20 acoustic guitar playing frontmen
Anyone can plug in an electric and grab a crowd’s attention, but getting a room moving with an acoustic is an art all of its own.
It’s an art that Marcus Mumford, waistcoat-bothering strummer of public school folky types Mumford & Sons (who returned this week with second album Babel) has down pat, but he’s not the only one.
Rock and roll history is littered with front men who strapped on an acoustic to made the girls scream and the boys take notes. Here’s our look at twenty of best, with the guitars they played and a key song to cover…
Has an acoustic guitar ever looked as dangerous, or as downright desirable, as when the King first claimed his crown in the mid ‘50s? The template for every acoustic-slinging hip-swinging frontman ever since, Elvis was the first and, arguably, the best.
The guitar: Elvis broke through playing a battered Martin D-18 that he’d pounded the life out of and decorated with a set of stick-on letters.
Key cover: That’s Alright, released in the summer of 1954, is 1:57 of acoustic-driven alchemy. He did a great version at the ’68 Comeback Special too…
John Lennon (The Beatles)
When the world caught its first glimpse of John Lennon in 1962, he was wearing his round-shouldered Gibson. Hoisted up almost to his chin, Lennon’s distinctive approach to the acoustic was to colour many of The Beatles biggest hits.
The guitar: The Gibson J160E will forever be associated with The Beatles, and was played by both George and John.
Key cover: Julia, from 1968’s The Beatles (also known as The White Album) is full of interesting chords as well as being a beautiful song.
Noel Gallagher (Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds)
Ever since the earliest days of Oasis, Noel has been prone to perching on a stool and belting out a couple of tunes without the rest of the band. It’s a habit that he’s carried through to his post-Oasis project, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying birds.
The guitar: Nowadays, Noel is using a Martin D-28, although in the past he was particularly fond of Gibson J200s.
Key cover: Almost any of Oasis’ early b-sides sound fantastic on an acoustic, but for something a bit more current, What A Life from 2011’s self-titled album is a peach.
Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
Few rockers have had the longevity of Dave Grohl, and even fewer can convincingly make an acoustic guitar look like an authentic weapon of mass destruction. Foo Fighters fans the world over will attest to Big Dave’s skills with a well-deployed solo stum-a-thon.
The guitar: Unarguably the sexiest acoustic in Grohl’s arsenal is his black Gibson Elvis Dove.
Key cover: There are some fantastic unplugged Foos performances online, although none really beat Everlong, from 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. Drop D tuning is your friend here…
The Man In Black knew how a thing or two about making a guitar move. His early recordings with the Tennessee Two are testament to his inimitable ‘freight train’ style, a sound that served him well through his career.
The guitar: Generally a Martin man who favoured D-28s, Cash had his fair share of Gibsons, and also had a custom Martin D-35.
Key cover: Get Rhythm (1956) is perhaps the finest example of Cash’s raw talent in its early days, and a great song to practice that shuffling sound.
After proving he had chops on the electric guitar during his tenure with Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young went on to show off his formidable acoustic talents both in his solo career and with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The guitar: Young owns one of Hank Williams’ guitars, an old Martin D-28, which he still regularly plays.
Key cover: While both Heart Of Gold and The Needle And The Damage Done from Harvest (1972) are both open mic night regulars, try out Tell Me Why from After The Gold Rush (1970).
Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)
The mercurial frontman of arguably one of the greatest American bands of recent years, the mighty Wilco, Tweedy is no stranger to the acoustic guitar, have begun his career with alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo.
The guitar: Tweedy has been strumming away on a custom Breedlove Revival Series 000-R Deluxe Custom for some years now.
Key cover: Say you Miss Me, from Being There (1996) works well stripped back to a lone singer on an acoustic.
West London’s finest, Elvis Costello has been showing us all how it’s done since he first tore up the charts in 1977. Often to be found wielding an acoustic, it’s no surprise that one of the greatest living songwriters is fond of the odd strum.
The guitar: Generally to be found playing a Gibson, he’s also had his own Century Of Progress limited edition signature model.
Key cover: Blame It On Cain, from flawless 1977 debut My Aim Is True, is arguably even more powerful played unplugged.
Ray Davies (The Kinks)
While Muswell Hill’s finest export are probably best known for giving birth to distortion in early single You Really Got Me, many of their greatest records featured Ray Davies on an acoustic.
The guitar: In the ‘60s Davies played an eyecatching Fender acoustic, but these days is more often found sporting a bowl-backed Ovation.
Key cover: Shangri-La, from 1969 concept album Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire), is one of the greatest songs of the ‘60s and contains some great fingerpicking.
