Rock meets classical
When we think “rock band“, the usual instruments that come to mind are guitar, drums, bass and vocals. Perhaps, keyboards, or the harmonica are added to the mix; but that’s not too exotic. So when it comes to classical instruments in rock bands, it’s hard at first to come up with good examples – or, for some, to even imagine such thing to be possible.
The obvious answer would be to focus on symphonic rock. Bands such as King Crimson or Yes; or more recently, Within Temptation or Xandria, have approached rock from a classical perspective. The key is in the composition, or the vocals: the instrumentation is still mainly guitars, drums, bass, and an additional synth or saxophone.
So, how about rock bands who manage to sneak a traditional instrument into their lineup, and sound totally kick-ass doing so? Check out these examples!
The first thought that comes to mind…
…Would probably be Apocalyptica. Cellos + metal? For sure! Here, they are covering the Metallica classic, Master Of Puppets. Pretty cool, huh? However, one might argue that in this case they didn’t just add a classical instrument – they play nothing but cellos.
If you’re not convinced, keep reading and find better fit examples.
Ian Anderson’s Magic Flute
Jethro Tull is an unusual band. Not only they’re one of the oldest rock bands to still be “alive and kicking”: they also made rock history when they started off in the early 60’s as a blues band… lead by a flute. Ian Anderson, frontman and composer, plays a wide variety of instruments: from guitar and drums; to bouzouki and balalaika. He was influenced by his idol, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a peculiar musician whose trademark was playing multiple saxophones at once.
This tune, A song for Jeffrey, is as bluesy as it gets. They performed it at the iconic Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. Recognize the guitarist? It’s none other than Tony Iommi, the legendary founding member of Black Sabbath. Now, that’s what I call rock’n’roll!
Bass and Horns
The Who is one of the greatest rock bands in history. They can play loud and break everything on stage… Plus, add crazy twists to their powerful rock tunes by bringing in some horns. John Entwistle, the band’s incredible bassist, also played other instruments: for example, keyboards and the trumpet. In songs like Pictures of Lily, you can see how instead of a “traditional” guitar solo, there’s a French horn solo. Roger Daltrey has said it was “an attempt to emulate a World War I klaxon warning siren, as the Lily girl was a World War I-era pin-up” (source). Historical references and smashing guitars onstage? Who could do both?
The King of Experimental Rock
Frank Zappa was unique. If someone would have classical instruments in rock songs, it had to be him. His music is experimental, peculiar, and absolutely interesting. Check out this live version of his song Montana, which features some rarities, such as the xylophone, which you’d normally find in an orchestra – not a rock band.
Fun fact: the original version features the mad vocals of The Ikettes (Ike & Tina Turner‘s backing vocalists; and also a girl group on their own). The story goes, in Zappa’s words (source):
“Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this that she went into the next studio where Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labour. He listened to the tape and he goes, “What is this shit?” and walked out.”
Take A Bow
Perhaps, it’s noteworthy to point out that even using a cello bow can make a huge difference to the way rock is played. Jimmy Page, the mystical Led Zeppelin guitarist, started experimenting with the bow back in his Yardbirds’ days. Page was way ahead of his time. With this simple element, he revolutionized how a guitar can sound.
Later on, this was mocked in the false rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. In this scene, one of the main characters is performing his “signature solo”. He ends up playing his guitar… with a violin. Hilarious!
Rock + Violin tunes?
OK, so we’ve talked about all sorts of classical instruments in rock bands – but what about the violin? In our YouTube channel, we’ve put together a short list of songs from rock bands which included the violin as a key element. Check it out:
Want to add songs to this list? Do you know other rock bands that merge orchestral instruments in their tunes? If so, comment below! Or just share your thoughts with us.