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The Swinging Sound of the Sixties: Instruments

Updated on December 4, 2015

The Ventures and their cool dance moves on the Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show in 1960.

One of the most innovative and eclectic decades in music, the 1960s saw the emergence of new musical styles, revolutions in existing genres, changes in production and studio techniques, and the development of new technologies. Decades later, the music of this era continues to delight and influence; even today, many musicians still draw inspiration from the music of the sixties. Following is basic advice to make your music sound more sixties. This shall be divided into several parts, each covering a different aspect of sixties music. This part, the second, focuses on primary instruments.


Guitars used in the sixties were pretty standard – Fenders and Gibsons, mostly. However, Rickenbacker, Gretsch, and Mosrite guitars were more popular then than in most other decades. The most popular amps were Fender, Marshall, and Vox.

The possibilities open to guitarists expanded greatly in the sixties with the introduction of pedals. Fuzz pedals, one of the most popular of the decades, were used by Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and the Ventures to achieve their signature sounds. Artificial echo and reverb units were introduced in during this decade; Dick Dale used the Fender reverb unit (which he also played a role in creating) for his surf guitar tones. Wah-wah pedals were also popular, used by artists such as Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.

Some bands experimented with other effects, created without pedals. Dave Davies of the Kinks cut the speakers on his amplifier to create the distortion effect in “You Really Got Me.” Bands such as Velvet Underground used feedback to create distinctive tones.

One of the most notable guitar tones of the sixties was the “jangle” sound of bands such as the Byrds. This sound was achieved by playing a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar through a Vox amplifier, and adding compression. It was typically played in an arpeggio style. Alternatively, any guitar with a single coil pickup and a bright, clean tube amp should be able to produce a decent jangle with the right EQ and effects. Turn down the bass and mids, and turn up the treble, then add compression and reverb.

Rhythm guitar was usually quite simple in the sixties, often playing on the back beat, the first beat, or sometimes in straight eighths.


Most basslines were pretty simple in the sixties; a lot of roots and fifths, and some “walking” basslines. However, there were more interesting bassists in the decade. One of the most notable bass players of the sixties was James Jamerson, who played on many Motown hits. Jamerson's basslines were highly syncopated, melodic, precise, had a strong groove, and varied throughout the song. He extensively used sixteenth notes, passing tones, and ghost notes. Another unique part of his sound, he often overdubbed an acoustic bass with an electric one.


Many drummers of the sixties used the standard rock and roll 4/4 beat – kick drum on beats 1 and 3, snares on the backbeat, and hi-hats in wither eighths or quarter notes. However, there are rhythms more unique to the decade.

One of the most common and notable beats of the sixties was a backbeat rhythm that featured a double hit on one of the offbeats (on “2” and the “and” of two, and on “4”, for example). This was usually played on a snare drum. An example of this beat can be found in almost every genre of music in the 60s, from surf to girl groups. Such examples include “Runaway” by Del Shannon, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, “My Boyfriend's Back” by the Angels, “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, "Penetration" by the Pyramids, “Walk, Don't Run” by the Ventures, “Surfin' Safari” by the Beach Boys, “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, "I Like It" by Gerry and the Pacemakers, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles.

The “four on the floor” pattern came to prominence in the sixties, before it defined the sound of disco in the seventies. While disco beats featured the kick drum playing this pattern, and original Beatles drummer Peter Best also played it this way, it was more commonly played on a snare in the sixties. Examples include “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, “She's Not There” by the Zombies, and “Bernadette” by the Four Tops.

Another popular sixties drum pattern was Hal Blaine's drum intro to “By My Baby” by the Ronettes. This beat appeared in other songs, including “Don't Worry, Baby” by the Beach Boys, “Rag Doll” by the Four Seasons, "She's Coming Home" by the Zombies, and “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las.

Other drummers had more unique styles. Keith Moon's wild drumming shaped the sound of early records by the Who. Ringo Starr, a left-handed drummer on a right-handed kit, developed unique fills that became an essential part of the Beatles sound. Maureen Tucker of Velvet Underground had a subtle and steady style that provided a sharp contrast to most drummers of the time.


Electronic keyboard first became an integral part of popular music in the sixties. The Doors prominently featured Ray Manzarek's Vox Continental organ and Fender Rhodes bass piano, making them one of the first rock groups to include electric keyboards as an essential component of their sound.

One of the most notable sixties keyboard is the Mellotron, an electro-mechanical keyboard that sourced its sound from tapes. It was used by the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, and (most memorably) by the Beatles for the flute sound in “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

The most popular keyboard of the sixties was the Vox Continental organ. It was used by the Doors, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Question Mark and the Mysterians, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Iron Butterfly, Manfred Mann, and Sir Douglas Quintet. Other popular electronic organs include the Farfisa (used by Pink Floyd, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Ventures, Aretha Franklin, Del Shannon, Percy Sledge, Sly and the Family Stone, Van der Graaf Generator, and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) and the Hammond (used by the Zombies and Procol Harem).

Electric pianos were also heard frequently. Popular models include the Fender Rhodes (the Doors, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd) and the Hohner Pianet (the Kingsmen, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Zombies,Van der Graaf Generator, the Association, and Soft Machine).

Keyboards were seldom lead instruments, and were often relegated to playing chords, counter melodies, a solo, or some combination of those.


Although there was nothing particularity unusual about sixties vocal melodies, the inclusion of vocals harmonies and prominent backing vocals can contribute to a sixties vibe. A short list of sixties groups that featured harmonies and/or backing vocals as a key component of their sound include the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, the Shangri-Las, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Four Seasons, the Righteous Brothers, Jan and Dean, Herman's Hermits, and the Ronettes.

Learn more about 60s music:






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