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Top 11 Instrumental Rock Songs
And now, our latest Top 11 entry from Frank Mastropolo chronicles some of the best instrumental rock songs ever laid to tape …
“I remember walking into a department store and you would hear an instrumental version of a Beatles song and it was usually kinda cheesy and very un-rock … somehow the rock and roll aspect has been sucked out of it.”
— Paul Gilbert
- “Flying” by the Beatles
“Flying” was recorded as incidental music for the Beatles‘ 1967 Magical Mystery Tour film. The song accompanies aerial footage of Iceland’s landscape; the footage was culled from outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. It is a rare instrumental by the Beatles and the first song to credit all four members.
“‘Flying’ was an instrumental that we needed for Magical Mystery Tour so in the studio one night I suggested to the guys that we made something up,” Paul McCartney explained in Many Years From Now. “I said, ‘We can keep it very, very simple, we can make it a twelve-bar blues. We need a little bit of a theme and a little bit of a backing.’ I wrote the melody. The only thing to warrant it as a song is basically the melody, otherwise it’s just a nice twelve-bar backing thing. It’s played on the Mellotron, on a trombone setting. It’s credited to all four, which is how you would credit a non-song.”
There are vocals heard in the third verse, with all four Beatles chanting “la-la-la-la-la,” mimicking John Lennon‘s Mellotron part. “Ringo’s voice was the most prominent one on the chanting,” engineer Geoff Emerick wrote in Here, There and Everywhere, “and that was done deliberately because Paul wanted a different kind of vocal texture, one that wasn’t so obviously ‘Beatlish.'”
- “Soul Finger” by the Bar-Kays
The Bar-Kays were a studio session band with Stax Records that backed Otis Redding on tour in 1967. Stax hoped to groom the Bar-Kays to replace Booker T. & the M.G.’s, who had become headliners in their own right. Their name was chosen after spotting a Bacardi Rum billboard in Memphis.
The Bar-Kays came up with the riff of “Soul Finger” onstage. Later in the studio, the band expanded the riff while Stax co-founder and producer Jim Stewart took a break. “Jim walked backed in. ‘What’s that you’re all doing?'” trumpeter Ben Cauley recalled in the liner notes of The Complete Stax/Volt Singles, 1959–1968, Vol. 7. “‘Oh, it’s just something we made up.’ ‘Do it again, do it again.’ So we did it again, man, and he just about flipped. ‘That’s a hit, let’s cut it.’ So we cut that version and we said, ‘Now there’s still something missing here.’ We got to thinking, and I always would do little comical things on trumpet, so I did ‘Mary’s Little Lamb’ and they said, ‘Why don’t you put that on the front of it, man.’ It started happening from that point on. We cut it in about fifteen minutes.”
“Soul Finger” reached No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967. Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the house composers at Stax, came up with the title. Porter also asked a group of local kids outside the studio to shout the song’s title and pretend they were at a party as the record played.
“I bought them all Coca-Colas,” said Porter, “and I said, ‘Every time I do this you all say “Soul Finger.”
- “Glad” by Traffic
Steve Winwood planned to record a solo album in 1970 titled Mad Shadows in which he would play every instrument. It reflected Winwood’s participation in the more improvisational approach of Blind Faith, the supergroup that broke up in late 1969. As he worked on the jazz-influenced instrumental “Glad,” he invited Traffic’s drummer Jim Capaldi and saxophonist Chris Wood to contribute.
“I began trying to make music all on my own with tape machines and overdubbing and stuff,” Winwood recalled in The Music Aficionado. “It was a very good way of writing, but it was a weird way of making music. The whole thing that makes music special is people. I was getting to the point that I needed the input of other people. It seemed inhuman to make records just by overdubbing.
“Jim Capaldi had just returned from the States and was just hanging around not doing anything so I asked him to come and play in the studio. There was immediately a nice feeling about the music.
“Chris Wood was very instrumental, because he would bring us music to listen to that we’d never heard before. He used to play us Japanese classical music and incredible jazz stuff.”
The result was John Barleycorn Must Die, considered Traffic’s definitive work. Winwood observed on his website, “It was obvious to all of us that we should really give Traffic another go.”
