just scratching the surface, and its fans are to this day, left wanting, if not begging, for more.

For those interested in learning more about Harry Cody, his fathomless stylings can best be sampled via tracks such as “Nowhere Fast,” “Heartbreak Blvd,” “Red Hot,” and “I’m a Gun.”

Frank Hannon of Tesla (DiCecco’s Pick):

Tesla differed from many of the bands on this list by adopting a no-nonsense approach to rock ‘n’ roll that became instantly recognizable, especially as the era drew to a close. Hannon, a member of the original lineup and one of the most proficient guitarists in the industry, infused Tesla with his unique blend of 70s style influence intertwined with blues and hard rock elements. Hannon’s throwback stylings proved to be a seamless fit for the band, who had produced three albums by 1991 (also known as the emergence of grunge): Mechanical Resonance (1986), The Great Radio Controversy (1989), and Psychotic Supper (1991).

To further explore Hannon’s catalog, I suggest “Love Song,” “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out),” and “Hang Tough.”

13) Joey Allen of Warrant (Daly’s Pick):

Joey Allen hit the scene with his band, Warrant, a bit late in the era, but it was no matter, in just a year’s time, Warrant unleashed a duo of sleaze rock masterpieces in Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich (1989), and Cherry Pie (1990), the latter of which more or less came to define the excess and grandiose nature of the era.

From a musical standpoint, the band’s titular frontman, Jani Lane, was flanked by the muscle-driven riffs, and electrifying power chords of bonecrusher, Joey Allen. While Allen may not mirror the neoclassical stylings of some of his contemporaries, his classic, meat and potatoes approach was all Warrant needed to ascend to greatness.

Pushing into the 90s, Warrant’s album, Dog Eat Dog (1992) served to show a heavier, less glammed-out version of the band, revealing a darker, grittier, and angrier side of the normally jubilant bunch. The album is nothing short of a showcase for Allen, and his bravado-driven guitar heroics. Dog Eat Dog is an album far too many fans missed, and simply put, that needs to change.

Perfect examples of his chops can be heard via “Cold Sweat” “Cherry Pie,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “Machine Gun.”

Reb Beach of Winger (DiCecco’s Pick):

Most 80s rock purists don’t immediately identify a heavy-sounding guitar with Winger, but Reb Beach shouldn’t be surprising to see on this list. Beach, known for implementing the two-handed tapping technique, is a remarkably refined six-stringer known for his phrasing, memorable riffs, and intricate solos. Beach played on all three Winger records before the band took an extended break – Winger (1988), In the Heart of the Young (1990), and Pull (1993) – but not before leaving his mark on the decade with a pair of tasty solos in “Seventeen” and “Headed for a Heartbreak.”

Beach continued to evolve as a musician over the years, and most recently, he’s released a solo album and has another Black Swan record on the way.

12) Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox (Daly’s Pick):

Most will remember Michael Kelly Smith for his days with criminally underexposed band, Britny Fox, who as heroes of the east coast scene, took the glam world by storm through their 1988 self-titled debut, and the near-perfect follow up, Boys In Heat (1989). What a great many don’t remember is Kelly Smith actually was an original member of Cinderella, who was replaced by Jeff LaBar in the eleventh hour, just as the band was knocking on the door of success, a decision which still mystifies me to this day given Kelly Smith’s immense technical prowess, gift for songwriting, and seemingly tailor-made aesthetic which fit the era perfectly.

In 1991, after the departure of frontman, and buzzsaw vocalist, Dean Davidson, Britny Fox brought on Tommy Paris, and recorded a gem of an album in Bite Down Hard (1991). In my chat with, Johnny Dee, the drummer went on to say, “Bite Down Hard was a special one, I’m very proud of that still. We brought Tommy [Paris] in, and all lived together for a while, getting to know each other while focusing on jamming, writing, and demoing new material. We proved that it wasn’t a one-man show and that we could still make a great album even though the singer and main songwriter bailed.” In my estimation, it goes without saying that the band leaned heavily on the songsmith of Kelly Smith, and the melodic, hard edge the album took on reflects as much.

What I love most about Kelly Smith is, simply put, he is a throwback, who was unafraid to take 70s inspired licks and amplify them through a 1980s lens, bringing greater focus to the fact that you don’t have to shred like Malmsteen to make a name for yourself in the business of rock music. In my eyes, Kelly Smith is a classier, more proficient version of CC DeVille.

As far as Britny Fox is concerned, Kelly Smith’s playing ably guided the band, which has best showcased through tracks such as “Long Way To Love,” “Girlschool,” “In America,” and “Standing In The Shadows.”

