The lost art of the instrumental

Most songs need lyrics – there’s no denying that. Sweet words of a love song, vibrant expressions of joy in dance music, aggressive flowing rhymes in rap music, it’s all there.

Lyricism and delivery can make or break a lot of songs, but as we’ve moved away from live instrumentation in music, the instrumental track has become somewhat of a lost art. While Jazz lives on as the best form of instrumental music, it was nothing for R&B and Funk bands to drop a vocal-less track on an album, sometimes release it as a single and do well.

I myself am a huge fan of instrumentals and I’m going to share some of my favorites with you and if you have any favorites of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments. Also, here is a Spotify playlist to help you identify some of the songs below.

“For Those Who Like To Groove,” Ray Parker Jr. and Raydio, 1980: The groove was sweet from the synth play down to Ray Parker Jr.’s steady guitar licks, but this song almost became forgettable when three different takes with lyrics were considered. Instead, drummer Ollie Brown among others convinced to Ray to leave it as an instrumental and sure enough, it was a top 15 R&B hit in the middle of 1980. True to the title of the song, it’s a perfect song for those who, well, like to groove.

“Breezin,” George Benson, 1976: The jazz guitar GAWD. George Benson was already a decade into a great career as a band leader, and “Breezin” showed why he is one of the best to ever do it. “Breezin” just takes you to a place where cares are none and chill is plentiful.

“Rain Forest,” Paul Hardcastle, 1984: There are elements of the beat from Afrikaa Bambaata and the Zulu Nation’s “Planet Rock” in keyboardist Hardcastle’s masterpiece that includes chime and flute synth along with a piano riff that floated seamlessly alongside the drum beat.

“Love’s Theme,” The Love Unlimited Orchestra, 1973: The strings might make you cry. The wah-wah guitar might make you jig a little bit. The horns can and will make you sway. Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra played a major part in the beginning of disco with this absolutely lush and classic instrumental that reached the top of the Billboard Pop Charts early in 1974.

“Chameleon,” Herbie Hancock, 1973: The lead-off home run from the seminal “Head Hunters” album, it’s 15-plus minutes of groove laid down by Bennie Maupin’s sax, Paul Jackson’s thumping bass, drums by Harvey Mason and of course Herbie on keyboards and the clavinet. This is one of the more covered instrumental pieces by jazz musicians and it’s obvious why – it absolutely JAMS.

“Early Morning Sunshine,” Con Funk Shun, 1980: While there are lyrics in the chorus, the 3-minute instrumental that begins with birds chirping and gallops into a laid-back Cali track perfect for sunny day cruising or just lounging around. Paul Harrell’s flute rise above the drums, rhythm and bass guitar while managing to stay in the groove.

“Summer Madness,” Kool & The Gang, 1974: There’s a personal story with this one. Starting with the last days of my senior year of high school, I started playing Summer Madness on Memorial Day to bring in summer and then play it on Labor Day night to close out the summer. Best known as the sample for DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s classic “Summertime,” Summer Madness stands on its own as one of the most famous instrumentals in R&B annals, even getting an update in the early 90s with a jazz version that proved to be very popular.

“After The Dance Instrumental,” Marvin Gaye, 1976: Apparently there was a string and horn clash that bothered Marvin in the instrumental cut, so he got Motown to lend him a Moog synthesizer and he played over the clash, giving an already beautiful track an airy, futuristic sound to it complete with an Ernie Watts flute solo.

“Pick Up The Pieces,” Average White Band, 1974: Comically covered with a kazoo on Martin Lawrence’s sitcom, the actual song itself is a 4-minute jam session with the title chanted after the classic saxophone bridge. There was nothing average about this jam at all.

“Moments In Love,” The Art of Noise, 1984: The smoldering piano intro, thumping bass, consistent congas and then the second half of the song becomes aural sex. As primal a love making song as it gets. So many children have probably been conceived to the track, I’m sure some want to sue The Art of Noise for child support. Might be the greatest instrumental track of all time.


One thought on “The lost art of the instrumental

  1. Meant to leave this earlier, but these are some good choices. When I was younger, my older cousin used to have a lot of these songs on vinyl LP, and that’s how I discovered them. What’s even better than the songs you chose are the little stories behind a lot of them. I learned quite a bit from this post about some of the favorite songs from back in the day. Thanks.

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