What’s in a name? When it comes to rock ’n’ roll, pretty much everything.
Rock stardom is all about reinventing yourself, becoming a larger-than-life figure that stands apart from the crowd. And if you want the people to scream your name, it had better be an awesome, memorable one.
Or at least pronounceable. Here we spotlight a few of the guitar heroes who played the name game and won. Sort of.
22. Muddy Waters
McKinley Morganfield came to be known as “Muddy” in his childhood via his grandmother, who gave him the nickname due to his penchant for playing in, well, muddy waters. Morganfield added “Waters” when, as a teen, he began playing harmonica and performing locally.
Waters would go on to take the influences he gathered in his native Mississippi and take them north to Chicago, where – recording for Chess Records – he perfected a style known as Chicago blues. The influence of his catalog on the blues, and later the blues-y rock of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream and countless others, cannot be understated.
21. Joan Jett
After she began playing guitar and her family moved from Maryland to Los Angeles County as a teen, Joan Marie Larkin took to calling herself Joan Jett, as she simply felt it had a bit more rock-star pizazz than her birth name.
Jett would take said pizzazz to great heights throughout the 1980s with a number of hard-riffing hits that remain radio staples to this day, most notably the chart-topping I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll in 1981.
20. Earl Slick
One of the music world’s most trusted guitar advisors, Earl Slick – the alias for Frank Madeloni – has a stage name wholly befitting of his equally slick skills. Though the two are not technically linked, it’s a happy coincidence, especially given the random circumstances that gave birth to the ‘Earl Slick’ title.
Slick, who has performed with David Bowie, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and countless others, has Jack O’Neill to thank for his name. The singer in the covers band that Slick once played in, O’Neill had a habit of giving his bandmates impromptu nicknames. By chance, a 19-year-old Madeloni was introduced one night as Earl Slick. The name has stuck ever since.
19. Poison Ivy
Unlike her botanical counterpart, Poison Ivy – aka Kristy Marlana Wallace – won’t make you break out in red rashes upon close contact. Her guitar playing, though, may trigger an involuntary urge to headbang and thrash the air guitar. That’s a scientific fact.
Wallace, with the help of the late Erick Lee Purkhiser, founded The Cramps back in ‘76, and leaned into her pioneering psychobilly musical direction by assuming a new name. Purkhiser happened upon Lux Interior thanks to a car ad, while Wallace – after experiencing a vision during a dream – adopted the even-more-striking Poison Ivy Rorschach. Poison Ivy, for short.
18. John Denver
The former Mr. Deutschendorf renamed himself after his favorite city, and then wrote a bunch of classic tunes about the area, most notably Rocky Mountain High. Or was he actually singing about himself? Dude was kinda conceited, I guess. Or maybe just stoned. Or both?
17. C.C. DeVille
Bruce Anthony Johannesson's chosen stage name – C.C. DeVille – suggests a classic luxury automobile designed to impress the ladies. Unlike the Cadillac Coupe de Ville, however, C.C.’s look and style would not transcend the decades. D. Neon might have been a more appropriate moniker.
16. Joe Strummer
The Clash’s Joe Strummer was a songwriter of stunning brilliance. Unfortunately, that trait was far from evident in his choice of stage name. When it came time to reinvent himself, as so many did in the early days of punk, the former John Mellor made this astonishing breakthrough: Guitars have strings. I strum them. I think I will call myself… Joe Strummer!
15. St. Vincent
When Annie Clark set out to record her debut studio album way back in 2006, she did so under the newly adopted moniker of St. Vincent. Fast-forward 15 years, and she now has herself one of the most recognizable and catchy stage names in the biz.
Why “St. Vincent”, you ask? Well, not only is it a reference to her late great-grandmother, whose middle name was St. Vincent, it's also a nod to There She Goes My Beautiful World – a well-known Nick Cave song that references the hospital in which Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died.
14. Jack White
Born John Anthony Gillis, Jack White joins the list of guitarists who ditched their birth names early on in their career in favor of something with a little more swagger. Gillis is a fine name indeed, though The Gillis Stripes doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?
In reality, White’s name change wasn’t the result of a lengthy stage-name selection process, but rather the outcome of John Gillis taking the maiden name of his first wife and bandmate, Meg White. The switch from John to Jack, however, remains a mystery.
13. Dimebag Darrell
For many years, Pantera guitar hero "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott was known as "Diamond" Darrell, a reflection of the groove-metal kings' origins as a glam-metal band.
The times – and Pantera's sound – changed, and when they did, Abbott adopted a nickname coined by the band's frontman, Phil Anselmo. According to (opens in new tab) the late guitarist's longtime girlfriend, Rita Haney, "One night, Darrell and Philip were getting stoned and Philip just started calling him 'Dimebag' and it stuck!"
