Sound Better Than the Original Song When Creating Your Own Unplugged Acoustic Arrangements

Learn some tools, tricks, and techniques you can use in your own acoustic arrangements.

Ultimate Guitar
A great way to learn how to create your own acoustic version of a particular song is to simply watch, listen, and analyze how others have done it. In fact, this is a great way to learn anything regarding your guitar playing.

Too many times people choose to go with the trial and error approach when trying to learn things on the guitar. However, this comes at a high cost regarding your time, and in a lot of cases your sanity. Looking to others for help and guidance is always a much wiser choice.

It has been very popular for many years now to create unplugged acoustic versions of songs. There are countless examples of these out there that you can pull apart and learn from so that you have a wealth of ideas when it comes to creating your own.

In this article, we are going to do exactly that by closely analyzing 5 acoustic versions of songs that various musicians have created. Quite often the original song has been played on electric guitar, with the acoustic version presenting a more stripped back arrangement.

It's when we carefully observe, listen, and analyze an unplugged acoustic version of a song, that we gain ideas and approaches to use ourselves when doing the same.

1. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) - "Everlong"

The rendition Dave Grohl presents here of the bands classic "Everlong" is much more mellow compared to the original. Gone is the band, replaced with just a single guitar and vocal line. It's a great example of stripping a song right back to it's bare bones.

Slowing it down

A great way to instantly change the feel of a song when creating an acoustic version from it, is to simply slow it down. This is the case with "Everlong." Here we are presented with a considerably slower version of the song compared to the original. This allows more room for the guitar and vocals to breathe, adding to the more laid back feel.

Altering the arrangement

Often, in an acoustic version of a song, the format is re-arranged a little. This is a nice way to change things up without re-writing the song. If you listen from 3.10 into the acoustic version of "Everlong" until the end of the track, and compare back to the original, you will hear that the format has changed a little.

Omitting parts of a song

Sometimes it may be necessary to leave parts of the original song out in your acoustic version. In this arrangement of "Everlong," the riff in the intro, that also appears throughout other parts of the song, has gone. Considering there is just the one guitar, this is not surprising, however at no stage do you feel as though anything is missing.

Your aim is to create an acoustic arrangement that is its own song, not to simply copy the original onto your acoustic guitar. This version of "Everlong" is a great example of this.

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2. Obadiah Parker (original by Outkast) - "Hey Ya"

Songs you least expect to hear acoustic versions of, often work out the best. It's the surprise factor people love, and so is the case with this unique version of "Hey Ya," by Obadiah Parker.

Tempo and feel

Changing the tempo and feel of a song can instantly give you a unique take on the original. This acoustic version of "Hey Ya" is almost a completely different song, yet you recognize it when you hear it. As was with "Everlong," it has been slowed down, however in this case, a lot more so compared to the original.

Changing key

A simple key change can be very effective when creating an unplugged version of a song. Combined with a capo, even more so. In this arrangement of "Hey Ya," the key has changed from G to E. The guitar has also been capo'd at the 4th fret, allowing the chords of C major to be used for the key of E. Having different chord shapes under your fingers, compared to the original song, creates all sorts of cool nuances that you can play around with.

Adding to the more mellow feel of this acoustic version is the change of the last chord of the progression from major to minor.

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3. John Mayer (original by the Police) - "Message in a Bottle"

If a song is any good, it should still sound great when stripped back to its bare roots. John Mayer's acoustic version of "Message in a Bottle" proves this to be the case. Once again we are presented with an acoustic version that consists of a single guitar and a vocal line, providing a very laid back feel throughout.


Using the fingers of your picking hand allows you to do things that just aren't possible with a plectrum. In his version of "Message in a Bottle," John Mayer adopts a fingerstyle approach throughout. This not only allows him to play chords in certain ways, but also provides a different tone to that you get from a plectrum.

