The 25 Greatest Acoustic Songs in Hard Rock
Slash might've said it best: "There's no lying with the acoustic guitar. There's something very pure, and very humbling, about it."
A profound statement coming from one of rock 'n' roll's most celebrated electric guitarists.
But strip away all the muck of multi-layered overdubs, rack effects and endless symphonies of tracks, and you separate the dodgers hiding behind studio wizardry and the artists who know a great song only needs six strings and a melody.
Here are 25 of hard rock's best acoustic rockers. Some are pure acoustic jams, others only start out out that way before ascending into grand opuses. But what makes these songs iconic is their elemental simplicity. In other words, all you need to bring them to life is an acoustic guitar and a little feeling.
And from the looks of these rockers, some gaudy jewelry helps. Note that these songs are not presented in any particular order.
"STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN," LED ZEPPELIN
Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
Led Zeppelin III was largely an unplugged affair, but "Stairway to Heaven," from the band's follow-up, wins the prize for acoustic guitar excellence. Jimmy Page's delicately fingerpicked arpeggios made the song Zeppelin's-and rock's-definitive acoustic moment. Over the years, "Stairway to Heaven" has dominated countless "greatest rock song ever" lists, thanks to its spellbinding mix of lyrical mysticism, compositional and production genius and instrumental virtuosity. But its most celebrated moment remains Page's unaccompanied intro: whether heard on a radio or played by some pimply kid in a guitar store, all it takes is those first few acoustic guitar notes and you can instantly name that tune.
"MORE THAN A FEELING," BOSTON
Tom Scholz's soaring leads (recorded with an early version of his Rockman amp unit) and crunchy, multi-tracked electric guitar rhythms have more than a little to do with "More Than a Feeling" becoming one of classic rock's most enduring anthems. But it is the song's lilting, arpeggiated acoustic intro that puts fans in the mood. Working as something of a one-man band in his basement, Scholz, one of music's first DIY dudes, played all the guitar parts on "Feeling." For the arpeggiated intro and verses, he used a Yamaha 12-string; the more fully strummed choruses called for a Guild D-40. A bit of trivia: Noting the similarities between "More Than a Feeling" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Kurt Cobain teased fans at Nirvana's 1992's Reading Festival performance with a few bars of the Boston classic.
"DUST IN THE WIND," KANSAS
Point of Know Return (1977)
When Vicci Livgren overheard her husband, Kansas guitarist Kerry, practicing finger exercises on his acoustic one day, she told him she heard a song there and suggested he add some lyrics. He listened, and the result was "Dust in the Wind." A departure from Kansas' characteristic prog-rock bombast, "Dust in the Wind" was a stark, plaintive meditation on the meaning of life. While many assume that the track features a 12-string acoustic, the rich unplugged sound is actually the result of multiple six-strings (a few in Nashville tuning), played by Livgren and co-guitarist Rich Williams. The song became Kansas' only Top-10 single, charting at Number Six in 1978. In the years since, it has become something of a cultural touchstone, popping up everywhere from TV shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy to movies like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Old School.
"STREET FIGHTING MAN," THE ROLLING STONES
Beggars Banquet (1968)
One might assume this rebel yell, released during the tumultuous summer of 1968, would rage with the sound of electric guitars. Not so: with the exception of an electric bass, played by Keith Richards, the track is 100 percent acoustic. Preparing a demo for the song, Richards miked two acoustics and recorded them into a cheap Phillips mono cassette recorder. The guitarist was so enamored of the resulting distortion (the machine had no limiters, causing the signal to overload) he decided to go au naturale and ditch the electrics.
"PINBALL WIZARD," THE WHO
By 1969, Pete Townshend was known as much for smashing guitars as for playing them. But on the Who's ground breaking Tommy, he demonstrated some astonishing six-string skills. And with an acoustic in his hands (check out "It's a Boy" for some deft blues-meets-flamenco work), he was unstoppable. Although electrics bolster the verses and choruses of the album's centerpiece, "Pinball Wizard," a 1968 Gibson J-200 acoustic is the dominant instrument throughout. Townshend's furiously strummed barre chords (which he deemed "mock baroque"), heard in the intro and breakdown section, provide the kind of power and majesty befitting a genuine rock opera.