From Axl to Zappa: The 50 Greatest Musician Names of All Time (Side A)



BEFORE WE MAKE with the good stuff, a few quick notes: As with the 50 Greatest Literary Character Names of All Time, this is an impossible list to make. For one thing, there are way more than 50 names deserving of top spots, especially when you consider the various genres and sub-genres of music: jazz and hip hop, classical and classic rock, big band and punk, Gregorian chant and sea shanty. For another, the process is entirely subjective, subject to my cultural biases and musical tastes.

But just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it can’t be attempted—or, for that matter, that it can’t be achieved. We put a man on the moon, dammit; we can settle on 50 kickass music names!

I have but two criteria. First, the name has to be superlative in every way. This rules out Sting, three of the four Beatles, Steve Miller, Glenn Miller, Dave Matthews, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Young, the entire hair metal subgenre, Sean Puff Daddy P-Diddy Diddy Sean Jean Combs, every Beach Boy, and, most of all, The Edge.

Second, it has to belong to a well-known musician. Stiv Bators is a pretty great music name, as my friend and co-editor Sean Beaudoin has insisted; all well and good, but I have no idea who Stiv Bators is, and therefore he has no place on my list. He does have a place on Sean’s though, which will run tomorrow (more on this below). For now, here’s my list, presented in reverse order of awesometasticness:

Honorable Mention: Chantal Claret, Danbert Nobacon [tie]
We first acknowledge the fantastically-appellated contributors to The Weeklings. “Chantal” is a perfect singer name, as it suggests chanteuse. And Danbert Nobacon is perhaps the gutsiest stage name ever selected, although he could have stuck with Nigel Hunter, his also-awesome given name, and still gotten up again after being knocked down.

50. Barry Gibb
Not quite excellent enough to lead the pack, but in terms of inclusion on the list, more than enough to stay alive.

49. Chaka Khan
You remember how she repeated her name a bunch of times at the beginning of “I Feel for You”? If her name was, say, Tina Yothers, that would maybe not have been as effective.

48. Dolly Parton
I-ee-I will always love her.

47. Mark Sandman
The late, great frontman from Morphine had the dreamiest surname, which inspired the name of his band and perfectly captured his mesmerizing voice.

46. Sufjan Stevens
Back in 2012, I wrote a piece for my “Song Beneath the Song” series analyzing the lyrics of “Casimir Pulaski Day.” This entry is the most-read of any of my many dispatches on these pages. Would that still be the case if the enigmatic singer-songwriter’s first name were, say, Doug? Probably. But the Sufjan sure helps.

45. Gustav Holst
Could just as easily be the lead guitarist of one of those Norwegian death metal bands Weeklings Music Editor Joe Daly is always raving about as the composer of “The Planets.”

44. John Bonham, John Coltrane [tie]
I deduct points for the prosaic first names, but can you come up with better surnames for these two Johns? “Bonham” sounds like rhythmic tom-tomming, while “Coltrane” suggests straight-up cool.

43. Hector Berlioz
The last name looks like a bad collection of Scrabble tiles, the unusual first name complements it perfectly, and the combination has its own poetical cadence I’m too lazy to Google the name of: BUMP-buh-BUMP-buh-BUMP.

42. Dizzy Gillespie
Pretty much any name that ends in “Z-Z-Y” is a great musician name. In this case, he’s Dizzy from so much blowing on that horn.

41. Sid Vicious
As I’ve written before, I totally understand and appreciate and applaud punk rock on an abstract level—the beautiful rebellion, against both society and harmony—but generally, I find the music an unlistenable blow to my senses. Sid is perhaps the least talented of all punk rock musicians, which, since many of them aren’t terribly good to begin with, is saying something. He is famous because of his name. There would not be a film called John Simon Ritchie & Nancy.

40. Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love [tie]
The ultimate Gen X power couple. It would have been fascinating to know what Kurt would have made of social media. It will be fascinating to see if Nirvana’s legacy will endure after my generation is dead and gone. Do Millennials dig Cobain? As for Court, she’s still around, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for her, even if she did help usher in the Botox’d lips thing.