Carlos Cavazo of Quiet Riot (DiCecco’s Pick):

In full transparency, one of the toughest assignments I had when assembling this list was figuring out where to slot Cavazo, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite guitarists in the general scope. As a member of Quiet Riot’s Metal Heath lineup, Cavazo was part of a unit that essentially kicked down the proverbial walls for all other rock and metal acts of the time to be signed. As a member of that Metal Health lineup, Cavazo will forever be a crucial figure in the annals of rock history.

Metal Health became the first Heavy Metal album to soar to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. The album was fueled by two Billboard hits “Cum On Feel the Noize” (No. 5) and “Metal Health” (No. 31), songs that remain iconic rock anthems to this day.

Even before Quiet Riot, Cavazo was in an immensely popular LA act, Snow, with vocalist Doug Ellison, drummer Stephen Quadros, and his brother Tony. The band was a fixture amongst the LA club circuit, and the main riff/structure actually comes from the Snow song, “No More Booze,” which eventually evolved into “Metal Health.” Still, while I’m a fan of Carlos’ phrasing and multifaceted skill set, it was hard to look past the limited success of Quiet Riot in the subsequent years to justify a higher slot. As much as it pained me to do so.

11) Tommy Thayer of Black ‘N Blue (Daly’s Pick):

Present-day, rock and metal fans will recognize Tommy Thayer as a member of glam rock legends, KISS, where he has taken on the persona of “The Spaceman,” sporting the band’s signature kabuki makeup, and accompanying costumes. Harkening back to the 80s, Thayer was the lead guitarist for another Sunset Strip great, Black ‘N Blue. Alongside his partner in crime, Jaime St. James, Thayer anchored Black ‘N Blue across four albums, Black ‘N Blue (1984), Without Love (1985), Nasty Nasty (1986), and In Heat (1988), with his blues-inspired playing, and innate restraint, which enabled the guitarist to specifically cater to each and every song’s specific needs.

When I chatted with Black ’N Blues frontman, Jaime St. James, the singer had this to say about Thayer, ”I everybody, ‘Tommy is one of my favorite all-time guitarists.’ And I’ll tell you, I mean, he really has a feel. I mean, the way he can play rhythm and I know the guy can pick up anything, there were a lot of times he would just lay it down and make it look easy. It was great for me because it opened my mind up. I remember singing him riffs that he would just hold it down perfectly. Tommy is a great guitar player. He knows all these chords and is really cool to write with.”

As for signature tracks, the best examples of Thayer’s songsmith are “Hold On to 18,” “Chains Around Heaven,” “Nasty Nasty,” and “The Snake.”

Harry Cody of Shotgun Messiah (DiCecco’s Pick):

Though Cody’s band, Shotgun Messiah, was incredulously underappreciated, the innovative guitarist was widely recognized as a world-class talent. Shotgun Messiah, a byproduct of the ever-evolving artistic vision of Cody and bassist/vocalist Tim Skold, dared to explore uncharted musical avenues on each of the band’s three studio albums, Shotgun Messiah (1989), Second Coming (1991), and Violent New Breed (1993).

Unlike anyone I’ve ever seen, Cody combines face-melting solos, scorching riffs, and melodic ferocity with an unmatched technical proficiency. Although he originally used Sharkfin guitar picks, Cody eventually switched to the more cost-effective Hot Licks Copper Picks, which enhanced his sound even further when it came to pick-scraping.

I asked Cody how the use of copper picks shaped his distinct sound during our recent chat:

I had one of the original Floyd Rose models of whammy bar before they had fine-tuners ordered straight from Grover Jackson’s garage in Washington State, or wherever the hell he was. Brought one over, put it in a homemade guitar of mine. I didn’t always have a screwdriver handy, so if I wanted to adjust something, I used the copper pick, and that chipped the pick. It got really chipped and eaten up along the side of it, and then I noticed that if I dragged that along the strings – up and down, what have you – then I could make some really cool sound effects with that. And from that point on, there’s no going back to plastic, because there’s nothing you can do with plastic that’s gonna give the same effects.

“So, like, there’s this sort of ascending ray gun effect at the end of “Trouble” on Second Coming, that is just me swirling the copper pick in a circular motion faster, and faster up the neck. Then, of course, all the scrapes and stuff for “Heartbreak Blvd.” The very last thing on “The Explorer,” before the classical-sounding, free-standing long lick that everyone goes nuts for, it ends with this sound, and that’s also the pick being drawn along the string; from thicker to thinner, just stripped down. So, there were a ton of cool effects that I could do with a chewed-up copper pick that I just couldn’t do without at that point.”

