For four days each January, the Anaheim Convention Center and clubs in and around Orange County enter a wormhole where grunge never happened, hair metal never died and amplifiers are never turned below 11. To be fair, NAMM – America’s largest annual trade show for the musical products industry, where numerous instrument manufacturers from around the globe will showcase their latest gear from Thursday to Sunday – is officially genre-agnostic, but the fact remains that where there are guitars, there will be guitar heroes, and the after-hours events that take place during the convention are designed to make heads bang, eardrums bleed and livers quiver. In that spirit, we’ve ranked the 10 best concerts of NAMM 2018, which, unlike the convention itself, are open to the general public.
Thursday, The Observatory, $33
Over the years, NAMM has produced numerous “all-star jams,” but speaking from experience, many have featured ill-conceived pairings and/or sloppy performances by musicians who’ve gulped down one too many. In recent years, however, the quality of such shows has improved due to the rise of tributes-to-the-fallen-hero, which tend to bring out the best – or at least, the better – in its participants. That said, Thursday’s annual nod to slain Pantera guitarist and celebrated drinker “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott – which will feature performances by members of Armored Saint, Suicidal Tendencies, King’s X and at least one of Abbott’s former bandmates – could go either way, but if we had to wager, we’d bet that Black Tooth Grins (Dimebag’s signature drink, in which whiskey is chased with a splash of cola) will be flowing plentifully.
9. Last In Line
Saturday, M3, $25
Although it has yet to make its American debut, the ongoing “Dio Returns” tour – which features a hologram of Ronnie James Dio, who died of stomach cancer in 2010 – has raised just as many eyebrows as it has two-fingered “devil horn” salutes popularized by the legendary vocalist. Last In Line, a second group featuring Dio alumni – and one that features a real, live vocalist in Andrew Freeman (Lynch Mob, The Offspring) – takes a more traditional path. In concert, the band, which also features Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell, mixes Dio anthems like “Rainbow In The Dark,” “Stand Up And Shout” and, naturally, “The Last In Line” with original material from its 2016 debut album, which is better than any record by a tribute band has a right to be.
8. Yngwie Malmsteen
Wednesday, The Observatory, $22.50
There are guitarists who play fast, and then there’s Yngwie Malmsteen, the bombastic Swedish neoclassical shredder who continues to set land-speed records more than 30 years into his career. In recent years, Malmsteen has toured with fellow guitar heroes Zakk Wylde and Steve Vai on a tour called Generation Axe, but at the Observatory, he’ll have the bill all to himself. Still, he’ll have to share the stage with a ridiculously comical wall of Marshall amplifier cabinets, which one California promoter swears are all real. (A friendly heads-up to the staff of the Observatory: That same promoter also says there will be hell to pay if Malmsteen’s tour rider – which demands two packages of low-fat Swiss cheese – isn’t followed to the letter.)
7. Bonzo Bash
Thursday, Yost Theater, $28
NAMM isn’t only for guitarists, as this drum-themed tribute to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham proves. Founded by local promoter Joe Sutton and musician Brian Tichy, who has played with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Foreigner and Slash, the Bonzo Bash will feature a house band (“The Moby Dicks,” a name that nods to Bonham’s signature solo and more than 20 guest drummers from acts such as Korn, Overkill and, in an unusual twist (ahem), Chubby Checker.
6. Hall of Heavy Metal History Induction Ceremony
Wednesday, Wyndham Anaheim Garden Grove, $35
Last year marked the debut of the Hall of Heavy Metal History, which – as its name implies – honors the lifetime achievements of some of the genre’s biggest names. This year, the Hall inducts a class of 13 top-lined by estranged original Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, thrash legends Exodus and virtuoso bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, Steve Vai). In addition, drum legends Carmine and Vinny Appice – brothers whose collective credits range from Rod Stewart to Ronnie Dio – will play live, their first West Coast performance since the recent release of their debut joint studio album, “Sinister.”
5. Eric Johnson
Thursday, City National Grove of Anaheim, $25 and up
For his 2018 tour, veteran guitarist Eric Johnson – a tone connoisseur of the highest order – has re-teamed with his original backing band, drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock, to perform his landmark 1990 release Ah Via Musicom. The album, which sold more than 1 million copies and features the Grammy-winning masterpiece “Cliffs of Dover,” proved definitively that instrumental rock guitar can be classy and virtuosic at the same time. Johnson plays NAMM-week shows on a regular basis, but seeing him revisit his seminal album should be a special treat.
4. Randy Rhoads Remembered
Friday, Yost Theater, $28
After the success of their first Bonzo Bash events, Tichy and Sutton branched out into the guitar universe to celebrate the life of former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads, who died in a 1982 plane crash at the age of 25. Despite his youth, Rhoads’ knockout riffs – his opening salvo in “Crazy Train” rivals “Back In Black” and “Enter Sandman” as the most iconic rock guitar lick of the past four decades – and dazzling solos on classics such as “Mr. Crowley” have rightfully earned him a place among the all-time greats. At the Yost, current and former members of Megadeth, Whitesnake and Dio will honor his musical legacy. We’ve only attended one RRR event, but it ended with a memorable all-hands-on-deck performance of Rhoads’ wistful acoustic outtake, “Dee.” Here’s hoping history will repeat itself.
3. L.A. Guns
Saturday, House of Blues (Parish Room), sold out
While most ’80s rock veterans coast by from year to year on the leftover fumes of their glory days, the Hollywood vampires of L.A. Guns have cheated death and enter 2018 more rejuvenated than they’ve been in years. Their upward trajectory began when, after several years of anchoring competing versions of the band, founding guitarist Tracii Guns (the original “Guns” in Guns N’ Roses) and vocalist Phil Lewis buried the hatchet and reunited at Irvine Meadows’ Hair Nation festival in 2016. From there, they recorded a worthwhile comeback album that opens with the knockout “Speed,” perhaps the best song released by an “’80s band” since that decade of decadence came to an end. Considering that nearly 50 musicians have played for L.A. Guns since their inception, it’s a crap-shoot to guess how long their current incarnation will remain intact, so catch them while you can.
Saturday, House of Blues, $30
In an odd bit of booking, the HOB will be competing against itself on Saturday night, but considering that NAMM typically draws crowds of 100,000, that shouldn’t pose a problem for Extreme, who will make their first Southern California appearance since they co-headlined the Cathouse festival (Hair Nation’s predecessor) in Irvine in 2015. Since then, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt has toured with Malmsteen and co. on the Generation Axe tour, but in Anaheim, he’ll perform hits such as “Get The Funk Out,” “Hole Hearted” and their classic ballad “More Than Words” alongside two-thirds of the band’s original lineup.
1. Metal Allegiance
Thursday, House of Blues, $25
When is an all-star band more than just an all-star band? When it’s Metal Allegiance. With a core anchored by bassist David Ellefson (Megadeth), guitarist Alex Skolnick (Testament) and drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) and Mark Menghi the group features a rotating cast of guest vocalists and musicians, which in Anaheim will include current and former members of A-list thrashers such as Slayer, Exodus, Anthrax, Death Angel, Overkill and Sepultura. While it’s admirable that the group has recorded one album of original material with another soon to come, classic metal covers will surely – and wisely – dominate the band’s HOB set. Last year’s Metal Allegiance show during NAMM featured the first public performance by Ellefson and his former Megadeth bandmate Marty Friedman in more than 15 years; hopefully this year’s event will include a similarly memorable metal moment.