The melding of genres is always a tricky bit of fun. And when it comes to rock and pop, no two genres seem to pair better. To that end, ever since Michael Jackson solicited Eddie Van Halen and Steve Lukather’s services for Thriller (1982), blazing axe-slingers stepping into the world of bubbly pop has become nothing short of commonplace.
While the idea is no longer novel, in the present day, many six-string heroes continue to lend their licks to various icons of pop music. Be it the G.O.A.T. Eddie Van Halen, eternal M.V.P. Nuno Bettencourt, perpetual hurricane in motion Nita Strauss or the effervescent new kid on the block Sophie Lloyd, it seems these two worlds shall continue to collide. With that in mind, here’s a rundown of 10 rock guitarists who went pop.
1. Eddie Van Halen/Steve Lukather with Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson’s Thriller might have come out 41 years ago, but the guitars still sound as fresh as they did in 1982. And that’s partly due to the scintillating solo one Edward Van Halen provided and the additional riffage that Toto six-stringer Steve Lukather (who also played bass) laid down for Beat It.
With a riff as rocking as it gets and a typically tap-happy solo, Beat It was a crossover hit that catapulted Jackson to unprecedented success. Beat It was so successful that Jackson would go on to follow its formula as he surged ahead.
2. Stevie Ray Vaughan with David Bowie
On the surface, a gritty bluesman such as Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed oddly paired with a glam rocker steeped in pomp and circumstance like David Bowie. But then again, Bowie had worked with iconic guitarists before (not least Mick Ronson), so perhaps Vaughan’s searing solo on 1983’s Let’s Dance isn’t so obtuse after all.
In truth, Vaughan laid down the solo for Let’s Dance in 1982 before he reached iconic levels of blues stardom. And so, it could be said that Bowie was early to the party when it came to Vaughan, seeing something in the Texas-born hero that others hadn’t… yet.
3. Jeff Beck with Tina Turner
It’s been said that no guitarists managed to elicit sounds from their instrument as Jeff Beck did. He could play a mean blues, rock with any of his contemporaries, and out-shred any young buck who cropped up.
For those reasons and about a million more, Beck’s pairing with soul icon Tina Turner for 1984’s Private Dancer was nothing short of sublime. Just when you thought Beck would zag right, he zigged left, spewing slick licks and memorable guitarism across multiple genres.
4. Jennifer Batten with Michael Jackson
We know Michael Jackson had a thing for silky smooth fretwork, and he collaborated with plenty of well-known gunslingers in his day. To that end, Jackson invited guitarists of all shapes and sizes into the studio while recording his albums. But while on tour, having a cast of all-stars on hand for nightly performances wasn’t realistic.
And so, Jackson knew he needed to find someone capable of carrying the varying degrees of shreddery laid forth on his records, leading to the hiring of Jennifer Batten in 1987. Jackson found his live muse in Batten, and she hung around for more than a decade. Oddly, she never appeared on any of his studio records.
5. Slash with Michael Jackson
Somewhere along the way, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and the King of Pop must have formed an unlikely friendship, because they worked together plenty in the ’90s. The first instance was on 1991’s Dangerous, where Slash pummeled his way through the solo on Give It to Me.
A few years later, Slash appeared on D.S. from 1995’s HIStory: Past, Present, and Future: Book I. And once more on Morphine, from the 1997 collection Blood on the Dancefloor: HIStory in the Mix.
Of all his various guitar collaborations, Jackson’s studio partnership with Slash was the only one that could be seen as ongoing. There seemed to be something about Slash’s bluesy licks that Jackson couldn’t get enough of.
6. Monte Pittman with Madonna
For those leaning toward metal, Monte Pittman is known as Prong’s demonstrative former lead guitarist. Metal exploits aside, with a Jarell MPS in hand, Pittman has been the main guitar-related squeeze of Madonna since 2001.
In the 22 years since, Pittman has streaked across the globe with the Queen of Pop while appearing on albums such as 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor and 2008’s Hard Candy.
Capable of laying back and covering Madonna’s ’80s catalog with gentle nuance, Pittman can more than step into the limelight and match the veteran pop vocalist’s energy pound for pound.
He also had the honor of teaching Her Madge Pantera’s A New Level – a riff she loved so much she played it every night for an entire tour.
7. Nuno Bettencourt with Rihanna
Nuno Bettencourt’s work with Rihanna on her 2010 album Loud is perhaps his most well-known diversion from rock, but it wasn’t his first. Many will recall the shredder’s collaboration with Janet Jackson, as he lent his rhythm licks on 1989’s Black Cat. But still, Bettencourt’s ongoing musical soiree with Rhianna remains his pop crème de le crème.
His fretwork on Skin was an entry point to casa de Nuno for many pop-leaning fans. And if we push forward, before the hubbub surrounding Extreme’s new album, Six, Bettencourt was seen brandishing his Washburn beside Rihanna during the Super Bowl LVII halftime show.
8. Brian May with Lady Gaga
She might be one of the modern era’s biggest pop stars and a cultural phenomenon, but Lady Gaga is a rock-loving gal at her core. At least, that’s the impression given during her collaboration with Brian May on 2011’s Yoü and I. For the uninitiated, Yoü and I is best remembered as the penultimate track from Gaga’s monster sophomore affair, Born This Way.
May, with his Red Special in hand, added a certain je ne sais quoi to the festivities. Indeed, Gaga alongside May was a match made in glam-pop heaven, and some 12 years later, despite being labeled a pop song destined for Billboard infamy, Yoü and I has proved to be a true crossover hit.
9. Nita Strauss with Demi Lovato
In the summer of 2022, the longtime Alice Cooper tailgunner shocked the (guitar) world by stepping away from the shock rockers band to hit the road with Demi Lovato. Strauss was unfairly labeled a deserter while being subjected to questionable remarks from armchair critics and curious onlookers.
But nearly a year after Strauss took her reprieve, all is well. Her tour with Lovato was an unmitigated success, allowing her to find the crossover success she deserved and desired. And much to the delight of rock fans, Strauss is back on the road with her old friends in the Alice Cooper band, too.
10. Sophie Lloyd with Machine Gun Kelly
As a shining example of hard work, creativity, grit, talent and determination, Sophie Lloyd is among the hottest names on the shred circuit today. Though innately talented, Lloyd took the road less traveled.
Coming from a small town in the U.K., Lloyd parlayed a passion for guitar into a burgeoning career as a successful influencer via YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
And it’s a good thing, because that exposure led to polarizing pop star Machine Gun Kelly calling. In an instant, Lloyd’s life was changed, leading to mega tours, a solo career, a signature series of guitars with Kiesel and more social media followers than Lloyd could have ever imagined.