5 Outstanding Instrumental Performances on Bob Dylan Songs

We all know that Bob Dylan‘s singing and songwriting have made him a legend. But he also benefited through the years from outstanding instrumental efforts by musicians who were hired to play on his sessions.

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This list could go much longer, as many have stepped up over the years to give a boost to supplement Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica. Here are five performers, presented in chronological order of their contribution, whose efforts made a huge difference on Dylan songs.

Al Kooper, Organ on “Like a Rolling Stone”

This performance stands out not just for its effectiveness, but for how unlikely it was. Kooper, by his own admission, hadn’t played that much organ in his career when he attended the session for this world-changing track. In fact, he had to sneak past producer Tom Wilson, who had previously forbid Kooper from playing on the song. When Dylan heard the playback, he immediately asked for the organ to be brought up in the mix. Perhaps he sensed then what the rest of the world would soon find out: Kooper’s organ brought crucial musical coloring to what could have been a monochromatic rant.

Charlie McCoy, Guitar on “Desolation Row”

You’ll probably note once you finish reading that all the performances on this list come on songs that are longer than your average running time. And that’s not a coincidence, since the instrumental flavors keep things interesting even as verse after verse passes by. Case in point: McCoy was hired to add some acoustic guitar fills alongside Dylan’s steady strumming on this epically surreal highlight of Highway 61 Revisited. He manages to do this with a unique flourish every time he’s called upon, without ever getting so showy that it distracts from the heady lyrics.

Kenny Buttrey, Drums on “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”

Dylan made the decision to record his Blonde on Blonde album in Nashville, using local session aces like Buttrey to fill out his sound. Those players had likely never dealt with a bandleader so mercurial. The story goes that Dylan started up this song and just told the instrumentalists to stick with him, not telling them they were going to be doing so for over 11 minutes. But Buttrey never flinched, hanging onto that hi-hat throughout the song like a trooper and swinging the rest of the band back into action every time Dylan returns to the top.

Scarlet Rivera, Violin on “Hurricane”

Here’s another great instrumental part that’s enlivened by a great story, one which belongs to the category Only in the World of Dylan. Rivera was walking around with her violin case in New York City when Dylan spotted her and, without knowing anything else about her work, asked her to audition. She ended up on his Rolling Thunder Tour and played on Desire, where her most indelible contribution came on this song telling the tale of imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter. Her playing takes the song into a uniquely exotic area that provides a heady contrast to the inner-city setting of the story.

Mark Knopfler, Guitar on “Slow Train”

Knopfler was already established as a hitmaker with Dire Straits when Dylan asked him to be lead guitarist in the band that would make the 1979 album Slow Train Coming. Knopfler stayed on for a few Dylan records, and made another memorable, albeit unofficial, contribution to an all-acoustic version of “Blind Willie McTell” that went unreleased for years. On “Slow Train,” his guitar slips effortlessly into the open spaces provided by the earthy groove, and his bluesy fills lend the song much of the power it conveys.

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