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Instrumental rock

From its earliest days, rock and roll emphasized catchy melodies, which were usually presented with easily remembered lyrics. That wasn't always the case, however, and if the melodies were strong enough, rock and roll instrumentals could catch on and become hits.

That happened most frequently during rock's early years, which constituted a sort of golden age for Instrumental rock before the British Invasion. 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 had a career renaissance with his rocking instrumentals like "Harlem Nocturne" and "Earl's Rhumboogie". Other jazz players with early pop hits included Tab Smith and Arnett Cobb. Indeed, many straight rhythm and blues sax players also had success with instrumentals, including Big Jay MacNeeley, Red Prysock, and New Orleans stalwart Lee Allen, whose "Walking with Mr. Lee" was a major hit.

The lead melodies of hit instrumentals could emphasize the organ (The Tornados' "Telstar") or the saxophone (the Champs' "Tequila"), but most often it was the guitar, as the twangy sound of Duane Eddy ("Rebel 'Rouser") and the visceral fuzz tone of Link Wray. Wray's song, the menacing "Rumble", has the distinction of being the only instrumental ever banned from broadcast. The clean, reverbed picking of The Ventures also had a tremendous impact on many of the rock guitarists who followed them. The Ventures were especially influential on the development of surf music, which usually consisted of heavily reverbed guitar instrumentals. (Although groups like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean were identified with surfing as subject matter, they are not usually considered surf music proper.)

Despite the rapid-fire picking and Middle Eastern scales sometimes employed by surf-guitar innovator (and genuine surfer) Dick Dale, most surf music was fairly simple, retaining its melodic emphasis.

Following the British Invasion, instrumental hits were mostly confined to the R&B realm, among artists like Booker T. & the MG's, who were also the house band at Stax records and saxophonist Junior Walker.

Steve Cropper of the MG's asserts:

"We had trouble getting airplay because disc jockeys did not like playing songs without vocals on them. It got worse and worse and worse until they finally pushed every instrumental band in the country out of business."

Funk and disco produced several instrumental hit singles during the 1970s, and the technical virtuosity of many art-rockers led its fans to prize instrumental work, even if most of the songs featured vocals at one point or another. That emphasis on technical skill carried over into the 1980s, when highly trained guitar virtuosos began to dominate heavy metal and even (like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai) record their own albums. During the 1990s, instrumental music made a comeback in the indie-rock community, led by eclectic, avant-garde post-rock combos like Tortoise, as well as surf-rock revivalists like Man or Astro-man.

Instrumental Rock Performers