Wood and strings. In some ways, the acoustic guitar is not very complicated, especially compared with its electric brethren. Despite an entire universe of music built on trusty Les Pauls and Stratocasters, however, the acoustic guitar hasn’t become extinct. Sometimes you just have to power down. To quote the great Richard Thompson, “To stand up on a stage alone with an acoustic guitar requires bravery bordering on heroism. Bordering on insanity”. On the other hand, to quote the great Elliott Smith, “If you play acoustic guitar you’re the depressed, sensitive guy”. I’m good with sensitive, anyway.
Playing acoustic guitar live is flying without a net. It’s appearing totally in the nude. At a party. Where nobody’s drunk. Including you. But that’s what makes it so much fun. For your quieter, more contemplative moments, here are five acoustic guitar songs that demand to be heard:
1. Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals – “Two Hands of a Prayer”
Even with his gentle rock voice Ben Harper still manages to incorporate a rough, gritty edge to his varied strands of roots music, a music that incorporates folk, blues, soul, reggae, and a wide blend of related genres. A thrice-awarded Grammy winner, Harper even brushed up his blues bona-fides when he recorded an album with the great blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite. Something of a cult figure during the 1990’s, Harper was popular with everyone from the most hardened music critics to the most free-spirited college kids. His status in the music industry has steadily grown and he continues to be highly revered by fans both for his musical exploration as well as his social activism.
“Two Hands of a Prayer” appears on the album Burn to Shine (Virgin), recorded with his band The Innocent Criminals. Drawing on the sounds of blues and rock artists like Neil Young and Taj Mahal, Burn to Shine is a powerhouse singer-songwriter’s album that among its highlights features the rusty, rootsy and gutsy “Two Hands of a Prayer”. It has a haunting, otherworldly quality and lyrics that pierce the soul like “Am I the man I choose to be / Or just the man I used to be”.
2. Mumford & Sons – “I Will Wait”
These days it’s tough to get much bigger than Mumford & Sons. A British rock band dating back to 2007, the core four band members are Marcus Mumford on guitar – largely acoustic – and lead vocals, as well as handling studio drum duties, Ben Lovett on piano and keys, Winston Marshall on electric guitar and banjo, (yes, a rock band with lots and lots of banjo), and Ted Dwane handling the low end on bass guitar and upright bass. With 3 top three albums in both the US and UK, you can say that Mumford & Sons have had a pretty successful decade in music. They have won both the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and the Brit Award for Best British Group.
“I Will Wait” was the first single off of the band’s sophomore album Babel, and it has an almost-religious hue about it. The song is made of chiming banjo, an anthemic chorus with bold harmonies, kinetic acoustic guitar and a catharsis that includes a ringing wall of brass. “Well I came home / like a stone / and I fell heavy into your arms” the world-weary Mumford sings in his warm tones as the urgency of the rhythm carries you along into Mumford’s spellbinding acoustic groove.
3. Radiohead – “Exit Music (for a film)”
Radiohead has been called by Allmusic.com “a touchstone for everything that is fearless and adventurous in rock”. They have been compared favorably with Pink Floyd, and this is a sensible comparison. Radiohead just might be the Pink Floyd of the late 20th and early 21st century. They relentlessly and courageously innovate, rigorously evolve both sound and song, and are the very essence of what might be called progressive in rock music. Sometimes their rock music has even been questioned as the very status of it as rock at all. But rock it is in its very core, because rock music is more than just a style, or a sound. It is a soul, a spirit, and an ideal.
“Exit Music (for a Film)”, the fourth cut on their legendary third album OK Computer, is so-called due to the influence of Ennio Morricone, whose legendary scores include the films The Hateful Eight, Hamlet (1990 version), Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Untouchables. This ghostly, funereal track is driven by a simple b-minor acoustic guitar chord progression – they say b-minor is the saddest key – with synthetic background vocals and front man Thom Yorke’s tortured singing swelling to a fever pitch as he sings, “And now we are one in everlasting peace / we hope that you choke”. Savage, indeed.
4. Joe Bonamassa – “Woke Up Dreaming” (Acoustic Version)
Joe Bonamassa is not generally known as an acoustic player; in fact, he’s referred to the acoustic guitar as his kryptonite. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t extraordinary at playing the thing. I happen to be a huge partisan of Joe Bonamassa’s acoustic side and I’d love for him to play more acoustic or half-acoustic shows in the future. It is the roots of the blues after all, and the blues is Joe’s bread and butter.
“Woke Up Dreaming” is a mixture of wildly disparate elements that fuse together brilliantly. The song is equal parts Chris Whitley’s explosive volume and New Grass Revival bluegrass virtuosity, all built upon a more conservative blues structure. Exotic, dreamy acoustic melodies give way to voracious demon speed-picking. The song feels desperate, a denial of reality or a blurring of the line between wakefulness and the unconscious. It’s as though reality is collapsing around you, with Joe singing surrealistically, “Hard raining falling, river flood / Black cat bawling, moon dripping blood / Woke up dreaming I was gonna die”.
5. Ryan Adams – “I See Monsters”
Ryan Adams began his career as a member of the alternative-country band Whiskeytown but then launched a solo career in the late 1990’s. His most recent album was an alt-country / rock track-by-track cover of pop sensation Taylor Swift’s monster hit record 1989. Critical opinions on this seeming-novelty were mixed. The music blog Pitchfork felt bored, saying: “Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a lot of fun to think about and talk about, but not much fun to listen to… At its best, Swift’s 1989 crackles with life, while Adams has transformed it into… a run-of-the-mill Ryan Adams album.” At the other end of the spectrum, The Telegraph gave it a 5 star review, saying Adams’ rendering was, “a tender masterpiece of bruised Americana”.
“I See Monsters” from an earlier Ryan Adams release with the revealing title Love is Hell is a tender but melancholy ode to love amidst chaos and self-doubt, and the loss of peace in turbulent times. Its gently plucked acoustic guitar riff is so gossamer you’re afraid it might snap in half as Ryan Adams almost whispers, “Oh, people are screaming, people are screaming / My baby, she’s dreaming”. Straddling the genre-line between alternative-country and rock, the song is steeped in American roots with American problems on Adams’ mind. The evocative image is mining terrain that is easy to relate to – in a contemporary world filled with hardships like terrorism, natural disasters, and economic turmoil, can one shut out that world by embarking on a voyage into love or even into the recesses of one’s own subconscious mind? The song is a testament to the ability of a man, an acoustic guitar, and nothing else to powerfully invoke, meticulously describe and intricately explore contemporary living.
– Brian M. Reiser,