Buckethead has one of the most unique careers—and personas—in the history of rock music. Over the course of the last 25 years, the enigmatic guitarist has operated in paradox, working with high-profile names like Guns N’ Roses, Bootsy Collins, and Serj Tankian, while still managing to maintain a shadowy aura. But for all of his marquee collaborations, Buckethead’s true magic lies in his solo performances, where he decorates the stage with small statues and plays scenes from Japanese animated videos behind him.
He also flat-out shreds on the guitar, peeling off licks while wearing a Michael Myers mask and an upside-down KFC chicken bucket labeled “funeral.” At every show, there’s an intermission where the 6’6” guitarist demonstrates his skill with nunchucks, and passes out toys to the crowd. He generally follows that by playing the theme songs for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Star Wars.
In addition to his already storied career, Buckethead has constructed his own imaginary theme park, called Bucketheadland, in Claremont, California. His debut album of the same name provided a virtual walking tour of the park during its “construction.” Fast forward to today, where not only is his fictitious park “up and functioning,” he’s added 272 kiosks that each carry an album, according to his website. In other words, since 2011, Buckethead has released a whopping 272 “real” albums for his made-up theme park.
Each album—or “pike,” as he calls it—is numbered like a comic book, and has unique artwork created by Buckethead. His massive discography covers a wide range of sounds—from heavy metal to ambient to experimental noise—which doesn’t make it easy to choose which “pikes” to start with. This is our rollercoaster ride through 15 essential Buckethead albums.
Look Up There almost perfectly presents both the duality and the range of Buckethead’s career. “Golden Eyes,” the first segment of this pike, demonstrates his perfect pace and control. He knows how to stutter step his riffs around the grungy bass groove, and when to rev up and speed into sweeping arpeggios. The second part of this release (“Look Up There”) is the reason why this pike makes the list: Clocking in at over 20 minutes, the track evolves from a calm progression of notes to a thrilling guitar jam. The sweetest spot comes near the track’s end, right around the 20-minute mark, when Buckethead pulls back to a clean guitar rhythm as a way to ease into further shredding.
The Boiling Pond is the best example of Buckethead joyously getting filthy, grungy, and messy. His guitar tone throughout this pike is smothered in distortion, and will speak to the lovers of Buckethead’s fast-paced riffing on the lower end of the spectrum. “Conductor” is a clear standout, opening with rattling, muted guitar and immediately easing into a calm interlude that provides momentary relief from the album’s haunted house atmosphere.
Pearson’s Square showcases Buckethead’s softer side, channeling passionate and powerful emotions into beautiful acoustic guitar chords and heartfelt melodies. “Hearts Delight” is a perfect marriage of melody and rhythm, in which every note feels like it’s directly channeling Bucket’s emotions, providing a small glimpse into the man behind the mystery.
“Hall of Aluminum” begins with an infectious riff, something unique to Buckethead’s repertoire. That opening riff is wrapped in slight delay, and sporta a twangy tone and a hopscotching rhythm. The rest of Coat of Charms plays out differently: heavy rumbles and psychedelic, delayed guitar chords build bridges between the different sections of the “Jettison” run.
Monument Valley is one of the few pikes where the album title is written legibly on the cover art. That artwork—depicting a shadowy desert valley—is also a good indication of the album’s sound, which feels barren and solemn. Here, Buckethead experiments with chord delays; the slower segments and riffs on this pike feel rawer than his other work, with slight hisses turning up at the end of track. The layers of Bucket’s guitars aren’t too intricate, and the mood and reverb put the listener right in the center of each song.
Buckethead lost both of his parents over the span of one year between 2013 and 2014. He dedicated the 13th pike (which untitled and no longer available) to his dad, and Hold Me Forever to his mom. Past releases dedicated to his parents have landed on the softer side of the musical spectrum, but with Hold Me Forever, he says his goodbyes with a powerful, widescreen ballad. Everything on this pike feels energized—it’s as if Buckethead is coping with grief by summoning strength through his guitar.