I’ll continue to be a relentless champion of Shotgun Messiah in hopes of spurring a resurgence for the music – and a reintroduction to Cody’s guitar sorcery. You should check out the band’s self-titled debut if your taste runs toward glam metal, Second Coming if you’re looking for a sleazier, edgier, punk-influenced sound, and Violent New Breed if your musical preference lies on the industrial spectrum. Some of my catalog favorites include, “The Explorer,” “Don’t Care ‘Bout Nothin’,” “Heartbreak Blvd,” “Free,” “I’m a Gun,” and “Enemy in Me.”

10) Paul DiBartolo of Spread Eagle (Daly’s Pick)

Spread Eagle’s 1990 self-titled affair, serves as one of the more hard-edged records of the latter stages of the sleaze rock era. Hailed as the east coast’s answer to the likes of Guns ‘N Roses, and universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike, Spread Eagle was held back from world-dominating success by shoddy label and management decisions. Bad luck aside, Spread Eagle was a musical powerhouse, and a great deal of that was attributed to low-key virtuoso, Paul DiBartolo. DiBartolo’s gift for outright shred, ear for melody, and streetsmart, raw power attitude enabled the six-stringer to co-craft two late-stage classics in Spread Eagle (1990), and Open to the Public (1993).

To that end, during my recent interview with the band’s singer, Ray West, he elaborated on his early impressions of the guitarist, ”Paul looked cool and had some swagger. Paul walked the walk, and he talked the talk — it was awesome. And from the first beer, we just got along, and man the guy could flat out play.” After the end of Spread Eagle’s first run in 1995, DiBartolo went on to compose for VH1, and after a few years, the shredder changed his name to Salvadore Poe and drifted into self-imposed seclusion in India.

You’d best-served sampling DiBartolo’s bristling buffet of sounds via tracks such as “Switchblade Serenade,” “Broken City,” “Scratch Like A Cat,” and “Revolution Maker.”

Michael Kelly Smith of Britny Fox (DiCecco’s Pick):

Kelly Smith drew inspiration from Michael Schenker and the late Ronnie Montrose while creating his own distinctive style and sound, setting himself apart from his contemporaries. A founding member of both Cinderella and Britny Fox, legendary Philadelphia hard rock acts forged by blue-collar work ethic, steadfast determination, and a high standard of musicianship, Kelly Smith ultimately ascended to prominence with the latter. Before the drastic alteration of the musical landscape, Britny Fox released three defining albums despite arriving relatively late on the scene: Britny Fox (1988), Boys in Heat (1989), and Bite Down Hard (1991).

During a time of excess in music, Kelly Smith was a breath of fresh air. As Kelly Smith merged his 70s-inspired influences into his own unique style, he managed to beautifully weave together melodic phrasing, feel, and technical ability. His solos always fit appropriately within the structure of the song without ever going over the top. Among Kelly Smith’s many talents are his songwriting skills, as demonstrated by the song “Dream On” on Boys in Heat.

“I always kind of just did what I did,” Kelly Smith told me in a rare interview. “At that point, I had developed my style. I never really thought of myself as part of that whole guitar shredder group of players. That style never appealed to me. I mean, yeah, I could play fast here and there when I thought it fit, but it wasn’t my thing. In fact, I wasn’t really a fan of it. My goal was to play more like Schenker — more melodic. But don’t get me wrong, I completely respect and appreciate what those guys can do.

Michael’s playing always had a profound impact on me and still does to this day. When I think of 80s hard rock, one of the first bands I think of is Britny Fox, another band that I proudly champion. I encourage all to check out – or revisit, in some cases – “Long Way to Love,” “Rock Revolution,” “In Motion,” “Dream On,” “Stevie,” and ”Louder,” so you can hopefully appreciate them similarly.

9) Adrian Vandenberg of Vandenberg/Whitesnake (Daly’s Pick):

One of a select few guitarists which would be meticulously handpicked by David Coverdale over the years, by the mid-80s, Adrian Vandenberg was a known entity through his outstanding work with his own band, Vandenberg. But his career shifted to otherworldly levels when he was cherrypicked by David Coverdale to join the powerhouse Whitesnake, in 1986. It’s worth noting that throughout the earlier portion of the decade, Coverdale had repeatedly asked Vandenberg to join Whitenskake, only to have his overtures rebuffed due to Vandenbergs own band’s success.

Eventually, the melodic master acquiesced, and overnight, the rocker was elevated to universe-dominating-guitar-hero-status, as he joined the mighty Whitesnake at the tail-end of the recording sessions for the band’s 1987 self-titled album.

Soon after, he made his presence known, laying down the memorable solo on chart-topping hit, “Here I Go Again ’87.” On tour, Vandenberg would replace the departed John Sykes, and it was during this jaunt that both Vandenberg and Coverdale would collaborate to write the band’s follow-up, Slip of the Tongue (1989).

