My Top 10 Greatest Rock and Instrumentals List
by Cullen James

A little more than a year ago, I ran a contest on my blog. I published a list of about 120 rock instrumentals and said I was going to compile a top-10 list from that larger list. It was a lot of work to both compile all those songs and to narrow my list down to 10 – but I did.

As for the contest, I had my readers choose their own top 10 from my list and whoever’s list was closest to mine won. I ripped a CD of all the listed songs. Dean Esmay was the winner, and in his post here makes some very valid points about my master list. But anyway, here is my top 10 and a slightly edited version of the original post.

Man. This was harder than I thought it was going to be. I found it near impossible to limit this list to just 10 songs, but, somehow I did it.

To offer some explanation as to how I came about with my results, I followed a few different criteria. First, I asked myself, just how catchy is the song? How listenable and re-listenable is the song? Then I asked, how complex is the song? How much musical ability is evidenced in the tune? I then asked how influential is the song is. How many places have I heard this song? How many musicians do I know or have heard of that list this musician/song as an inspiration?

Last on my list of criteria is how much do I like the song? You know, there might have been some songs that should have been on my master list that weren't there, but it's my list. If you don't like it, make your own contest.

So, without further ado, here's the list (click on the title for a 20-40 second clip of the song):

cliff_burton.jpg10. Orion - Metallica

What can be said about this song that hasn't already? It's the definitive metal instrumental. It was played at their first bassist, Cliff Burton's funeral.

The album topped at #29 in The Billboard 200, but no songs from the album hit the charts.

9. Stream of Consciousness - Dream Theater

As big a fan as I am of Dream Theater, it should be no surprise that I chose one of their songs for the list. I do feel they deserve it though. As far as influence, every progressive band that has come out in the past 10 years lists DT as an influence. As far as musical ability, well, I am of the opinion that there are none better, as a band.

It was still a hard decision to narrow it down to one song. I love Overture 1928, but I felt that this song edged it out musically. I also almost chose Liquid Tension's When the Water Breaks for sheer musicality, but just wasn't well-known enough. At 11 minutes and 16 seconds SoC offers a tour de force trip though a variety of styles, sometimes whimsical, always very Dream Theater.

The album Train of Thought topped out at #53 on The Billboard 200.

8. Journey of the Sorcerer - The Eagles (The link has been killed since the original post, sorry but I didn’t have the time to repost*)

I had to put this entry in here. While it is certainly a good song, the real reason it is on this list is because I'm a HUGE Douglas Adams geek and no instrumental Top 10 list is complete without this song, in my opinion. So, as stated earlier, it's my list, dammit!

The album One of These Nights topped the Pop Albums charts at #1 in 1975. Lying Eyes off the album won a Grammy that year.

7. Walk Don't Run - The Ventures

A great story from Wikipedia's entry on the Ventures:

The story behind their selection of Walk Don't Run provides some insight into the distinction between technical virtuousity, versus the essential elements of a wildly successful Pop-Music hit. Bob Bogle, original lead guitarist, cites Chet Atkins as one of his early influences. Bogle bought the Chet Atkins LP, Hi Fi Guitar which featured Atkins' fingerstyle rendition of a song originally written by the great jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith. Within Atkins' elaborate and laid-back delivery of "Walk Don't Run", Bogle found inspiration. He stated years later there was no way his "pedestrian" guitar skills would allow him to play it the same as Chet Atkins did, so he and Wilson worked out a highly energized, very much simplified arrangement, and a Rock & Roll Classic was born! Another Chet Atkins inspired guitarist covered "Walk Don't Run" on his album Quantum Guitar in 1998, none other than Yes guitarist Steve Howe.

6. Wipe Out - The Surfaris (Dead link, ref above *)'s short bio on the Surfari's says this about Wipe Out:

...the number two 1963 hit that ranks as one of the great rock instrumentals, featuring a classic up-and-down guitar riff and a classic solo drum roll break, both of which were emulated by millions (the number is no exaggeration) of beginning rock & rollers.

It's that influential. What more can you really say, except to add a Jeff Spicoli influence, "Whoa!"

5. Classical Gas - Mason Williams (Dead link, ref above *)

What a big sounding song! At first you almost think it's going to be some medieval throwback and then it just kicks it open. A huge song that is greatly composed.

