When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! ūüôā

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! ūüôā

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Stevie Ray Vaughan/Tin Pan Alley

Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest blues rock guitarists who ever walked on the surface of the planet. Tin Pan Alley is one of my favorite Vaughan renditions and perhaps the coolest slow blues I know.

The above clip of Vaughan and his backing band Double Trouble was captured during an August 1984 open air festival at Lorelei, a famous steep slate rock in Germany on the bank of the river Rhine. The festival was conducted as part of Rockpalast, a well-known long-running German music TV program and concert series I previously covered here.

According to Wikipedia, Tin Pan Alley was originally credited to Robert Geddins; later credit was given to James Reed. Vaughan recorded the tune for his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand The Weather, released in May 1984.

While this live take is busier and more aggressive than the studio version, and I generally think less is more when it comes to the blues, it still gives me goose bumps, and I just find it amazing to watch. It’s also not a coincidence I’m featuring the song.

After more than 25 years since my band days as a bassist, I decided to buy an electric bass guitar and a small amp (both for house use and nothing fancy). My first experience playing with other guys was in a blues band, and Tin Pan Alley was one of the first songs I learned on the bass after I had joined them. I’ve always thought the bass part on this track is really cool. As such, I was happy I still know how to play it, though it’s definitely gonna take time to get comfortable again with the instrument.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rockpalast website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listing to: Stevie Ray Vaughan/Couldn’t Stand the Weather

Vaughan’s second studio album remains an electric blues gem more than 30 years after its release

I’ve always admired Stevie Ray Vaughan for his incredible guitar skills and cool sound. He is right up there with¬†Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton¬†and Buddy Guy.¬†In fact, he oftentimes reminds me of Hendrix.

The first time I was introduced to Vaughan’s music was in my early twenties after I had joined a blues band as a bassist. Among the songs I had to learn was Tin Pan Alley, one of the tunes on Couldn’t Stand the Weather.¬†Vaughan’s second studio album with Double Trouble¬†was released in May 1984. I bought the CD shortly thereafter. It remains one of my favorite blues albums to this day.

The record kicks off with Scuttle Buttin’, an instrumental Vaughan shreds at breakneck speed. It is one of two instrumentals on the album and one of four tracks written by him. Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of this incredible tune.

Next up is the record’s fantastic title song, another Vaughan composition. A cool mix of blues and funk, the tune features Vaughan’s brother Jimmie Vaughan on rhythm guitar. Here is a clip of the official music video, which according to Wikipedia received regular play on MTV – a pretty remarkable feat, given the song sounded very differently from the music that dominated the charts at the time. I imagine the funky grove had something to do with it.

Couldn’t Stand the Weather also includes an amazing version of the Hendrix classic Voodoo Child (Slight Return). It nicely showcases Vaughan’s virtuosity and his impeccable command of the wah-wah pedal – just like the maestro himself! Here’s a great illustration.

Another tune from the record I’d like to highlight is Cold Shot, which was co-written by the “Godfather of Austin Blues” Wesley Curley Clark and Michael Kindred. Here’s a pretty hilarious clip of what apparently is the song’s official video.

And then there is of course Tin Pan Alley, written by James Reed. Vaughan’s version is perhaps the best electric slow blues I know. It literally makes the hair in my neck stand up. Here’s an epic clip.

Couldn’t Stand the Weather was recorded in just 19 days at the Power Station in New York City (now called Avatar Studios). Other major artists, such as Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, David Bowie, Neil Young and Sting, have worked at that studio. The record was produced Vaughan and Double Trouble (Tommy Shannon, bass; and Chris Layton, drums), Richard Mullen and Jim Capfer. John Hammond was the executive producer.

Following on the heels of his 1983 debut Texas Floods,¬†the album was another success for Vaughan, climbing to no. 31 on the Billboard 200, and selling one million copies in just five weeks – a remarkable showing for a blues album. Couldn’t Stand the Weather is part of Vaughan’s impressive recording legacy.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Vaughan no. 12 in its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, saying he “was recognized as a peer by the likes of B.B. King (no. 6 on the list) and Eric Clapton (no. 2 on the list) and despite his 1990 death in a helicopter crash, he’s still inspiring multiple generations of guitarists, from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready to John Mayer and rising young star Gary Clark Jr.”

Another inspired¬†young blues guitarist is¬†Kenny Wayne Shepherd. He¬†told Rolling Stone in 1999, “Stevie Ray Vaughan was the whole inspiration for me picking up the guitar.¬†I got to hear him play for the first time when I was seven years old, in Shreveport, Louisiana…It’s weird to think that a seven-year-old child can have such a spiritual experience, but it affected the rest of my life. Six months later, I got my own guitar.”

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, Rolling Stone