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What's an Instro anyway?: A Brief History of Instrumental Rock & Roll

Mike Beddoes
October 2011

    "Instro" is a British term of endearment for an instrumental rock and roll song.  The term includes tunes from early rock and roll, and also later tunes in the same style. There have been three waves of instros.

    The originals, from the mid 50s to the mid 60s, included American artists such as Duane Eddy, The Fireballs, Link Wray, Santo & Johnny, The Stringalongs, The Venturesand Dick Dale & the Deltones, and European artists like The Shadows, The Spotnicks, and Jorgen Ingmann. Many musicians who went on to other genres got their start with instrumentals (e.g. Jimmy Page, Glen Campbell).

    The first instro wave started with rock and roll and ended, in America, with The Beatles and the British Invasion. In Europe, Asia, and elsewhere instro bands kept going, though changing with the times.

    The second wave of instro bands, in the late 70s, coincided with the Rockabilly revival. These musicians were mainly enthusiasts who revived songs from the older bands and added new songs in the same tradition (e.g. 1961, Sweden; The Rapiers, UK; Jon & The Nightriders, USA).

    Since the 60s, rock instrumentals have diversified, like rock and roll itself, and styles such as fusion and shredding have evolved.  These new styles of rock instrumental owe very little to artists like The Ventures, Shadows, and Duane Eddy and, because they make no attempt to capture the spirit of early rock and roll tunes, they are not instros. Like Rockabilly, Instros show their roots.

    The third wave started in the late 80s (Laika & The Cosmonauts, Finland; Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Canada).  Some musicians were punk-influenced (Jackie & The Cedrics, Japan; Huevos Rancheros, Canada), some were ace studio musicians (The Hellecasters, USA; Local Heroes, UK), and the rest somewhere in between. Contrasts in age and ability, however, are nothing new in rock and roll.  Compare the teenage Rebels who could barely get through "Wild Weekend" with ace musicians The Champs playing "Tequila". This diversity is a large part of rock and roll's appeal - there is room for everyone.

    Though instros started in America ("Honky Tonk", Bill Doggett, 1956; "Raunchy", Bill Justis, 1957), musicians around the world quickly adapted themselves to playing them (The Atlantics, Australia; Jet Blacks, Brazil; Esquires, Canada; Fentones, England; Les Fantomes, France; Teddy Robin & the Playboys, Hong Kong; Yuzo Kayama & the Launchers, Japan; The Quests, Singapore; Los Jets, Spain; The Jetliners, Sri Lanka; The Spotnicks, Sweden; Los Iracundos, Uruguay, and many, many more).

    The two main reasons for the world-wide and cross-cultural appeal of instros are: songs from other countries are easily adapted to rock and roll, and there are no language barriers.

    Any song that can be played instrumentally, and with a rock beat, is fair game.  In Europe, this included Krontjong (Dutch Indo Rock) and Rautalanka (from Finland).

    Inspiration for rock instros has included folk songs, pop tunes, and classical pieces, for example:

  • Folk: "Meadowlands", The Chessmen, Canada, 1964; "Red River Rock", Johnny & The Hurricanes, USA, 1959

  • Pop: "Perfidia", The Ventures, USA, 1960

  • Classical: "Nut Rocker" (Tchaikovsky), B. Bumble & The Stingers, USA, 1962 ; "Mountain King"(Grieg), Nero & The Gladiators, UK, 1961.

    Many instros were written specifically for the genre (e.g. "Rebel Rouser", Duane Eddy, USA, 1958; "Teen Beat", Sandy Nelson, USA, 1959) and spun off into sub-genres such as surf (e.g. "Miserlou", Dick Dale & The Deltones, USA, 1962; "Pipeline", The Chantays, USA, 1963).

    Instros were also used for film and TV themes (e.g. "James Bond Theme", John Barry 7, UK, 1963; "Good, Bad and The Ugly", Hugo Montenegro, Italy, 1967; "Hawaii 50", The Ventures, 1967). 

    Easily, the best known and enduring of the instro bands are The Shadows ("Apache"), from England, and The Ventures ("Walk, Don't Run"), from America.  Their influence has extended far beyond their countries of origin.  Shadows' records were played on the radio in all the British Commonwealth countries. Similarly, radio stations in the American sphere of influence played The Ventures.

    Canadians got both British and American musical influences - the best of both worlds.

Further Reading:

Magazines
New Gandy Dancer
Pipeline Instrumental Review
Gitares et Batterie (in French)

Books
Don Riswick - Nothin' but Instrumentals: A Compendium of Rock Instrumentals
Yuzo Sasaki - Comprehensive Data Book on Electric Instrumental Music (in Japanese)
Bob Dalley - Surfin' Guitars: Instrumental Surf Bands of the 60s

Internet Forums
Surf Guitar 101

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