The song won three Grammy awards in 1968 and was again a hit in 1987 when Williams re-recorded the song with Mannheim Steamroller.

4. Little Wing - Stevie Ray Vaughn

I can't say anything better about this song than Dean Esmay said in the comments section at his place:

"But I'd say that 'Little Wing' is his single greatest accomplishment instrumentally. It's amazing that they kept it in a vault and only released it posthumously. It's simply astounding from start to finish, and exceeds any cover of that song I've ever heard, including both the Derek &The Dominos version(which I love) or Jimi's own original.

And by the way, occasionally I hear some snotty punk say Stevie was 'just a hot dog.' All I can do is ask them to listen to "Little Wing" and then ask them to explain that."

The song charted at #26 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks Billboard in 1992. Two years after his death.

5.booker.t.jpg3. Green Onions - Booker T and the MGs

As the house band as Stax Records, Booker T and the MGs can be heard on some of the most influential soul and RB albums of the '60s. But what is perhaps more important is the instrumental work they did. Green Onions is one of the most listenable, catchy tunes ever written. This is due in large part to Steve Cropper's economical guitar work and Booker T. Jone's floating organ playing. A testament to taste and ability, this song is a vital part of our musical compendium.

The song topped out at #3 on the Pop Charts in 1962, but hit #1 on the Black Songs charts.

2. Sleep Walk - Santo and Johnny (performed by Joe Satriani)

How hauntingly beautiful is this song? Once you hear it, it sticks with you and remains infinitely listenable. A slow, jazzy, in the mood kind of song.

Released in 1959, the song reached #1 on the Billboard charts in August of that year and again in 1982 for Larry Carlton.

1. Frankenstein - Edgar Winters Group

How often do you hear this song on classic rock stations? Even if you don't know the name of this song, you've been inspired by it. Not only is this a very serious musical number, it's fun but not to the point of frolicking. To me, it is the very definition of the rock instrumental. It immediately sets the theme and there is some great interplay between the different instruments without getting tiring.

Released in 1973, this Billboard #1 song is as vital today as it ever was.


So that’s the list I came up with. What would you guys list?

Because I'm All About the Guitar Archives


I like your list a lot. Always loved Classical Gas even though watching a gal play it on 12-String well is what made me put down the guitar.

And I've mentioned before, I never got Metallica.

Here's a couple other of my favorites.

Head Cuttin' Duel - Steve Vai
I don't think anyone else could have blended the blues and classical riffs together so well.

Joe Satriani - If I Could Fly
I know it's smaltzy, but when he plays the chorus he really tugs my insides out.

I used to love Yngwie but at some point he got on my nerves.

I'm trying to find Brandenburg by the New York Rock'n'Roll Enseble. Michael Kamen and his crew before he became famous back in the 60s did Bach on both classical and rock instruments. I LOVE that track.


Thanks, Timmer. Head Cuttin' Duel is fantastic as is If I Could Fly.


I would have to cut something to get YYZ on the list. I can think of a couple Yngwie instrumentals that I really like, but he's kind of a prick anyway so he wouldn't make my list.


Hocus Pocus by Focus is classic.


Damn good list, Cullen. I couldn't really think of a single song to change on it until I read Tim's comment about Hocus Pocus, but then I wouldn''t switch it with any of your picks, so I guess I would need 11.

The day I heard Satch play Sleep Walk, I was moved to post a 5,000 word essay on the life and times of Santo & Johnny, on my old blog. Definitely one of my favorite tunes.


That's a pretty good list. Close enough for me not to quibble.

Our old lead player could make Sleepwalk sing.


I love your list. Can't argue with much. I think Green Onions would be my favorite, just because it has happy childhood memories for me.

I also have to add:

Woodpecker From Mars by Faith No More
Allman Bros - Jessica
Jeff Beck - Freeway Jam

There's a couple by both Dick Dale and Frank Zappa that I don't remember the names of (at least not this early in the morning).


Frank Zappa - Watermelon In Easter Hay


Michele, I think the biggest absence from my master list was Jessica.


And I almost forgot my favorite of Clapton's, "Peaches and Diesel." But that has a LOT to do with who I was, ah, dating at the time. Wonderful memories.


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