After some time spent in various bands while attending Kent State University, Walsh came to widespread attention in 1969 as a founding member and lead guitarist for The James Gang, a rare American power trio. Walsh was the standout of the band, noted for his innovative rhythm playing and creative riffs. The James Gang had several minor hits and became an early staple on Album Oriented Radio before Walsh left the group in 1971 for a career as a solo artist.
Walsh's solo debut, Barnstorm (1972) and its followup, The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get (1973) cemented Walsh's reputation as an inventive rocker whose dry sense of humor and reputation as a party animal often made their way into his songs. Several cuts from these albums, notably "Rocky Mountain Way", received heavy airplay and continue to be classic rock favorites.
After releasing another studio album and a live set, Walsh was invited to join The Eagles in 1976, replacing departing guitarist Bernie Leadon. Walsh brought a harder-edged sound to the Eagles and contributed heavily to the sound of their hugely successful album Hotel California. As the Eagles sputtered to an end a couple of years later, Walsh re-ignited his solo career with the well-received discs But Seriously Folks (1978) and There Goes the Neighborhood (1981). Walsh would continue to record and release albums throughout the 1980s but musical trends had passed him by and he would maintain a very low profile until the late-1990s Eagles reunion and tour.