The 10 Best Rock Instrumentals of the 1960s

The best hits without words of rock's second decade

Dick Dale performing with the Del-Tones.
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.

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It never made the Top 40 when it was released, but this version of a Greek standard from the '20s has since become extremely popular. Just about every surf and instrumental act has covered it. Dick Dale gets the credit because this song was virtually unknown before he popularized it. When an audience member bet him he couldn't play on one string of an oud, Dale (who is of Lebanese descent) remembered a tune taught him by his grandfather. The song is popular in Greek culture and heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music. Dick played the tune with his usual manic speed, and the rest is history. When a friend of director Quentin Tarantino recommended this song for the credits to his latest film, "Pulp Fiction," "Misirlou" was bound for immortality.

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Green Onions

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.

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Walk, Don't Run

The second instrumental to riff off the jazz-pop standard “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” “Walk, Don’t Run” is nevertheless different from Santo and Johnny’s deathless “Sleepwalk.” This version takes a great deal more liberty with the melody. Typically, the Ventures rewrote it entirely around the old chords (borrowing heavily from Johnny Smith’s 1954 version), sped it up to surf-rock speed, and left the minor keys in to create an enigmatic but still rocking little number. And although Dick Dale was playing “Let’s Go Trippin’” in public as far back as 1958, the Ventures beat him to the studio, marking this number as the official chart arrival of surf music. It was so popular, it hit the charts again four years later in an updated version and found new life in an improbable Christmas medley with “Sleigh Ride.”

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Soul Finger

Not many folks realize that the Bar-Kays’ one big hit was actually a take on the James Bond film title (but not title song) “Goldfinger.” That’s partially because this song started out in the studio as a version of J.J. Jackson’s “But It’s Alright” — until the horn section came in and blew everything away with a torrid riff. It was Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Stax’s crack songwriting and production team, who suggested they use the parody title. Why the song opens with a quote from “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” however, is anyone’s guess, unless they were doing a callback to the famous ending of ​Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips, Pt. 2.” It’s certainly plausible.

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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.

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Cissy Strut

A direct link between the R&B of the 1950s and the funk explosion of the late ‘60s, “Cissy Strut” was written after the Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli became tired of opening the band’s shows with another popular instrumental, Bill Doggett’s “Hold It.” That song used the seventh-augmented-ninth chord now typical of funk music, but drummer Ziggy Modeliste attached it to a real New Orleans parade beat. The result not only created NOLA funk but made slower, heavier funk the order of the day. Once James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” had been played out in the late ‘80s, hip-hop DJs began sampling this song, which had an even cleaner attack.

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Grazing in the Grass

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.

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"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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The In Crowd

One of several smooth piano-based jazz trio makeovers to hit the charts during the 1960s, this radical transformation of Dobie Gray’s other big hit from the Ramsey Lewis Trio really captured the late-night feel of a smoky jazz club. That's where "The In Crowd" was recorded — Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns, to be exact. In fact, one of the best things about the song is how the crowd plays off the band. This cover has proven far less dated, and therefore, more durable than the original. Lewis was a constant mainstay on the album charts for two decades, applying his signature style to whole albums of Bach, bossa nova, and the Beatles.

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Nut Rocker

"Nut Rocker" is the best kind of novelty record — that is, the insane kind. Somehow faithful to Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker Suite" while threatening to go off the rails at any moment, this ancient mashup was originally recorded by a session group going under the name of Jack B. Nimble and the Quicks. A rival indie label head convinced the producer, the legendary Kim Fowley, that his session musicians B. Bumble and the Stingers could do it better. That they did. Anchored by equally legendary New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer, the band delivered a performance so manic yet so close to the spirit of the original “March of the Wooden Soldiers” that the arrangement became a hit all over again for progressive rockers Emerson Lake and Palmer. Released in 1962, it was arguably the last heartbeat of the wild ’50s rock revolution.