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Dave's Top-10 Favourite Rock Songs Featuring Non-Conventional Instruments


The Guys from {MUSIC}

Dave's Top-10 Favourite Rock Songs Featuring Non-Conventional Instruments

David R. Smith

I have been in the process of writing a blog about potato chips. Yeah. That's how hard up I am for material, it seems. But I remembered that I had been thinking about this blog topic for some time. So I'm putting that opus on potato chips on hold (as it's really not time sensitive) and figured I would write about something much more interesting and much more enjoyable to me.

It is no secret that I love rock music. Almost more than anything, do I love rock music. A standard rock song is very simple. At its base, it needs drums, a bass guitar, one or two (or more) guitars and a lyricist. Sometimes - obviously - the lyricist can double as any of the other instrumentalists, as well. (Incidentally; mad props to anybody who can play drums and sing. At least; play drums well and sing.) Keyboards have been known to make their way into many-a rock song in the past. Can you imagine what Supertramp's Bloody Well Right would be like without that bitchin' keyboard intro at the beginning? Exactly.

Every now and then, though, a song comes along that uses something less conventional than your standard drums-guitar(s)-bass-keyboard setup. And sometimes those songs wail. 

So today's blog is my favourite of those songs. I had to stretch a little bit in order to get a complete list of 10. But unlike my list of favourite movies from 2015, I actually succeeded in getting enough to complete a list.

1) Mandolin: The Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin

I'm listening to every song as I write about it. What better way to discuss something like this, right?

When I have disposable income again (lolz) the next instrument I buy is going to be a mandolin. They just sound so cool. And when I do, I plan on learning this song. (Double lolz) I love that the first instrument we hear is the mandolin. It just sets the tone, doesn't it? And damned if Jimmy Page can't shred on this instrument!

Plus this song is about Lord of the Rings, so how awesome is that? Unless you think singing about LOTR is lame, in which case: 

That's right: Go Tuck Yourself In

That's right: Go Tuck Yourself In

Also, I considered using Rise by Eddie Vedder here but as much as I love Ed, there are very few songs I love more than this one.

2) Flute: Locomotive Breath by Jethro Tull

It's such a slow build, isn't it? That piano… It's almost too quiet. You turn it up to hear it. Then you get the guitar coming in underneath it. They riff off each other for a second. And then: bam! We're rocking out. And you're thinking to yourself, "there's seriously flute that's going to be coming up here? No way."

And then there it is. At the end of the second verse. Bitchin flute solo.

I've seen Jethro Tull twice. Both times were amazing. I've seen this song twice. Both times were amazing.

Admittedly, I could have used Thick as a Brick for this category, but I felt that 45 minutes was too long for somebody to hang out at my article, plus I like the flute part better in this song anyway.

3) Ukulele: Soon Forget by Pearl Jam

Come on. You had to expect at least ONE Pearl Jam song. And why not this one? It's so simple. It's literally Ed on the ukulele. Plus it's about Bill Gates. I think...

“Soon Forget” on “Binaural” is even more lyrically brutal, as Vedder, bizarrely accompanied only by himself on ukulele, paints a withering portrait of a lonely millionaire. “Lying dead, clutching benjamins”. “he’s stiffening...we’re all whistling” he croons, never having sounded happier. It’s a fantastically nasty song. “I think its a good little movie,” he laughs. “It’s a kind of Bill Gates thing, I think. But it could be anyone or anything.”

You specifically had Bill Gates in mind when you wrote it? “Someone like that.”

Or maybe it's about Donald Trump. Wouldn't it be so much better if it were Trump? I bet now, if he could, Ed would say it's about Trump. 


Whoever it's about, I appreciate the message: money isn't the only thing that matters. It's also not necessarily going to make you a popular person. And it's all played on only a uke. Terrific.

4) Horns - 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago

Okay. I was kind of reaching on this one. Are horns not necessarily rock and roll? No, right? But is Chicago considered a rock and roll band? I don't know. 