Wrist problems would begin to hamper Vandenberg, ushering in the assistance of Steve Vai, but tracks such as “Rock On,” “Alibi,” “Here I Go Again ’87,” and “Slip of the Tongue,” reflect his enduring influence.

Tracii Guns of LA Guns (DiCecco’s Pick):

Guns will forever be connected to rock history as one of the founding members of both Guns N’ Roses and LA Guns, which he rebooted after leaving the former in 1985. The band’s self-titled debut (1988) went certified gold, producing hit singles such as “One More Reason,” “Sex Action,” and “Electric Gypsy,” but the nucleus of the band revolved around its multifaceted guitarist and the charisma and vocal range of singer Phil Lewis. The formula proved to be a successful remedy to a waning music scene, churning out two more gold qualifiers in Cocked & Loaded (1989), and Hollywood Vampires (1991). I’m particularly partial to the former, which produced another slew of hit singles which included “Rip and Tear,” “Never Enough,” and “The Ballad of Jayne,” as well as a personal favorite, “Malaria.” Guns’ sound is easily identifiable, and his tone and attitude have always appealed to me. A phenomenal talent who continues to bring it.

8) Warren DeMartini of Ratt (Daly’s Pick):

From a sheer sleaze rock riffing standpoint, Warren DeMartini has no equal. At the height of the 80s glam metal era, DeMartini and his band, Ratt, cast a long shadow across the Sunset Strip, with the release of a string of records which would come to soundtrack the decade in Out of the Cellar (1984), Invasion of Your Privacy (1985), Detonator (1990) and more.

While DeMartini’s characteristic style and signature ambiance would come to define the sound of Ratt, interestingly enough, he was not the band’s first choice. Early on, Ratt was anchored by none other than Jake E. Lee, who after securing a gig with Ozzy Osbourne, worked to teach DeMartini the band’s early cuts, ensuring a smooth transition. Ratt would go on to feature many incredible guitarists over the years such as Michael Schenker and Carlos Cavazos, but no one could ever hardness the sound and vibe that defines Ratt in the way that DeMartini could.

While Lee may have kicked things off, DeMartini certainly made the band his own, proof of which can be heard through classic tracks such as “Round and Round,” “Lay It Down,” “You’re In Love,” and “One Step Away.”

Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe (DiCecco’s Pick):

A tad lower on my list than I originally envisioned when piecing this together, but nevertheless, Mars sneaks into the backend of the top-10. Between Too Fast for Love (1981), Shout at the Devil (1983), Theatre of Pain (1984), Girls, Girls, Girls (1987), and Dr. Feelgood (1989), one would be hard-pressed to name a contemporary with greater sustained impact and production throughout the entirety of an era than Mick Mars. Armed with a bluesy style, hearty, catchy riffs, and vibrant solos in his arsenal, Mars continues to serve as the unsung hero in Mötley Crüe. Mars, like the rest of the band, honed their craft throughout the 1980s and were in top form by the release of Girls, Girls, Girls. Mick’s finest work is found on “Wild Side,” in my opinion.

Mick was always pretty straight, pretty diligent, and well-prepared in terms of what he was gonna play,” producer Tom Werman said to me in a recent interview. “And he had some really great licks. I mean, his guitar licks were the basis of all their songs.

7) Vinnie Vincent of KISS/Vinnie Vincent Invasion (Daly’s Pick):

Vinnie Vincent’s inclusion on this list may surprise some who perhaps have forgotten the shredder’s prowess due to his reclusive nature, and lack of new material over the last thirty-plus years. This said, in his day, Vincent was one of the premier axe-slingers of his era, with a distinctive, and vicious tone that I personally love. After years as a session musician, Vincent hooked on with glam rock originators, KISS, who after the loss of Ace Frehley, hired Vincent as his able replacement. The duo of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons got more than they bargained for on multiple levels, as Vincent lent his talents to two albums in the career-defining masterwork, Creatures of the Night (1982), and Lick It Up (1983), the latter of which is an early glam metal masterpiece, and completely changed KISS’ fortunes.

Vincent’s yearning for the spotlight and oftentimes inflammatory nature saw him move to form the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, which recorded its self-titled album in 1986, and All Systems Go in 1988. In the ensuing years, Vincent has seldom been heard from, but the fact that we are still talking about him, and that his every move garners immediate interest tells us all we need to know. There is no denying Vincent’s prowess as a lead guitarist, riff master, and songwriter as evident on tracks such as “I Love It Loud,” “Killer,” “Exciter,” “Boyz Are Gonna Rock,” and “Naughty Naughty.”

Amazingly, despite years of bad blood, lawsuits, and verbal jarring through the press, Stanley, and Simmons rehired Vincent as a songwriter for the sessions leading up to 1992’s stunning Revenge. While relations would once again break down, the sessions proved fruitful, producing at least two more co-writes in “Unholy,” and “I Just Wanna,” further proving Vincent’s immense worth as a songwriter.