- “Peaches en Regalia” by Frank Zappa
“Peaches en Regalia” is an instrumental that first appeared on Frank Zappa‘s 1969 solo album Hot Rats. It was also released as a single in 1970. “‘Peaches en Regalia’ started off as a set of chords that I worked, scribbled on a piece of paper, and these chords were played by a 4-piece group — this is the backing track,” Zappa told NPR in 1989.
“All the melodic material in it was written in the studio, just pretty much a line at a time, and then either I would play the extra part or [woodwind and keyboards player] Ian Underwood would overdub the extra part. So it was a, let’s call it an organic composition. It wasn’t something where I would sit down and write it all out working with a score.”
On tour, Zappa would often open or close the show with the song. “‘Peaches en Regalia’ is the only one I’ve never really been able to write words for,” Zappa explained in Bugle American in 1975. “I’ve tried, but I can’t come up with a set of lyrics which will work with it.
“If you saw that tune on a piece of paper and somebody handed it to you in a music class and said, ‘write lyrics to this’ you’d be hard-pressed to do it. One syllable per eighth note. You can’t change the melody. That’s the game.”
- “One of These Days” by Pink Floyd
“One of These Days” opens Pink Floyd‘s 1971 album Meddle. The instrumental includes one spoken line by drummer Nick Mason: “One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” Mason told The Source, “Possibly the most interesting thing about ‘One of These Days’ is that it actually stars myself as vocalist, for the first time on any of our records that actually got to the public. It’s a rather startling performance involving the use of a high voice and slowed down tape.”
Another unusual feature is that both guitarist David Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters played bass on the track. “On ‘One of These Days,’ for some reason, we decided to do a double track of the bass,” Gilmour explained in Guitar World. “You can actually hear it if you listen in stereo. The first bass is me. A bar later, Roger joins in on the other side of the stereo picture. We didn’t have a spare set of strings for the spare bass guitar, so the second bass is very dull sounding [laughs]. We sent a roadie out to buy some strings, but he wandered off to see his girlfriend instead.”
- “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers Band
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” first appeared on the Allman Brothers Band‘s 1970 Idlewild South album and became a concert staple for the band. Many fans and critics believe the version recorded on the 1971 live album At Fillmore East is the definitive version of the song.
Betts explained the roots of the tune in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “I was thinking of Benny Goodman. I was thinking of how he used melody and then I got all these Western swing influences from my buddy Dave Liles, who passed away about four years ago.
“But the thing came about, see, I was dating, I was slipping around, back-dooring Boz Scaggs’ girlfriend, live-in girlfriend, they weren’t married, but. She was a beautiful Italian girl. I wrote this song and I wanted to call it ‘Carmella’ but couldn’t [laughs]. So the place we would meet, in this old 1800s graveyard, Rose Hill, there was this old tombstone that said on it ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.’ What I love about that song is if you have a bunch of top-shelf players they can express themselves beautifully in that song, once they learn it. I don’t have a favorite version but my least favorite is the studio version that we did. It was real stock and we cut it real short.”
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by the Allman Brothers Band
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (live) by the Allman Brothers Band
- “Moby Dick” by Led Zeppelin
“Moby Dick” provided an in-concert showcase on early tours for Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones launched the tune, then stepped offstage with vocalist Robert Plant for a smoke break. The version of “Moby Dick” on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II was 4:20, but Bonham’s solos live could make it much longer.
“I usually play for twenty minutes, and the longest I’ve ever done was under thirty. It’s a long time, but when I’m playing it seems to fly by,” said Bonham in his brother Mick’s book, John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin. “There have been times when I have blundered, and got the dreaded look from the lads. But that’s a good sign. It shows you’re attempting something you’ve not tried before.”
Bonham would often throw his drumsticks into the audience during the solo and continue to play with his hands. “I can get an absolutely true sound. It hurts at first, but the skin soon hardens and now I can hit a drum harder with my hands than with drumsticks.”
- “Beck’s Bolero” by the Jeff Beck Group
“Beck’s Bolero” was recorded in 1966 when Jeff Beck was still a member of the Yardbirds. Based on Ravel’s “Boléro,” it was first released as the B-side to Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining.” Beck’s 1968 debut album, Truth, brought “Beck’s Bolero” wider exposure.
