13 Most Tragic Deaths in the History of Rock Music

Those who were gone too soon.

Ultimate Guitar
13 Most Tragic Deaths in the History of Rock Music

Live fast, die young. Being a true rockstar means walking on the edge of a knife. Tragically, these 13 talented musicians were gone too soon.

Cliff Burton

On the night of Sept. 26, 1986, Metallica were traveling between tour dates in Sweden when Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett drew cards to decide who would get to choose a bunk. The bassist drew the Ace of Spades and chose the bunk Hammett had been occupying. “I said fine, take my bunk,” the guitarist recalled in VH1’s Behind the Music. “I’ll sleep up front; it’s probably better anyway.”

The bus left the road and flipped over on its side, and Burton – who had been asleep in the preferred top bunk – was thrown through the window. As the bus came down, it landed on top of the 24-year-old musician. Reportedly, attempts were made to rescue him from underneath the bus by lifting it with a crane, but the crane slipped, and the bus crashed down on top of Burton a second time. Band members and onlookers have given different accounts of whether Burton died upon the first impact or when the bus came down again, but the promising young star died at the scene.

Burton was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at the Maxwell Ranch in California. Metallica’s “Orion” was played at the ceremony, and lyrics from “To Live Is to Die” are engraved upon his memorial stone: “Cannot the Kingdom of Salvation take me home.” Former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine wrote Megadeth‘s “In My Darkest Hour” after hearing of Burton’s death, and fellow thrash pioneers Anthrax dedicated their Among the Living album to him.

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson

Often referred to as the pioneer of blues rock, Holly was a 50’s legend who looked like Elvis Costello. He was a master at the guitar and bass. After two successful years, Holly decided to get on an airplane that was flying to North Dakota with Richie Valens and The Big Booper. The plane crashed due to a hurricane and all aboard were killed. Buddy Holly is buried in Lubbock, Texas.

Jim Morrison

By the time The Doors released their fourth album, drugs and alcohol were taking their toll on Morrison. His performances were affected and he was unreliable, missing sessions in the recording studio. He was found in a bathtub at his apartment at 17 Rue Beautraillis by his girlfriend, Pamela Courson. No autopsy was performed on the body of Jim Morrison nor was there much of an examination. The story told by his girlfriend changed on every telling, and rumors still exist today as to how he died.

Dimebag Darrell

The heavy metal community is no stranger to occasionally tragic incidents, be they accidental overdoses, tour bus crashes or in-concert audience mishaps. It’s safe to say, however, that little has felt as shocking as the senseless onstage murder of Dimebag Darrell on Dec. 8, 2004. A mentally deranged former U.S. Marine named Nathan Gale reportedly first attempted to board the Damageplan tour bus before the show, but had no success. Next, within moments of the start of Dimebag’s set, the heavily armed gunman stormed the stage and ruthlessly gunned down the guitarist at point-blank range.

Randy Rhoads

One of rock’s enduring mysteries unfolded on March 19, 1982, as 25-year-old Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads — despite having a reported fear of flying — perished in a fiery crash at Leesburg, Fla., after a joy ride in a Beechcraft Bonanza. When it was over, the dead included Rhoads, one of the era’s most promising young guitarists, as well as Rachel Youngblood, a 58-year-old seamstress and cook for the Osbourne band, and Andrew Aycock, a 36-year-old bus driver with an expired pilot’s license.

Aycock made as many as three passes over the home, apparently in a joy-riding attempt to buzz over the other band members. On the final pass, the plane clipped the tour bus, spun out of control, hit a nearby pine tree and then nose dived into the house. The ensuing fireball killed all three passengers, who were left unrecognizable by the flames. Rhoads had to be identified by his jewelry.

Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines

Founded in 1964, much of the Lynyrd Skynyrd music halted in 1977, when a chartered flight carrying the band to a concert at Louisiana State University ran out of fuel. An emergency landing by pilots failed, and the small aircraft instead crashed in a Mississippi forest. Among the casualties were frontman Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist and vocalist Steve Gaines, as well as Gains’s sister, backing singer Cassie. The wounds to other members were many and extensive.

Bon Scott

On Feb. 19, 1980, Bon Scott was found dead. The legendary AC/DC frontman had been out drinking with friends — but the casual evening took a terrible turn as Scott passed out in his car, and ultimately choked to death on his own vomit. He was only 33 years old.

“For us, it was like losing a member of your family,” guitarist Angus Young said in a subsequent interview. “It’s very, very difficult to go through something like that. Not only is it your friend, it’s also somebody you’ve been working with all that time.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan was 35 when he died in a helicopter crash outside East Troy, Wisconsin, August 27, 1990. After one of his shows, four helicopters, owned and operated by Omniflight Helicopters Inc., were reserved to fly the artists and their crews back to Chicago. One helicopter was reserved for Stevie, Jimmie and Jimmie's wife Connie. Members of Clapton’s crew, however, had already taken seats on the helicopter when the Vaughans arrived to board.

