Welcome to 'It’s The End Of The Week As We Know It...Unplugged'. Last week I was completely amped up on the metulz, but this week, as the weather got colder and daytime decided to settle at an earlier hour, I wound up getting soft and rekindled my off-and-on affair with the acoustic guitar.
The unplugging stemmed from a guitar lesson I’m writing for another rock music website. The lesson delves into Led Zeppelin’s "Going To California," and needless to say, it was a welcome task to study Jimmy Page’s fingerstyle technique and closely listen to the nuances of his acoustic playing. Developing the lesson, I grew fond of the intimacy between the guitar and myself and enjoyed the slight vibration of the wood against my chest.
For the moment, I’m stoked on acoustic geetar, but in general, acoustics have always been a hit or miss for me. I’m still not sure how I feel about the steel string acoustic as a whole. Here’s why I’ve found myself less than stoked with the acoustic guitar in the past.
Consider the negatives. The steel string acoustic is widely associated with cheesy ballads and an overabundance of Cadd9 chords in Christian rock contexts; the sound of an acoustic guitar directly plugged into an amp or PA is piercingly bright and unattractive (nothing worse than a sh-tty plugged in Ovation).
Plus, steel sting acoustics don’t have quite the versatility of their more mature cousin, the nylon string guitar. Nylon strings, with their responsiveness to touch and overall warmer sound, definitely create a variety of rich tonal variations great players are able to manipulate, such as in classical guitar and flamenco. Steel strings aren’t as responsive to those subtleties, although they still sound pretty.
Nearly anyone who knows a few open chords can strum away and they’ll sound good. Hence acoustic guitars can sometimes give guitarists a bad name. It’s what accounts for the "guitar guy at the party" syndrome. You know the dude.
Maybe my negative opinions on the acoustic are shaped from my perceived limitations as an acoustic player. Personally, I’ve never felt quite confident as a lead player on an acoustic. I’ve never been able to execute a convincing guitar solo on a steel string, probably because my hands are on the small side and better suited for the easier string tension of an electric... wimpy, I know.
So while I can make a litany of complaints against the acoustic and the people who abuse the guitar’s natural charm, I’ve always been amazed by the players who can pull it off and beautifully manipulate the instrument past the standard strumming patterns.
There’s something amazing about guitarists who can absolutely manhandle a steel string acoustic. I’m not talking about some strummy Dave Matthews crap or the capo-always-on-the-4th-fret players – nah, there are players out there who cast the steel string acoustic in such a favorable light that I’ll turn off the metal to give an attentive, appreciative listen.
Here’s an impromptu list of five of my favorite players who can pull off some sick playing on acoustics. And of course, we have plenty YouTubage.
"The Rain Song (Live)"
Although Jimmy Page will forever be associated with a hefty Les Paul, I believe the true character of his style comes out in his widely dynamic and extremely musical acoustic playing. Sure, he can be a little sloppy at times, but his conviction and sense of musicality really shine on his acoustic tracks. Anyone who wants to improve their critical ear should learn some acoustic Zeppelin tracks – like "The Rain Song."
Say what you want about Zakk Wylde, but you can’t deny that you wouldn’t love to be able to rip on an acoustic like this if you could. Sure, a track like "Speedball" is a little absurd and is pretty much all masturbation, but clearly Zakk equally transfers his electric skills on an acoustic. I don’t know... there’s just something about shredding on an acoustic that perks my ears up – not so much because it sounds good but because I’d love to be strong and accurate enough to command an acoustic in such a way.
"Don’t Let It Bring You Down"
Neil is the ultimate strummer. For some reason I could listen to Neil Young strum his acoustic all day. And I do. His strong rhythmic attack on the guitar is unmistakable and adds that slight amount of grit and attitude to his pretty love songs.
Uhh... gypsy jazz! It’s probably one of the coolest and interesting genres of music out there. Although gypsy jazz guitars don’t quite use steel strings traditionally (they’re usually stringed with a light copper set), Django Reinhard was clearly a master of the acoustic guitar. I’ve said it before – if you haven’t gotten into gypsy jazz, go buy yourself a Django record and prepare to perceive the guitar – both lead and rhythm – much differently. There’s some serious soloing going on in Django’s playing. Fascinating stuff.
"Train To Dusseldorf"
Tommy Emmanuel is really the all-time master of steel string acoustic. I saw him in concert a few years ago and was astounded not only by his virtuosic playing, but also by his absolute comfort on the guitar. It was almost as if his guitar was a natural extension of his body. He clearly displayed shred chops, lively jammed through boogie and country styles, and explored the percussive capabilities of the guitar as well. A total pro too – he played a two-plus hour set completely by himself, made jokes, told humorous stories behind the songs (many about his main influence, Chet Atkins), made the audience cry with a few sweet songs about his loved ones... the ultimate boss.
So let’s open up the discussion:
Who are some of your favorite acoustic players?
Who rips the acoustic a new soundhole? Who’s overrated?
Share below and take this weekend to unplug (for a bit). Just don’t play "Wonderwall" at your friend’s party and be that guy...
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