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Playlist: The 30 Greatest Instrumental Songs Ever


In the April 2011 issue of SPIN, we caught up with Explosions in the Sky, the Texas-based band who’ve taken wordless music to unexpected heights. But they’re hardly the first to rock with their traps shut. Since the 1950s, pop, rock, jazz, metal, and no-wave have produced tons of classic tracks sans frontperson. Below, a brief history of the best instrumental songs, and what made them memorable. Plus, stream a selection of the picks in our player.

Have your own favorites? Post them in the comments!

Written By Charles Aaron, Jason Cohen, Catherine Davis, and Kevin O’Donnell

Bill Doggett, “Honky Tonk, Part 1 and 2” (1956)

Led by Billy Butler’s atmospheric strolling guitar, this double-sided smash by organist Doggett’s band became an R&B and rock’n’roll standard. It also provides the soundtrack for the scene in Blue Velvet where Dennis Hopper exclaims the immortal hipster credo: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!

Duane Eddy, “Moovin’ ‘N’ Groovin'” (1957)

While recording this single, producer Lee Hazlewood set up Eddy’s amp inside a giant empty water tank. The resulting twangy echo heralded the birth of rock guitar as a lead instrument.

Wray’s distorted guitar on his breakthrough foregrounded power chords and feedback, paving the way for the Who, punk, and the White Stripes. It was also the only instrumental single ever banned from radio, due to its ominous tone and the title’s use as a slang term for “gang fight.”

The Ventures, “Walk, Don’t Run” (1960)

A remake of jazz guitarist Johnny Smith’s 1955 original, the Ventures’ rendition became the Rosetta Stone of surf rock.

Dick Dale, “Let’s Go Trippin'” (1961)

While recording this track, Dale blew out so many amps built by Fender and JBL that he earned the tag “the father of heavy metal.”

Booker T. & the MG’s, “Green Onions” (1962)

They served as the airtight house band for Stax Records, backing artists from Otis Redding to Wilson Pickett. But the MG’s hit was their indelible signature, tossing off a blissful three minutes of Booker T. Jones’ driving Hammond organ punctuated by guitarist Steve Cropper’s Memphis-greasy Telecaster.

The Tornados, “Telstar” (1962)

This yearning space-age swirl and swoosh of distorted sound effects and Clavioline keyboard was the signature work of eccentric genius producer Joe Meek. It also became the first single by a U.K. band to reach No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts.

Pink Floyd, “Interstellar Overdrive” (1967)

The British art rockers’ semi-improvisational track melted brains, including that of original leader Syd Barrett. The ur-psychedelic instrumental, from the Floyd’s only album with Barrett (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), clocks in at just under ten minutes.

Jeff Beck, “Beck’s Bolero” (1967)

The British axe-man takes Ravel’s “Bolero” as the inspiration for a three-minute psych blast, recorded in the late-’60s with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Keith Moon, and piano ace Nicky Hopkins.

Frank Zappa, “Peaches En Regalia” (1969)

On this standout track from the mostly instrumental, post-Mothers of Invention album Hot Rats, Zappa delivers a melodic, innovative exercise in avant-jazz and fusion, inspiring young prog rockers, college-radio DJs, and arty stoners alike.

James Brown, “Ain’t It Funky Now” (1969)

With its hypnotic interplay of vamping horns, Hammond B3 organ, drums, guitar, and classic Godfather grunts and quips (“Kush, you oughta be ashamed of yourself, leave that little horn alone”), “Ain’t It Funky Now” presaged the ’70s disco epoch.

Miles Davis, “Right Off” (1971)

The lead track from the legendary jazz trumpeter’s classic album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, sounds like a one-off garage rock jam at first, as guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Michael Henderson, and drummer Billy Cobham fart around while the tape rolls. But it ascends to another level when Davis enters at 1:19, and with one triumphant, singular horn splat, he delivers one of the first (and best) fusions of rock and jazz.

Funkadelic, “Maggot Brain” (1971)

On the 10-minute opener of this motor-booty crew’s album of the same name, Eddie Hazel delivers one of the most emotionally devastating guitar solos of all time. How’d he do it? According to legend, bandleader George Clinton told Hazel prior to recording to play as if he had just been informed that his mother had died but then learned that it wasn’t true.

Mahavishnu Orchestra, “You Know, You Know” (1971)

Guitarist John McLaughlin is joined by drummer Billy Cobham and keyboardist Jan Hammer for a mind-blowing jazz-rock fusion blast-off on 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, unleashing prog touchstone “You Know, You Know,” which was later sampled by Massive Attack, Mos Def, and countless others.

