The acoustic guitar has always served as the foundation for a wildly diverse array of tunes—from pop-rock classics to modern-day masterpieces. For one thing, acoustic guitars naturally lend themselves to the more subtle forms of popular music’s repertoire—folky, soulful, moderately paced and almost ballad-like song structures. For another, they provide artists with more dynamic headroom, maximizing a musician’s ability to fluctuate between loud and soft volumes, while offering a wider range of sonic possibilities.
Here, we take a look at a cross-section of acoustic guitar tracks from rock’s classic era—from the Beatles to Boston to Bon Jovi and beyond. Check out our top 10 picks—and let us know what you’d put on your list.
“Here Comes the Sun”
The Beatles—Abbey Road
It’s impossible to escape the influence of the Beatles music. Then again, why would you want to?
From their first recordings in the early Sixties to their official breakup in 1970, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr gave us nearly a decade of musical milestones, including a slew of important acoustic-driven pieces. Among the best of them, “And I Love Her,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Yesterday” and “Blackbird.”
No collection of inspired acoustic guitar riffs would be complete without their timeless classic “Here Comes the Sun.” The opening cut from Side 2 of the Beatles’ final studio effort, Abbey Road, “Here Comes the Sun” has come to be regarded as one of the most finely polished acoustic gems the band ever produced, due in large part to the evolved compositional craftmanship of its writer, Harrison. His signature intro figure is played pick-style with a capo across the 7th fret and involves D, G and A7 chord shapes.
(Note: The Beatles’ label has been removing all Beatles-related content from YouTube, so we instead present this excellent version of the track, featuring Harrison and Badfinger’s Pete Ham, from the Concert for Bangladesh.)
“Fire and Rain”
James Taylor—Sweet Baby James
Aside from the obvious musical contributions the Beatles made, in 1968 they did the world another favor and signed a young man by the name of James Taylor to their own label, Apple Records. Taylor released his first album on Apple that same year. While this first recording showcased his trademark fingerstyle approach in an earthy folk-pop setting, Taylor didn’t become a household name until his second album, Sweet Baby James, was released in 1970 on Warner Bros. Spearheaded by the track “Fire and Rain,” which reached Number Three on the charts, the album put the spotlight on Taylor’s commanding acoustic guitar presence.
Like many of Taylor’s tunes, this one requires a capo at the 3rd fret and involves the delicate fingerstyle articulation of several open-position chord shapes, spruced up with hammered-on and pulled-off embellishments. The video below is from Taylor himself and offers a revealing two-camera view of his fretting and picking hands on this classic tune.
“Stairway to Heaven”
Jimmy Page is one of rock music’s ultimate riff masters. Equally adept at creating arresting electric and acoustic guitar textures, his work with Led Zeppelin exhibited the type of wild abandon often associated with Jimi Hendrix, the passion and grit of a seasoned bluesman, and the sensitivity of a folk musician. Leave it to Page to pool this diverse array of influences and create one of the most influential acoustic-fingerstyle passages ever, the intro to “Stairway to Heaven.” Released in 1971, “Stairway to Heaven” is set in motion by Page’s plucking and a haunting recorder performance by bassist John Paul Jones.
The Rolling Stones—Goat’s Head Soup
The Stones were around for over a decade before they penned one of the all-time greatest acoustic ballads, “Angie” Rumored to have been inspired by Angie Bowie, ex-wife of David Bowie, “Angie” was released as a single from their album Goat’s Head Soup in 1973 and quickly climbed the charts to Number One.
After the sounding of an A harmonic at the 12th fret of the 5th string, the song’s pianistic intro begins with a series of arpeggiated chords and gently articulated chord partials, implying the key of A minor. As we’ve encountered in many of the time-honored acoustic guitar passages included here, this song’s introduction also exploits the effectiveness of suspended chord sonorities, including Gsus4, Fsus4 and Csus4, and their resolutions in an effort to achieve maximum melodic impact.
The Eagles—Hotel California
Though none of the Eagles’ founding members were native Californians, the group quickly became associated with what became regarded as Seventies California rock. Their country-music vocal inflections, powerful harmonies, heavily orchestrated acoustic and electric guitar parts, and slick production earned the band several Number One albums and scores of Top 10 hits during that decade. in 1976, the Eagles added guitarist Joe Walsh to their lineup and released Hotel California, providing the band with its third Number One album in a row.
