50 Classic Acoustic Rock Songs
Whether you began on an electric or an acoustic guitar, there's no doubt the latter will eventually find its way into your hands at some point.
The nature of the acoustic guitar's efficiency (no amp!) makes it a commonality among players, collectors and dorm-room guys looking to impress girls. Even the most devout shredder will be tempted to noodle on a dreadnought—particularly in front of the aforementioned girls.
Despite the advent of the electric guitar in the early fifties, the acoustic guitar has remained a prominent force in rock and roll. If there were any doubt, check out the 50 classic acoustic rockers listed below. These are tried-and-true numbers all anchored around the acoustic guitar.
Some are radio staples, some are wedding fixtures and all are just good fun to play. So if you haven't dusted off that sprucetop in a while, give a few of these tunes a listen. You'll be strumming—and probably crooning—along in no time.
“Mrs. Robinson” Simon and Garfunkel (THE GRADUATE, 1968)
Long before anyone uttered the acronym MILF, there was Mrs. Robinson, the predatory housewife in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Simon & Garfunkel added Joe DiMaggio and Jesus to the mix, and their recording offers two guitar models — a straight strum in the left channel, and some hammer-ons and bluesy string-bending in the right.
“The Weight” The Band (MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, 1968)
This delightful shaggy dog story is one of the few works of any kind in English in which the phrase “take a load off” is meant literally. Robbie Robertson’s classic is memorable both for the mileage and the descending progression at the end of the chorus.
“Rocky Raccoon” The Beatles (THE BEATLES, 1968)
This McCartney-penned tune, sung with Liverpudlian tongue-in-cheek to the accompaniment of cowboy chords, was originally called “Rocky Sassoon.” Had they stuck with that title, we would have a saga of a butch London hairdresser instead of a sad tale of a jealous, gun-toting South Dakotan.
“For What It’s Worth” Buffalo Springfield (BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD, 1967)
One of the things that makes this such an evergreen protest song is that you can’t quite tell from the lyrics just what Stephen Stills is protesting. But there’s no mistaking the menacing power of that three-chord chorus.
“Yesterday” The Beatles (HELP, 1965)
The first solo performance by a member of the Fab Four—no one but Paul McCartney and a string quartet appear on the recording — this lovely ballad is a perfect vehicle for Paul’s somewhat quirky but supremely effective picking style.
“The Boxer” Simon and Garfunkel (BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER, 1970)
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” may have been the bigger hit, but this is the best song on the album, masterfully combining musical ingenuity with incisive, uncorny storytelling. And the guitar parts — the cascading intro and the now-iconic accompaniment — are no less brilliant.
“Teach Your Children” Crosby, Stills and Nash (DÉJA VU, 1970)
This hippie celebration of family values was written long before David Crosby donated his robust sperm to Melissa Etheridge and her wife. But it boasts Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, and matches the sweet vocal harmonies with a sly, simple strum.
“Across the Universe” The Beatles (LET IT BE, 1970)
One of Lennon’s most beautifully idiosyncratic Beatles songs, this starts with a soaring doublestop melodic intro. Remember to let the rhythm follow the steady pulse of the vocal, and don’t try to imitate the David Bowie cover.
“Uncle John’s Band” Grateful Dead (WORKINGMAN’S DEAD, 1970)
The original album version of this song had more in common with CSN than with the 45 jams it inspired a few decades later. And what great guitar parts — the barre chord rhythm and Jerry Garcia’s snaking solo lines will take you home.
“Folsom Prison Blues" Johnny Cash (THE SUN YEARS, 1956)
He “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” making this officially the granddaddy of all bad-ass rock songs. But what really makes it work is that it’s delivered in utter deadpan, from Cash’s chunk-a-chunk rhythm acoustic to his gravelly croon.
“Midnight Rider” The Allman Brothers Band (IDLEWILD SOUTH, 1970)
Because Gregg Allman’s impassioned vocal so dominates the performance, it’s easy to overlook what a great acoustic guitar tune this is, with that ominous six-note riff providing a nice, bluesy groove without actually locking into the predictability of the blues.