Neu!, “Hallo Gallo” (1972)

When Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother bailed from Kraftwerk to form Neu! in the early 1970s, they were the visionaries of movement glibly called “krautrock” droning, spacey post-psychedelia, whose rhythmic precision, as on the hypnotic “Hallo Gallo,” was a marvel of German engineering.

Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache” (1972)

This funky 1972 oddity was rescued from the dollar bins by DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, who spotlighted the song’s fabulously dramatic percussive breakdown (“Apache” later became one of the most-sampled pieces of music ever). No wonder it’s been dubbed hip-hop’s national anthem.

Edgar Winter, “Frankenstein” (1973)

Texas multi-instrumentalist Winter hit the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 with this keytar-featuring single, one of the few instrumental rock songs to ever score that honor.

Rhys Chatham, “Guitar Trio” (1977)

The downtown New York composer teamed up with noise-rock/avant-classical legend Glenn Branca for a studio approximation of their famed “guitar orchestras,” which inspired the city’s burgeoning no-wave scene and, later, Sonic Youth’s creatively-tuned guitar assaults.

Van Halen, “Eruption” (1978)

Eddie Van Halen’s epic solo from the group’s 1978 debut features almost two solid minutes of dizzying shredding; it popularized the “tapping” style used on virtually every metal album throughout the 1980s.

Rush, “YYZ” (1981)

With Moving Pictures, Geddy Lee and Co. proved they were mightily virtuosic, historically nerdy (rendering the letters “Y-Y-Z” in Morse Code via various musical arrangements), and capable of damn catchy melodies. Then, of course, there’s the drum solo.

Yngwie Malmsteen, “Icarus Dream Suite Opus 4” (1984)

On this majestic track from his debut album, the onomatopoeically-named Swede defines the art of heavy guitar shredding, delivering classically-inspired songwriting with lightning-fingered speed.

Gone, “Fifth Forces Suite: Hypercharge / The Wait” (1986)

When Greg Ginn formed Gone, whose debut album closed with “Fifth Forces Suite,” an eight-minute, what-the-fuck-is-that? hardcore explosion, he ushered in a surprisingly influential jam/fusion/psychedelic era for his label SST, which also included instrumentalists Blind Idiot God and Universal Congress Of.

Joe Satriani, “Surfing With the Alien” (1987)

This classically trained guitar wonk is arguably the most commercially successful instrumental rock musician of the past three decades. The title track of 1987’s double-platinum Surfing with the Alien is his calling card: four-and-a-half minutes of blazingly slick riffs, tweaked to the max with whammy bar and finger-taps.

Don Caballero, “Lucky Father Brown” (1992)

With sharp angles, precise structure, shifty time signatures, and adisregard for verse-chorus convention, the unfortunately named “math rock” genre emerged in the early 1990s, best exemplified by this 7-inch monster from Pittsburgh’s Don Cab.

Earth, “Seven Angels” (1993)

Leader Dylan Carlson may be best known for helping pal Kurt Cobain purchase a shotgun, but the guitarist also pioneered high-volume doom and drone, especially on 1993’s three-song, 74-minute opus Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version, which served as a blueprint for followers like Sunn O))).

Tortoise, “Djed” (1996)

This dub-influenced Chicago group got tagged as “post-rock” because their free-wheeling sound seemed to have few boundaries; and with their stunning second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, they pointed the way towards current groundbreaking bands like Battles. Sprawling 20-minute opener “Djed” is like the soothing soundtrack of an apocalyptic New Age dance party.

Mogwai, “Mogwai Fear Satan” (1997)

They came out of the same Glasgow scene as Belle and Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub, but these titanic rock instrumentalists could blow both twee-pop bands into the stratosphere. And the explosive mid-section of this track made Sonic Youth sound as if they’d been playing through low-wattage practice amps.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven…” (2000)

The first movement of this Montreal collective’s “Storm” triptych mixes austere chamber music with explosive guitar churn it’s emotionally gut-wrenching without uttering a word.

Explosions in the Sky, “Your Hand in Mine” (2003)

They’re the current kings of instrumental rock and this masterpiece proves why. It’s an eight-minute journey, with sweet, lyrical guitar and a volcanic middle section delivered with the scalding force of a bombing raid. An adapted version (with strings) provided Friday Night Lights with an unforgettable dramatic flourish.

Beastie Boys, “Electric Worm” (2007)

On their instrumental album The Mix-Up, the bratty hip-hop pioneers dropped their mics for a jazz-funk fusion workout that proved they could give Medeski, Martin, and Wood a worm for their money.