Instrumental rock is a type of rock and roll which features only
musical instruments, and no singing.
From its earliest days, rock and roll emphasized catchy melodies, which
were usually presented with easily remembered lyrics. That wasn't always the
case, however, and if the melodies were strong enough, instrumentals could
catch on and become hits.
That happened most frequently during rock's early years, which
constituted a sort of golden age for Instrumental rock before the British
Invasion. One notable early instrumental was "Honky Tonk" by
the Bill Doggett Combo, with its slinky beat and sinuous saxophone-organ
lead. And bluesman Jimmy Reed charted with "Boogie in the Dark"
and "Roll and Rhumba".
Jazz saxophonist Earl Bostic had a career renaissance with his rocking
instrumentals like "Harlem Nocturne" and "Earl's
Rhumboogie". Other jazz players with early pop hits included Tab Smith
and Arnett Cobb. Indeed, many straight rhythm and blues sax players also had
success with instrumentals, including Big Jay MacNeeley, Red Prysock, and
New Orleans stalwart Lee Allen, whose "Walking with Mr. Lee" was a
The lead melodies of hit instrumentals could emphasize the organ (The
Tornados' "Telstar", Dave "Baby" Cortez's "The
Happy Organ") or the saxophone (the Champs' "Tequila"), but
most often it was the guitar, as the twangy sound of Duane Eddy ("Rebel
'Rouser") and the visceral fuzz tone of Link Wray. Wray's song, the
menacing "Rumble", has the distinction of being the only
instrumental ever banned from broadcast. The clean, reverbed picking of The
Ventures also had a tremendous impact on many of the rock guitarists who
followed them. The Ventures were especially influential on the development
of surf music, which at this stage consisted entirely of heavily reverbed
Despite the rapid-fire picking and Middle Eastern scales sometimes
employed by surf-guitar innovator (and genuine surfer) Dick Dale, most surf
music was fairly simple, retaining its melodic emphasis.
Following the British Invasion, instrumental hits were mostly confined to
the R&B realm, among artists like Booker T. & the MG's, who were
also the house band at Stax Records and saxophonist Junior Walker.
Steve Cropper of the MG's asserts:
"We had trouble getting airplay because disc jockeys did not like
playing songs without vocals on them. It got worse and worse and worse
until they finally pushed every instrumental band in the country out of
Funk and disco produced several instrumental hit singles during the
1970s, and the technical virtuosity of many art-rockers led its fans to
prize instrumental work, even if most of the songs featured vocals at one
point or another. That emphasis on technical skill carried over into the
1980s, when highly trained guitar virtuosos began to dominate heavy metal
and even record their own albums (such as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai).