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!
25. 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.
24. 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.
23. Alice In Chains - Down In A Hole (Unplugged)
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.
22. 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.
21. 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.
20. Queen - Love Of My Life
A testament to what can be achieved with nothing more than a voice and a guitar, Love Of My Life is Queen at their most intimate.
Freddie’s performance here is vulnerable, hurt and hopeful all at once - and then there’s the guitar work. Brian May’s playing is nothing short of majestic, the perfect accompaniment to a perfect vocal.
19. John Lennon - Working Class Hero
Sweary John, angry John, Dylan-channeling, three-chords and an acoustic John, is the best version of Lennon post-Beatles, if you ask us (which you didn’t, but there you have it).
A scathing dismantling of the class system with a biting vocal, there’s something incredibly pure about Working Class Hero. And John drops the f-bomb, which is always exciting.
18. 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.
17. 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).
16. Radiohead - Fake Plastic Trees
Ah, Thom Yorke, with your concerns about capitalism and your emotive singing, you really are a wonderful human being.
Now, Fake Plastic Trees builds into something altogether not acoustic, but that doesn’t stop it being one of those songs that’s endlessly pleasurable to play solo. And top marks to anyone who can hit those high notes, for you are a better singer than MusicRadar.
15. Nick Drake - Pink Moon
It’s impossible to untangle the enigma of Nick Drake’s life from the music of the man, but Pink Moon bears its mythic resonances lightly. It showcases Drake’s gift for ear-catching chord progressions, his unique tunings, and his uncanny way with a melodic line that nagged at you for days.
A huge talent that was taken too soon.
14. John Martyn - May You Never
May You Never is the sound of a tough man with a bruised heart, which is about as complete a description of John Martyn as we can summon.
A complex individual and phenomenal talent capable of infinite emotional depth, Martyn was uniquely qualified to deliver May You Never, a beautifully played piece of world-weary advice from a man who knew a thing or two about making mistakes.
13. 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.
12. 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.
11. Extreme - More Than Words
Go on, admit it, you’ve played this at a party. It’s okay; everybody has.
Sickly sweet, almost annoyingly simple and yet somehow impossible to resist, it’s a mark of just how ridiculous Extreme actually were that More Than Words came from an album subtitled ‘A Funked Up Fairytale’, but we forgive them.
More Than Words guarantee them immortality and we can’t help but like it, even after all the times we’ve heard it brutalised.
10. 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.’”
9. 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).
8. Led Zeppelin - Going To California
Tell you what, that Led Zeppelin, they weren’t bad were they? Going To California is a lovely wistful little jaunt, Jimmy Page merrily plucking his little heart out all the while.
There’s open tunings, mandolins, more twang than you can shake a twangy stick at, and that rarest of things: a restrained Robert Plant vocal. Good work, lads - we think you’ll go far.
7. 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.
6. The Smiths - Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want
Oh Steven, you poor thing. Is this the very saddest of all Smiths songs? Yes, we rather think it is.
Morrissey’s vocal positively aches, and Johnny Marr’s arrangement barely lifts its head to peek up at a no-doubt drizzly Manchester sky. Short, bittersweet and beguiling, this is miserablism done right.
5. Johnny Cash - Hurt
There haven’t been many artists that could put their stamp on a song like Johnny Cash could, and by god when he covered Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt it stayed stamped.
By 2002, the familiar rumbling Cash bass-baritone wasn’t the beast it had been, but it’s the fragility and faded strength in the vocal that gives Hurt its power.
Throw in a positively biblical Rick Rubin arrangement and you’re looking at a career-defining performance from a then 70-year-old Cash. A fitting epitaph to a mighty career.
4. 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.
3. Eric Clapton - Tears In Heaven
Considering the tragic circumstances surrounding this song, it’s hard to understand how Eric ever playing it to anybody at all, never mind recorded and toured it.
Instantly iconic upon release and endlessly mangled at open mic nights, Tears In Heaven is rightfully in the top tier of Clapton classics.
Arguably, the studio recording is trumped by the Unplugged version, but either way it’s one of old Slowhand’s best.
2. 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.
1. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
Here it is, the top of the acoustic pops as voted for by you, the great MusicRadar readers. And what a classic you chose.
A powerful lament for poor old Syd Barrett, Wish You Were Here showcases Pink Floyd in all their post-Dark Side Of The Moon pomp. It's a towering tribute to a fallen comrade, and one that deservedly sits atop of this particular poll.