30 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Musicians From California

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

California is known for its great weather, gorgeous beaches, and star-studded landscape. While the state is home to a number of Hollywood celebrities, it is also the birthplace of some of the world’s most famous and talented musicians.

The talent coming out of the Golden state has transformed modern music from jazz to hip hop and given us some incredible songs to sing along to. And in this post, we’re going to take a look at the lives and careers of the greatest and most famous musicians from California. Let’s get started.

Related: Check out our post on the top American musicians here.

1. Billie Eilish

Born in Los Angeles, Billie Eilish gained popularity in 2015 with her single Ocean Eyes. An instant commercial success, Eilish went on to record her first album in 2019.

The album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? debuted at number one on the Top 200 and won four Grammys, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year

Her unique songwriting, musical style, and aesthetic have since taken the world by storm, and Eilish is now one of the most successful musicians of the 2010s.

2. Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre and NWA revolutionized rap from Compton in the late 1980s. Dre and NWA birthed modern gangster rap during the era and changed the hip-hop industry forever.

He went on to record his first solo album, The Chronic, in 1992 and earned Grammy Awards for Best Rap Solo Performance.

Throughout the 90s, Dre had a string of hits with Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Blackstreet.

In the 90s, he went on to form Aftermath Entertainment and helped many other rappers’ careers flourish, including Eminem and 50 Cent. 

3. Snoop Dogg

Hailing from Long Beach, legendary rapper Snoop Dogg had his big break with Dr. Dre on the single Deep Cover.

His first solo album, Doggystyle, met with critical and commercial success and sparked one of the most successful rap careers in history.

Snoop’s unique verse delivery sets him apart from other gangster rappers. His smooth rhymes were popularized by his use of -izzle speak and inspired younger rappers to try new styles in their rhymes. 

In his later years, Snoop has become a multimedia mogul. From hosting WWE events to a television series with Marth Stewart, you can find Snoop Dogg everywhere. 

4. Katy Perry

Hailing from Santa Barbara, California, vocalist Katy Perry has been a pop icon since 2001. Her pop and dance-inspired songs first hit the charts in 2008 with her second studio album, One of the Boys.

Since then, Perry has become one of the best-selling musicians worldwide, with over 143 million records sold. 

Perry’s sound is distinctly pop with elements of rock, disco, and EDM. She is known for her unique vocal range and ability to adapt to a wide range of musical styles. 

As part of the punk rock band Blink 182, Travis Barker is one of the most recognizable drummers of the modern rock era. 

Born in Fontana, CA, Barker founded the Aquabats group in 1994 and went on tour with Blink 182 in 1997.

Blink 182’s original drummer left the band on this tour, and Barker was hired to fill his shoes.

From there, the band went on to massive success with Enema of the State in 1999. The band significantly influenced pop-punk and revolutionized the genre throughout the 90s.

6. Kendrick Lamar

Another Compton alumni, Kendrick Lamar has become one of the most influential rappers of this generation.

Lamar is often at the top of many “best rapper” lists, and his musical style is truly unique and complex.

His albums often concentrate on a single concept, and you can experience everything from gangster rap to funk during the album. 

7. “Weird Al” Yankovic

One of the most prolific artists on this list, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been producing hilarious song parodies since the 1970s. 

Growing up in Lynwood, CA, “Weird Al” learned to play his signature accordion. He then started seeing success on the Dr. Demento radio show.

While he parodied plenty of songs during the 70s, his big break came in 1984 when his Michael Jackson parody, Eat It, began to air on MTV. 

8. Miles Davis

Although he was born in Illinois, one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time Miles Davis had a long and illustrious career and spent most of his life in Santa Monica, CA.

An inspiration to countless musicians, the world will remember Davis as one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time.

As a pioneer of modern music, Miles Davis revolutionized jazz from the 1940s and for over 50 years.

He recorded over 60 studio albums, and his influence in pop, rap, and modern rock music still lives on. 

9. Chris Isaak

Hailing from Stockton, CA, Chris Isaak is a singer/songwriter known for his unique style and guitar skills. 

Releasing twelve studio albums, Isaak had his first commercial success in 1989 with Heart Shaped World.

The lead single, Wicked Game, was extremely popular and became a top ten hit in 1991.

10. Etta James

Etta James is R&B, blues, and soul singer from Los Angeles, CA. Over her career, James produced 29 studio albums and received over 30 awards, including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Her career began in the 1950s as a doo-wop performer and grew into a pop and R&B career.

His vocal stylings have since received praise from countless other musicians, including Diana Ross, Christina Aguilera, and The Rolling Stones.

11. Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)

Along with his bandmates in rock band Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong transformed pop-punk in the 1990s from Rodeo, CA.

