There’s no denying that from the ‘80s onwards, the guitar instrumental has ventured into hitherto unexplored territories, with virtuosos such as Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and others setting new standards for the concept. For the purposes of the list below, however, virtuosity is less a consideration than pioneering impact. Feel free to chime in with great instrumentals we missed — especially those with longstanding impact — in the comments section.
“Beck’s Bolero” — Jeff Beck
Recorded in May of 1966, this instrumental piece had a profound impact on the development of heavy metal and prog rock. Based on Ravel’s “Bolero,” the track also inspired Duane Allman to take up slide guitar. Essentially a “supergroup” gathering, the session featured Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Keith Moon on drums — all accompanying Beck as he played lead and slide on a Gibson Les Paul.
“Black Mountain Side” — Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page used a Gibson J-200 acoustic to record this intricate instrumental, which appeared on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album. The song was inspired by a traditional Irish folk song titled “Down By Blackwaterside,” with Page’s arrangement closely following that of Scottish guitar great Bert Jansch. On Coda, the outtakes album Led Zeppelin released in 1982, the track was combined with another instrumental titled “White Summer.” Page often performed the songs together during Zeppelin’s live shows.
“Jessica” — The Allman Brothers Band
This Dickey Betts-penned classic from the Allman Brothers’ 1973 Brothers and Sisters album has been called “a true national heirloom” by none other than the Wall Street Journal. The song was the first tune recorded by the band with new bassist Lamar Williams, following the tragic death of original bassist Berry Oakley in a motorcycle accident. A live version of "Jessica" won a Grammy Award in 1996 for “Best Rock Instrumental Performance,” 23 years after the song’s initial release.
“Sparks” — The Who
This high-octane instrumental served as a key bridge composition on The Who’s 1968 rock opera, Tommy. Three months after the album was released, Pete Townshend led the band through an incendiary performance of the song at the original Woodstock Festival. Few Who tracks have better showcased Townshend’s six string skills in all their unfettered glory.
“Rebel Rouser” — Duane Eddy
Co-written with producer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood, Eddy recorded this 1958 classic in a grain silo, playing a Gibson L-5. Built around strong single-note melodies, low string bends, and lots of echo and tremolo, Eddy’s distinctive “twang” went on to influence everything from spaghetti western soundtracks to contemporary alt-country. Gibson later produced a beautiful Duane Eddy L-5 Signature Model.
“Frankenstein” — The Edgar Winter Group
This classic from 1973’s They Only Come Out at Night actually topped the American Billboard chart, a rarity for an instrumental. Ronnie Montrose played guitar on the recorded version, but he left the band soon afterwards to form Montrose with Sammy Hagar. Guitar sensation Rick Derringer, who produced the recording, then stepped up to handle six-string duties in the live shows.
“Walk, Don’t Run” — The Ventures
Released as a single in 1960, The Ventures’ recording of this Johnny Smith-penned track was one of the first surf-guitar songs to achieve success on a wide scale. The Ventures were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2008. Guitar Player once called the band “the quintessential guitar combo of the pre-Beatles era, [who] influenced not only styles, but also a generation’s choice of instruments.”
“Maggot Brain” — Funkadelic
This track from Funkadelic’s 1971 classic album of the same name has been described as an emotional apocalypse of sound. Original Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel delivered the electrifying 10-minute solo — one of rock’s greatest ever — in a single take. Teen guitar protégé Michael Hampton, who later took over the band’s lead guitar role, recorded his own dazzling interpretation of the song in 1978.
“Mood for a Day” — Steve Howe
This three-minute Steve Howe solo composition from Yes’s 1971 Fragile album is a classical tour de force. Incorporating elements of flamenco music, the track has become mandatory learning for any guitarist who aspires to play in this style. “’Mood for a Day’ was a brave step in a new direction,” Howe once told Music Legends. “I didn’t want to follow ‘Clap’ [his previous best-known instrumental] with another Chet Atkins-style country picking song.”
“Eruption” — Van Halen
Hard to believe, but this pioneering composition was almost not included on Van Halen’s self-titled debut, since the band considered it a “mere” guitar solo. Happily, producer Ted Templeman felt otherwise, and hence the brilliant template for two-handed tapping was forged. Amazingly, Eddie Van Halen feels he could have improved on the take that was used. “There's a mistake at the top end of it,” he later told Guitar World. “To this day, whenever I hear it, I always think, 'Man, I could've played it better.'”