For fans of uninhibited guitar heroics, no decade will ever come close to the ’80s.
Virtuosity ruled the day, and every guitarist worth their salt was desperate to follow in the footsteps of Eddie Van Halen, whose two-handed tapping and whammy-bar dive-bombs revolutionized the medium when Van Halen released their self-titled debut album in 1978. The following decade saw plenty of guitarists put their spin on the formula, from Randy Rhoads‘ neoclassical shredding to the blues-with-a-twist acrobatics of Ratt‘s Warren DeMartini and Robbin Crosby.
Many of these guitarists are routinely ranked near the top of the hard-rock heap. But for every Slash, George Lynch or Nuno Bettencourt, there are plenty who have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Read about some of them in the non-exhaustive list of 10 Underrated ’80s Hard Rock Guitar Heroes.
Vito Bratta (White Lion)
“Vito Bratta is the only guitarist I’ve heard who sounds cool doing taps,” an up-and-coming Zakk Wylde told Guitar World in 1989. While the White Lion guitarist may not have been the only one who utilized the technique well, he was certainly one of the best and most inventive. Bratta often got unfairly pegged as an Eddie Van Halen clone, and sure, he could pull off hyper-speed runs and harmonic dive-bombs with the best of them. But it’s his innate sense of melody — as heard on the balletic solo to “Wait” — that makes him one of the most underrated guitar heroes of the ’80s.
Jake E. Lee (Ozzy Osbourne, Badlands, Red Dragon Cartel)
Under normal circumstances, Jake E. Lee would be widely hailed as one of the biggest and best guitar heroes of the ’80s, responsible for pulling Ozzy Osbourne out of a career tailspin following the death of Randy Rhoads. Unfortunately, his tenure was sandwiched between Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, dooming him to becoming a footnote in the Prince of Darkness’ story. That’s a tragedy because Lee’s diamond-hard riffs and blazing solos are the highlights of 1983’s Bark at the Moon and 1986’s The Ultimate Sin. After being unceremoniously fired by Sharon Osbourne in 1987, he formed the bluesy hard rock outfit Badlands with ex-Black Sabbath singer Ray Gillen and drummer Eric Singer, flaunting his melodic shredding across their 1989 self-titled debut. He’s continued to pursue vintage hard rock more recently with Red Dragon Cartel.
John Norum (Europe)
He’ll forever be associated with “The Final Countdown,” but Europe guitarist John Norum’s six-string skills extend far beyond the pop-metal classic. His razor-sharp shredding powers the band’s earlier, progressive metal-leaning work, as heard on Wings of Tomorrow cuts like “Scream of Anger” and the instrumental “Aphasia.” Latter-day Europe albums such as 2006’s Secret Society and 2015’s War of Kings showcase Norum’s muscular riffs and tasteful, head-spinning solos in a modern hard rock context.
Dave Sabo and Scotti Hill (Skid Row)
No small feat vying for attention over megawatt singer Sebastian Bach, but the former Skid Row frontman wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on if not for the formidable guitar duo of Dave “Snake” Sabo and Scotti Hill. Both guitarists deftly traded lead and rhythm duties, laying down titanic riffs and solos loaded with pinch harmonic squeals on classics like “Youth Gone Wild,” “Big Guns,” “Slave to the Grind” and “The Threat.” At a time when pop-metal bands were increasingly softening their sound and coasting on pretty-boy good looks, Sabo and Hill gave Skid Row a decidedly harder edge with their well-honed chops and untamed aggression.
Mark St. John (Kiss)
Similar to Jake E. Lee’s plight with Ozzy Osbourne, Mark St. John had the unfortunate distinction of playing in Kiss between the mercurial Vinnie Vincent and the long-term Bruce Kulick. He performed on only 1984’s Animalize, but his guitar work is incendiary — just check out his phrasing on hard-charging album opener “I’ve Had Enough (Into the Fire)” or his gobsmacking shredding on the speed-metal “Under the Gun.” St. John’s tenure in Kiss was cut short after he was diagnosed with reactive arthritis and replaced by Kulick, who meshed better with the rest of the band. He died in 2007 of an “apparent brain hemorrhage,” with evidence linking his condition to injuries he sustained during a beating while in jail.
Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake)
“Look, everyone knows I’m the ’80s guy,” Reb Beach confessed to Metal Edge. For decades, the guitarist has provided the yin to Kip Winger‘s yang, balancing out the singer’s grandiose, progressive ambitions with nimble riffs and dizzying solos. Beach’s elegant tapping and impossibly fast tremolo picking are undisputed highlights of songs like “Seventeen” and “Headed for a Heartbreak,” and he ushered the band into more metallic territory on 1993’s Pull. Since 2002, Beach has served as guitarist and musical director in Whitesnake, making him the band’s longest-tenured member behind David Coverdale, who exclusively harvests top-tier talent.
John Sykes (Tygers of Pan Tang, Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, Blue Murder)
John Sykes had already built an impressive resume with stints in Tygers of Pan Tang and Thin Lizzy by the time he teamed up with David Coverdale for the U.S. version of Whitesnake’s Slide it In. The two co-wrote nearly every song on Whitesnake’s star-making 1987 self-titled album, and Sykes’ molten-hot solos on “Crying in the Rain,” “Bad Boys” and “Still of the Night” are some of the best of any rock guitarist, regardless of decade. Sykes didn’t get to tour the album, as Coverdale sacked the entire 1987 lineup shortly before its release. He promptly formed Blue Murder with bassist Tony Franklin and drummer Carmine Appice, flexing both his guitar and vocal prowess on their 1989 self-titled debut.
Adrian Vandenberg (Whitesnake, Vandenberg’s MoonKings)
After Coverdale systematically fired all of Whitesnake, he enlisted Adrian Vandenberg and ex-Dio guitarist Vivian Campbell to fill John Sykes’ shoes on tour. Vandenberg demonstrated his six-string mastery on the road, and he co-wrote the bulk of 1989’s Slip of the Tongue with Coverdale, although injury prevented him from playing on the record. (Coverdale instead recruited Steve Vai, who played on the album’s supporting tour alongside Vandenberg.) He also helped Coverdale reboot Whitesnake with 1997’s stripped-down Restless Heart. An avowed disciple of Jimi Hendrix, Vandenberg switched seamlessly between bluesy, soulful lead work and neoclassical shredding, and he proved himself an invaluable member of the constantly shapeshifting Whitesnake. His band, Vandenberg’s MoonKings, released their debut album MoonKings in 2014.
Tracii Guns (L.A. Guns, Brides of Destruction, Contraband)
Tracii Guns never set out to be the fastest gun (pun intended) in the West, but he one-upped his speed-king contemporaries with savage riffing and wild solos. His punk-metal shredding lends a raw urgency to early L.A. Guns classics like “No Mercy” and “Sex Action,” and his understated, bluesy lead work elevates their signature hit, “The Ballad of Jayne.” Guns has stayed plenty busy since L.A. Guns’ late-’80s heyday, playing in short-lived supergroups Contraband and Brides of Destruction and continuing to deliver excellent albums with his main band — all of which have rightfully boosted his profile as a modern-day guitar hero.
Akira Takasaki (Loudness)
Japanese metal band Loudness never achieved the stateside success of their peers, but they’ve maintained a staggering work ethic, releasing more than 25 studio albums and eight live LPs since forming in 1981. Guitarist Akira Takasaki has remained the sole constant member, and he’s earned ample praise in guitar circles for his dazzling virtuosity. Standout Loudness cuts like “Crazy Nights” and “Soldier of Fortune” are full of Takasaki’s punchy riffs and hyper-speed solos, which showcase his dizzying tapping and surgically precise alternate picking.
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