As the lead singer and guitarist of Green Day, Armstrong has had one of the era’s most successful and influential careers. 

he has also recorded albums with several other bands over his career, including Pinhead Gunpowder, The Network, and, The Longshot.

His big break came in 1994 with Greenday’s third album, Dookie. Today, Green Day continues its success and released its latest album in 2020. 

12. Josh Groban

Selling millions of records is the norm for Josh Groban. This Los Angeles native found immediate success over his first four studio albums, each reaching multi-platinum status. 

Since his start, Groban’s vocal performances have been prolific. The tenor/baritone’s typical performances focus on musical theater and opera, often accompanied by playing the piano or the accordion.

From studio albums to TV show appearances, Josh Groban has become an incredibly influential musician and actor.

13. Jeff Buckley

Born in Anaheim, Jeff Buckley began his career as a session guitarist in Los Angeles.

Over his career, he would use a variety of guitar styles, including fingerpicking, country styling, and slide guitar.

While Buckley never gained massive commercial success during his career, his albums and tracks garnered critical success. Particularly his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which is one of th most popular versions of the song.

Buckley and his band constantly toured around the globe, promoting their music until he tragically died while swimming in 1997.

14. MC Hammer

MC Hammer was one of the first musicians to bring hip hop to the mainstream. Born and raised in Oakland, this rapper transformed hip hop with his 90s hit U Can’t Touch This.

The song was the first rap song nominated for record of the year by the Grammys and took home Best R&B and Best Rap Solo performance awards. 

His energetic performances quickly made a name for Hammer in the 90s.

While he never regained the popularity of U Can’t Touch This, Hammer had a string of albums and continues to produce hip-hop records today. 

15. Cher

There are few musicians who are famous enough to be known by one name, but Cher is definitely one of them. Born in El Centro, California in 1946, she has had one of the longest and most successful pop music careers of any musician. 

Her success started in 1965 along with her husband Sonny with their hit I Got You, Babe. From there, the duo went on to massive success throughout the 60s.

During the 80s, Cher shifted her career to acting and performed in several major films, including Moonstruck, Mask, and Silkwood

While her career slowed during the 80s and 90s, she made a major comeback in 1998 with her album Believe. Cher continues producing and performing today and collaborates with several other artists. 

16. Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead)

As the frontman of The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia’s impact on music and culture is extremely important.

This band that started in San Francisco quickly turned iconic and became the face of the counter-culture movement.

From the 60s to the 90s, The Grateful Dead had a cult-like following that would follow the band around the world. 

The band was known for their live performances, with Garcia’s free-flowing guitar and musicianship being unmatched.

His iconic sounds have inspired modern musicians, including Soundgarden, Phish, and The Disco Biscuits. 

17. Beck Hansen

Born in Los Angeles, Beck Hansen started his career performing in local coffee shops and clubs.

He employed a unique mix of hip hop, experimental, and lo-fi sounds during his performances and recordings. 

Since his humble beginnings, Beck has achieved critical and commercial success.

Two of his albums, Odelay and Sea Change, are ranked on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time, and he has won eight Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year in 2015. 

18. Tom Waits

Tom Waits is a blues, jazz, and rock musician from Pomona, CA. He began his music career in the 1970s and released his first album, Closing Time, in 1973.

While Waits never received the commercial success of other California musicians, he has been an inspiration to generations of musicians.

His songwriting and performances inspired many musicians, including REM, The Pixies, and The Clash. 

Many of his songs have been covered throughout the years as well. The Ramones, Norah Jones, and Johnny Cash performed some of the popular covers.

19. Krist Novoselic (Nirvana)

As the bassist for grunge band Nirvana, Krist Novoselic transformed American youth culture in the 1990s.

Nirvana became an icon in the 90s with their single Smells Like Teen Spirit. While the band was only together for a few years, they had a monumental impact on music during that short time.

Since Nirvana disbanded, Novoselic continued to perform and has joined with other famous musicians, including Johnny Cash, Alice in Chains, and Paul McCartney.

20. Peter Buck (REM)

As the major influence on college rock in the 90s, Peter Buck and REM found massive success with their original and indie sound.

His career began in Berkley, California and quickly went on to worldwide success.

Buck’s lead guitar was the perfect accompaniment to Michael Stipe’s vocals on REM’s records and live performances. 

REM had massive success throughout his career and received three Grammy Awards in 1991, including Best Pop Performance by a Group and Best Rock Performance by a Group. 

21. Dave Brubeck

Concord, CA, native Dave Brubeck was one of the premier jazz pianists of the 20th century.

