Prior to the introduction of the singer with the band, dance music was primarily instrumental. Then as microphones improved vocalisation became more popular and when during the war years union action prevented, card carrying musicians from recording the rise of the crooner resulted with the decline of the popular instrumental. Cool School Jazz continued to promote instrumental music but this was considered too complicated for vocals. In the early 50s, Earl Bostic, a jazz saxophonist had two instrumentals hits with Harlem Nocturne and Earl's Rhumboogie.
In 1952, bluesman, Little Walter had a major hit with Juke and a year later Red Prysock was riding high with Wiggles. Another bluesman to chart with an instrumental was Jimmy Reed with "Roll and Rhumba" (1953).
The two main factors likely to have contributed to the reintroduction of the instrumental were better amplification and the continued popularity of dance music. Although Rock ‘n’ roll would became more associated with the electric guitar, throughout the fifties other lead instruments featured. Englishman, Eddie Calvert had an international hit with the trumpet called Oh Mein Papa (1954), he repeated his chart success a year later with Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.
Piano instrumentals were also popular with Liberace in the US and Winifred Atwell in the UK with Lets have ding dong (1955) and Poor People of Paris (1956).
As the origins of rock’n’roll were in R&B, jump blues, and country boogie many of the early musicians like, Joe Houston (saxophone), and Speedy West (steel guitar) were influential in the style of music that would eventually follow. Bill Doggett had a major instrumental hit in 1956 with “Honky Tonk” which featured Clifford Scott on sax.
Another saxophonist to have a major hit was Bill Justis. He worked for Sam Phillips at Sun Records where he recorded music for himself as well as arranged the music for Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich. In 1957, he released "Raunchy" which rocketed up the charts. It was common at the time to have cover versions of the originals released at the same time with the better efforts competing for chart position. Ernie Freeman released a cover version of Raunchy which became a respectable hit in US. He later joined the Ernie Fields Orchestra which became the house band for Rendezvous records in 1958.
In 1959 the Ernie Fields Orchestra had an international hit with an R&B version of Glenn Miller’s In The Mood. In 1962 and with a few lineup changes the Orchestra became B. Bumble and the Stingers and had a couple of great chart success with Bumble Boogie and Nut Rocker.
Steadily guitar music began to predominate and the Virtues had hit in 1958 with a rock reworking of Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's country hit "Guitar Boogie" under the title "Guitar Boogie Shuffle". The instrumental became a major hit in the U.S. In the same year guitarist Duane Eddy proved a major influence on rock guitarists. He had a string of guitar hits including: Rebel Rouser (1958), Forty miles of bad road (1959), Shazam (1960), Peter Gunn (1960) and Because they’re young (1960). The added commercial appeal of instrumental music was it could be appreciated by non-English speakers and at that time the overseas record markets were growing.
One of the early luminaries of the electric guitar was Link Wray who started off playing country in Lucky Wray & the Lazy Pine Wranglers (later known as Palomino Ranch Hands). He lost a lung due to TB and was unable to sing, so began to develop his guitar solos. Link developed the use of feedback with guitar fuzz and distortion and this would eventually become more associated with musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend. However in 1958 Link recorded “Rumble,” which despite being banned from radio stations became a major hit and a milestone for guitar players.
Meanwhile in the UK novelty acts like Lord Rockingham's XI (there were actually 13 musicians) had a number one hit with 'Hoots Mon' (1958). The Fireballs, featured a distinctive guitarist called George Tomsco, and the group pioneered the guitar/guitar/bass/drums configuration, paving the way for The Ventures, The Shadows, and the surf music scene. The Fireballs had a big hit with Fireball and were one of a few instrumental bands that successfully transitioned into vocal music, going as far as having the biggest hit record Sugar Shack in 1963.