39. Alanis Morissette
The best of the Morrissey/Jim Morrison/Van Morrison cluster is the sick but pretty, young but wise, brave but chickenshit Canadienne. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

38. Eminem/Marshall Mathers
A rare case where the given name and the stage name are both pitch perfect.

37. Miley Cyrus
Her birth certificate reads DESTINY HOPE CYRUS, which sounds like something the Anagram machine would burp out. Her parents nicknamed her Smiley, on account of her toothy grin; the name stuck, but the “S” was dropped, and the rest is history. Dig how “my” and “sigh” rhyme. And get used to the name, because she’s here for the long haul.

36. Dr. Dre
I’m going to appropriate a joke my Paulie Shore, of all people, although his was about Cap’n Crunch: in what discipline did Mr. Dre receive his doctorate? Is he really a medical doctor? If so, he must prescribe a lot of marijuana.

35. David Lee Roth
So magical is the inclusion of the middle name that it took me 30 years to realize we’re dealing with a bald guy named David Roth, which sounds more like a novelist or an accountant than a dude who once upstaged the equally-well-named Van Halen brothers. Even “Diamond Dave” sounds more like a Gilded Age robber baron than a guy so hot for teacher.

34. Ozzy Osbourne
Oz manages to make the very plain “John Osbourne” into something worth Sharpie-ing onto denim three-ring-binder covers and tattooing on your fingers, just by adding two Zs and biting the head off a bat. Crazy…but that’s how it goes.

33. Cole Porter
We can argue whether he is the best songwriter the United States has ever produced. That his name is greater than Stephen Foster’s, Richard Rodgers’s, Bob Dylan’s, Neil Diamond’s, and Diane Warren’s is above debate. 1

32. Beyoncé Knowles
Full disclosure: I have never understood all the fuss about her. She strikes me as pleasantly mediocre in every way, if almost certainly a very nice person (I’m basing this on how she reacted the time she was Punk’d). But Destiny obviously believes in primogeniture, because she is the only Child to have inherited her father’s strange kingdom. Why is that? Her name, of course! It’s also apt that the diva singing about putting a ring on it has a name that rhymes with “fiancee.”

31. Flava Flav
One of the finest names in all of hip hop—and all of reality TV, Kardashians be damned.

30. Nigel Tufnel
Resisting the urge to put him at eleven. Or to put him at ten and make ten louder. Isn’t it remarkable how Spinal Tap has outlasted most of the bands it was making fun of? Weird Al has done the same thing. Remember when Coolio got all up in Al’s grill because of “Amish Paradise”? Me neither. I had to Google Coolio.

29. Nuno Bettencourt
“More Than Words” guitarist, classical violinist…or Bond villain?

28. Yves Montand
The French Sinatra has a much sexier name than Ol’ Blue Eyes.

27. Stevie Wonder
His name, like his music, is out of sight.

26. Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo [tie]
If you’re one of the greatest tenors, you have to have a heavy name. Two of the three make the cut. Suck it, Jose Carreras.

25. Ringo Starr
Probably the only criterion in which the Fab Four can be ranked in which Richard Starkey would come out on top. That includes “Best Drummer.”

24. Amy Winehouse
The softness of “Amy” contrasts the bleak gravity of “Winehouse.” If a Brick Shithouse is a sturdy place you go to take a dump, then an Amy Winehouse is a pretty place you go to get loaded. After which you go to rehab.

23. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake [tie]
Two names that perfectly capture the era in which they were first introduced to the world, and also the confectionary nature of the music they made, and make. There is an alternate universe in which there is no Kevin Federline 2, and no Jessica Biehl, and no photo of bald Brit flailing at paparazzo with an umbrella, and maybe even no dick in a box, and these two are happily married. They are the Miss Piggy and Kermit of pop music. Their connection is rainbow. They belong together.

22. Jay-Z
I’m pretty sure he’s named for the J/Z subway line, a train he probably has not boarded himself in quite some time.

