10 Bands That Defined The California Sound, As Ranked By Vicki Peterson Of The Bangles

The Bangles played a free show at Pershing Square in Los Angeles, California on Saturday, July 14th. In advance of that show, guitarist Vicki Peterson graciously curated this list exclusively for Ranker! Here's what she had to say about it.

The California Sound. Surf guitar? Sure. Shimmering harmony vocals? Yes, please.  Who really defines the music associated with California: that warmth-of-the-sun, top-down-on-the-convertible, singing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs feeling? If someone asked me to compile a list (and, strangely enough, someone did!), I would come up with a too-long roll of bands that shaped the soundtrack of my California childhood. It’s not definitive, it’s not complete, and you can disagree with some of the choices if you like. But here, in roughly chronological order, are 10 bands that (for me) define the California* Sound.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • The Beach Boys
    Photo: Capitol Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    An obvious choice, perhaps, but these guys (California locals) wrote about what they saw happening around them in their beach-adjacent town of Hawthorne. The lyrics focused on California icons: hot rods, girls with tanned limbs and long shiny hair, the surfing explosion. The music was all bright and sunny surf guitars to start, and they soon added nuanced stacks of complex harmonies. The Beach Boys could possibly be easily dismissed in the early phase of their career as a surf band, but before long they were one of music’s most innovative and inspired artists. They also wrote a gorgeous love song to the California girl (okay, they wrote several, including “California Girls”) - a tribute to the perfect “Surfer Girl.” You don’t get much more Californian than that. 

  • The Byrds
    Photo: Joost Evers / Anefo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL

    The Byrds may have worshipped the Beatles (who didn’t?), but they injected enough western and psychedelic color into their music that they created something uniquely Californian. The buckskin fringe jackets and Benjamin Franklin glasses worn by Roger McGuinn became de rigueur hippie wear and the sound of a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar is still a shortcut time machine trip back to 1966 California.

  • The Mamas & the Papas
    Photo: ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Yes, I know. They got started in New York. But the Mamas and Papas hit big when they moved to Los Angeles, and their vocal blend became a joyous sound echoing out of Laurel Canyon. John Phillips wrote two lovely paeans to his new home: “California Dreaming” and “Twelve Thirty.” Both songs spotlight the warmth and open-heartedness of life in California.

  • The Doors
    Photo: Electra Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    This band of poets and film students took the Californian peace-and-love hippie sound and twisted it into something darker and more dangerous. This wasn’t sunshine and wildflowers. This was the throb of 3 am on the Sunset Strip, getting lost on a dark highway, picking up a hitchhiker and regretting it. The Doors found success towards the end of the '60s when California - along with the rest of the US - was in turmoil, and their music mirrored the chaos.

  • Arthur Lee & Love
    Photo: Elektra Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Arthur Lee & Love

    Perhaps not as well-known as the Byrds or other LA psychedelic folk groups, Arthur Lee and Love’s music mixed acoustic guitar and complex Latin-flavored rhythms with their mind-bending lyrics to create a unique picture of the California landscape. Lovely songs like “Alone Again Or” and “Five String Serenade” play nicely with rockers “My Little Red Book” and “7 & 7 Is” (which we Bangles whip out from time to time).

  • The Eagles
    Photo: via Wikimedia

    Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admit that the early '70s sound of Los Angeles belongs to the scene around the famous Troubadour nightclub, and that means the Eagles. If I were making a list of singer-songwriters who captured the sound of California, then people like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt would be at the top…

    But this is about groups and these guys did record a song with “California” in the title. A ubiquitous song. It’s a song you can recognize in the first eight notes and can probably hum the guitar solo, too. The Eagles carried on the harmony-laced country/ folk/rock tradition begun by the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, but they polished it to a sheen and made it look good. Just like LA.