In the years between the rock & roll explosion and the Beatles, instrumental performers were responsible for some of the most exciting and macho music. Other guitarists like Santo & Johnny (Sleep Walk, 1959) and Lonnie Mack made their mark but so too did drummers, Sandy Nelson (Let there be drums, 1961), Preston Epps (Bongo Rock, 1960), and Cozy Cole; organists, Dave "Baby" Cortez (The Happy Organ, 1959); saxophone-driven combos Johnny & the Hurricanes (Crossfire and Red River Rock, 1959) and The Champs' Tequila; and even bass players like Bill Black (Don’t be cruel, 1960).
The UK saw a revival of piano rag with Russ Conway and Side Saddle (1959), and a continuation with comedic instrumentals typified by The Piltdown Men and Brontasaurus Stomp (1960).
By 1960, The Ventures perfected the guitar group sound and had hit after hit with tracks like Walk don’t run. Their precise reverberated guitar work was a major influence on others including the Shadows Apache (1960) in the UK: and the Atlantics in Australia Bombora (1963).
Dick Dale gained a loyal following for his quick playing of Middle Eastern influenced music using exotic scales. He used a Fender Telecaster guitar and developed a distinctive reverb-heavy sound which would become the surf sound. Let's Go Trippin'/Del-Tone Rock (1961) was a double A side hit for Dick and others soon followed i.e. The Surfaris' Wipe Out (1963) and the Chantays' Pipeline (1963). The close harmonies of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys would later develop the unique vocal surf sound of the sixties.
A resurgence in Moldy Fig music (traditional New Orleans jazz) in the UK saw Acker Bilk top the charts with his clarinet inspired Stranger on the shore (1962), Kenny Ball also had a jazz inspired Midnight in Moscow. Perhaps the most famous cross over jazz pop success of the period was Dave Bruebeck’s Take Five.
Producer Joe Meek in the UK worked with The Tornados (known as the Tornadoes in the US) and had an international hit with Telstar (1962). This single featured both electric organ and electric bass, the same sound would two decade later become an inspiration for all electronic musicians.
Arguable the most seminal development in instrumental rock came from Lonnie Mack's version of Chuck Berry's Memphis, which was a hit in 1963. The showcase of virtuoso guitar used both the blues scale and distortion which would inspire many of the developing blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Prior to the soul era, Boots Randolph had a massive hit with Yakety Sax (1963); and in the UK, Sounds Incorporated (one of Brian Epstein’s groups) proved popular with their version of the William Tell Overture (1964).
Following the British Invasion instrumental hits came mostly from the R&B world with notably artists like Booker T. & the MG's, the Mar-Keys and Bar-Keys all producing excellent works. The most popular and influential instrumental soul combo of the 60s was Booker T. & the MG's who was the resident studio band for Stax/Volt label.
Instrumentals became less popular among pop musicians simply because the musical genre received less radio play as preference was given to the new sound of pop groups. The Shadows continued to make instrumental hits and the Stones would very occasionally slip an instrumental track onto an album. The Nice (later to become ELP) had a hit with America which feature the electric organ in 1968 but the last great instrumental from the 60s came from Fleetwood Mac in 1969. Peter Green, guitar virtuoso wrote the guitar-based instrumental Albatros (1969) which became a worldwide success,
Worth a listen:
Roll and Rhumba (1953)
Oh Mein Papa (1954)
Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White (1955)
Lets have ding dong (1955)
Poor People Of Paris (1956)
Honky Tonk (1956)
Guitar Boogie Shuffle (1958)
Rebel Rouser (1958)
Forty miles of bad road (1959)
Peter Gunn (1960)
Because they’re young (1960)
Bad Boy (1958)
Link Wray and His Ray Men
Tall Cool One (1959)
Dave "Baby" Cortez
The Happy Organ (1959)
Santo and Johnny
Sleep walk (1959)
Johnny and the Hurricanes
Red River Rock (1959)
Walk don’t run (1960)
Bongo Rock (1960)
Bill Black Combo
Don’t be cruel (1960)
Let there be drums (1961)
Let's Go Trippin'/Del-Tone Rock (Deltone 1961)
Midnight in Moscow (1961)
Take Five (1961)
Stranger on the shore (1962)
Yakety Sax (1963)
William Tell Overture (1964).
Booker T. & the MG's
Green Onions (1962)