All I know is this song does, in fact, rock. Again, that small build of a dual guitar and bass riff. Then comes the simple high-hat/snare duo. A quick little drum fill and then the horn section comes in. There's definitely a couple trombones in there, and I think I'm pretty sure some saxophones, trumpets and who knows what else. 

And now, here we are: two minutes into the song and you get a rad guitar solo with wah-wah pedals and everything. How can you think this song is anything but a rock song??

I know Supertramp also uses horns in their songs. We heard it at the beginning of the article when I tagged Bloody Well Right. The horns are just as good as the piano solo. But this is probably my favourite song featuring a horn section. Or at least one of them. There are several. I actually could probably do an entire article on my favourite songs featuring horns… Granted, it would probably just be Chicago and Supertramp...

5) Bagpipes: It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock n' Roll) by AC/DC

Okay. Now there's no question about this song. It rocks. It rocks hard. It's AC/DC. Of course it rocks. 

I want to know which of those crazy Aussie bastards was the one who thought, "This song about rock and roll is good. But it's missing something. Now I know we're from Australia but you know what would really help it? The national instrument of Scotland. Nothing says rock and roll like mother effing* bagpipes."

Anyway. The reason I first thought of this article was because the afternoon sports show on the Fan 960 here in Calgary always uses this song as intro music to one of their segments. Though I'm not sure it ever has the bagpipe part. Just the regular rock and roll part. 

My favourite part of this song IS the bagpipes though. When you get to the bagpipe solo around the 1:28 mark and then they do this duelling bagpipes/guitar sort of thing? It's just so cool. In the weirdest sort of way.

Also: RIP Bonn Scott. I like Brian Johnson, but man was Bonn Scott ever cool.

*Let's be honest here. I'm not sure any member of AC/DC has ever censored himself.

6) Shakers/Maracas: Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones

Okay. This one is maybe a little out there. I may be stretching a little bit on this. But I had 9 good ones and needed to round out the category. So we get this one. Shakers and maracas aren't overly prevalent in this song. But they're there and so we're counting it. 

There are also conga drums. Something else not overly common in rock and roll. So we're just going on the basis that this song in general is just unconventional. Even the guitar solo is broken and kind of jarring. But in a good way. And then the "oo oooos" that happen. This song is so… weird but SO good. AND it's one of those songs where you probably don't even think about the shakers and maracas until somebody points them out, right? It's kind of like the cowbell in Don't Fear the Reaper. (Thanks SNL)

Incidentally: cowbell didn't make the list. You know what did?

7) Spoons: Spoonman by Soundgarden

Only Chris Cornell (one of the coolest - and most talented - dudes in the history of rock and roll) and the rest of Soundgarden could think that playing the spoons in a rock song would be a good idea. On their massively successful album Superunknown, this song rides the coat tails of Black Hole Sun

So you've got this super slow, trippy-type song playing and then you bust into this bitchin' guitar riff (accompanied by the illustrious Matt Cameron's gnarly drum part) and you've got a terrific rock song. 

And then at the 1:10 mark, when he says "save me" for about the 4th time, you can just hear the subtle clink of spoons in the background. And sure enough, a song with spoon in the title has somebody playing the spoons. Well okay, then.

But then, just for added awesomeness, why not add a legitimate spoon solo? (It starts at the 2:48 mark and then really kicks it at 3:05 when there's fewer drums and more spoon…ness)

Guh. What a wicked song.

Also, next on the playlist for me on YouTube is Rusty Cage, which has nothing unconventional. It's just a terrific song. Also, Johnny Cash did a cover of it, which is different And good. Just not Soundgarden good. (Though, you'll probably see these two come up in my inevitable "Favourite covers" blog)

8) Violin: Baba O'Riley by The Who

One of my all-time favourite songs. Period. End sentence. 

The first time I heard this song was after 9/11 when (I'm pretty sure) they played it as part of the Concert for New York City. In that song, they didn't have a violin solo. What would have been the violin was actually a harmonica. So that was cool.

