With a little vocal talent, some excellent songwriting, and a whole lot of brilliant artistry (amongst many, many other things) classic hits can reach instant or even cult stardom. But without their instruments—from the reserves like guitar and vocals down to the cabasa and glockenspiel—successful songs may have missed the mark.
From Rolling Stone’s most recent list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, we analyzed the top ranked 100 songs. These timeless songs from the 20th and 21st centuries demonstrate the key elements of a great song, including instrument choice.
Below, we’ve illustrated the instruments used in each and every one of the top 100 songs. While a large percentage of the selection use guitar, bass, and drums (no surprise here), the 58 instruments in this graphic go beyond the expected. From the swarmandal The Beatles used in “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the castanets in The Ronettes’, “Be My Baby,” and mouth harp in The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” these classic songs tap into more than the typical standby sounds.
*The instruments below were researched via two means: documented accounts of recording sessions as well as intensive critical listening. Some instruments may have been omitted due to a lack of documentation or clarity in the recording.
*Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time were selected based on a panel of music experts including musicians, critics, and other music-industry figures. Twenty-five new songs were added to the list when it was revised in 2010.