The album’s title track highlights the acoustic artistry of guitarist Walsh and Don Felder, not to mention their staggering electric guitar chops, heard at the song’s climactic outro. A guitar-driven masterpiece, its opening bars feature a 12-string acoustic played pickstyle with a capo at the 7th fret.
“More Than a Feeling”
Boston was formed in 1975 by guitarist/keyboardist Tom Scholz. Scholz, who had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and worked for Polaroid at the time, had been producing his own multitracked masterpieces on his 12-track studio in his spare time. These polished demos prompted Epic Records to sign Scholz’s band, referred to collectively as Boston in honor of their hometown.
Scholz’s production standards back in 1976, when the band’s self-titled debut was released, foreshadowed the high-tech studio gloss of recordings released throughout the Eighties. The album’s unsurpassed sound quality, combined with scores of memorable melodies, contagious guitarist riffs and harmonized leads, helped to sell 10 million copies of the disc globally and attain Number One status.
The band’s monumental debut, Boston, kicks off with the track “More Than a Feeling,” a quintessential Boston tune that features acoustic and electric guitar and infectious vocal hooks. The song’s famous 12-string intro fades in and is restated throughout each verse. Scholz plays this passage with a pick and anchors the third finger of his fretting hand on the D found at the 3rd fret of the 2nd string—a note common to all the chord shapes that occur throughout this riff.
“Dust in the Wind”
Kansas—Point of Know Return
Just as Boston borrowed the name of its hometown, a group of progressive rockers named Kansas similarly borrowed the name of their home state. Formed in 1970, the band didn’t really hit its mark with the public until the release of Leftoverture, an instant classic that exceeded double-Platinum status and featured the hit “Carry on Wayward Son.” The band’s follow-up, Point of Know Return, produced even more hits, one of which was the acoustic classic “Dust in the Wind,” a Number Six hit in 1977.
Like many renowned acoustic guitar pieces, “Dust in the Wind” begins with a striking introduction that sets the tone for the musical magic that follows. Played fingerstyle on a steel-string acoustic and doubled by an additional guitar using Nashville tuning, this song’s famous intro employs a repeated right-hand pattern through an eight-measure chord progression that fluctuates between derivations of C and Am.
“Want Dead or Alive”
Bon Jovi—Slippery When Wet
Bon Jovi is one of a handful of bands credited with firing up the “unplugged” craze that began in the mid Eighties. Legend has it that during a Bon Jovi show in 1985 at the London Dominion, the sound system failed repeatedly. Jon Bon Jovi went offstage, returned with an acoustic guitar in hand and proceeded to perform what was later referred to as an impromptu “campfire session.” The audience was blown away. Within a year, Bon Jovi recorded and released their pop-metal breakthrough, Slippery When Wet, an album that sold millions, driven by the chart-topping success of singles like the acoustic smash “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Guitarist Richie Sambora sets the song in motion with a pickstyle arpeggio played on a 12-string. This repeated two-measure figure is comprised of major and minor 6th intervals inherent to D Dorian (D E F G A B C), descending diatonically down the fretboard. The open D string is reiterated throughout and functions as a droning pedal point.
“More Than Words”
Many guitar players first became aware of Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt via his blazing guitar displays heard on the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure soundtrack. For others, it was “More Than Words,” the acoustic duet between Bettencourt and singer Gary Cherone. In 1991, “More Than Words” became a Number One single and, due in large part to the song’s success, Extreme’s second album, Pornograffitti, went double Platinum. In 1996, Extreme disbanded after Gary Cherone was chosen to replace Sammy Hagar in Van Halen.
For this song, Bettencourt tuned all six strings down a half step. His fingerstyle chops are displayed throughout the song, augmented by intermittent string slaps on beats 2 and 4 as his right hand is aggressively repositioned in ready position, prepared to pluck.
“Tears in Heaven”
In January 1992, in a live concert for MTV, Clapton traded his Stratocaster for an acoustic and recorded the all-acoustic masterpiece Unplugged. A few months after the album came out, Clapton nearly swept the Grammys, receiving numerous awards for his magnificent effort. Unplugged quickly climbed to Number One on the Billboard charts.
Unplugged features a handful of songs written in tribute to the memory of Clapton’s five-year-old son Conor, who died March 20, 1991. “Tears in Heaven” is one of them. A short while after Conor’s passing, Clapton was presented with the opportunity to have one of his original songs included in the film Rush. “Tears in Heaven” was finished and appeared in the 1991 film before it was ever performed at the Unplugged concert.