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Top 7 Instrumental Rock Songs

air guitaristThe ability to make your instrument “speak” with its own voice has always been a big deal for country, blues and jazz players. And rock music grew from a mix of country, blues and a touch of jazz. So it comes as no suprise that there are a bunch of great instrumental songs in the proverbial rock canon.

Today’s post is about my top 7 rock instrumentals. You know, the songs that make you want to bang your head and play air guitar like the rock star you know you were destined to become (but instead, you became a suburban family man or woman with two cars, a mortgage, a lawnmower, matching dishes and cups and concert t-shirts that sit unworn but not unloved in a box somewhere in the garage).

7. Green Onions – Booker T. and the MGs

I heard Booker T. discuss this song last week on NPR. And although it’s Booker T. and the MGs biggest and most enduring hit, to the band it was really just a throwaway song. The MGs were the Stax studio band for a number of years, which meant they spent a lot of time waiting for the more famous artists (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, etc.) to show up to the recording sessions. It was during one of these sessions that the band played a loose version of “Green Onions.” The recording engineer liked it and requested they play it again while he recorded it. The band said yes and later released the song as the b-side of a single. The A-side did nothing. But Green Onions became a big, fat hit that has made appearances in the following movies:

  • American Graffiti
  • Quadrophenia
  • Barfly
  • Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
  • The Sandlot
  • Houseguest
  • Get Shorty
  • Blues Brothers 2000
  • Stepmom
  • Glory Road
  • Flash of Genius

Not bad for a throwaway song.

Buy “Green Onions” from iTunes

6. Wipeout – The Ventures

Another song from the 1960s. “Wipeout” was actually first recorded by The Safaris. But to my ears, The Ventures’ version slays the original with more speed, bigger drum fill, better guitar solos and stylish suits (see the video). Every kid that learns to play the drums learns to play “Wipeout.” Back in the day, I even played “Wipeout” at a paying gig and I would be hesitant to say I even PLAY the drums.

Buy “Wipeout” from iTunes

5. Little Wing – Stevie Ray Vaughan

No matter who plays it, “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix is an amazing song. But the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan made this song his own with a few different versions that I believe top even the Hendrix versions. Amazingly, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s recordings were so solid that this song remained unreleased until after his death. To many artists, “Little Wing” would have been their crowning achievement. To Stevie, it was simply another song.

Buy “Little Wing” from iTunes

4. Eruption – Eddie Van Halen

For thousands of young guitarists, “Eruption” is the motherlode of solo guitar songs. Eddie Van Halen was only 22 years old when he dropped this song on unsuspecting buyers of the first Van Halen record in 1978. But it has serious staying power and Van Halen still plays this song in gigs today. Like “Wipeout,” every kid that picks up an electric guitar wants to play “Eruption.” The difference is that about 1 in 10,000 can actually do it. I never could and I DO play the guitar. (If you’re a guitarist, you might find this far-too-long version of “Eruption” interesting. If not, watch about 60 seconds and move right along to #2 on the list).

Buy “Eruption” from iTunes

3. Moby Dick – Led Zeppelin

I have to drop “Moby Dickicon” on the list for two reasons:

  1. I loved it as a kid
  2. It has a ridiculously long John Bonham drum solo

For these two reasons alone, you’ve got to respect “Moby Dick.” No one in their right mind should ever watch a near-10 minute drum solo. It’s ridiculously long (but still more enjoyable to watch than Eddie Van Halen’s far-too-long and indulgent “Eruption” solo above). But it’s John Bonham who was one of the greatest and most distinctive rock drummers ever. Don’t believe me?  Ask any drummer you know. Plus, he died prematurely from drinking way too much vodka (roughly 40 shots in 24 hours), which allowed his legend to deservedly grow. Today, “Moby Dick” remains a monster.

Buy “Moby Dick” from iTunes


2. YYZ – Rush

You knew this one was coming, right? You can’t do a greatest rock instrumentals list and leave off “YYZ” by Rush. When Moving Pictures was released in 1983, every kid in my school ran out and bought the album. We heard “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” on the radio and knew they were “the best Rush songs ever.” Until we dropped the needle on the record and heard track 3 on side 1 (this is album speak for you young readers–an experience entirely unknown to just about everyone younger than 30). “YYZ” burst from the speakers and we listened to it again and again and again. Guitar solo. Check. Bass solo. Check. Drum solo. Double bass check. Watching the video of Rush in Rio, I’m still amazed by how big a sound these three Canadians produce. But I’m even more amazed by the footage of a packed Brazilian soccer stadium singing the melody to YYZ (the rhythm spells out YYZ in Morse Code. Yes, I realize how ridiculous and geeky that makes me seem as I wrote the sentence) as they bounce up and down. Even for a seasoned group of grizzled rock veterans like Rush, that sight and experience has to rank in their top 5 greatest concert moments ever.

Buy “YYZ” from iTunes

1. Frankenstein – Edgar Winter Group

The 20-minute drum or guitar solo is a rare event these days. And that’s probably a good thing. But in the 1970s, solos ruled. And “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group gives every member of the band big flashy time in the spotlight. Think about it: you’ve got an albino (yes, Edgar Winter is not just blonde; he is a true albino) saxophone and keyboard player leading a band of long-hairs through a space-age jam called “Frankenstein.” It’s a great image. Plus, it has drum solos. It has wacky keyboard sounds. It has a heavy, earworm-worthy guitar riff. It’s everything a rock instrumental should be. That’s why it will always be my pick for the greatest rock instrumental ever.

Buy “Frankenstein” from iTunes

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I'm an obsessive music collector, cataloger, commenter and trivia nut. Sometimes I'm even a listener. One-hit wonders have always been a guilty pleasure.

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4 Responses to "Top 7 Instrumental Rock Songs"

  1. mik says:

    Whenever I see the title of your latest update, I like to try to predict the songs that will feature in your list. I only got three of seven right this time (YYZ, Wipeout, and Frankenstein). I was almost certain that I’d also see the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica” and “Misirlou” by Dick Dale. Booker T and the MGs is an awesome choice though. And that Stevie Ray version of Little Wing. Yowza.

    And, of course, I know they don’t qualify as rock, but you know you love some Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. (and not just for the Whipped Cream album cover)

  2. Michael Waterman says:

    You are correct that I love me some Herb Alpert and the TJ Brass. In fact, two weeks ago, the only albums I listened to were “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” and the modern remix version titled “Whipped Cream and Other Delights Re-Whipped.” I love Herb so much, I’ve already written an entry about the two albums in my head…I just have to post it. Look for it in the next week or so.

    I’m also glad my list was not completely predictable. But there is no way you can leave “YYZ” or “Frankenstein” off the list, not matter how obvious of choices they are.

  3. Strom says:

    If I could play “Little Wing” with the emotion that SRV puts into it, I would end my music dabbling and call it complete. I still nearly cry every time I hear it. And that’s amazing for an instrumental.

  4. cardskill says:

    It is funny that rush LA Villa stravareos spelling my be wrong haha has to be the most talented and complicating instrumental ………………… is a joke that some of these songs are considered in the same conversation wow!!!!!!!!!!!!

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