13 Of The Most Famous Metal Bands Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

A subgenre of rock and roll, heavy metal has impacted fans seeking a harder edge to rock music. It helped generate various trends, styles, and sounds that formed rock and roll as it is known today.

While metal had its heyday in the late ’80s and into parts of the early ’90s, it is not difficult to measure its importance in music history. So in this list, we will look into the forerunners of metal.

Read on to learn about 13 of the greatest and most famous metal bands of all time and how they have significantly influenced the genre.

1. Metallica

Having the word “metal” in its name definitely foreshadows the type of music Metallica creates. As such, they were sometimes called one of the Big Four thrash metal bands.

The group, founded by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, is considered one of the bands that have helped to popularize metal. They also brought metal to a wider audience thanks to albums such as Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All.

The band’s impact can be heard in many other bands, both in heavy metal and in other genres. For their great contribution, Metallica was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

These days, Metallica continues to tour and release albums for their fans to enjoy, with their last studio album released in 2016.

2. Slayer

Our next band, Slayer, was formed in 1981 with original members Dave Lombardo, Tom Araya, Kerry King, and Jeff Hanneman. Because of their aggressive music style, they were considered one of the Big Four thrash metal bands.

Though often criticized for songs with topics such as anti-religion, torture, terrorism, and war, Slayer was still influential, especially with the release Reign in Blood, their third album, in 1986.

Their musical style, sometimes described as wildly chaotic, involves fast tremolo picking, double bass drumming, and vocals that bordered on screaming, growling, and yowling. And fans loved it.

Slayer has sold more than 5 million records in the United States alone and received 5 Grammy Awards. They were inducted into the Kerrang! Hall of Fame in 2006. 

3. Megadeth

After being released from Metallica just before the band’s debut, Dave Mustaine vowed to create a group of his own that would release heavier and faster music. This resulted in one of the Big Four thrash metal bands Megadeth in 1983.

Mustaine made true his words; Megadeth emphasized speed and intensity that they were often cited as the world’s state-of-the-art speed metal band. This is especially seen in their 1990 Platinum album Rust in Peace.

However, it was Countdown to Extinction that was their most successful. It reached #2 on the charts and contained the band’s biggest hit,  “Symphony of Destruction.”

After decades since its inception, Megadeth is still widely popular and active. In 2022, they have released their most work, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!, which has already topped Billboard Rock, Hard Rock, and Alternative Albums charts.

4. Iron Maiden

Formed in 1975, Iron Maiden is a heavy metal band from London, England. They are known for their intense live shows, which often feature pyrotechnics, fire-breathing, and blood-spattered Eddie, their mascot.

As pioneers of British heavy metal, their first album, 1980’s “Iron Maiden,” was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. The band went on hiatus during the ’80s and ’90s, but came back strong with Fear of the Dark in 1994.

Iron Maiden has been nominated for Best Metal Performance Grammy Award six times, winning once in 2005 for their song “El Dorado.” They have since released a further sixteen albums and are considered one of the most successful and influential heavy metal bands of all time. 

5. Judas Priest

There are few heavy metal bands as iconic as Judas Priest, which was formed in 1969. For almost 50 years, the band has been churning out metal anthems that have inspired generations of metalheads.

From their early days with songs like “Victim of Changes” and “Exciter” to their more recent work like “Nostradamus” and “Redemption,” Judas Priest has always been at the forefront of the metal scene.

Throughout their career, the band has pushed the boundaries of heavy metal, innovating and evolving their sound while remaining true to their metal roots.

As such, they are considered one of the most influential metal bands of all time, and their legacy continues to inspire fans.

6. Black Sabbath

English rock band Black Sabbath was formed in 1968 by Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward. With a career spanning over 50 years, the band is often cited as a pioneer of heavy metal who defined the genre.

Black Sabbath’s early years were characterized by their dark, heavy sound and horror-inspired lyrics. Their second album, Paranoid, was released in 1970 and was ranked #1 on the list of 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone.

The album contained many of the Black Sabbath’s hit songs, including “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” and “War Pigs.”

Despite their long history and their disbandment in 2017, Black Sabbath’s legacy remains strong, being credited as the inspiration of many well-known rock bands worldwide.

7. Led Zeppelin

English rock band Led Zeppelin was formed in 1968 with members Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. Their heavily guitar-driven music style was quite the rage during the 1970s.

From the onset, Led Zeppelin was commercially successful. With the exception of their debut album, all studio albums they released were #1 in the UK and top 4 in the US.

In 1971, they released their fourth, but untitled, studio album. It was a huge hit, becoming their most commercially successful album. It sold over 37 million units worldwide. The album also contained their most popular song, “Stairway to Heaven.”

The band’s 1977 album, In through the Out Door, was their last studio album before the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, after which Led Zeppelin disbanded.

8. Tool

Grammy-winning American rock band Tool was formed in 1990 and became one of the forerunners of alternative metal. Because of their complex sound, some even called their style post-metal.

Tool gained popularity in the mid-1990s with the release of Ænima. The album was #2 on US charts. Following this, the band released three more albums—Lateralus, 10,000 Days, and Fear Inoculum—all became #1 hits and certified multi-Platinum.

They won three Grammy Awards for Ænima and 10,000 Days, while Fear Inoculum won Top Rock Album from iHeartRadio Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards.

Tool is still active in the music scene, though they’ve released only singles since their last studio album in 2019.

9. Mötley Crüe

Our next band, Mötley Crüe was created by Nikki Sixx in 1981, along with Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, and Vince Neil. They’re well-known for their elaborate performances that include fiery guitars, pyrotechnics, and androgynous personas.

Despite being criticized for their reputation for hard partying and debauchery, they rolled out quite a number of Platinum hits, including their only #1 studio album, Dr. Feelgood, which contained their most popular song of the same name.

The band has had more than 100 million record sales worldwide, and in 2006, Mötley Crüe received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

10. Motörhead

There are few bands as influential as Motörhead, which had formed in 1975. Hailing from England, this heavy metal group has been credited for revitalizing British heavy metal in the ’70s.

Motörhead released 22 studio albums during the time they were active. All were well-received and reached top 40 in charts, but they were not as commercially successful as some of their contemporaries. However, their impact on the metal scene is undeniable.

In many ways, Motörhead paved the way for the genre’s boom in the 1980s. “Ace of Spades,” released at the start of that decade, was particularly popular, as well as their live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith.

Sadly, in 2015, their frontman, Lemmy, passed away. Following his death, the group announced their disbandment.

11. AC/DC

There are few bands more iconic than AC/DC. For more than four decades, they’ve been cranking out hard-rocking anthems that have become synonymous with heavy metal.

Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young formed the band in 1973. They quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, thanks to their high-energy live shows and their no-holds-barred approach to rock and roll. They became one of the biggest bands in the world with the release of their album Highway to Hell in 1979.

Tragically, lead singer Bon Scott died shortly after its release, but the band soldiered on, recruiting Brian Johnson as his replacement. With Johnson on board, AC/DC went on to release one of the biggest selling albums of all time, Back in Black

12. Slipknot

Formed in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1995, Slipknot is a nine-member group comprised originally of Shawn Crahan, Joey Jordison, Payl Gray, Craig Jones, Mick Thomson, Corey Taylor, Sid Wilson, Chris Fehn, and Jim Root. They went on to be known for their dark, aggressive music and energetic live performances.

Slipknot started their rise to fame in 1999 after the release of their self-titled debut album. Their first hit album, however, would not come until almost a decade later.

Dropped in 2008, All Hope Is Gone is their greatest work with over a million sales in US alone. It contained one of their greatest songs, “Psychosocial,” which received a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance.

These days, Slipknot continues to perform high-energy, entertaining, head-banging live shows. They’ve also recently released their seventh album The End, So Far

13. Rage Against the Machine

Lastly we have Rage Against the Machine, often called simply RATM or Rage. The band was formed in 1991 and is known for its political lyrics and aggressive musical style, fusing heavy metal and rap with pop and funk tones.

Their eponymous debut album in 1992 was a critical and commercial success, becoming a multi-Platinum hit. Rage went on to release two #1 albums in a row—Evil Empire (1996) and The Battle of Los Angeles (1999).

During this time, they became influential in making nu metal popular. However, in 2000, Rage disbanded. It wasn’t until eight years later that they announced a reunion, which occurred in early 2022.

Summing Up Our List of the Best Metal Bands

Heavy metal music is important for many reasons. It can be a form of self-expression, catharsis, and rebellion. It can also be a way to connect with others who share the same taste in music.

From high-energy to thought-provoking, heavy metal’s edge has created a generation of fans who will never stop rocking.

Have we missed a metal band favorite? Let us know and we’ll add them! 

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.