Final Bend of the Labyrinth sounds like a fairy tale that’s inappropriate for children. The solos are less audacious, and the overall goal seems to be to create a kind of grand spectacle. The key to this pike is the intricacy of the rhythms and backing harmonies, which build perfect bridges for the magical solos. Many of the riffs are revisited throughout the pike, but my favorite arrives early during the first track, where he matches a riff with an equally resonant harmony, eventually nailing a wailing, slow-paced solo.
There’s a pug running from an explosion on the cover of Northern Lights, while being chased by a Terminator-style cyborg. Imagine this pike as the backing track to that pug’s escape, and it works perfectly. While the first half of this pike is a headbanger’s delight, the title track is a bit more flavorful and riff-driven.
Project Little Man is full of intriguing riffs and electrifying guitar solos that defy the human ear to keep up. “Project Little Man” is essentially a jam session, complete with hairpin twists and turns that stretch out across a riveting 18 minutes. The tapping solos are otherworldly, and the energy remains in the red throughout. “Thorne Room” is a showcase of Buckethead’s incredible riffage; Near the tail end of the track, he moves down to the lower frets for a groovy sequence that provides the perfect contrast to the song’s high-octane opening.
In Buckethead lore, Herbie is an evil farmer from the farm where the artist grew up. Because of what Herbie did to all of his chicken friends, Buckethead avenged them by beheading Herbie and turning his head into a puppet. Backstory aside, Herbie Theatre is one of Buckethead’s funkier projects. Taken under the eccentric wings of Bootsy Collins in the ‘90s, Buckethead proves he knows his way around both funk and vivid experimentation. He helicopters guitar pop and slaps, sprinkling them with gliding, wah-wah effect. And it wouldn’t be a Buckethead pike if he didn’t end this Herbie-centric showcase with a fiery, demented solo.
This is “intermission Buckethead” at its finest. Quilted is the perfect listen to help restore your energy and rebuild your sanity. A complement to his usual off-the-rails riffage, Quilted is both dreamy and reverby. It’s just one track, and rightfully so: Buckethead’s guitar swells calmly, getting louder when chords need to be accentuated and softer when he wants to hold back. Ornamented with meditative delays, there’s never a dull moment on Quilted, which is transportive and meditative from beginning to end.
Mirror Realms makes the list because the transition from “Blue Slide” to the three parts of “Mirror Realm” makes for a phenomenal, neck-snapping switch-up. “Blue Slide” has a romantic vibe—melodic, slightly-distorted solos snake beneath lovely, floating acoustic guitar. But the daydream doesn’t last long; “Mirror Realms Part One” reaches an 11 out of 10 on the Spinal Tap meter; the guitar screeches shake you awake, and the horrifying riffs feel built to accompany a Buckethead nunchuck dance.
Like his fleet-fingered fretboard-burners, Buckethead’s calmer music has many dimensions. Where pikes like Pearson’s Square focus on acoustic rhythms, Cove Cloud dwells in the realm of ambience. There’s no need for shredding on this album—instead, Buckethead focuses on comforting with open space. He takes advantage of smooth reverb and trickling delay, especially on the outro of “Cloud,” where the departing sequence is minimal, yet powerful.
Santa’s Toy Workshop isn’t as jolly as the title suggests. The anxiety-inducing “Santa’s 20 Minutes Away” feels like it’s meant to score a particularly grueling Christmas Eve for Saint Nick. But “Winds Through Antlers” is the winner here: the ringing guitar tone is reminiscent of surf rock, and Buckethead executes it well, diving in and out of galloping rhythms and piercing melodies. It’s his way of saying “Merry Christmas.”
Films could be made around the ideas contained in Buckethead’s pikes. On Poseidon, the guitarist mixes epic ballads with stadium rock. A six-part journey, Buckethead blends light strings and transitional bridges, keeping the consistency of these cloudy, mellow segments at the same high-intensity level as the big sound from the heavier sections.