Eager to return to Chicago, Stevie asked Jimmie and Connie for the last seat. With dense fog settling in, the helicopters began departing at 1 a.m. Jeff Brown, the pilot of Vaughan’s helicopter, banked sharply to the left about a half-mile after take off. The helicopter collided into a ski slope; everyone on board was killed instantly. Reports of the accident didn't begin surfacing until the morning when the helicopter failed to reach its destination of Meigs Field in Chicago. Double Trouble members Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton began thinking the worst when Vaughan’s hotel room in Chicago was found empty. Shortly after 7 a.m. Jimmie was called to identify his brother’s body.

Joey Ramone

Jeff Hyman fronted the Bronx New York punk rock group the Ramones. He was an excellent singer with a lot of range and diversity, often described as the Jim Morrison of punk rock. Johnny, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone were the only original members of the band to have been with the band to the end. Joey died suddenly of lymphoma in 2000 in New York. New York City dedicated a midtown street after Joey called Joey Ramone’s Place.

Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury was the face of Queen's wildly popular mixture of hard rock, pop, cabaret, glam and opera in the '70s, before becoming one the the AIDS virus' most well-known casualties in the '90s. He died on Nov. 24, 1991 at the age of 44, just two days after confirming rumors that he had the disease.

Elvis Presley

Hail to the King, baby! Elvis was one of the world’s greatest musicians and who released tons of classic albums and movies. Elvis was found dead in his Vegas apartment in his bathroom. He died from an accidental overdose and combined too many anti-anxiety pills and painkillers with sleeping pills. His body is laid to rest in Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis fans believe to this day that he walks among us.... but usually it’s just a fat guy in an Elvis jumpsuit.

John Lennon

John Lennon was originally with the Beatles, but went on to become one of the biggest names in music, ever. An amazing singer and songwriter, he wrote such famous anthems as “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine," On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was gunned down in the NYC while standing in front of the hotel. It was a senseless death, caused by an even more senseless reason: The shooter, one Marc David Chapman, was an obsessed fan. Not surprisingly, he was sent to prison and remains there to this day.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was one of the greatest guitar players in the world. Sadly, his life was cut short when he died in London from a drug overdose. The official version of Hendrix's death at the age of 27 is that he died from choking on vomit after a drugs overdose. James "Tappy" Wright, a 65-year-old former road manager who worked for Hendrix's manager Mike Jeffrey version is that Hendrix was killed on the orders of Jeffrey by a gang who broke into his hotel room and forced wine and painkillers down his throat until he drowned. Some skeptical fans believe he died from having sex with his girlfriend and had a heart attack. I guess we’ll never know the real story.

