I love instrumental Rock & Roll..
When words fail, I take solace in the shiver of six strings. When I want to transubstantiate my anger into something worthwhile, I paddle out to my woodshed, warm up my amp, and ride a wave of feedback back to shore.
It all started with a power chord. When Link Wray’s “Rumble” was released in 1958, it was banned in New York in Boston for fear that it would incite riots. When you make music, you’re literally vibrating people, and it would appear that Mr. Wray shook the country to its core.
Instrumental music was very popular in the first half of the 20th century. As people migrated to cities and suburbs, far from the lulling sounds of nature, they needed something to either drown out the bustling street, or fill up the eerie silence. It was also a time of repression. Certain sentiments had the potential to endanger those who voiced them. Through primarily instrumental music like Ragtime, Swing, Jazz, and eventually Rock & Roll, artists could safely address forbidden desires.*
Another important architect of the early rock sound was Bo Diddley. His sonic experimentation on-stage and in the studio took the newly introduced electric guitar into uncharted terrain. He combined syncopated rhythmic strumming with tremolo to create a proto-psychedelic wash of sound that simply enveloped you. His contemporary, Chuck Berry took a different approach, transposing Boogie-Woogie piano lines onto his Gibson ES-350T (later ES-335). Check out the album, “Two Great Guitars”, featuring Diddley and Berry at their instrumental best. It’s regarded as the first recording of a live, in-studio “jam”. The cover features the artists’ signature instruments in the front seat of a convertible. Berry’s Gibson is stunning, but Diddley’s Gretsch, a trapezoidal “Jupiter Thunderbird” that he designed himself, is light-years ahead of his time, much like his music.
Prior to the ascension of Rock & Roll, Country music was king. Luminaries such as Merle Travis and Chet Atkins dazzled audiences with polished fingerpicking. Out of this fertile soil emerged Duane Eddy. Initially armed with a Chet Atkins signature Grestch (he later switched to a Baritone model), he developed a playing style that emphasized the bass strings for melody. He was also quite fond of tremolo and reverb. He applied his country chops to the new, fuel-injected Rock & Roll, and the nation was smitten.
Out west, surfers sought to capture the elemental intensity of their favorite past-time in sound. High-velocity picking quickened the pulse, and a few gallons of reverb gave the impression of a cresting wave. Dick Dale, the undisputed king of “surf guitar”, routinely packed ballrooms throughout the early 60s, prompting Leo Fender to design him the first ever 100-watt amplifier. It’s still easy to get hooked on this sound. Once you’ve exhausted Dale’s discography,check out his opening band, the Rhythm Rockers. Though short-lived, they’re 1963 album, “Soul Surfin’” is essential listening.
The instrumental Rock & Roll diaspora wasn’t limited to the US, either, thanks in large part to a quartet from Tacoma, Washington. The Ventures broke the sound on a global scale, earning them the title “the band that launched a thousand bands” (my personal favorite imitation-act are The Jokers from Belgium).Although pre-dated by a lesser-known New-Mexican group called the Fireballs, the Ventures are often credited with drafting the blue-print for the “rock band” itself. They are the top-selling instrumental act in history, and still hugely popular in Japan.
Although there are still many instrumental Rock bands today, there has only been one #1 instrumental hit single, regardless of genre, since the turn of the 21st century (“ Harlem Shake”). It’s impossible to deny the primacy of language, but it’s not always the best means of self-expression. In an era where words are constantly being weaponized, instrumental music offers an escape into pure abstraction. Some things are best said with an electric guitar.
*Although the sonic grandparent of all the aforementioned genres, the “Blues”, is often lyrical, the words largely function as an interchangeable, encoded pastiche, with suggestive verses being casually swapped between songs. The real profundity of the Blues exists within the subtle manipulations of the ancient pentatonic scales.