The initiation and growth of instabilities in granular materials loaded by air shock waves are investigated via shock-tube experiments and numerical calculations. Three types of granular media, dry sand, water-saturated sand and a granular solid comprising PTFE spheres were experimentally investigated by air shock loading slugs of these materials in a transparent shock tube. Under all shock pressures considered here, the free-standing dry sand slugs remained stable while the shock loaded surface of the water-saturated sand slug became unstable resulting in mixing of the shocked air and the granular material. By contrast, the PTFE slugs were stable at low pressures but displayed instabilities similar to the water-saturated sand slugs at higher shock pressures. Eulerian fluid/solid interaction calculations, with the granular material modelled as a Drucker-Prager solid, reproduced the onset of the instabilities as seen in the experiments to a high level of accuracy. These calculations showed that the shock pressures to initiate instabilities increased with increasing material friction and decreasing yield strain. Surface instabilities are also shown to exist in shock loaded rear-supported granular slugs: these experiments and calculations are used to infer the velocity that free-standing slugs need to acquire to initiate instabilities on their front surfaces. The results presented here, while in an idealised one-dimensional setting, provide physical understanding of the conditions required to initiate instabilities in a range of situations involving the explosive dispersion of particles.