Rumble: The story behind the only instrumental banned from the radio

Link Wray’s 1958 guitar classic riled the polite segments of society while solidifying the sound of hard rock for decades to come.

Link Wray, the pioneering Native American rocker, who’s signature black leather attire alluded to the motorcycle gang subculture swarming 1950s America, found that, after stabbing a pencil into his guitar’s amplifier, the instrument would generate a ragged, overdriven reverb. Playing a simple set of guitar notes simultaneously through the amp’s fuzzy drawl, Wray performed an early example of the “power chord” — the cornerstone of various rock subgenres including heavy metal, punk, garage, and grunge.

Although his recording featured no lyrics, the instrumental track was banned in several radio markets not because of the guitar’s raucous distortion but because of the song’s title. “Rumble,” named after ’50s slang for a gang fight, worried radio station managers, who feared playing the tune over the airwaves could incite mass teenage violence. The infamy only fueled the song’s success, which reached number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100.

While not inventing the power chord, Link Ray and his backing band, the Wraymen, popularized this rock & roll building block for future generations. The Who’s Pete Townshend once said, “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar.” Meanwhile, Iggy Pop, often dubbed the “godfather of punk,” stated, “I left school emotionally at that moment — the moment I heard ‘Rumble.'”

Wray’s hit was inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame in 2018 — the first year individual songs were selected.