15 Cool Classic Rock Instrumentals

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What makes classic rock instrumentals cool? For me, melody, baby, all the way. So much melody that it evokes images and themes if not hints of lyrics. They also offer a chance for groups to show their collective stuff and individual members to display their instrumental chops. And hey – they’re simply enjoyable to listen to.

15) “Emperor of Wyoming” by Neil Young

Let’s talk balls here. It took some serious stones for Neil Young to open his first solo album with this wordless tune that woos the ears to trot along to its strings meets twang and steel guitar melody atop a two-step beat. By now this loamy cinematic number is like the opening theme song for his entire career.

14) “Flute Thing” by The Blues Project

The flute is hardly a rock instrument. Yet this is the first of two flute-driven songs on this list, and more a suite than a song that allows all of its members – including classic rock journeyman Al Kooper (also his first time of two on this list) in his first band – to show their stuff and demonstrate how the now obscure late 1960s Greenwich Village group were progressing far more than just the blues.

13) “Peaches En Regalia” by Frank Zappa

It’s like an animated cartoon drawn in music, a melody so vivid (and witty) you can all but see the peaches dancing and cavorting about. Let’s face it: Zappa truly was a composer.

12) “His Holy Modal Majesty” by Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper

The 1969 Super Session album convened by Al Kooper with guitarist Mike Bloomfield on side one and Stephen Stills on side two was a major event in its day, now 46 years later a sadly somewhat obscure artifact. This song was written as an homage to John Coltrane, and is a prime example of how much influence bebop jazz had on the players of Bloomfield’s generation. And few songs sound more to me like the 1960s.

11) “Day at the Dog Races” by Little Feat

One of the greatest classic rock bands of the 1970s both collectively as a tight and adventurous unit and individually in terms of the instrumental skills of its members, Little Feat gave everyone a chance to shine on this searing number from their sixth studio album in 1977, Time Loves a Hero. You can also hear the roots of some of Little Feat’s founders as onetiime members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

10) “Black Mountain Side” by Led Zeppelin

Sure, it’s a toss up with with “Moby Dick” as to which Zep instrumental to include. I favor this one for its mesmeric melody and how it showcases the band’s acoustic side and Eastern musical influences.

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9) “Whammer Jammer” by The J. Geils Band

Featured on The Morning After, the 1971 second album by the Boston-based hyper-blues band, it was intended as a workout for harmonica player Magic Dick, who makes the most of the moment. You can almost hear sweat exuding from the tracks on this aptly-named killer song.

8) “Beck’s Bolero” by The Jeff Beck Group

Beck’s signature song, based on Maurice Ravel’s Bolèro, and originally written and recorded by Beck with The Yardbirds in 1966. But this take from the 1968 album Truth is the killer version, as one might expect from the players on it: Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins. A taste of the Led Zeppelin that might have been, and one of rock guitar’s genuine instrumental masterpieces.

7) “Serenade to a Cuckoo” by Jethro Tull

There’s that flute again. And the jazz influences… which speaks to why so many 1960s bands where so good, as they could actually play material that fell into the jazz realm such as this song by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. From the band’s 1968 debut album, This Was, it’s the very best kind of mood music. Bonus points: the title!

6) “DFW” by The Vaughan Brothers

This tune written by Jimmie Vaughan for the 1990 collaboration with his brother Stevie Ray, Family Style, is just under three minutes of electric six-string blues guitar cool, soaring and snappy in a way that tempts you to play it all over again after it finishes.

5) “Sparks” by The Who

Buried as it is within Tommy, this tribute to Pete Townshend’s compositional skills doesn’t get all the attention it deserves. But it has just about everything one might love about The Who… except Roger Daltrey, of course.

4) “Mountain Jam” by The Allman Brothers Band

Most folks cite “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” or “Jessica” as the prime Allman Brothers instrumental. But this one fills the soul with wonder and delight when I hear all 33:41 of it. The guitar interplay between Duane Allman and Dickey Betts is wondrous, as are their individual solos, and the whole band performs with interwoven mastery. It’s taken from the Donovan #11 hit in 1967, “There is a Mountain,” but also draws from Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” and includes a quote from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Recorded during the shows that yielded the 1971 breakthrough album At Fillmore East, it was included on its 1972 follow-up, Eat A Peach. Bonus points: since the lyrics to Donovan’s original are all but incomprehensible, the melody works far better as an instrumental.

3) “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson

As lyrical as a rock instrumental can be, it’s no surprise that this was guitarist Johnson’s breakthrough track on his Ah Via Musicom album in 1990, finally bringing him an international audience after a good decade or so of building a mighty rep on the Austin, TX music scene. A #5 pop hit at a time when instrumentals were fading from popularity on mainstream radio, it won Johnson a Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy, and rightly so.