12. Elvis Costello
During his mid-'70s pub-rocking days, Declan Patrick McManus took to calling himself D.P. Costello before a manager suggested he substitute D.P. with Elvis.
It takes some nerve to give yourself the same stage name as perhaps the most famous American musician in history, but – given Costello's smart-ass image (in his early days at least) and the nervy, excitable power-pop songs that shot him to fame – it was a fitting gesture for a frontman who infamously cut his own band off mid-song in order to play the forbidden Radio, Radio on Saturday Night Live in 1977 (opens in new tab), earning him a 12-year ban from the show in the process.
11. Gus G
While he’s come to be known as Gus G, the former Ozzy Osbourne/current Firewind guitarist’s real name is the ever-so-slightly less roll-off-the-tongue Konstantinos Karamitroudis. Interviewed at Hungary’s Fezen festival in 2015, the Greek virtuoso revealed that when he visited his uncle in Miami as a child, he would ask how his Greek name should be said in English.
“He said to me, ‘Oh, your name is Gus.’ Which is not true, but somehow all the [Greek] guys that emigrated to the States in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and their name was Kostas, they became Gus. So, I don’t know why – don’t ask me – but I’ve had that name follow me since I was a kid.”
10. Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance
While they’re now known as one of the most prominent guitar duos in modern metal, Avenged Sevenfold’s Brian Elwin Haner Jr. and Zachary James Baker adopted their stage names back when they were young bucks in the late-’90s/early-2000s Huntington Beach punk rock scene.
According to Baker, he conceived the stage name Zacky Vengeance in an attempt to get back at the people from his youth who doubted his success. Synyster Gates, on the other hand, reportedly came up with his name at random while drunkenly driving through a park.
For an American guitar hero, “Slash” is the best stage name ever. It suggests a violent guitar style and a certain swashbuckling attitude – perfect for a guitarist from Guns N’ Roses.
Perfect, that is, unless you’re from Britain, where the former Saul Hudson was born. Across the pond, “Slash” is slang for making wee-wee. Not exactly the stuff of rock legend.
8. The Edge
As your mother once told you, if they’re really your friends, they won’t make fun of the way you look. Unless, of course, your friend is a mullet-headed blabbermouth named Paul Hewson. Hewson took one look at Dave Evans’ prominent beak and dubbed him “The Edge.” At least Evans wasn’t stuck with “Bono Vox,” the nickname Hewson earned because his voice suggested the need for a popular hearing aid.
The stage moniker of Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, Fender signature artist and all-round guitar superstar H.E.R. – whose real name is Gabriella Wilson – stands for ‘Having Everything Revealed’.
Speaking on The Late Late Show with James Corden back in 2019, the guitarist explained that she came up with the name to describe her experience “becoming a young woman”, adding that it allows her to be “the most real [she’s] ever been” while being creative.
She said: “The best way for me to release my music was to be honest, and in order for me to do that I said, ‘Let me not put my face on my music, let me not put a name on my music, and just give my music the way that it is. It’s pure message… that’s all you can see: H.E.R.”
6. Alex Lifeson
Živojinović. Say it backwards, and you might find yourself in the Bizarro World. That’s certainly where Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson found himself New Year’s Eve 2003, when he tangled with police at the Naples Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Florida. The brawl had several repercussions for Lifeson: a broken nose, a lawsuit, and the publication of his real name, Živojinović. It’s Serbian, reportedly, for “Lifeson”.
5. Howlin' Wolf
Chester Burnett – better known as Howlin’ Wolf – was one of the most prominent singer-songwriters in the blues scene in the mid-20th century. Together with artists like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, he helped transform the more acoustically-led Mississippi Delta blues into the more electric guitar-driven, urban-style Chicago blues.
As a child, he would accidentally kill his grandmother’s young chicks by recklessly handling them, so his grandfather told him there were wolves in the area that would come and find him if he misbehaved. His family continued calling him ‘the Wolf’ throughout his childhood, giving rise to one of the most iconic stage names in the history of the blues.
4. Zakk Wylde
For a rebel like Zakk Wylde – formerly known as Jeff Wielandt, back in his hometown in New Jersey – the rules do not apply. Especially trivial rules such as proper spelling. Spellcheck this, MF’er!
3. Mick Mars
More truth-in-advertising than a stage name, Mick Mars, by all accounts, suits the Crüe guitarist all too well. The dude is an alien. For real. A friend told me, and he’s a big Crüe fan. I also read it on the Internet.
Tough to say how Brian Carroll arrived at his stage name. I’m really not sure, not sure at all. Any idea, readers?
1. Yngwie Malmsteen
Like so many guitar heroes before him, Lars Johann Yngwie Lannerback realized that an unwieldy, tough-to-pronounce name could work against him in show biz. So he changed his name to… Yngwie Malmsteen?! What, was “Englebert Humperdinck” already taken?