21. Regina Spektor
All hail the phantasmagorical monarch, the regal ghost, the Queen of the astral plane!

20. Duke Ellington
His real name is Edward Kennedy Ellington, but he more than earned his regal moniker. John Wayne’s got nothing on this Duke.

19. Trent Reznor
Trent hints at trenchant, Reznor at razor. There’s a sharp edge to him, plainly. Sharper than nine-inch nails.

18. Axl Rose
The Bobby Fischer of rock ‘n roll. Never mind that GNR only has a handful of good songs, or that his oft-imitated vocal phrasing—the mi-yi-yine—is lifted from Frankie Valli, or that his prickdom is legend even in an industry in which prickdom is not exactly rare. Like it or not, “Sweet Child O’Mine” is still the best rock song of its era, and Axl its greatest rock star.

17. Oscar Hammerstein II
Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. The sound of music may well be “Richard Rodgers,” but the sound of lyrics is this guy. He makes the list just by eschewing the “Jr.” for the more kingly “II.”

16. Bo Diddley
“Bo” almost always works: Bo Jackson, Bo Derrick, Bo Duke, Bo Schembechler, Bo Bice…okay, maybe not always. But it sure does here.

15. Chrétien de Troyes 
Original troubadour, author of the Lancelot legend, and perhaps the first musical act to attempt a world tour. There’s a medieval epic poem about the time he trashed his room in an inn in Lyons after spending the night drinking honey mead with les groupies.

14. Dwight Yoakam
I saw Yoakam at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City 15 years or so ago, mostly because I was curious who in the Big Apple would turn up for a country act. Smart people, was the answer. I was treated to one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, in which highly attractive women ambushed the stage during the encore, and he switched guitars while seguing from song one to song two in a single impossible-to-replicate motion. Bonus: he dumped Sharon Stone.

13. Mick Jagger
When I was a kid, and I’d hear the radioheads talk about him, I thought his last name was McJagger. I kept wanting to know what his first name was. It’s really the perfect rock star name. As Maroon 5 and Ke$ha have pointed out, the surname rhymes with swagger.

12. Frank Zappa
Mother of invention, facial hair pioneer, Tipper antagonist, and utterer of this observation: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Bonus: it’s his real name.

11. Johnny Cash
Simple, real, iconic. In a word: money.

10. Lady Gaga
Gaga is a) babytalk, b) a Babylonian god, c) the shit playing on the radio, d) one of the nine planets in ancient Sumerian. She is somehow all of these things, and a lady besides. She reminds me of a comic book character who suddenly discovers she has super powers. Here she is before the radioactive spider bit her:

9. Jimi Hendrix
His name sounds like an electric guitar/amp combo.

8. Billie Holiday
Neither heroin nor stormy weather can leave Lady Day off the list.

7. Merle Haggard
How do you explain the fact that this gentleman was given the greatest country music name that could ever be by the woman who bore him? Simple: his mama tried.

6. Loretta Lynn
Coal miner’s daughter, Jack White’s collaborator, Lurlene Lumpkin’s inspiration, country music’s queen.

5. Freddie Mercury
Farrokh Bulsara named himself after a god. He sure sang like one.

4. Tupac Shakur
There are plenty of excellent hip hop names, but then hip hop encourages its artists to make up their own. Jay-Z is really Shawn Carter, Diddy is Sean Combs, L’il Wayne is Wayne Carter, Jr., and Biggie is Christopher Wallace. But Tupac Shakur’s real name is Tupac Shakur! He’s named for the Peruvian revolutionary Tupac Amiru, who appears on this banknote.

3. Thelonious Monk
Is this a jazz pianist? A fleet ship on Battlestar Galactica? The new running back for the Oakland Raiders? The colloquial name of the best position in the Kama Sutra? The new hybrid from GM? Anything is made better by this name. A dog, an elementary school, a tonsured holy man, a sex toy, anything.

2. Madonna
Hail Mary! Love that it’s her real name, love that she goes by “Madge,” love that they still call her The Material Girl even though she’s well on the other side of 50, love the sly interplay with “Madonna” and “Like a Virgin,” and love love love the VMAs when she slithered around in that white lingerie and pushed my 11-year-old libido to the borderline.

