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Instrumental rock is rock music that emphasizes musical instruments and features very little or no singing. Examples of instrumental rock can be found in practically every subgenre of rock, often from musicians who specialize in the style. Instrumental rock was most popular from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, with artists such as Bill Doggett Combo, The Fireballs, The Shadows, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. Surf music had many instrumental songs. Many instrumental hits came from the R&B world. Funk and disco produced several instrumental hit singles during the 1970s. The Allman Brothers Band feature several instrumentals. Jeff Beck also recorded two instrumental albums in the 1970s. Progressive rock and art rock performers of the 1960s and 1970s did many virtuosic instrumental performances.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the instrumental rock genre was dominated by several guitar soloists, including Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. The 2000s gave way for a new style of instrumental performer. For example, John Lowery (a.k.a. John 5), released a solo instrumental album. The 2000s also saw the rise of instrumental music by bands that have been labeled post-rock.
One notable early instrumental was "Honky Tonk" by the Bill Doggett Combo, with its slinky beat and sinuous saxophone-organ lead. And bluesman Jimmy Reed charted with "Boogie in the Dark" and "Roll and Rhumba".
Jazz saxophonist Earl Bostic revived his career with instrumentals like "Harlem Nocturne" and "Earl's Rhumboogie"; other jazz musicians who scored pop hits include Tab Smith and Arnett Cobb. Several rhythm and blues sax players had hit instrumental songs, including Big Jay McNeeley, Red Prysock, and Lee Allen, whose "Walking with Mr. Lee" was quite popular.
Instrumental hit songs could emphasize electronic organ (the Tornados' "Telstar", Dave "Baby" Cortez's "The Happy Organ", Johnny & the Hurricanes' "Red River Rock"), or the saxophone (the Champs' "Tequila", Bill Black's Combo's "Don't Be Cruel", the Piltdown Men's "McDonald's Cave"), but the guitar was most prominent. Duane Eddy scored several hits (his best known probably being "Rebel-'Rouser"). Eddy was the first rock & roll artist to release an album in stereo.
The Fireballs, featuring the distinctive guitar work of George Tomsco, began their career in the late 1950s with instrumental hits such as "Torquay" and "Bulldog." The band pioneered the guitar/guitar/bass/drums configuration, paving the way for the Ventures, the Shadows, and the surf music scene. The Fireballs were one of a few instrumental bands that successfully transitioned into vocal music, having the biggest hit of 1963 in the US ("Sugar Shack").
The Shadows from the UK, with American Fender Stratocaster guitars with British Vox amplifiers using a (lead guitar) reverb and echo unit from 1960 onwards had several hit singles including "Apache", "Wonderful Land" and "The Rise and Fall of Flingle Bunt". The Shadows (alone, and accompanying Cliff Richard) featured heavily in the UK charts until 1963 when Beatlemania arrived combined with DJ indifference to non-vocal singles.
The Ventures' precise guitar work was a major influence on many later rock guitarists; they also helped shape surf music, although their origins and first records were not surf instrumentals, per se. In the U.S. they greatly escalated the guitar instrumentals and use of the vibrato bar on the lead guitar.
Surf music was quite popular in the early 1960s, and was generally rather simple and melodic--one exception being Dick Dale, who gained fame for his quick playing, often influenced by the music of the Middle East, and frequently using exotic scales.
The early incarnation of Fleetwood Mac with bandleader Peter Green achieved number one chart positions with the guitar-based instrumental Albatross in February 1969.
Steve Cropper of the MG's asserts:
Just before the British Invasion, Lonnie Mack's version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis" reached #5 on the Billboard Pop chart in June 1963. Employing both the blues scale and distortion, it ushered in the era of blues rock guitar of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Previously, only three other rock guitar instrumentals had cracked Billboard's top five: the Virtues' "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" in 1959, and Duane Eddy's "Because They're Young" and the Ventures' "Walk, Don't Run" in 1960.
The Allman Brothers Band is often not considered an instrumental rock band but they play many instrumentals and include long instrumental passages in longer versions of their songs. A good example is the 22-minute version of Whipping Post in At Fillmore East LP. Their instrumentals, "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and "Jessica" are popular, with "Jessica" being featured as theme for both the 1977 and 2002 formats of Top Gear.
Jeff Beck also recorded two entirely instrumental albums in the 1970s: Blow by Blow and Wired. Successful among mainstream audiences, both have strong jazz influences, the latter featuring a cover of Charles Mingus's jazz standard "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat".