“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Creedence Clearwater Revival (PENDULUM, 1970)
John Fogerty was forever asking questions about the rain — Have you ever seen it? Who’ll stop it? — yet the songs remain vital. With its insistent strumming and the contrast between Fogerty’s sweet melody and raw, impassioned delivery, this song is the perfect gentle storm.
“Lola” The Kinks (LOLA VS. POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND, PART 1, 1970)
In what may be rock’s first “don’t ask, don’t tell” love song, Ray Davies drops hints about what Lola may or may not be, but lets us decide how to take the line, “I’m glad I’m a man/ And so is Lola.” Great fun to play, though, especially the “Lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-la” chorus.
“Wild Horses” The Rolling Stones (STICKY FINGERS, 1971)
Recorded with the mentorial guidance of Gram Parsons during the Stones’ early Seventies infatuation with country rock, this ballad trades the open-tuned thunk of their country blues for a rich wall of acoustic 12-string sound. Best moment: the Am-C-D progression in the chorus.
“Maggie May” Rod Stewart (EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY, 1971)
Undoubtedly the last time Rod Stewart expressed interest in an older woman, “Maggie May” is a classic acoustic rocker with a terrific interlocking 12-string guitar-and-mandolin hook. Not to be overlooked is the brilliant, English trad-style fingerpicked nylon-string intro by Martin Quittenton.
“Working Class Hero” John Lennon (JOHN LENNON PLASTIC ONO BAND, 1970)
Perhaps the greatest all-purpose sneer in rock history, this finds Lennon putting down himself, his fame, his country and his audience — all while delivering a wonderful flatpicked accompaniment which, harmonically, is suspiciously similar to the theme song from Gilligan’s Island.
“Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin (IV, 1971)
Yes, we saw the “No ‘Stairway’ ” sign in Wayne’s World. And no, it’s not exactly easy pickin’. But if every guitarist in the world can play this, shouldn’t you? Besides, if you’re lucky, somebody will ask you to stop after the first arpeggio.
“Take It Easy” The Eagles (THE EAGLES, 1972)
Gram Parsons may have laid the foundation, but the Eagles built the towering, if ultimately saccharine, edifice of country rock, and it all starts here. Although the arrangement is packed with vocal harmonies and instrumental hooks, the song is lean enough to work with a simple, strummed guitar.
“Walk on the Wild Side” Lou Reed (TRANSFORMER, 1972)
Reed’s cavalcade of Warhol “super- stars” have long since passed from cutting edge culture to the realm of quaint curiosities, and the line about the “colored girls” is cringe inducing. But the groove is evergreen, and totally defined by Reed’s acoustic.
“Ziggy Stardust" David Bowie (THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS, 1972)
Ziggy played guitar, and as such most fans of this classic rock myth focus on Mick Ronson’s electric, right from the tweeting opening riff. Listen closely, however, and you’ll hear Bowie’s acoustic shadowing Ronson’s intro as well as laying out the bones of the song.
“American Pie” Don McLean (AMERICAN PIE, 1971)
Sure, the Sixties imagery seems a bit hoary now, and McLean’s notion that rock and roll died with Buddy Holly is beyond laughable. But there’s no denying the melodic momentum of the tune itself. And if those Chevys and levees are too much for you to take, you can always sing Weird Al Yankovic’s lyrics instead.
“Jack and Diane” John Mellencamp (AMERICAN FOOL, 1982)
Call it faux Springsteen if you like, but Mellencamp (then known as John Cougar) gets this slice of Americana just right — not quite as grandiose as the protagonists see it, but not specially small-scale, either. Strum big, strum proud.
“Dust In the Wind” Kansas (POINT OF KNOW RETURN, 1977)
Despite the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure profundity of the lyric, this is one of the great moments of Seventies prog. Never has a pretty Travis pick sounded so maudlin — and been so much fun to play.
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” Queen (THE GAME, 1980)
This was Queen’s biggest hit for a good reason — it respects rockabilly even as it sends it up. Freddie Mercury certainly understood camp, so it’s worth noting when he didn’t use it. Play it straight and you’ll play it well.
“Night Moves” Bob Seger (NIGHT MOVES, 1976)
Because Seger downplays the arrangement to emphasize the vocal, it’s easy to overlook how hard — if quietly — the guitar part rocks. Performance tip: Unless you want to sound especially ancient, you may want to update that “song from 1962” reference.
“All Apologies" Nirvana (MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK, 1994)
The Unplugged version of this mournful mea culpa doesn’t just eliminate the amplification—it truly strips the song to its essence, highlighting the vocals and reducing most of the guitar parts to a simple, repeating eighth-note bass figure. For best results, get a Martin D-18E acoustic and a ratty green sweater.
“Landslide” Fleetwood Mac (FLEETWOOD MAC, 1975)
Perhaps because he started out as a banjo player, Lindsay Buckingham has a real affinity for fancy picking. But not everything he does is difficult to play, and this meditation on age and regret requires little more than basic Travis picking.
“Wish You Were Here” Pink Floyd (WISH YOU WERE HERE, 1975)
Sounding like an echo from the past (and appropriately so), the riff that opens this song is a textbook exercise in building tension by refusing to resolve a chord progression— which makes it as much fun as the bluesy improv that answers it. Light show optional.
“Tangled Up in Blue” Bob Dylan (BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, 1975)
What keeps this picaresque saga of rogue hearts and wanderers moving isn’t just Dylan’s narrative (one of the highlights of his mid-Seventies second wind), but also his delightfully busy rhythm guitar part, which varies strum patterns and chords often enough to create an illusion of perpetual motion.
“Ooh La La” The Faces (OOH LA LA, 1973)
A rollicking evocation of the days when showing a bit of leg was considered naughty, this is one of the few rock songs that actually sounds better when performed slightly drunk and out-of-tune — the way the Faces played it.
“Squeeze Box” The Who (THE WHO BY NUMBERS, 1975)
Not only does this boast the hottest banjo solo in the Who catalog, it also carries its strangest sexual metaphor (if “squeezebox” means what you think it does, why does mama wear it on her chest?). Great fun, though, especially the chiming intro.
“A Horse With No Name” America (AMERICA, 1972)
A song that everybody knows and nobody understands, “A Horse with No Name” stands as proof that a couple chords and a good melody sung with a straight Neil Young face can overcome even the most obscure lyric.
“Heart of Gold” Neil Young (HARVEST, 1972)
There’s such an air of mournful fatalism in Young’s voice that the underlying hope in this quest for human kindness is almost heartbreaking. Maybe that’s what makes it feel like such a country classic—that, and the wonderful, pounding acoustic guitar that telegraphs the song’s underlying desperation.
“The Joker” Steve Miller (THE JOKER, 1973)
Built around an all-purpose bass and guitar line, “The Joker” is packed with allusions to r&b oldies and Miller’s own back catalog, and once had millions wondering what on earth “the pompatus of love” might be. Now it’s the rock song Homer Simpson is most likely to sing. That’s progress for you.
“Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” Paul Simon (PAUL SIMON, 1972)
The song never does tell us what it was that the mama saw, but that’s one of Simon’s tricks. The other is to make a Buddy Holly-style rhythm guitar part seem magically Latin thanks to a little syncopation and a bit of cuica.
“Margaritaville” Jimmy Buffett (CHANGES IN LATITUDES, CHANGES IN ATTITUDES, 1977)
You don’t have to be a parrothead to appreciate this tribute to hot weather and cold beverages, but you do need to remember that it takes some practice to sound both ready to party and totally laid back. You may want to use that umbrella in your drink to strum the chords.
“Give a Little Bit” Supertramp (EVEN IN THE QUIETEST MOMENTS, 1977)
Forget the fact that this was the soundtrack to a Gap commercial some years ago; its four-chord opening probably did more for 12-string sales than any song since “Wild Horses.” Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson had a knack for mixing prog, rock and pop, and this might be the most infectiously catchy of all their hits.
“Only the Good Die Young” Billy Joel (THE STRANGER, 1977)
Yes, he’s the piano man, but this is one Billy hit that’s driven by a phalanx of rhythm guitars, acoustic and electric. The lyrics may be hackneyed and the arrangement little more than Springsteen for Dummies, but the melody more than makes up for it — even if you don’t have a sax section handy.
“My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” Neil Young (RUST NEVER SLEEPS, 1979)
Written when punk rock was still scarily romantic, this is Young’s celebration of making one great noise and then disappearing—career advice he clearly hasn’t followed himself. Still, it’s a resonant gesture, and Young manages to make the simple bass run-and-strum accompaniment rock like a hurricane.
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” Green Day (NIMROD, 1997)
Sensitive guys? Hardly. But even as they sneer at cornball emotion, Green Day can’t help but give in to the lure of a sweet melody and an acoustic guitar. Being punks, of course, they flatpick the arpeggios, but manage to make it sound like finger-picking anyway.
“Blister In the Sun” Violent Femmes (VIOLENT FEMMES, 1982)
A perfect example of how one great song can sustain an entire career, “Blister In the Sun” somehow manages to enthrall listeners who weren’t even born when this busker’s masterpiece was first committed to vinyl. The bass line is key; master that, and the rest barely matters.
“Redemption Song” Bob Marley (UPRISING, 1980)
Probably the most Dylanesque of Marley’s songs, this actually seems bloated when performed with more than a single acoustic. That’s probably because the simple, sad-sounding intro foreshadows Marley’s incredibly empathetic lyric and vocal.
“She Talks To Angels” The Black Crowes (SHAKE YOUR MONEY MAKER, 1990)
In this tragic ballad in open E, the Robinson brothers, so often accused of merely aping the best classic rock bands, succeed in channeling both the Allmans and the Stones in the service of something genuinely new. And that opening strummed riff is positively addicting.
“Free Fallin’ ” Tom Petty (FULL MOON FEVER, 1989)
Who says you need amps and distortion to sell a riff? “Free Fallin’” hammers its melody home by way of a simple three-chord hook that rings all the way from Gainesville, Florida, to Ventura Blvd. It’s also further proof that a good deadpan can be a singer’s best friend.
“Soak Up The Sun” Sheryl Crow (C’MON, C’MON, 2002)
The lead guitar may call for some fancy pickin’, but the rhythm part requires little more than a four-on-the-floor strum, and sounds great on a 12-string. Be sure to belt the chorus — heartbreak has never sounded as much fun as it does here.
“Crash Into Me” The Dave Matthews Band (CRASH, 1996)
First you’ll be surprised by the uncharacteristically suggestive nature of the lyrics. Then you’ll notice that the man who conquered the guitar world with his funky, complex rhythm playing can drone and jangle open strings with the best of ’em.
“Wonderwall” Oasis ([WHAT’S THE STORY] MORNING GLORY?, 1995)
Oasis do anthems better than anything else (with the possible exception of fighting among themselves), and this is their finest, a grand, majestically strummed evocation of rock and roll dreams fueled by a relentless, almost accusatory verse and the sort of refrain that demands a sing-along.
“All Along the Watchtower” Bob Dylan (JOHN WESLEY HARDING, 1968)
This classic three-chord rocker is better known through Jimi Hendrix’s jammy rendition, and electric guitarists tend to play this entirely with barre chords. But Dylan’s acoustic original, featuring Charlie McCoy’s bouncing bass and some of Bob’s best harmonica work ever, is perhaps even more portentous.
“Wanted Dead or Alive" Bon Jovi (SLIPPERY WHEN WET, 1986)
With an introductory riff that is almost as iconic as the opening section of “Stairway to Heaven” and an over-the-top rock-star-as-cowboy theme, this song separates these New Jersey men from the boys. Richie Sambora plays the Sundance Kid to Jon Bon Jovi’s Butch Cassidy.
"Over the Hills and Far Away" Led Zeppelin (HOUSES OF THE HOLY, 1973)
Spend a little time at your local guitar store and you may be surprised to hear more shoppers noodling on this celebrated riff from Zep's fifth album than "Stairway to Heaven." Whether that's a result of all the No 'Stairway' signs or the melody's innate elegance doesn't matter; this is just a great tune.