1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Exemplar of the Classical music era, composer of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” subject of one of the all-time greatest biopics, and genius of almost mythical proportions, he gave us not one, not two, but three superb names. Falco would not have had a hit if he just repeated “Johann Sebastian” over and over.


What’s that, you say? You think my list is bullshit, full of obvious choices and lacking in cooler, lesser known musicians? So does my fellow Weekling Sean Beaudoin. In fact, he hates my list so much that he made one of his own. CLICK HERE to read.


  1. I included Diane Warren just to make sure you were paying attention.
  2. Also a spectacular name
Greg Olear

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
This entry was posted in 50 Greatest and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to From Axl to Zappa: The 50 Greatest Musician Names of All Time (Side A)

  1. Joe King says:

    Thelonious Sphere Monk. Monk’s middle name, Sphere, surely bumps him up to #1. And while we are on the subject of intergalactic pianists, I submit for your consideration Sun Ra. You have really overlooked the beauty of names in jazz. Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, Mingus, Ornette, Chick Webb, Tricky Sam Nanton, Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Ferdinand LaMothe (Jelly Roll Morton), etc.

    • Frank Narf says:

      He left off the jazz people because most of them don’t mean anything to him. Many sophisticated people nowadays don’t give a fuck about jazz.

      • The Editors says:

        There are about as many jazz names as there are names from other genres, actually. But tune in tomorrow, as the second list contains maybe more jazz names from The Weeklings’ resident jazz aficionado, Sean Beaudoin.

        And thanks for calling me sophisticated.

    • The Editors says:

      You’re really gonna quibble with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Come on now.

    • AlanL says:

      Pharaoh Sanders

    • The Editors says:

      Sean has the jazz names on Side B, Joe. But you’re right that there are many great ones…none as great as Thelonious, however.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. FM Fats says:

    Dude lives in New Paltz and didn’t include Levon Helm? Damn. Gonna have to send Butch Dener after him.

    • The Editors says:

      I love Levon Helm, but his first name immediately puts that awful Elton John song in my head, which even Butch throwing an amp at my head would not be able to dislodge.

  3. Mike Heavener says:

    Robin Zander. The guy looks pretty like a “Robin” but cool like a “Zander” and he can sing pretty and ferocious equally. And its his real name.

    • The Editors says:

      The final list was whittled down from maybe 200 names, but I never thought of Zander. Totally should have. You’re right — perfect name. Thanks for reading.

  4. Marie Bulato says:

    Uh, Elvis Costello! Need I say more???

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading, Marie, and leaving the comment!

      I love EC, own about 18 of his albums, have seen him live many times, even have a wedding card a friend had him make out to me and my wife. But I always thought his name was silly. I wonder if he still likes it, or wishes he went with something else.

      • TonsoTunez says:

        How ’bout the other Elvis … Presley. When he burst upon the scene his name was as head scratching as his vocal and physical performance styles … No one had ever heard or seen anything like him and his name was as important a part of his P.R. explosion as anything else … Elvis the Pelvis, indeed!

        • The Editors says:

          I had Elvis on my long list, and while his name is perfect for him, I don’t like it, perhaps because it looks too much like “penis.” But you’re right, I’m being picky, and he should have been here somewhere.

          Thanks for reading!

  5. Pingback: Assorted links

  6. Gary says:

    Englebert Humperdinck.

    Nuff said

  7. Marcus says:

    Hoagy Carmichael > Cole Porter. Hoagy!

  8. LemmusLemmus says:

    Greetings from Germany: Where’s Dirk von Lowtzow?

    • The Editors says:

      Probably in Baden-Württemberg.

      My knowledge of contemporary German music begins and ends with Die Toten Hosen, for better or worse (you tell me). But I’m going to Berlin in two weeks, so I’ll keep at eye out for Dirk.

      Thanks for reading!

  9. karl says:

    What about the classical pianist Emanuel Ax? When I worked at a record store in the 80s one of the managers said that it’s a great rock guitarist name.