Progressive rock and art rock performers of the 1960s and 1970s deserve some mention. Many of these musicians featured virtuosic instrumental performances (and occasional instrumental songs), but many of their compositions also featured vocals. King Crimson gained a massive cult following in the late 1960s and 1970s with their explosive instrumental output that merged rock, jazz, classical and heavy metal styles, though their albums also included songs with vocals. Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, a progressive rock album released in 1973, was all instrumental (save for some brief spoken words) and is one of the best-selling instrumental albums ever, with 16 millions copies sold. A portion of it was used in the soundtrack of the Academy Award-winning film The Exorcist. The Dutch band Finch recorded three all-instrumental albums of progressive rock of continuing interest. One of the most acclaimed albums of the band Camel, 1975's The Snow Goose, was entirely instrumental. Many of Pink Floyd's early compositions were largely instrumental pieces containing structured jams fusing psychedelic, progressive and space rock. Frank Zappa was known for intermixing instrumental rock tracks with his somewhat more famous novelty songs on his albums.
The jazz fusion of the 1970s often had considerable stylistic cross-over with rock, and groups such as Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report had sizable followings among rock fans.
Surf music's "2nd Wave" began in 1979 with the release of the first Jon & the Nightriders record.
During the 1980s, the instrumental rock genre was dominated by several guitar soloists.
Swedish virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen made a name for himself in 1984 by playing in the popular band Alcatrazz, and then by releasing his debut solo album Rising Force later that year, which made it to #60 on the Billboard Charts. Joe Satriani's 1987 album Surfing With The Alien was a surprise hit, containing the ever-popular instrumental ballad "Always With Me, Always With You", and the blues boogie infected "Satch Boogie"--both staples for guitarists learning their craft. Two years later came Satriani's follow-up album Flying in a Blue Dream.
After Malmsteen left Alcatrazz, he was replaced by the extravagant Steve Vai, who had previously been playing with the Frank Zappa band. Continuing the tradition (and following a brief stint in David Lee Roth's band from 1986 to 1988), Vai went on to release a number of highly acclaimed solo albums. Arguably the best-known of these was his 1990 release, Passion and Warfare.
Jason Becker was also considered by many to be a great player, who released two albums with Cacophony. Cacophony were a primarily instrumental group featuring Becker and Marty Friedman (the latter of whom went on to play with the thrash metal band Megadeth). After the release of Cacophony's second album Go Off! in 1988, Becker released two solo albums before being diagnosed with ALS. He now uses a wheelchair and is completely unable to play.
Pepeu Gomes, a Brazilian electric guitar player, was considered in 1988 by American magazine Guitar World one of the ten best guitar players in the world. Although he has pure instrumental rock songs with no Brazilian flavour, what makes his work really unique is that he mixes the Brazilian rhythms and tunes from well known popular songs, or simply composes by himself using Samba, Choro, Maracatu etc.
In 1990, Steve Vai released Passion and Warfare. A fusion of rock, jazz, classical and Eastern tonalities, Passion and Warfare was a technical break-through in regards to what could be achieved in the field of guitar composition and technical performance. This was followed up by the 1995 trio album Alien Love Secrets, and what some regard as Vai's most epic and complex album to date, Fire Garden, released a year after.
In 1995, Michael Angelo Batio of Nitro fame released his CD No Boundaries which began his solo career. His albums predominantly feature instrumental rock, but have occasionally featured vocals by himself and other vocalists. So far Batio has released eight solo albums.
With the rise of grunge, guitar-orientated instrumental rock of the type popular in the 1980s became less popular, and there were few artists who continued to thrive in that style.
Over the past decade there have been many new releases of instrumental rock albums. The majority of the popular guitar heroes from the 1980s have made rejuvenated and generally well-received comebacks, thanks largely to the revitalized sound apparent on their recent releases. Artists such as Steve Morse, Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert, Ron Jarzombek, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen have continued releasing instrumental rock music and touring with great success. However, it is still extremely rare to hear an instrumental rock tune on the radio, or see one on the music charts. Les Fradkin has popularized the Beatles' music catalog as guitar-based instrumental rock on the Apple iTunes music download service.
The 2000s gave way for a new style of performer. John Lowery (a.k.a. John 5) released a solo instrumental album after leaving Marilyn Manson in 2003. Vertigo is composed of a fusion of metal, rockabilly, rock and roll, and bluegrass musical styles. The album was a success, and the album after that, Songs for Sanity, which features guest appearances by Steve Vai and Albert Lee, was met with more success, becoming one of the top selling records on the record label Shrapnel. He followed this in 2007 with The Devil Knows My Name, which features Joe Satriani, Jim Root, and Eric Johnson.
The 2000s have seen a rise in the popularity of bands that have been labeled post-rock; many of these bands have created instrumental rock songs. Constellation Records has released some of the best-known examples of instrumental post-rock, such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Do Make Say Think. Other examples include Austin TV, Mogwai, the Cancer Conspiracy, the Mercury Program, Irepress, 65daysofstatic, God Is An Astronaut, Russian Circles and Explosions in the Sky.
In the late 2000s a new style of heavy metal called djent emerged. Some of the leading bands in the scene such as Animals as Leaders are instrumental acts, while many others started as instrumental acts before later acquiring vocalists.