There are ample rumblings that after over thirty years of relative inactivity, Vincent has reportedly completed his long-awaited new album, and will unleash it unto his ever-drooling fans in 2022. According to Creatures Fest promotor, and close confidant of the enigmatic guitarist, Neil Davis, “The new Vinnie Vincent Invasion album is so good! We are listening to it now,” he wrote, adding that media outlets were, “Going to go crazy over this.” With Vincent, one can never know, and time will tell if any new music actually comes to fruition, or even exists at all. Stay tuned.

Matthias Jabs of Scorpians (DiCecco’s Pick):

Incredibly, Jabs remains among the most underappreciated six-stringers of the 1980s despite powering many of the decade’s most memorable songs. Jabs, who was brought in as a replacement for the departed Uli John Roth ahead of Lovedrive in 1979, wasted no time making his mark. In his debut effort, the Hannover, West Germany native split guitar work with Michael Schenker, delivering scorching leads on four songs, including the title track. A keen sense of melody, gnarly fills, and timely pinch harmonics – with just the right amount of flash – best-encompassed Jabs’ style.

The best representation of his handiwork can be found on defining tracks such as “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” “No One Like You,” “The Zoo,” “I’m Leaving You,” and “Bad Boys Running Wild.” If you aren’t convinced yet, just track down a copy of Love at First Sting and press play.

6) Steve Clark of Def Leppard (Daly’s Pick):

In terms of reverence and sonically defining an era, few guitarists accomplished what the gone-too-soon guitarist, Steve Clark, was able to with mega-act, Def Leppard. When one thinks about classic, radio staple, flex-your-arm, sex-driven, 80s rock, Def Leppard is often what comes to mind. Drilling down into the nuts and bolts of the band, when it comes to hit records High ‘n’ Dry (1981), Pyromania (1983), and Hysteria (1987), it always comes back to the wizardry, pop sensibilities, and tonal awareness of Steve Clark.

Clark’s knack for hook-laden, yet hard-driving stylings served Def Leppard nicely, and his chemistry with second guitarist, Pete Willis, was ever apparent. Sadly, the rock world lost Clark too soon, as he perished due to ongoing issues with drugs and alcohol, at the young age of thirty.

While most fans can only dream of what Clark might have accomplished had his time not been cut short, we can still revel in the likes of “Brigin’ on the Heartbreak,” “Photograph,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and “Hysteria,” in remembrance.

Steve Clark of Def Leppard (DiCecco’s Pick):

My initial introduction to the mighty Def Leppard came via High ‘N’ Dry (1981) – which happens to be my favorite Leppard album – and I vividly recall being drawn to the complementary twin guitar attack of Clark and Pete Willis. I could write an entire article on Willis, another one of my favorite guitarists who never quite got his due, but that’s a story for another day. What gravitated me to Clark’s playing was his unique blend of classical structure and improvisation. Clark also had a tremendous sense of harmony and feel, whether it was Willis, or later, Phil Colleen, sharing the stage with him as the second guitarist. Sadly, Clark passed away in 1991 at just thirty years old, but his legacy continues to live on.

In all, Clark’s credits include On Through the Night (1980), High ‘N’ Dry (1981), Pyromania (1983), Hysteria (1987), and Adrenalize (1992, songwriting and demos only). Some of my favorite early Steve Clark tracks include “Wasted,” “Another Hit and Run,” “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak,” and one of my favorite instrumentals, “Switch 625.”

5) Carlos Cavazo of Quiet Riot (Daly’s Pick):

Attempting to quantify the importance of Carlos Cavazo on the 1980s glam metal scene is near impossible. One could go on and on for days regarding the guitarist’s ability to light a fire up and down the fretboard with an ease that most of Cavazo’s contemporaries could only dream of.

While that exercise may be engaging, ultimately, Cavazo’s influence is best measured by the watershed success of 80s glam metal originators, Quiet Riot, who more or less kicked off an entire era with the release of Metal Health in 1983, followed by Condition Critical (1984), and QR III (1986).

Cavazo would go on to hold down six-string duties for Quiet Riot through the band’s commercial peak, with his signature tone buzzing through the band’s music through 1988, before riding off into the sunset in the late 80s, but not without checking in again from time to time. A great many have held court as Quiet Riot’ lead guitarist since, with names such as Tracii Guns, Neil Citron, and most recently Alex Grossi doing their best to carry on the legacy which Cavazo created.

As for Cavazo, after a stint with Ratt, the rocker has been mostly dormant since 2018, but his talent is too bold to hold down for too long, hopefully. Cavazo’s chops are best on display through tracks such as “Metal Health,” “Battle Axe,” and “Party All Night.”

