Once upon a time, in the relative infancy of rock ‘n’ roll, rock instrumentals were such a popular form that some artists were dedicated entirely to instrumentals and some who, while having a few songs with vocals, built their reputation on instrumentals – artists like the Ventures, the Fireballs, Duane Eddy, The Surfaris and Dick Dale. In time, the popularity of rock instrumentals faded until today when it seems like rock instrumentals are mainly the domain of dinosaurs and noodlers.
Here are a few of my favorite rock instrumentals, ending with what I hope is a glimmer of hope for the future of good rock instrumentals.
Link Wray was a man ahead of his time. A stone cold and cool greaser with a dangerous sound, you can still hear his influence today on some of today’s music. If cool has a soundtrack, Wray’s 1958 hit “Rumble” is definitely a featured number.
Released a year later, it’s difficult to believe that “Sleep Walk” by brother duo Santo & Johnny could even exist in the same universe as “Rumble”. It’s a dreamy piece with some of the most evocative guitar ever recorded.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, studios had house bands who played support to a label’s roster of solo and vocal artists. One of these bands, Booker T. and the MGs, had such a distinctive and compelling sound that they went on to become a major contender on their own as well as making huge contributions to the sounds of artists like Otis Redding and Bill Withers. Their most popular song, and still one of my all-time favorites, is 1962’s “Green Onions”.
(Keys man Booker T. Jones is still going strong, releasing Potato Hole last year, which he recorded and subsequently toured with the Drive-By Truckers. Incidentally, the father of Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, David Hood, was the bass player for the house band at Muscle Shoals Sound around the same time Jones was playing for Stax Records.)
In 1993, the Afghan Whigs ended their benchmark album Gentleman with a string-heavy and slightly ominous instrumental called “Closing Prayer”. I probably don’t have to go into any further detail about my feelings for the Afghan Whigs.
Which brings us up to now. The Black Keys are not new to recording instrumentals, having closed out their 2002 debut The Big Come Up with the hip hop rhythm of “240 Years Before Your Time” (and then closing it again some 20 minutes later with a hidden instrumental track that kicks off with a recording of Dan Auerbach’s grandmother) and recording “Junior’s Instrumental” during their Chulahoma sessions. But “Black Mud”, their tasty chaser to “She’s Long Gone” on this year’s Brothers, may be the song to bring the band their first Grammy as it is nominated for Best Rock Instrumental.