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The 10 Best Rock Instrumentals of the 60s

The finest wordless workouts of rock's second golden age

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Rock and roll evolved in part out of the larger "dance band" trend when advances in audio technology made it easier for small combos to energize a party or club. So it was only natural that instrumental hits, which had already evolved into a rock-based form, would continue to soak up the new influences around it. Here are the groundbreaking instrumental rock hits of the 1960s, songs which defined soul, surf, and more!

1. "Misirlou," Dick Dale

It never made the Top 40 when it was released, but this version of a Greek standard from the Twenties has since become extremely popular, and in its own time, just about every surf and instrumental act also covered it. Which means Dale gets the credit, because it was virtually unknown before he popularized it. When an audience member bet him he couldn't play surf on one string, Dale, who is of Lebanese descent, remembered a tune taught him by his grandfather -- a staple of Greek culture, heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music, that he could play on one string of an oud. Dick jacked it up to his usual manic speed, and the rest is instro history. When a friend of director Quentin Tarantino recommended its use in the credits to his latest film, Pulp Fiction, the song was bound for immortality.

2. "Green Onions," Booker T. and the MGs

Steve Cropper and "Duck" Dunn of Booker T. and the MGs, the house band for Memphis' historic Stax label, had already struck instrumental paydirt the year before this classic when, in the Mar-Keys, they scored their first hit with the after-party anthem “Last Night.” Unlike that song, “Green Onions” contains no “Tequila” style vocal hook, but what it did have was Booker T. Jones’ amazing skills on the Hammond Organ and Cropper’s wiry blues leads on guitar. Wisely named after a “soul food” staple, it’s the embodiment of Southern sass and jazzy cool, creating an amazing amount of attitude and atmosphere around a simple arrangement and some standard open blues chords; the fact that many people seem to think the title’s a reference to marijuana, not cooking, probably says a lot.

3. "Walk, Don't Run," The Ventures

The second instrumental to riff off the jazz-pop standard “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” “Walk, Don’t Run” is nevertheless different from Santo and Johnny’s deathless “Sleepwalk” in that it takes a great deal more liberty with the melody. Typically, the Ventures rewrote it entirely around the old chords (borrowing heavily from Johnny Smith’s 1954 version), sped it up to surf-rock speed, and left the minor keys in, creating an enigmatic but still rocking little number. And although Dick Dale was playing “Let’s Go Trippin’” in public as far back as 1958, the Ventures beat him to the studio, marking this number as the official chart arrival of surf music; it was so popular it hit the charts again four years later in an updated version, and found new life in an improbable Christmas medley with “Sleigh Ride”!

4. "Soul Finger," The Bar-Kays

Not many folks realize that the Bar-Kays’ one big hit was actually a take on the James Bond film title (but not title song) “Goldfinger.” That’s partially because it started out in the studio as a version of J.J. Jackson’s “But It’s Alright” -- that is, until the horn section came in and blew everything away with that torrid riff. It was Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Stax’s crack songwriting and production team, who suggested they use the parody title. Why the song opens with a quote from “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” however, is anyone’s guess, unless they were doing a callback to the famous ending of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips, Pt. 2.” It’s certainly plausible.

5. "Pipeline," The Chantays

A lot of surf bands were merely aping a sound, not necessarily surfing themselves, but the Chantays from Santa Ana actually knew the sport, and named this instrumental after a giant and particularly scary wave in Hawaii known as the Banzai Pipeline. However, they also performed several services to the sound itself: their decision to mix the bass and guitars above the drums, for example, and the heavily arpeggiated bassline, of a kind usually only found in chamber music. Both innovations would prove to be a major influence on metal and punk bands of the future. And, typical for the time, it lingered as a b-side until DJs figured out there was gold on the flip.

6. "Cissy Strut," The Meters

A direct link between the R&B of the Fifties and the funk explosion of the late ‘60s, “Cissy Strut” was written after Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli became tired of opening the band’s shows with another popular instrumental, Bill Doggett’s “Hold It.” That song used the seventh-augmented-ninth chord now typical of funk music, but drummer Ziggy Modeliste attached it to a real New Orleans parade beat, and the result not only created NOLA funk but made slower, heavier funk the order of the day. Once James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” had been played out in the late ‘80s, hip-hop DJs began sampling this song, which had an even cleaner attack.

7. "Grazing in the Grass," Hugh Masekela

More cowbell! South African jazz trumpeter Masekela put his chops to good use on this superbly mellow summer standard, a cover of a Zambian novelty Hugh had just bought on 45 called “Mr. Bull No. 5.” It wasn’t even supposed to be recorded in the first place, but Masekela’s latest album was running a little short, so it was duplicated, with singer Philemon Hou writing a new melody for Hugh right there at the session. So popular was this number that the group Friends of Distinction actually wrote words to it and made it a hit all over again, but don’t be fooled -- this is the original. (Guitarist Bruce Langhorne, who was also known to play a Turkish “frame drum,” was the subject of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” No one seems to know who played that epic cowbell.)

8. "Wipeout," The Surfaris

It almost didn't latch on to the trend at all -- the original title was “Switchblade,” which would have certainly hurt airplay -- but this most famous of surf songs combined the spirit of the best ‘50s drum instrumentals with the hottest new instro genre, not to mention a manic intro courtesy of their manager. Hahahahahaha! Wipeout. Recorded in 15 minutes to fill out a b-side, it simply took the chords from the a-side and added some very tribal drum breaks from Ron Wilson (actually an old cadence from his high school marching band). Thanks to some enterprising DJs, this knockoff became the kind of one-hit wonder that pays the bills forever.

9. "The In Crowd," The Ramsey Lewis Trio

One of several smooth piano-based jazz-trio makeovers to hit the charts during the Sixties, this radical transformation of Dobie Gray’s other big hit really captured the late-night feel of a smoky jazz club. Which of course was where it was recorded -- Washington D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns, to be exact. In fact, one of the best things about the song is how the crowd plays off the band; his cover’s proven far less dated and therefore durable than the original. Lewis was a constant mainstay on the album charts for two decades, applying his signature style to whole albums of Bach, bossa nova, and Beatles.

10. "Nut Rocker," B. Bumble and the Stingers

The best kind of novelty record, that is, the insane kind. Somehow faithful to Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker Suite" while threatening to go off the rails at any moment, this ancient mashup was originally recorded by a session group going under the name of Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks, but a rival indie label head convinced the producer, the legendary Kim Fowley, that his sessionmen could do it better. That they did; anchored by equally legendary New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer, they delivered a performance so manic yet so close to the spirit of the original “March of the Wooden Soldiers” that the arrangement became a hit all over again for prog-rockers Emerson Lake and Palmer. Released in 1962, it was arguably the last heartbeat of the wild ’50s rock revolution.
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