2) “Hideaway” by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers

There are those that feel – among them this writer – that this track is one of if not the finest recorded moments by Eric Clapton, released all the way back in 1966 on Mayall’s first studio album, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. Its blistering tone and the fluidity of Clapton’s delivery are as hot as blues-rock guitar has ever sounded, owing as they do to the song’s originator, Freddie King. Bonus Points: When King released his original version in 1961, it became a #29 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, one of the highest pop chart showings by a blues tune.

1) “Glad” by Traffic

Gawd, I love this tune. And is there a better-named song in classic rock? Just a listen makes me feel, yes, glad. And in the mood to dig on some more Traffic. From their 1970 fourth album, John Barleycorn Must Die.

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson began writing about music in 1976. Since his first published record review in Crawdaddy he has contributed to numerous national popular music magazines such as Creem, Musician, Circus, Spin, Request, Tower Pulse!, CD Review, Acoustic Guitar, Harp and many others along with major country music, consumer audio, musical instrument and studio recording magazines plus international publications New Musical Express and Country Music People in the U.K. From 1977 to '84 he wrote a nationally syndicated music column as well as stories for Newspaper Enterprises Association/United Feature Syndicate that ran in more than 400 daily newspapers across the nation. His work has also appeared in many weekly newspapers, onlinepublications like Salon.com and The Huffington Post, such books as the Rolling Stone Record Guide & Revised Record Guide, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Rock History and The Year In Rock, 1980-81, plus liner notes for 20 album releases.
Rob Patterson
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  1. The Viking
    #1 The Viking 4 November, 2015, 13:46

    Looks like there could be an additional list including Hendrix, Butterfield, Booker T, Santana, Focus, The Ventures, The Shadows, Floyd, The Surfari’s, Santo & Johnny and King Crimson to name a few. I know these lists are tough to nail down and limit Nice job.

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  2. Buxbomb
    #2 Buxbomb 26 February, 2016, 16:38

    OMG, Jessica is not on this list???

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  3. Jagdriver
    #3 Jagdriver 4 November, 2016, 11:14

    Where are Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun”? Butterfield’s “East West”? And Santana’s “Aquamarine”?

    (This list is whacked.)

    Reply this comment
  4. Guy Smiley
    #4 Guy Smiley 22 January, 2017, 00:04

    Nearly the entire list could’ve been Allman Brothers Band songs. Between earlier stuff like “Jessica” and more recent stuff like “Kind of Bird” there’s all kinds of great ABB instrumentals.

    Also, more Stevie Ray could’ve been added (where’s “Riviera Paradise”?). Buddy Guy’s “Rememberin’ Stevie” for that matter?

    No Booker T & The MGs? Not even “Green Onions”?

    Plenty of Santana to choose (I’d go with “Soul Sacrifice” or “Europa” myself),

    More Jeff Beck too (anything from Blow By Blow will do, paricularly “Freeway Jam”).

    Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag,” The Grateful Dead’s “King Solomon’s Marbles,” Billy Preston’s “Outta Space,” Duane Eddy, Link Wray, early Pink Floyd… i could go on and on.

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin 23 January, 2017, 18:11

      Thanks, Guy! That’s what’s so great about lists like this–every person could come up with their own without anyone repeating a single song!

      Reply this comment
  5. Think Floyd
    #5 Think Floyd 28 March, 2017, 21:46

    Would you consider Shine On You Crazy Diamond to at least be considered for the list despite having singing in parts of it?

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  6. Brad
    #6 Brad 6 August, 2017, 23:04

    Watermelon in easter hay – Zappa
    Tragic magic – Traffic
    Samba pa ti – Santana
    Sunny side of heaven – Fleetwood Mac
    In memory of Elizabeth reed – ABB

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  7. Jimheo
    #7 Jimheo 28 August, 2017, 14:32

    “Les Brers in a Minor” is a much better choice than Mountain Jam from Eat A Peach!

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  8. Greta
    #8 Greta 13 September, 2017, 04:44

    More great instrumentals: Frankenstein. Beck’s Bolero. Albatross. Hocus Pocus (voice as instrument). Tubular Bells.

    Less obvious:
    Focus – Birth
    Zappa – Black Napkins and Zoot Allures
    Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Waiter, There’s a Yawn in My Ear
    Joe Walsh – Theme from Boat Weirdos
    Journey – Topaz (you won’t believe it’s Journey)
    Mick Taylor – Giddy Up

    Reply this comment
  9. Spiro Y
    #9 Spiro Y 20 February, 2018, 01:47

    No YYZ from Rush

    Reply this comment
  10. jan
    #10 jan 21 February, 2018, 23:53

    Zappa has 15 himself …

    Reply this comment
  11. Billy K.
    #11 Billy K. 25 February, 2018, 21:09

    No Dick Dale??

    Led Zeppelin- “Bron Yr Aur”(acoustic tune on “Physical Graffiti”)
    Beach Boys- “Diamond Head”
    Foreigner- “Tramotane”
    Kiss- “Love Theme from Kiss”
    Steve Miller- “Space Intro”
    Police- “Shambelle”
    Chicago- “Italian From New York”
    Rolling Stones- “Stoned”
    Journey- “Kohoutek”

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