He formed the Dave Brubeck Quartet which attained success during the period of 1958 and 1968, performing jazz and revolutionizing cool jazz. 

With that band, he released a number of big hits such as Take Five and Unsquare Dance which have become huge hits and you likely have heard even without knowing who played them.

Up until 2012, Brubeck continued to produce and perform alongside a variety of band members. 

22. John Cage

John Cage was a Los Angeles native and American composer. He had a prolific career that spanned the 1930s to 1990s.

During that time, his pieces received critical acclaim from his peers.

Cage used experimental rhythm structures in his pieces that were unique and dramatic. He also employed new approaches to harmonies in his pieces Two Pieces for Piano and Metamorphosis.

He’s probably best known for his composition 4′33 which was four minutes and thirty-three seconds of complete silence.

His compositions have been an inspiration to many modern composers, including Michael Parson, Howard Skempton, and David Tudor. 

23. Eric Dolphy

From Los Angeles, Eric Dolphy was a jazz saxophonist and clarinetist born in 1928.

He had his breakout with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in 1958 and from there, Dolphy went on to partner with significant jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. 

This California native performed using unique improvisations that could surprise and astonish listeners.

Over his lifetime, he released six studio albums to critical success. Frank Zappa, Geri Alien, and Dave Holland have cited his performances as inspiration. 

24. Vince Guaraldi

Another musician you probably have heard but might not know is Vince Guaraldi who was a jazz pianist from San Francisco.

He is most known for composing the music for the Peanuts comic strip films. His tunes for A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, have become an important part of many children’s lives. 

Guaraldi also received critical success as a jazz musician and received the Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963.

His career was cut short at the age of 47 in 1976 when he died of a heart attack suddenly.

25. Frank Ocean

Another Long Beach native, Frank Ocean, is at the forefront of modern R&B music.

Since launching his career in 2006, Ocean has gone on to be one of the most successful and critically acclaimed musicians of the 2000s. 

Ocean has received credit for revitalizing the R&B genre by mixing various influences, including electro, rock, pop, and psychedelic rock.

His fresh sound has influenced the latest generation of pop and R&B musicians. 

26. Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)

As the frontman of Megadeth, metal guitarist Dave Mustaine has had a long and successful history with heavy metal music.

This La Mesa native began his successful career with Metallica but left the group to form Megadeth. 

At the forefront of heavy metal, Megadeth was known for its thrash metal and speed metal performances.

While Megadeth may not have had the pop success of Metallica, their original music and rock attitude was extremely influential over the years.

The band has recorded fifteen studio albums and is still recording and performing worldwide today.

27. Nancy Wilson (Heart)

As part of the rock band Heart, guitarist and singer Nancy Wilson grew up in Southern California.

The duo released albums throughout the 70s and 80s to critical and commercial success. As lead guitarist of Heart, Nancy combines a variety of styles during her performances.

Gibson Guitars even ranked her as the eight-best female guitarist of all time. 

Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 and continues to perform live, and Nancy just released her first studio album in 2021. 

28. Adam Levine (Maroon 5)

As the lead singer of pop band Maroon 5, Adam Levine has become one of the most famous men on the planet.

Starting his career in Los Angeles in the 90s, Levine saw massive success in 2002 with Maroon 5’s first album, The Fourth World. Since then, they’ve released six albums and won three Grammy Awards. 

Maroon 5 has a unique pop, anthem rock sound that adds elements of hip hop, R&B, and soul.

This fusion makes their music appeal to a broad audience and has helped with their commercial success.

29. Brandon Boyd (Incubus)

Brandon Boyd is a Los Angeles native and lead singer to the rock band Incubus. The band performs a mix of indie rock, nu-metal, and funk metal. 

The band released their first album, Fungus Amongus, in 1995.

While never achieving massive pop success, Incubus has had critical success and was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance in 2005. They even had one top ten hit with their single Drive in 2000.

Today Boyd continues to tour with Incubus and recently teamed up with Skrillex for a collaboration. 

30. Matt Cameron (Soundgarden and Pearl Jam)

And finally, born in San Diego, Matt Cameron began his career with Soundgarden and performed on all of the band’s studio albums and performances until their breakup. 

In 1998, Cameron was invited to join Pearl Jam after their original drummer left the band.

Today he’s extremely busy as the lead drummer for both bands now that Soundgarden has reunited. 

Summing up Our List of Great Musicians From California

While this list is far from complete, we hope we have provided a wide range of musical styles and tastes for you to check out. 

California has had a long and exciting history with music, and these are some of the best musicians from Golden State. 

Did we miss your favorite musician from California? Don’t hesitate to let us know and we’ll add them in.

Photo of author

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.