What Is Hair Metal?

Influenced by the glam rock era, these over-the-top bands took over 80s music

Photo of MOTLEY CRUE and Nikki SIXX and Vince NEIL and Tommy LEE and Mick MARS
80s hair metal band Motley Crue after a 1984 show. Redferns / Getty Images

Hair metal was influenced by glam rock from the late '70s and early '80s, inspiring the over the top looks hair bands adopted, including big hair and makeup. Hard rock bands like Slade and Aerosmith helped shape their musical sound. In the U.S., hair metal was popularized on the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles beginning in the early '80s. At the height of its popularity in the '80s, hair bands had huge radio and MTV hits and were one of the most popular genres in all of music.

That spawned numerous copycat bands of lesser talents that diluted the genre, and the nail in the coffin was the rise of grunge music in the early '90s. Many hair bands broke up or went on hiatus during that era, but toward the end of the decade and into the 2000s, nostalgia helped propel hair metal back to life. Bands like Poison, Motley Crue, and Ratt still are able to draw large crowds to their concerts, although their new musical material hasn't been as well received.

Musical Style

Hair metal is very polished and accessible. Big hooks, melodic choruses, and the ever-popular "monster ballad" typify the genre. Guitars are also very prominent, with nearly every song having at least one guitar solo. There's also an endless debate on who is and isn't a hair band.

Some say Def Leppard and Guns N' Roses are hair bands. Guns N' Roses came from that L.A. scene, but don't necessarily fall under the hair metal banner because of the edginess of their earlier music.

Vocal Style

Like the music, hair metal vocals are also accessible. They are melodic, and usually relatively high-pitched. Hair metal vocalists rarely get the respect that traditional metal singers do, in part because of the glam looks and accessible songs. But there have been some quality singers in the hair metal genre.

Hair Metal Pioneers

Bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee formed Motley Crue in 1981. They soon recruited guitarist Mick Mars and eventually hired Vince Neil as their singer. The Crue quickly become of the most successful bands to emerge from the Sunset Strip. Their legendary partying drew almost as much as attention as their music.

They had a string of successful albums, including "Shout At The Devil", "Theatre Of Pain", "Girls Girls Girls" and "Dr. Feelgood". After turmoil and member changes in the '90 and early 2000s, the classic lineup got back together, touring and releasing new music. They wrapped up what they say is their farewell tour at the end of 2015.

Quiet Riot

Quiet Riot formed in the late '70s, and their early lineup included guitarist Randy Rhoads, who ended up joining Ozzy Osbourne's band before his tragic death in a plane crash. The band's first two albums didn't do much, but their third release "Metal Health" hit number one on the Billboard album chart, the first heavy metal album to do so. That opened the floodgates, ending up in hair metal's massive commercial popularity.

Quiet Riot's reign of success only lasted a few years, and they had a lot of lineup changes and a couple of breakups. They still toured until recently, when vocalist Kevin DuBrow died of a drug overdose in 2007.

Hanoi Rocks

In Europe, Hanoi Rocks mixed glam rock, punk and the big hair and makeup of vocalist Michael Monroe. The Finnish band got their start in the late '70s and quickly rose through the ranks. They were on the verge of breaking through when tragedy struck.

In 1984, drummer Nicholas "Razzle" Dingley was killed in a car accident (the car was driven by Motley Crue's Vince Neil). The band was never the same. Their status as a true "hair band" is disputed by some, but there's no doubt they greatly influenced the genre and should be considered pioneers.

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