A truly great instrumental song is worth a thousand words. Here are 10 wordless wonders so ubiquitous that we bet you’d instantly recognize every last one of them. These heirlooms have been covered and recovered by generations of artists but haven’t grown any worse for the wear.
“Cissy Strut” – The Meters
This criminally underappreciated Louisiana funk band usually remained just outside the spotlight, backing stars like Paul McCartney and Dr. John. However, this 1969 track – the first on their self-titled debut – served the band well as a major chart hit. Chock full of syncopated swagger, it is a triumph, covered by everyone from John Scofield to John Mayer.
“Eruption” – Van Halen
We’re pretty sure this song is on every great guitar solo list ever drafted. Appearing on Van Halen’s eponymous 1978 album, it ushered in classic, indulgent ’80s rock. Engaging in spellbinding two-handed tapping, Eddie Van Halen’s fingers appear as a blur on his guitar strings. For the first 20 seconds, Eddie is accompanied by drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, but is then left to stir this chaotic cauldron on his own.
“Green Onions” – Booker T. & The M.G.’s
Released in 1962, the same year that Booker T. & The M.G.’s formed, this cheerful soul instrumental featured Booker T. Jones on a trippy Hammond organ and Steve Cropper on guitar. The song – which peaked at #3 on the pop chart – was the biggest hit that the groundbreaking Memphis R&B group would ever experience.
“Jessica” – The Allman Brothers Band
Among the songs on 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, “Jessica” is a freewheelin’ feel-good instrumental written by Dickey Betts (as a tribute to jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt) and Les Dudek, who played with the band following Duane Allman’s death. “Jessica” is the name of Betts’ daughter.
“Moby Dick” – Led Zeppelin
This is one whale of a drum solo, included as the penultimate track on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. It also was John Bonham’s moment of concert glory for nearly nine years. Robert Plant would announce Bonham, then bow off-stage as the crowd grew silent and Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones lit into a fiery drop-D, blues-based riff. Then – with his head bowed, shaggy hair flying – Bonham got the whole place to himself. He dove headfirst into a primal freak-out. It was magic.
“Rebel Rouser” – Duane Eddy
A guitarist from Arizona who hit the big time during the 1960s, Duane Eddy broke out with the twangy, echoing “Rebel Rouser” in 1958. It was like nothing anyone had heard before. Co-written by producer Lee Hazlewood, who recorded it in an old grain silo, the song was delivered on a Gibson L-5 (later commemorated with the magnificent Duane Eddy Signature model).
“Rumble” – Link Wray and his Ray Men
Introduced in 1958, Link Wray’s sultry “Rumble” was vastly ahead of its time, toying with power chords, fuzztone and reverb. It is believed to be the only instrumental song ever banned from radio. Several stations chose not to play it because there was concern that the song, which sounds like a street fight, would incite violence. Today, Link Wray’s stamp can be found on the work of musicians like Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Bob Dylan, who called “Rumble” the “best instrumental ever.”
“Sparks” – The Who
The Who’s “Sparks” begins with what sounds like an intergalactic blast-off then tromps off into an artful collision of guitar, bass and drums. An integral part of the Who’s 1969 double album, the rock opera Tommy, this song seems to be the work of a full orchestra. But nope, it’s just one hell of a power trio.
“Walk Don’t Run” – The Ventures
The best-selling instrumental group of all time, The Ventures took on this Chet Atkins song – “Walk Don’t Run” (originally written in 1955 by guitarist Johnny Smith) in 1960 – simplifying and speeding up Atkins’ version. This tune helped to usher in the surf guitar trend.
“Wipe Out” – The Surfaris
The surf rock band of all surf rock bands, The Surfaris’ 1963 hit caused bathing suit beauties around the world to shake what their mama gave them. Their energetic original, “Wipe Out,” launches with a manic drum solo, then gives away to barreling guitar. It sounds like a Southern California beach party.