Beck assembled an all-star lineup of players for the recording that included guitarist Jimmy Page, drummer Keith Moon, bassist John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. Controversy has swirled between Beck and Page around who is the composer. “Page didn’t write that song,” Beck insisted in Classic Rock. “We sat down in his front room once, this tiny, pokey room, and he was sitting on the arm of a chair and he started playing that Ravel rhythm. He had a 12-string, and it sounded so full, really fat and heavy. And I just played the melody.”
Page ultimately received the composer’s credit. “Even though he said he wrote it, I wrote it,” said Page. “I’m playing all the electric and 12-string, but it was supposed to be a solo record for him. The slide bits are his, and I’m just basically playing around the chords.”
- “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s
“Green Onions,” a No. 3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962, was born from a composition by keyboardist Booker T. Jones that was expanded during a jam session at Stax Records. Jones was part of the Stax house band that included drummer Al Jackson, bassist Lewie Steinberg and guitarist Steve Cropper.
“One Sunday, we were supposed to be working with a singer called Billie Lee Riley, but something hadn’t worked out. He’d packed up and left, so we had the studio to ourselves,” Jones recalled in The Guardian. “We started playing around with a piano groove I’d been performing in the clubs, trying to emulate Ray Charles. It sounded better on the organ, so I kept on playing that. Stax owner Jim Stewart liked what we were doing and wanted to put it out. Then it occurred to him that we needed a flip-side. So I started playing another bluesy riff I had. This was how ‘Green Onions’ began.”
“When Jim Stewart said he liked what we were doing and wanted to record us, we were dumbfounded,” Cropper added. “‘Is this guy serious?’ we thought. On the original master tape, you can actually hear us laughing at the end. I was 21 and playing at my limit. By the third take, we had ‘Green Onions.'”
- “Soul Sacrifice” by Santana
Santana had yet to release their self-titled debut album when they performed at 1969’s Woodstock Festival. Promoter Bill Graham was the band’s manager and he insisted Santana be included in return for his help staging the concert. Santana’s appearance at the festival and on the Woodstock documentary and soundtrack album launched their career. The highlight of their performance was “Soul Sacrifice,” an instrumental that featured solos by guitarist Carlos Santana and drummer Michael Shrieve.
“The bands were trying to make it happen, regardless of the mud and all the other circumstances there,” Santana recalled in Guitar World. “You gotta understand that, in three days, the elements go like waves. There were the natural elements, plus all the mescaline and psychedelics people were taking. Some of the groups fared very well, and some were wiped out. I think we were both. We fared best on ‘Soul Sacrifice.'”
Shrieve told Hit Channel that his drum solo was “completely spontaneous. Nothing was planned. It was completely improvised.
“When I saw myself on the screen, split up in six pieces, I had two reactions: 1) I wanted to stand up and say: ‘That’s me! That’s me!’ And the other one, I wanted to just sit down in my seat and kind of hide. And do you know an interesting thing about that? Martin Scorsese edited that. He did all that stuff during my solo.”
The Woodstock soundtrack album reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top LPs chart; the exposure helped Santana’s debut album reach No. 4.
“Soul Sacrifice” by Santana
“Soul Sacrifice” (live at Woodstock) by Santana
- “Whammer Jammer” by the J. Geils Band
Magic Dick’s blues harmonica playing was a major component of the J. Geils’ Band’s energetic sound. “Whammer Jammer,” which featured Magic Dick’s harp solo, appeared on 1971’s The Morning After and 1972’s Live: Full House. “All the guys in the J. Geils Band were harp freaks. They all loved harp,” Magic Dick told Modern Blues Harmonica. “The idea to do a harp instrumental came partly out of a need. We felt, jeez, it’d be good to have a harp instrumental that we could play at shows.”
Magic Dick studied the work of the blues greats and incorporated it into “Whammer Jammer.” “There are a number of references mixed in there on that tune,” he told Blues Blast. “Part of the opening came directly from Sonny Boy Williamson II and the Yardbirds doing ‘Bye Bye Bird.’ I did it a little quicker, especially live. Then each chorus was taken from things that I had learned from the lexicon of the Chicago style of playing. The song is free-flowing composition rather than a burst of improvisation. ‘Whammer Jammer’ has held up over the years because there is an inevitability to the flow, the unfolding of one chorus to the next, building to the climax.”
“Whammer Jammer” (live) by the J. Geils Band
Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of rock instrumentals. If your favorite rock instrumentals are missing, let us know in the comments!
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