The 10 Best Rock Instrumentals of the 1960s


Dick Dale and the Del-Tones were a staple of ’60s rock.

Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

The best ’60s rock instrumentals were a very mixed bag, as the big-band R&B, jazz, and jump blues of the ’50s evolved to take in lots of musical sources from around the world. Technology also poked its head in, of course, resulting in louder organs, fatter drums, and guitars that only got nastier as pop culture unraveled. There were many groundbreaking instrumental rock hits of the 1960s, songs which defined soul, surf, and more.

Steve Cropper and “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. and the MGs, the house band for the historic Stax label in Memphis, had already struck instrumental paydirt the year before this classic. They scored their first hit with the after-party anthem “Last Night.” “Green Onions” contains no “Tequila”-style vocal hook, but what it did have was Booker T. Jones’ amazing skills on the Hammond organ and Cropper’s wiry blues leads on guitar. Wisely named after a soul food staple, “Green Onions” is the embodiment of Southern sass and jazzy cool. The tune creates an amazing amount of attitude and atmosphere around a simple arrangement written with standard, open blues chords. Many people believe the title is a reference to marijuana, not cooking.

A lot of surf bands were merely aping a sound, not necessarily surfing themselves. The Chantays were from Santa Ana and actually knew the sport. They named this instrumental after a giant and particularly scary wave in Hawaii known as the Banzai Pipeline. However, they also performed several services to the sound itself: their decision to mix the bass and guitars above the drums, for example, and the heavily arpeggiated bassline, of a kind usually only found in chamber music. Both innovations would prove to be a major influence on metal and punk bands of the future. Typical for the time, “Pipeline” lingered as a B-side until DJs figured out there was gold on the flip.

More cowbell! South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela put his chops to good use on this superbly mellow summer standard, a cover of a Zambian novelty. Masekela found the tune on a 45 rpm record he purchased called “Mr. Bull No. 5.” It wasn’t even supposed to be recorded in the first place, but Masekela’s latest album was running a little short, so the song was duplicated. Singer Philemon Hou wrote a new melody for Hugh right there at the session. So popular was this number that the group Friends of Distinction actually wrote words to it and made it a hit all over again, but don’t be fooled — this is the original. Guitarist Bruce Langhorne, who was also known to play a Turkish “frame drum,” was the subject of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” No one seems to know who played the epic cowbell on this track.

“Wipeout” by the Surfaris almost didn’t latch onto the trend at all. The original title was “Switchblade,” which would have certainly hurt airplay. This most famous of surf songs combines the spirit of the best ‘50s drum instrumentals with the hottest genre of its day, not to mention a manic intro courtesy of the band’s manager: “Hahahahahaha! Wipeout.” Recorded in 15 minutes to fill out a B-side, “Wipeout” simply took the chords from the A-side and added some very tribal drum breaks from Ron Wilson (actually an old cadence from his high school marching band). Thanks to some enterprising DJs, this knockoff became the kind of one-hit wonder that pays the bills forever.

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