You might expect bisexual Earth-bound extraterrestrials to play some sort of space-oboe, but when David Bowie crashed onto Top Of The Pops with Starman in 1972, he was strumming a 12-string acoustic.
The guitar: Bowie’s very first TV performance, for 1969’s Space Oddiry, also featured a 12 string acoustic, a Hagstrom in that case.
Key cover: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust is incredibly satisfying to knock out on any acoustic, although if you can get your hands on a 12 string, it really sings.
From his earliest incarnation as a Woody Guthrie-aping folky, Dylan always knew how to make an acoustic sing. For all the uproar about his ‘going electric’, he never really left the acoustic guitar behind, and has led many a band while strumming at a trusty flattop.
The guitar: Generally a fan of smaller bodies Martins, he plays a smashing looking Gibson J200 on the cover of 1969’s Nashville Skyline.
Key cover: Almost any Dylan song sounds great unplugged, but if you’re feeling brave enough to play in drop C, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue is a corker.
Chris Martin (Coldplay
Love him or hate him (for there is no middle ground), Chris Martin enjoys thrashing away at an acoustic as much just as much as pining over a piano.
The guitar: Martin has been playing various customised Martins (funnily enough) on the Mylo Xyloto tour.
Key cover: Sparks, from Coldplay’s 2000 debut album Parachutes.
Damon Albarn (Blur)
While he’s more likely to be conducting an orchestra comprised of Norwegien nose flutists than playing Blur songs these days, the Britpop legend often picked up an acoustic during Blur sets.
The guitar: A Taylor endorsee, Albarn generally strums away on a GS Mini series.
Key cover: End Of A Century, from the seminal 1994 Parklife album, is perfect one-man strummer material.
Probably best known for being pictured looking glum in cars with beautiful women, Mayer is of course a supremely talented guitarist, and one who initially made his name with little more than an acoustic guitar and a fair voice.
The guitar: He’s recently announced a beautiful signature Martin OO-45 SC.
Key cover: The Heart Of Life, from 2006’s mega-selling Continuum, is great fun to play solo – all the more so if you can nail the fingerpicking and a time-keeping palm thump.
The ex-White Stripes front man may be more regularly found whipping up a bluesy storm with a thrift store electric, but he’s equally capable of making a beautiful racket unplugged.
The guitar: White has three custom Gretsch acoustics: the white and red ‘Rita Hayworth’, the orange and black Claudette Colbert, and the white and gold Veronica Lake.
Key cover: Hotel Yorba, the lead single from 2001’s White Blood Cells, is a three chord barnstormer.
Roger Daltrey (The Who)
The Who’s microphone-whirling singer has been playing a guitar since his band were called The High Numbers, and still picks up an acoustic to this day.
The guitar: Daltrey has had a varied acoustic history, but most frequently plays a gorgeous Gibson Everley Brothers jumbo these days.
Key cover: Behind Blue Eyes, from Who’s Next, remains one of Peter Townshend’s best songs.
Thom Yorke (Radiohead)
Regularly feted as the best band in the world, Radiohead are equally adept making subtle acoustic tracks as they are genre-bending experiments in sounds. Thom Yorke is a fine acoustic player, and an inspiring one at that.
The guitar: He’s played a number of Takamines, Gibsons and Martins, and for a long time favoured a black Yairi DY-88.
Key cover: Paranoid Android, from Ok Computer (1997) will make a man of you, especially if you can nail the vocal too.
Bruce Springsteen (The E Street Band)
The Boss doesn’t mess around; whether he’s striding stadium stages with his familiar blonde Telecaster or reworking one of his (many) hits for the acoustic, he’s one of the finest rock and roll showmen out there.
The guitar: Alongside various Gibsons, Springsteen is also a Takamine fan, regularly performing with an EF341SC.
Key cover: Thunder Road, ideally played with a harmonica and acoustic, reminds you why Springsteen drew so many comparisons to Dylan early on in his career.
Robert Smith (The Cure)
When The Cure released their greatest hits in 2001, they included an 18 track bonus dicsc of the same songs played acoustically. Turns out Robert Smith really knows how to work an acoustic…
The guitar: A Schecter endorsee, Smith uses his signature RS-1000.
Key cover: 1983 single The Love Cats is a lot of fun to play, especially if you an find a bass player to join you and pick out that irresistible bass line.
Paul Weller (The Jam)
The Modfather has always been a fan of trying things out unplugged. After all, That’s Entertaiment, one of The Jams biggest hits, was an acoustic number, and his 2001 live album Days Of Speed was an entirely acoustic affair.
The guitar: More often that not, Weller plays a battle-proven Gibson J45.
Key cover: With a beautiful chord progression and a love-sick lyric, English Rose (from 1978’s All Mod Cons) is hard to resist.