Mark Kendall of Great White (DiCecco’s Pick):

In my opinion, it’s impossible to compile a list of the greatest guitarists of the 1980s without including Mark Kendall. For starters, the Great White axe-slinger had recorded five albums, each of significance, by 1991: Great White (1984), Shot in the Dark (1986), Once Bitten (1987), …Twice Shy (1989), and Hooked (1991). Powered by Kendall’s melodic, blues-infused licks and the soaring vocals of frontman Jack Russell, Great White produced countless hit singles over that span, including “Rock Me,” “Save Your Love,” “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “The Angel Song,” “Lady Red Light,” and “House of Broken Love.”

Great White’s blues roots made them unlike any of their contemporaries, and they were often considered to be in a league of their own. Kendall, however, was more than capable of keeping up with anyone. His crisp tone and melodically driven solos contributed greatly to the band’s success in the late 1980s. For reference, just listen to his playing on “Rock Me” and “House of Broken Love.” Pure genius.

4) Bruce Kulick of KISS (Daly’s Pick):

My KISS fandom is no secret, but that’s not why Bruce Kulick hits this spot on my list. If chops and influence is the name of the game, then Bruce Kulick has that in spades. Kulick’s early years with the likes of Meat Loaf, and Billy Squire prepared the rocker for what was to come, which in 1984, came in the form of world-dominating, platinum-level success with none other than KISS. Sure, KISS was in the midst of a major revival with the help of Vinnie Vincent, but Kulick brought stability to the band at the lead guitar position not seen in years, and soon, his own material, coupled with the band’s classics’ laid in his able hands.

To this end, Kulick quipped in my interview with him, “I wasn’t told when I got to the KISS gig to copy or be exact, but I was always a fan of being sure the signature riffs were covered and to know how to interpret them and make it my own. So, they got the right guy.”

As KISS’ lead guitarist, the results were nothing short of staggering, with Kulick’s work on Asylum (1985), Crazy Nights (1987), and Hot In The Shade (1989) showcasing some of the most ferocious and machismo-driven guitar tone of the era. Furthermore, his work on late-era masterpiece, Revenge (1992), shows the guitarist’s versatile nature bursting at the seams, breaking ground toward his absolute technical and artistic peak.

If there was ever a player who deserves more love, it’s Bruce Kulick. Listen back to “Any Way You Slice It,” “Thief in the Night, “No, No, No,” “You Love Me To Hate You,” “Take it Off,” and “Spit,” and hear it for yourself.

Warren DeMartini of Ratt (DiCecco’s Pick):

Midway through the 1980s, DeMartini became a major musical force due largely to his aggressive sound infused with melody, unique bending, and wicked vibrato. There were very few guitarists who could compete with Ratt’s electrifying six-stringer, whose ballsy tone and searing riffs helped catapult the band toward hard rock immortality, thanks to the platinum-selling albums Out of the Cellar (1984), Invasion of Your Privacy (1985), Dancing Undercover (1986), and Reach for the Sky (1989).

Every one of the aforementioned albums is as essential listening for any fan of the genre, but some of DeMartini’s best work appears on “Wanted Man,” “Lack of Communication,” “Lay it Down,” “Body Talk,” and “Way Cool Jr.

3) Vito Bratta of White Lion (Daly’s Pick):

Vito Bratta isn’t the first reclusive guitar hero on this list, but he certainly is one of the most proficient, and influential, in the eyes of this writer at least. For guitar junkies, Bratta is well known as the lead guitarist, and primary songwriter of 80s glam legends White Lion, who famously folded their proverbial tent at the height of their fame, while they had multiple singles still gracing the charts. Bratta was known for his use of offbeat harmonics, which was extremely unusual for the type of music he was playing. In addition, his two-handed tapping, sweep picking, and whammy bar proficiency were first-rate. It must be said that while Bratta might not have pioneered these techniques, he certainly perfected them, and subsequently, made them his own.

Sadly, interband dynamics led to the demise of White Lion in 1992, and Vito Bratta has not been heard from since. It is rumored that White Lion’s frontman, Mike Tramp, attempted to replace Bratta with the likes of Warren DeMartini and Paul Gilbert, but it could not be done. The band’s hit albums Pride (1987), Big Game (1989), and Mane Attraction (1991) are lasting reminders of what was, and what could have been.

As for Bratta’s chops, feast on “All The Fallen Men,” “Hungry,” “Tell Me,” “Little Fighter,” and “Cry For Freedom,” to catch the vibe.

