Some artists build careers around it. Some use it as another weapon in their arsenal. Some simply use it as a bridge between songs. But whatever the reason for employing it, the instrumental track has proven to be an essential element in a hard rock band’s legacy. Because even though lyrics can add a massive layer of emotion to a song, sometimes the story and message can be conveyed with absolutely no words at all. Just a combination of pummeling guitars and drums, heavy atmosphere and a big emphasis on texture and dynamics. And when there’s no concern about matching lyrics to music, the artist can feel free to stretch out, let loose and experiment purely with sound.
Our That Metal Show guests for this week, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, have spent their entire careers trying to create the perfect instrumental masterpiece. And some fans and critics would say they’ve succeeded – multiple times. Other artists on the list, from Metallica to Van Halen, Iron Maiden to Led Zeppelin, have created legendary instrumental tracks that stand out as some of the best material in their respective catalogues. So to celebrate these wordless epics, here’s a list of the 20 Greatest Hard Rock & Metal Instrumentals of all time. Enough said. (But we’ll say more).
20. In Flames “The Jester’s Dance”
The Swedish band defines just what it means to be “melodic death metal” with this track off of their second album, The Jester Race, which alternates between beautiful passages and heavy, dark riffs.
19. Cacophony “Speed Metal Symphony”
The duo of Marty Friedman and Jason Becker bring all of their technical, classical-influenced prowess to this title track off their debut album.
18. Dokken “Mr. Scary”
Featuring incredible guitar mastery by future Lynch Mob member George Lynch, this track off 1987’s Back for the Attack is considered by many hard rock fans and critics alike to be an instrumental masterpiece.
17. Death “Voice of the Soul”
A track off of 1998’s The Sound of Perseverance (the band’s final album), the progressive/death metal band veers into new territory, employing soft guitars and a lack of percussion which contrasted with almost every other work by the band.
16. Opeth “Epilogue”
One of three instrumentals off of the progressive metal band’s 1998 concept album, My Arms, Your Hearse, this Pink Floyd-esque track stands up with some of the band’s best material.
15. Tool “Triad”
A track off of the progressive metal band’s epic album, Lateralus, the song displays the band’s raw power, pairing pummeling, rhythmic passages with mellow, textured breakdowns.
14. Iron Maiden “Genghis Khan”
From 1981’s Killers, this song features relentlessly catchy riffs and the ferocious drumming of original Maiden drummer Clive Burr.
13. Black Sabbath “Rat Salad”
Though it’s part of an album that contains many of the band’s classic songs, this track from 1970’s Paranoid stands out in their catalogue, assisted by the amazing drum solo by Bill Ward.
12. Dream Theater “Stream of Consciousness”
Appearing on their 2003 album, Train of Thought, the epic 11:16 track contains some of the progressive metal band’s most memorable riffs.
11. Racer X “Technical Difficulties”
The title track to the metal band’s third studio album evolved from the introductory song “Metal Dog” on guitarist Paul Gilbert’s 1994 instructional video, Terrifying Guitar Trip.
10. Trans-Siberian Orchestra “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”
This instrumental medley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” was first released on the Savatage album Dead Winter Dead and re-released by TSO on their 1996 debut, Christmas Eve and Other Stories; it is currently second on the list of all-time best-selling holiday digital singles in SoundScan history.
9. Animals as Leaders “CAFO”
A track off the progressive metal band’s debut self-titled album, it establishes the band as modern instrumental masters – showcasing band leader Tosin Abasi’s unique, intricate and technical guitar playing.
8. Buckethead “Soothsayer (Dedicated to Aunt Suzie)”
Appearing on the guitarist’s eighteenth studio album, Crime Slunk Scene, the track has become one of his most popular. It is frequently played live and has become available as part of a downloadable track pack for the game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.
7. Yngwie Malmsteen “Black Star”
A track off the virtuoso guitarist’s debut album Rising Force, it is still one of his most popular songs and has become a staple of his live set list. It is considered neo-classical metal at its peak – Malmsteen’s technical abilities would help to pave the way for the neo-classical metal explosion in the 80s.
6. Steve Vai “For the Love of God”
This guitar piece off of Vai’s 1990 album, Passion and Warfare, was recorded on the fourth day of a ten-day fast because the guitarist wanted to push himself into an altered state of consciousness. The track was voted #29 in a reader’s poll of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time for the magazine Guitar World.
5. Led Zeppelin “Moby Dick”
The song off of 1969’s Led Zeppelin II contains one of the most famous and memorable drum parts and solos in rock history (played by the legendary John Bonham). To this day it is a staple for all rock drummers and the song holds up as a classic in the band’s catalogue.
4. Joe Satriani “Flying in a Blue Dream”
The first song and title track to the guitarist’s 1989 album has endured as one of his best-known songs and is a staple at his concerts; Flying in a Blue Dream received a nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1991 Grammys.
3. Van Halen “Eruption”
This extended guitar solo appears as the second track on the band’s debut self-titled album and truly changed the course of rock guitar playing. The song introduced two-handed tapping to the mainstream popular rock audience and its importance is refelcted in it being named the 2nd greatest guitar solo of all time by Guitar World magazine.
2. Metallica “Orion”
Named after the star constellation due to the song’s spacey-sounding bridge, it appears on the band’s 3rd studio album, Master of Puppets, and showcases late bassist’s Cliff Burton’s mastery of his instrument. It is frequently cited as the band’s best instrumental by fans and critics, along with Ride the Lightning’s “The Call of Ktulu.”
1. Rush “La Villa Strangiato (An Exercise in Self-Indulgence)”
The final track on the progressive rock band’s 1978 album Hemispheres clocks in at 9:34 and was the band’s first fully-instrumental release. Drummer Neil Peart has said that they spent more time recording this track than the entire Fly by Night album, but it was worth it – the complex track is considered by fans and critics to be a technical and creative masterpiece.