From Steve Vai to Joe Satriani and beyond, contemporary guitarists have delivered ever-more-spectacular instances of instrumental prowess. For the purposes of the following list, however, virtuosity is less a consideration than long-standing impact and stylistic innovation. In addition, the following instrumentals cut a historical swath that stretches from the present-day back to the ‘50s.
“Mood for a Day” (Steve Howe)
This three-minute solo composition from Yes’s 1971 Fragile album is a fingerstyle tour de force. Incorporating classical and flamenco music, the track has become mandatory learning for any guitarist who aspires to play in this style. The influence of Andre Segovia is palpable.
“Black Mountain Side” (Jimmy Page)
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 “Black Waterside.” On Coda, the outtakes album Led Zeppelin released in 1982, the track is combined with another instrumental titled “White Summer.”
“Beck’s Bolero” (Jeff Beck)
Jeff Beck recorded this short instrumental, based on Ravel’s “Bolero,” during a 1966 recording session with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Keith Moon, and Nicky Hopkins. Through the years, Beck and Page have sparred over the song’s authorship, but there’s no denying the piece was an early cog in the development of both heavy metal and prog rock.
“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 make the Billboard Hot 100. Three years earlier Chet Atkins had achieved moderate success with his version, and in 1998 Steve Howe made it the lead track on his solo album, Quantum Guitar.
“Classical Gas” (Mason Williams)
Mason Williams was a head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour when he recorded this unlikely hit in 1968. Williams later enlisted an experimental filmmaker named Dan McLaughlin to create a montage of images that flashed onscreen to the beat of the song, thus creating one of the earliest music videos.
“Slaughter On 10th Avenue” (Mick Ronson)
This title track from Mick Ronson’s 1974 debut solo album showed why Ronson was one of rock’s most valued sidemen. Playing his paint-stripped Les Paul Custom, the late guitarist came up with a brilliant glam treatment of the classic Richard Rodgers composition. Ronson was also a gifted acoustic player, as evidenced on his flamenco-inspired backing on David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.”
“Souvenirs De Nos Peres (Memories of Our Fathers)” (Peter Frampton)
This track from Peter Frampton’s Grammy-winning 2006 all-instrumental album, Fingerprints, fulfilled Frampton’s dream of tackling a jazz-inspired composition in the style of Django Reinhardt. Fittingly, gypsy-jazz great John Jorgenson pitched in on the writing.
“Rebel Rouser” (Duane Eddy)
Built around strong single-note melodies, low string bends, and lots of echo and tremolo, Duane Eddy’s sound has influenced everything from spaghetti western soundtracks to contemporary alt-country. Recorded in a studio fitted with a grain silo, this twang classic presents him at his very best.
“Eruption” (Eddie Van Halen)
This signature track from Van Halen’s debut album started out as a warm-up exercise, and just happened to be caught on tape by the band’s engineer during a rehearsal. In a 2001 poll, Guitar World magazine hailed the composition as the second greatest guitar solo of all-time, just behind Jimmy Page’s solo on “Stairway to Heaven.”
“The Star Spangled Banner” (Jimi Hendrix)
Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem at the 1969 Woodstock Festival stirred a controversy that lingers to this day. Wrenching sounds from his guitar that mimicked planes, bombs, and screams – in reference, obviously, to the raging war in Vietnam – Hendrix unleashed one of the most incendiary performances ever caught on tape. Later, on The Dick Cavett Show, Hendrix defended his interpretation as “beautiful.”