John Sykes (DiCecco’s Pick):

Be it Tygers of Pan Tang, Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, or Blue Murder, Sykes provided a blues-based, full-bodied sound brimming with tastefulness, attitude, emotion, and melody that distinctively transformed the band’s sound. Perhaps coincidentally, Thin Lizzy’s Thunder and Lightning (1983) adopted a heavier, more aggressive sound after adding the youthfully exuberant Sykes to its lineup to complement Scott Gorham. For a small sample of Sykes’ early work, check out the track “Cold Sweat,” a song he co-wrote with the late Phil Lynott.

Sykes would subsequently solidify his guitar hero status in Whitesnake, where he served as the guitarist on 1984’s Slide it In (US version) and Whitesnake (1987). On Whitesnake, Sykes co-wrote all but two songs with singer David Coverdale on the US version, but it was his sublime guitar work on “Crying in the Rain,” “Bad Boys,” and “Still of the Night,” that should have served as a launching pad to greener pastures. Sykes’ solo on “Is This Love” remains one of my all-time favorites and illustrates his versatility. My contention is that Sykes’ career would have been drastically different had he remained with Whitesnake for the crucial ’87 tour.

Jarringly discarded, Sykes rebounded, forming the immensely popular Blue Murder before ultimately moving on to solo projects. Following twenty years of inactivity, Sykes released the singles “Dawning of a Brand New Day” on January 1, 2021, and “Out Alive” on July 5, 2021, songs which are expected to be included on his (hopefully) upcoming solo album, Sy-Ops. Here’s to hoping we hear more from Sykes in the near future.

2) George Lynch of Dokken/Lynch Mob (Daly’s Pick):

I struggled mightily with the placement of these last two heroes of 80s guitar. Ultimately, George Lynch slots in at number two, but that’s no knock on the guitarist’s prowess, influence, or incredible output during the 80s rock era. An ever-inventive, and chameleon-like player, Lynch sonically buoyed Dokken throughout the 1980s with albums such as Breaking the Chains (1983), Tooth and Nail (1984), Under Lock and Key (1985), and Back for Attack (1987) serving as proverbial showcases for Lynch’s emotive, and highly influential playing.

In 1990, Lynch released the debut album under his own Lynch Mob moniker, Wicked Sensation, which proved to be a juggernaut, highlighting his refrain and auto flanging, underscored by bursts of patient wizardry, and a supreme mastery of his instrument.

For those new to Lynch’s work, “In My Dreams,” “Alone Again,” “Cracks In The Ground,” “No Bed Of Roses,” “and “Through These Eyes,” are stunners.

George Lynch of Dokken/Lynch Mob (DiCecco’s Pick):

One of my most prized possessions happens to be an issue of Guitar for the Practicing Musician Magazine from February 1989, featuring Lynch, and my top guitarist on our list, gracing the cover. I’ve even been fortunate enough to capture Lynch’s guitar wizardry from merely a few feet away some years back – with Oni Logan fronting that particular incarnation of Lynch Mob that night, nonetheless – so this was certainly a decision I grappled with. Whether in Dokken, Lynch Mob, or any of his various musical ventures, Mr. Scary infuses each song with his hallmark audacious style that makes it nearly impossible to reproduce. In the 80s, Lynch’s technical prowess, fiery riffs, and innate sense of melody made Dokken a prominent 80s hard rock act poised for high success alongside Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard, only to erode at the height of its fame. Some of Lynch’s watershed moments can be heard on “Tooth and Nail,” “Alone Again,” “In My Dreams,” “Unchain the Night,” and “Mr. Scary.”

Following the demise of Dokken, Lynch, determined to steer things in a heavier direction, founded Lynch Mob. The debut album, 1990’s Wicked Sensation, fuses bluesy hard rock with an influx of nifty guitar work from Lynch, including the title track, “No Bed of Roses,” and “Street Fighting Man.” Lynch’s remarkable ability to seemingly improve with age – he’s now sixty-seven – is a testament to his dedication to the craft. If George Lynch & The Electric Freedom are playing in a town near you, you won’t want to miss the show.

1) John Sykes of Whitesnake/Blue Murder (Daly’s Pick):

When it comes down to it, when I think of 1980s glam metal guitar, I think of John Sykes. In the era of sleaze rock, Sykes could be seen sharing the stage with David Coverdale as Whitesnake’s newest lead guitarist. Sykes’s impact was immediate, transforming Whitesnake from a 70s blues-rock outfit, into an 80s glam rock monster. After the recording and touring cycle for Slide It In (1984), Sykes and Coverdale got to work, and the fruits of those labors would be the era’s defining album, Whitesnake (1987). While conflicts with Coverdale would find Sykes on the outs before he could even tour the record, he wasn’t done just yet.

In short order, Sykes hooked up with Carmine Appice, and Tony Franklin, forming Blue Murder, and the trio’s 1989 self-titled record proved to be Whitesnake’s shocking equal, and the band’s follow up, Nothin’ But Trouble (1993) wasn’t far off. Puzzlingly, both albums received next to no support from Geffen Records, and stalled commercially. To this end, in my chat with Carmine Appice, he commented, “John thought that David Coverdale had something to do with it because when John left Whitesnake, they parted as enemies. He thought Coverdale snuffed it out with Geffen because Whitesnake had just sold 27 million records, and he had more control.”

Rising and changing sonic tides would not be kind to Sykes, and eventually, he moved into seclusion. Still, John Syke’s lasting impact is felt to this day. His tone, inflection, and dynamic chord progressions are distinctive, and his effectiveness as the decades prototypical lead guitarist cannot be minimized. Sykes aggressively attacked his guitar’s strings, bending them to their virtual breaking point, threatening to rupture the very core of the instrument, and letting them ring out like no other, and his echoing solos are a sight to behold.

In my chat with drummer Carmine Appice, he spoke about his initial yearning to work with Sykes saying, “First of all, I loved John Sykes in Whitesnake. In 1987, when they were doing the big Whitesnake album, he asked me to play drums on it. So, I said to them, ‘I have my own snake to deal with in King Kobra, why don’t you call Aynsley Dunbar?’ So, they did. And that thing sold 27 million records and I loved it. Now, I loved John Sykes’s playing and I realized he did a lot of songwriting too, and I just loved his playing. Then I heard there’s a new band called ‘Blue Murder,’ I heard about Blue Murder, and I was like, ‘I would fucking love to play in that band.'”

If you’re unfamiliar with Sykes, dig into “Love Ain’t No Stranger,” “Spit It Out,” “Still of the Night,” “Blue Murder,” “Valley of the Kings,” and “We All Fall Down.” It’s plain to see that Sykes didn’t just see the guitar as an instrument – the rocker saw the guitar as an extension of his mind, body, and soul.

Vito Bratta of White Lion (DiCecco’s Pick):

Few guitarists possessed more technical command of their instrument than Vito Bratta. The Staten Island native first made his mark on the music scene as the axe-slinger that fueled Dreamer, one of the area’s most successful cover bands, but it wasn’t until after forming White Lion with singer Mike Tramp in 1983 that Bratta proved to be in a class of his own. The guitar virtuoso became a household name following the release of Pride (1987), a multi-platinum sophomore effort that showcased Bratta’s unique implementation of melodic phrasing, two-handed tapping, and inherently clean tone. His solos often served as songs within themselves, perhaps none more evidently than “Wait.” For additional Bratta brilliance, listen to “Little Fighter,” “Lady of the Valley,” “Hungry,” “Goin’ Home Tonight,” “Warsong,” and “When The Children Cry.” The latter features perhaps the most moving solo I’ve ever heard in its context.

White Lion opened for the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, ACϟDC, and Cinderella while supporting 1988’s Big Game, but it wasn’t until Mane Attraction (1991) that the band began to experiment with their sound.

“I’ve said it many times,” former White Lion vocalist Mike Tramp began to explain to me during our interview. “I think that not so much musically, but we were going towards Journey – Rush would be too big of a step – but we wanted to go that way as a band; a Deep Purple, grown-up band. The kinds of bands like Journey, Styx, and those bands had been in the 70s, where it was all about great musicianship. Step-by-step, in our own way, we were going there. Had we come back with an album after Mane Attraction, that’s the way it would have been, with major keyboards as a fifth member to allow Vito to do a lot of different things.”

Unfortunately, White Lion and many of its contemporaries were swiftly swept away by a tidal wave that signaled the dawn of a new era, and Bratta never performed again. However, to quantify Bratta’s impact, the wunderkind guitarist has been musically inactive for thirty-one years and counting, yet his music continues to resonate to this day.

Image credit: BC Rich Guitars

After grudgingly crunching numbers and trimming our lists over the course of multiple weeks, these are the fifteen guitarists we passionately decided to lobby for and support. Sure, there is unquestionably a multitude of awe-inspiring guitar heroes worthy of consideration, but we vehemently stand behind our belief that our respective lists accurately represent our musical DNAs, and influences, while sensibly paying proper reverence to an iconic era.

Some of the players listed hardly required an introduction, while others may have rekindled awareness to bands and guitarists that time has all but forgotten. Though impassioned discourse is imminent, and welcomed, it’s important to keep one thing in mind – the are no right or wrong submissions. Just endless optionality. Cheers.

Interested in learning more about the guitar heroes we chose for this list? His the links below:

Video image courtesy of Charlotte
Video courtesy of Bryce Talks Metal
Video courtesy of Gene511

Be sure to dive into the full archives of:

Idle Chatter, by Andrew Daly here:

Shredful Compositions by Andrew DiCecco here:

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