Then one day on a whim, I decided to buy Who's Next, which instantly turned into one of my favourite albums of all time. 

Anyway, along with other stunning rock songs like Behind Blue Eyes and Won't Get Fooled Again (in my opinion, one of the best songs ever to end an album), this album also has this song. 

Often mistakenly called Teenage Wasteland, this is one of those songs that when it comes on, regardless of how loud your music is, you still have to turn it up. That synthesizer comes on and it immediately makes you happy. If it doesn't; there's something wrong with you. 

But I digress. This song hauls ass and then gets even better when you get to the fiddle solo. Or violin solo. I don't fuggin know the difference. Anyway. That's the logical place for a standard guitar solo. But why have a guitar solo when you can have a guy come in and play the violiddle? It just sets this song apart from other standard rock songs at the time. 

And besides: who doesn't love a good air fiddle? Am I right?

9) Banjo: Ladylike by Big Wreck

This song, which I believe was the second single of Big Wreck's album "The Pleasure And The Greed" came out right around the time I graduated high school. I had heard my sister listening to their first album "In Loving Memory Of…" on an almost repeat basis. And I enjoyed it at the time (now it's one of, what I think to be, the quintessential Canadian albums of the 90s [along with I Mother Earth's "Scenery and Fish"]) but when this song came out, I found my own love for Big Wreck. 

The following fall, my friend Jake and I saw Big Wreck play in Edmonton. A few days later, I road-tripped to Calgary to visit a couple of friends and my sister who were all going to school down here. We saw the Headstones open for Big Wreck. It was like the two tours happened to hit Calgary at the same time so they decided to make it a double bill. It was amazing.

Those two shows solidified my love for this band, as well as this song. In the studio version, the banjo plays almost all the way through, which is cool. But when they played it live, Ian Thornley could only play banjo or guitar at one time (pfft) so he made due. Notwithstanding, seeing that banjo stand rolled out in front of him, I knew what I was in for. And I was pumped.

Oh yeah! I totally forgot about this! So, either I have mis-remembered (which I'm not sure is even a word. Probably not) or they've changed it up since the band reunited and Thornley doesn't play the opening anymore. I'd show you clips of the concert in 2001 to prove I wasn't a liar but smart phoned didn't exist so nobody was recording those shows. People were actually living in the moment, man. 

Anyway. watching this video of them playing the song live, I forgot that they also used the banjo to sample the beginning of The Happiest Days Of Our Lives (remember that from this blog?) and then busted into Ladylike. So good!! 

10) Bowed Saw: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel 

Thank you to my friend Anton for introducing me to this song (and album, in fact.) There was a time when we were jamming and were trying to come up with songs to play. He brought this one up. 

Well, we eventually stopped jamming. It's amazing how life gets in the way of things. But my appreciation of this song lasted forever. For the longest time, I thought that that weird, whining sound in the second verse was a theremin. But no. According to recent findings (and by recent, I mean yesterday) it's actually a dude playing a saw with a friggin violin bow!

Who ever thought, "Hmm, this tool that I use to saw wood would also make just the best instrument! I should use it." And I know it has been used in music before. In Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream) The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (shut up, they're awesome) sing about how mama played guitar and daddy made that saw blade bend. So clearly it wasn't Neutral Milk Hotel who invented it. But damned if they didn't make it unique and relatively awesome.


So there you go, friends. A rather comprehensive list of my favourite songs featuring unconventional rock instruments. Now to be perfectly honest, there are probably songs that aren't on here that feature some of the same instruments that I would pick over others. Losing My Religion, for instance, also features a mandolin, and would likely beat out Aeroplane but I wanted one song per instrument. So it's technically not the out-and-out top ten. But it's good enough. Plus, hopefully, it introduced you guys to at least one or two great new songs. Also, it should give you a solid playlist for work. Or whatever.

The best part about this list? More ideas for subsequent blogs! Huzzah!

D (@davidronn)