The 25 best acoustic songs of all time
19th Sep 2013 | 15:53
Unplugging isn’t easy. Take someone who usually plays an electric guitar, pull the plug and thrust an acoustic in their hands, and they’ll feel naked.
Where’s all the lovely mistake-hiding distortion? All the squalling feedback and lovely, comforting effects pedals? Playing an acoustic is an exercise in precision, clarity, and more often than not, great songwriting.
Playing unplugged arrangements can breathe new life into familiar songs, give a unique twist to a cover, and show off a piece of songwriting perfection.
We asked you to vote for your favourite acoustic songs, be they covers, originals or alternate arrangements - songs that send shivers down spines and make your fingers itch to learn them.
So, without further ado, here they are: the 25 best acoustic songs of all time, as voted for by MusicRadar users. Enjoy!
The Kinks - Lola
The Kinks’ classic tale of gender androgyny might eventually build to a fleshed-out arrangement of electric guitars and stomping percussion, but it’s really all about that beautifully simplistic acoustic guitar intro. A classic British strummer through-and-through.
Jake Bugg - Lightning Bolt
The boy Bugg doesn't come across as a man who's short on confidence, but with tunes like this one in his pocket, that's hardly surprising.
Released in its its demo form rather than rerecorded, Bugg told us last year, Lightning Bolt has a Cash-meets-Gallagher swagger that's made it something of an instant classic.
Stevie Ray Vaughan - Life By The Drop
SRV has rarely sounded more affecting than he does on Life By The Drop, the unplugged number that crops up on the end of posthumous album The Sky Is Crying.
A twelve string played hard, a voice that sounded like it had been scrubbed with a cheese grater and a set of lyrics that could make a grown man cry, this Doyle Bramhall-penned song of friendship and life is… nope, it’s no good, we’re going to have to go and have a little sob.
The Rolling Stones - Angie
Is it about Angie Bowie? Is it about smack? Is it about something else altogether?
We may never know, but one thing is absolutely certain: when the Stones go acoustic, they go acoustic hard. Released in ’73, Angie proved that Mick and Keef could do subtle and sensitive with the best of them.
Alice In Chains - Down In A Hole (from their Unplugged album)
Recorded as part of their 1996 MTV Unplugged session, this stripped-down version of Dirt's Down In A Hole sees Alice In Chains at their most personal and emotive.
Its finger-picked minor chords and intertwined, gravely vocal lines are a flawless example of the power of more delicate and tender ends of '90s grunge.
Damien Rice - Cannonball
The charts have been bothered by quite a few earnest blokes with acoustic guitars durning the past decade or do, but when Damien Rice released his debut album, O, in 2002, he distinguished himself from them by actually having some decent songs.
Cannonball is the one that seems most likely to stand the test of time, despite Simon Cowell's best efforts to destroy it.
Queen - '39
Queen, and in particular Brian May, roll out the acoustics on this A Night At The Opera track.
It’s the sort of bass-drum pounding strummer that Mumford & Sons have built their entire career on, except it’s infinitely better than anything that lot have conjured thus far. So hooray for Brain May’s intricate knowledge of physics and Queen’s inability to restrict themselves to a single genre.
Oasis - Wonderwall
When Noel Gallagher jotted down the four chords that make up Wonderwall, little did he know that every beginner acoustic guitarist for the rest of time would start out strumming his song.
Probably the defining Oasis single, it’s the sound of Britpop unplugged and amazingly, despite its ubiquity, only managed to reach number 2 in the UK singles chart (kept off the top spot by I Believe / Up On The Roof by singing Soldier, Soldier blokes Robson & Jerome. Yep. That happened).
Neil Young - Needle And The Damage Done
Needle And The Damage done can be counted as a major cornerstone in the great lineage of touching acoustic songs written about the perils of heroin abuse. In this case, Young composed the song after witnessing the drug addiction of his Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten.
The recorded version of the song itself, which appeared first on Young's classic '72 album Harvest, comes from a live performance at UCLA's Royce Hall.
The Rolling Stones - Wild Horses
If you've ever tried to play this song and found that it doesn't sound quite like the original, it may be because Mick Taylor used Nashville tuning on his acoustic when he recorded it. Either that or you're not a very good guitarist - it's probably one of the two.
Apparently, sometime Stones ivory tinkler Ian Stewart refused to record the piano part because of his dislike of minor chords. It's a good job he wasn't in The xx.
Don McLean - American Pie
Forget Madonna's ill-advised cover (in fact, we apologise for reminding you of it) - Don McLean's original take on his acoustic opus will stand for all time as the definitive recording of it.
American Pie's lyrics have been analysed in all manner of quarters, but predictably, the best explanation of the song's meaning came from McLean himself. “It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to,” he's said to have quipped.
Simon And Garfunkel - The Boxer
Although its glistening, cascading guitar lines seem to float by as gently as a bubbling country stream, the recording of the The Boxer was anything but smooth. Over 100 hours of studio time in multiple facilities and cities were required to capture the intricate fingerpicked guitar parts played by Paul Simon and session man Fred Carter Jr.
Featured on Simon & Garfunkel’s swan song, Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Boxer begins as a lilting folk poem and builds to a shattering, thunderous conclusion. When it first appeared, it was widely assumed that the lyrics concerning a “poor boy” who arrives in New York City were about Bob Dylan. While Simon has gone on record as saying that the song is largely autobiographical, Dylan seemed to prefer the first explanation, as he covered The Boxer on his 1970 album, Self-Portrait.
James Taylor - Fire and Rain
A singer/songwriter standard, Fire and Rain touches on death, drug addiction and depression. It's testament to Taylor's skills as a tunesmith that he managed to turn these sombre themes into something so beautiful; listen out for Carole King on the piano, too.
Bob Dylan - The Times They Are A-Changin'
Doubtlessly one of Bob's finest moments; an anthem for a time of political and social upheaval. A perfect example of how to construct a classic song from nothing more than a handful of chords and a powerful sentiment.
Bob Marley - Redemption Song
An uncharacteristic ballad amongst the reggae icon's catalogue, Redemption Song is also something of an anomaly amongst Bob Marley songs as it features no musicians other than Bob himself on guitar and vocals.
Lyrically, the track is at once powerfully political - referencing a speech by Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey - as well intensely personal, touching on Marley's own mortality as he faced the cancer that would ultimately kill him a year later.
Radiohead - Paranoid Android
Whether you can call Paranoid Android a true acoustic song is perhaps debatable - after all, there are large sections of Radiohead's late-'90s epic that are notably noisy and electrified. Arguably, however, it's the track's acoustic-driven moments, which are at once tender and anthemic, that make it the classic that it surely is.
Neil Young - Heart Of Gold
Neil Young chalks up his biggest hit to the result of a back injury. Unable to stand for long periods of time and finding his electric guitars too heavy, Young found it easier to play acoustics while seated - Heart Of Gold is one of several gentle acoustic songs he wrote in 1971.
While the gentle folk-rock song, which featured three wheezy harmonica breaks, scored with audiences, hitting number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it failed to impress Bob Dylan, who said, “I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to Heart Of Gold. I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I'd say, ‘Shit, that's me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’”
Foo Fighters - Everlong (acoustic)
Although written on an acoustic, Everlong first appeared as a pummeling, unhinged full-band electric track on the Foo Fighters’ 1997 album, The Colour And The Shape. And that’s where its legacy might have stayed had Dave Grohl not performed an impromptu solo acoustic version of the song that same year on Howard Stern’s radio show.
A bravura one-off - Grohl’s urgently strummed guitar matches beautifully with the broken, plaintive yearning in his voice - the version became a sensation, with stations across the globe replaying and bootlegs flooding the market.
The Beatles - Here Comes The Sun
On 1968’s the White Album, George Harrison, penning such beauts as While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Piggies and Savoy Truffle, was giving John Lennon and Paul McCartney a serious run for their money. A year later, on Abbey Road, he damn near left them in the dust with gems like Something and the eternal ode to warm-weather optimism, Here Comes The Sun.
Harrison wrote the song in his friend Eric Clapton’s garden while playing hooky from attending Apple meetings. Breezy, sweet but not saccharine, and loaded with melodies, the track features multiple time signatures (4/4/, 7/8 and 11/8) and several different acoustic applications by Harrison, including one capoed at the 7th fret (resulting in the key of A major).
The Eagles - Hotel California (Unplugged)
It’s incredibly long, but let’s face it there is some mightily impressive guitar going on in this unplugged version of Eagles’ classic Hotel California.
From the Spanish style intro through to the tasteful solos, the only thing wrong with this is, arguably, the bongos. But we can get past that when the guitar playing is this good.
The Beatles - Blackbird
A solo acoustic-folk performance by Paul McCartney, with the Beatle gently plucking a moveable, two-finger pattern on a Martin D-28 that was inspired by Bouree In E Minor by Bach. The only other sounds on the track are McCartney keeping time by tapping his feet, and some soothing bird chirps that came courtesy of a sound effects collection.
Lyrically, McCartney wrote Blackbird as a response to the growing civil rights tensions in the United States. “'You were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people's struggle in the southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a blackbird,” McCartney said.
Guns N' Roses - Patience
Coming off the mega-doozy success of the hard-rocking Appetite For Destruction, Guns N’ Roses took a left turn and didn’t rock so much. On the EP G N’ R Lies, the band went acoustic on a number of cuts, such as the country-tinged, wise-acre-y Used To Love Her, but it was the somber, glacial-paced Patience, written by guitarist Izzy Stradlin, that racked up another smash for the fast-rising quintet.
Minus drummer Steven Adler (who appeared in the video but would soon be booted from the band), GN’R - Stradlin, Slash and Duff McKagan on acoustic guitars, with singer Axl Rose added piano – cut the haunting track in a single session.
Led Zeppelin - Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
A cover of a cover, Led Zeppelin included Joan Baez’s version of this heart-stopping Anne Bredon song on their debut album, whereupon it instantly entered the repertoire of a million bedroom strummers.
Incidentally, for an acoustic led song this rocks harder than it has any right to. Page’s playing is superb throughout, and if you ask us acoustic rock doesn’t get much better. Whoooooahbaby!
Eric Clapton - Layla (Unplugged)
Recorded after a period of personal tragedy, Clapton's Unplugged album ended up being one of the most successful of his career.
This stripped-down, rearranged version of Layla is one of the LP's highlights, though it's ironic to recall that it was this laidback performance that beat Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit to the Best Rock Song Grammy in 1992.
The Beatles - Yesterday
In early 1965, Paul McCartney woke up one morning with a melody in his head and the words “scrambled eggs” on his lips. “It was just there, a complete thing,” he has said about Yesterday, the bleak, aching take of regret that now ranks as one of the most-covered compositions in history (over 2,500 versions and counting).
At first, The Beatles tried recording the song as a band (one version had Lennon playing the organ), but nothing sounded right. Finally, producer George Martin suggested that McCartney perform the song solo on an Epiphone Texan steel-string acoustic. Afterwards, Martin convinced a reluctant McCartney to allow him to add a string quartet as backing.
The success of Yesterday had a profound musical impact on The Beatles, who would soon begin experimenting with different sounds, instruments and varying configurations of the band.