82 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Layne Staley, Ian Curtis, Janis Joplin.
    none you mentioned really had the staying power. Janis was close but  fell from that light for whatever reason. You ask joe schmoe on the street today who any of those 3 are and chances are they will not have a clue unless they especially listened to their genres of music. I think they made this from a purely uneducated opinion. I think if they solely asked musicians we would see several changes in the count down.
    Absolutely Nick Drake as lordfatwallet days. Had such potential as a songwriter but never hit it big, unlike the rest of the list members. Hell there isn't a single video of him to be found anywhere, and only like seven photos.
    Whoever you are, thank you very much to introducing me to Nick Drake. The most beautiful music I ever heard.
    Absolutely, which is why his being so often overlooked, let alone his death, is so tragic. You are most welcome
    Does anyone else think it's stupid to rank death like this. I find this incredibly disrespectful.
    I don't think it was ranked
    You may be right, but it's still quantified which I think it stupid. The commit section shows just how many musicians that have passed have affected people. 
    I agree on ranking a musician's death is being disrespectful though. I think it was maybe ranked on how tragic and "before their time" it was. Stevie Ray Vaughan would easily top that list for me and maybe Freddie Mercury.
    Frank Zappa.  With the political crazyness of W, Obama & Trump and nonstop wars since 9/11 I really miss hearing the voice of FZ  
    I keep seeing posts about people UG missed, but I'm most upset they didn't include the death of good music on MTV
    Ian Curtis, Rozz Williams, Adrian Borland, Sid Vicious, Rowland S. Howard and John McGeoch comes to mind.
    Soooo every other musician who died young isn't as tragic on your scale of tragic-ness?
    What exactly are they counting as "tragic"??? The age of the deceased? The amount of popularity they had? The way in which they died? No, no, and no. This article has absolutely no consistency whatsoever. Its like they just took a random list of dead rock stars and slapped it together. Does anyone at UG have any sort of post secondary education? Like even a college composition class? Journalism 101??? In order to make a list of the most tragic deaths (why?) you should at least establish what makes their death tragedy. This website is just the ramblings of unpaid interns churning out whatever bullshit they can think of.
    For real man. If they died from drugs, alcohol, or illness with age, I don't think it's really a tragedy. Very sad still, but some of these guys you could see it coming for a while. To me the only ones that were truly tragedies on here are Randy Rhoads, Dimebag Darrell, John Lennon, SRV, and Holly/ Valens. Plane crashes when the artists are still rising stars and getting murdered by "fans" are terrible things no one could foresee.
    Another tragedy here is that whoever wrote this couldn't even be bothered to check the identity of John Lennon's killer. Edit: this article was updated almost immediately after I commented. It originally said "David Graham Chapman" And unlike as practiced on other sites, there is no note or comment about the change made. Also, it's spelt "MARK", not "Marc" as above: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_David_Chapman
    We'll, I'm glad they caught one. Apparently Graceland has moved from Memphis, Tennessee to the mythical land of Nashville, Kentucky.
    Yea my thoughts exactly. I used to live in Kentucky, now I live in Nashville and I can safely say Graceland is in neither place
    Vitek (Decapitated) Mike Alexander (Evile) Paul Grey (Slipknot)
    ROCK music.
    The first one the mentioned was Cliff Burton... Moving on, they carried on with Dimebag Darrel and Randy Rhodes. So, I think my contribution of other metal musicians is pretty valid to this list.
    Didn't realize how many of them died from plane/helicopter crashes. Really makes me hate flying even more
    I know it's horrifically similar to cliffsbut D. boon was a pioneer and was terribly tragic. We jam econo.
    I mean, I feel compelled to downvote this.  How many times has a list just like this been posted here, or on any other similar music site? Yes, they are all tragic and changed music history, but there is nothing new to say here.  
    Had I read this at age 17 I would've read it and not really felt a thing. Now at age 25 I get a HELL of a lot more depressed when reading this kind of stuff. SRV is a big inspiration to me and continues to sadden me to this day that we have never co-existed. Either way, thank you all very much for the music, I'll see you on the other side...wherever and whenever that may be.
    No matter how many times, there is not a single time I read about Cliff's death that I don't get cold to my bones 
    DeeDee Ramone's death was more tragic than Johnny's. According to Marky Ramone's autobiography DeeDee had been a serious drug addict for nearly 20 years before getting himself clean. Marky having dealt with alcoholism helped him, and was sure to know if DeeDee ever felt on the verge of a relapse he could reach out to Marky. Well one day DeeDee went out and scored his usual junk from when he was still addicted. Having been clean for a few years he no longer had the tolerance, and OD'd as a result. He never called Marky. At least this is the story told in Marky's book.
    That young Indie band Viola Beach was pretty tragic too. 3 19 year olds. RIP
    The facts on Jimi's death? Where do I begin? Tappy Wright is full of BS as his book Rock Roadie was done but needed a handle so it could sell. Jimi was killed! Bob Levine who worked for Jimi in the US asked Tappy who confirmed that fact. Everyones gone anyway, who cares. Did Jimi attract his death? It's public that he was public with his beliefs on not going to 28 years old in 1970. It was even a headline in a newspaper. To Chuck Levine of Rainbow Bridge movie the next time home to Seattle would be in a pine box. You become what you think! The universe will support you. Now Jimi's lifestyle was to stay up all night and whatever sleeping pills around would do when he finally decided to sleep. The final days in London was not at his official hotel but Monika's in Nothing Hill so he was not easy to be found and killed! The pills was Vesparax and the side effects of that was to kill you some 4 hours later and Jimi took them at around 7 am. By 11 am he was in trouble and Monika did get an ambulance but the damage was done. Several other users of those pills died as well but Jimi is the so-called most known case. So his death was accidental and attracted. The media from that point on painted their own theories that to this day as this UG post prove. No one cared about the truth. Monika's story changed to suit their agenda and that has been going since he died. As for the '90s farce between Kathy and Monika someone fueled Monika with the incorrect information but the true story from her did not change. Tony Browns book had the latest information at the time but not the full statements from the ambulance men or doctors. Finally doctor Bannister got struck of his practice for fraud. He is mostly famous for the redwine which Jimi did not care for. No one else from police, ambulance or hospital mentions redwine! Banister also said tallest man ever. Again BS! The final facts on Jimi can be read on Univibes.Com
    PRSguitars87 · Apr 12, 2017 10:40 AM
    I have said the same thing before but was lambasted by SJWs whinging about the writers' first languages not necessarily being English and whatnot, missing the point entirely that English-language articles should be written with a high standard of English. I had a lecturer at uni who was German and his English is better than most native speakers'.
    anders.jorgense · Apr 12, 2017 06:06 PM