    • The Editors says:

      That’s a fantastic name, and ironic that he’s 1) a classical musician, and 2) a pianist. It belongs on Side B, though, the second list of more obscure names.

      Thanks for suggesting…I had never heard of Mr. Ax.

  10. Doug Fechter says:

    B. B. King

    • The Editors says:

      We could do a 26 Greatest Double Initial Names list…

      A.A. Milne
      B.B. King
      C.C. Deville
      e.e. cummings

      OK, maybe 26 is a bit optimistic.

      Great catch, Doug. I knocked him off the list because of the restaurant. Kenny Rogers, same deal.

      Thanks for reading!

  11. AlanL says:

    Warren Zevon.
    Mstislav Rostropovich.

  12. Scott D says:

    Johnny Cougar Mellencamp

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading, Scott.

      He’s had too many names to qualify. Do I use John Cougar? John Mellencamp? John Cougar Mellencamp? Cougar Town? All the permutations make my brain hurt so good.

  13. Larry Siegel says:

    Neither list includes Django Reinhardt? Seriously?

    • The Editors says:

      You’ll have to take it up with Sean, Larry. He’s more interested in the purity of the name itself, while I tend to pick among popular people who are well-named. We argue about it all the time. But we wouldn’t argue that Django Reinhardt is a great name.

      Thanks for reading!

  14. Gavin says:

    Great list. Mozart’s birth name was acually Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Chrysostomus, Theophilus and Amadeus all mean basically the same thing, Beloved of God. For the greatest musical mind of all time, fair call.

    • The Editors says:

      Clearly great things were expected of him, with THAT on his birth certificate. Or what they used to register births back then. Thanks for the knowledge, Gavin!

  15. ortega says:

    Of course. Placido and Luciano are the best tenors ever (have you heard any other one, José excepted). And then Ringo is better than both of them. Yeah. At what, exactly?

  16. Pingback: Off topic: placebo sleep, turning fear into comics, ice orchestra, musician monikers | SiliconBeat

  17. Dana says:

    1.) David Bowie, duh
    2.) Levon is a GREAT song
    3.) Levon Helm is a perfect name
    4.) You are so wrong, so often.

    ;) I love these stupid lists. Also, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart = YES!

    • The Editors says:

      1) Bowie was on the long list, but the relative boringness of his first name made me cut him.
      2) “Levon” is an ear worm. When it gets in, it will not come out, and I don’t like it enough for that. It ain’t “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and it sure as shit ain’t “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which is his best song.
      3) That’s two calls for Levon. I should have put him in, especially given my geographical location.
      4) The key to making these lists is to be wrong. Otherwise, no one would have anything to feel indignant about!

      I figured no one could really quibble with Wolfie.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Dana. It’s nice to see you on a message board!

  18. Blues says:

    Muddy Waters


  19. Bonzo Bizarro says:

    May I add Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia (tie)?

  20. michael says:

    where is robert smith from the cure?

  21. Bahaa says:

    Dave Grohl!!!

  22. Folabi says:

    Where’s Micheal Jackson on the list? He should be first!

  23. Casey Choate says:

    Where is Marilyn Manson on this list? Come on!

    PS. What do you think of Casey Choate (pronounced show-tah… I think)? I need a stage name. Any ideas?

  24. Paul says:

    Ella? No Ella Ru serious?

  25. D-Rock says:

    Like any other list, it is just the opinion of one solitary person and not definitive or anything so no need to get upset. You are free to make a list of your own!! Obviously, a list like this is limited by the knowledge of the writer. Also, names are chosen and ranked arbitrarily depending on the writer’s personal opinions, knowledge and tastes. Many awesome names were not included here while several mediocre names were included.

    ** Madonna is Not her Real name, by the way, she originally had a normal name until she became an entertainer. It’s been a long time so I can’t remember her real name right off by I do recall that it was something extremely ordinary and pedestrian.

  26. Tex Shelters says:

    No Jello Biafra or Rat Scabies?

    If you like rock at all, you would like many of the punk rock classics if you dared to listen, ala Holiday in Cambodia, London Calling, New Rose, Los Angeles, and on and on. PTxS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *