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When guitar gods go acoustic: Page, Van Halen, Hendrix and more

(Image credit: YouTube)

One of the most enchanting things about the electric guitar is its ability to morph and create a nearly infinite world of sounds, textures and aural colors. Distorted, caterwauling salvos of fire and brimstone? Check. Oscillating psychedelic atmospheres? Absolutely! Chiming jangle? For sure. Faux synthesizer bleeps and bloops? Why the hell not?

Regardless of what it may be that gets you off as a player, what sound a song might call for or what emotions you’re attempting to evoke with your playing, crafting inspiring sounds through the proverbial tone quest is a lifelong trip for most electric guitarists.

There’s nothing as humbling as playing with absolutely nothing to hide behind other than your touch and ideas

Creating a unique voice through the limitless nuance of the electric guitar is also a major part of defining a player’s musical personality. Yes, the electric guitar, with its infinite tonal variables and accessories, can even make an average player sound truly massive - which is why it can be so unbelievably interesting to see what happens a legendary electric player picks up an acoustic guitar. 

Who are they as a player without the shock and awe of big volume and a palette of signature effects? What becomes of the stylists that have defined their voice as guitarist through dramatic bent notes, whammy bar heroics and emotive vibrato?

The acoustic guitar is indeed the great equalizer and as anyone that’s jumped from a Les Paul or Strat to a classic Martin dreadnought knows firsthand, there’s nothing as humbling (or often refreshing) as playing with absolutely nothing to hide behind other than your touch and ideas. With that in mind, here are some of the most inspiring moments of legendary electric guitar gods dazzling on an acoustic.  

Prince - Cream

Despite the fact that his incredible songs and beyond over-the-top showmanship sometimes overshadowed his instrumental prowess, Prince was known to be an absolute killer on every instrument he touched, but it was obvious that his passion for the guitar superseded them all.

While his electric playing gave us iconic hot licks like the lead on Bambi, the finger-busting triplet bridge on Computer Blue and the career-defining solo section of Purple Rain, Prince was just as at home on an acoustic guitar.

This stripped-down performance of the impossibly funky track Cream, from 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls, proves that even when armed with just an acoustic guitar and a microphone, Prince was a master musician in every sense of the word. Dig those funky rhythm stabs and rockabilly licks!

Jimi Hendrix - Hear My Train A Comin’

Hendrix’s electric guitar playing was beyond revolutionary and surely needs no introduction to Guitar World’s readership, but this rare clip shows just how incredible the man could be in an intimate setting, laying down the blues of Hear My Train a Comin’ on a cumbersome 12 string acoustic.

Even without any feedback to conjure or a whammy bar to wrestle with, Jimi’s style and nuance shines through brilliantly. Maybe it really is all in the fingers after all?

Jimmy Page - The Rain Song

This song is one of the gentlest moments in the Led Zeppelin catalog and is arguably the prototypical example of loud bands doing soft tunes. While Jimmy Page’s playing on The Rain Song is delicate, wholly in the service of the song and void of any obvious heroics, this track contains a heap of tricky touches and clever guitar bits that flex both Page’s dynamic touch and brilliance as an instrumental hooksmith.

On this particular performance, taken from Page and Plant’s 1994 No Quarter performance with the London Metropolitan Orchestra, the King of low-slung Les Pauls uses a lovely vintage Martin D-28 to provide a lush foundation and delicate counterpoint to Plant’s beautiful vocal melody. Keep an eye on that right hand to catch some masterful hybrid picking! 

Eddie Van Halen - Spanish Fly

There are scant few moments of acoustic guitar to be found throughout the Van Halen catalog, but you better believe that one of the most important and progressive guitarists of all time still sounded exactly like himself without the aid of Marshalls, a locking trem or effects. Spanish Fly from the group’s second LP is a minute long gentle blitzkrieg of Latin-tinged linear shredding, two-handed tapping and bell like harmonics - all played on a nylon string acoustic and captured with a single mic.

Not only is Spanish Fly a rare instance of EVH unfiltered and ripping on an acoustic, it’s the perfect intermezzo before the hard rock meltdown of DOA, the track it precedes on Van Halen II.

Steve Stevens - Flamenco Solo 

Billy Idol’s guitar wizard and partner in crime, Steve Stevens, is best known for his burning electric guitar work, creative use of effects and signature ray gun sounds, but the flash rocker has a deep history with the acoustic guitar and is a lifelong student of the flamenco tradition.

When Stevens worked with Vince Neil on his solo album Exposed, they toured that album in support of Van Halen. When confronted with what he’d do for a mid-set guitar feature, and knowing that EVH would be playing the archetype-defining solo electric guitar feature Eruption shortly after each night, Stevens opted to put his impressive acoustic chops to work and take the opposite path by placing a jaw-dropping acoustic feature in the middle of a high intensity hard rock set.

Stevens’ flamenco-based features have since become a crowd-pleasing staple moment during all Billy Idol gigs.