Percussive Techniques

A great element to add, especially if you just have a single guitar for your acoustic version, is percussion. Throughout "Message in a Bottle," Mayer is slapping the strings of his acoustic guitar on beats 2 and 4, emulating what might be the snare or hi-hat of a drum kit.

This, combined with the fingerpicking approach creates a very unique, cool, laid back version of the original, recorded by the Police.

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4. Jack Johnson (original John Lennon) - "Imagine"

Here we have an example of a song played on another instrument, arranged for the acoustic guitar. This is a great way to get a cool sounding version of a song, and Jack Johnson certainly has achieved that with this all time classic.

Arranging songs that use instruments other than guitar

Notice that in Jack Johnson's version of "Imagine," he is not trying to copy the piano line onto his guitar, note for note. This isn't necessarily what you are trying to do when arranging an acoustic version of a song from another instrument. Rather, he is creating his own unique version by placing a capo at the 6th fret of his guitar and arpeggiating chords throughout with a fingerstyle approach.

Creating an acoustic version of a song that is played by another instrument is a great way to come up with a unique and original arrangement. Take this into consideration when choosing a song to create an acoustic version from.

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5. Greg Laswell (original Cindy Lauper) - "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"

So here we have a piano version of a famous song from the '80s. While it's not strictly an unplugged acoustic version of a song, there is still much we can learn. Being open to versions of songs that have been arranged on other instruments, as oppose to the original being played on another instrument, will give you ideas you may never have thought of otherwise when creating your own acoustic arrangements.

Embellishing and substituting chords

Despite all the differences between this piano version of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and the original, it's from the chord choices that have been used which you will perhaps learn the most.

To start, the key has changed from F# to B for this rendition. The tempo is also slower, leaving lots of opportunities for arpeggiating and embellishing chords.

Upon closer examination you will also find chords that do not even appear in the original tune. These have been added, or substituted in. Can you hear the slash chord used in the intro and verse of the song?

Here is a great exercise for you to do. Transcribe the chords from the original song, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," as well as the chords in this version. Put them both in the key of B and compare. There is so much you will learn doing this!

Watch, Listen, and Learn

The heading above says it all, and has been the point of this article. Learn from as many different unplugged acoustic versions of songs that you can find out there. Each will have something different to show you as have the 5 arrangements we've looked at today. You can then take these ideas and apply them to your own unplugged versions of songs.

It was the late, great Miles Davis who once said "First you imitate, then you innovate."

About the Author:
Simon Candy runs his own guitar school in Melbourne, Australia teaching a number of styles including rock, blues, jazz. Simon particularly specialises in all things acoustic guitar and also provides online lessons for acoustic guitar players.

38 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Interesting article. A lot of useful information to be found. This is also a great way to learn composition for acoustic guitar in general, if you can make a full band song sound interesting on a single instrument, you can definitely come up with great original pieces as well. Special request - Analyze this breathtaking acoustic version of "Imagine":
    Simon Candy
    LOL! I was actually waiting for something good at first. I should know better after having seen this shows before
    I also really like the dark version of imagine from a perfect circle.
    Thanks for that! This is great! Can't believe I never heard it before!
    I actually like this version better than the original. Of course the original is brilliant but the darkness this cover has is just beautiful. And Maynard's voice just does something else altogether.
    Pardon Me (acoustic). This is up there with everlong in my books.
    Pretty much anything Incubus do acoustic is golden. This version is great because they completely change the guitar from an effect-laden ambient lead line to an almost fingerpicking style rhythm line. They did something similar with The Warmth from the same album. What they do with A Certain Shade of Green is even more impressive. Changing the whole style of the song from Nu-Metal to Lounge Jazz (thank you vegas!)
    Edit - darn its not letting me embed a video So here's 2 classical style ones. Sad World -
    and bohemian rhapsody
    But then I can't believe Clapton's :Layla didn't make it on the list, I love the acoustic version so much!
    Simon Candy
    Songs used in article aren't meant to be a top 5 of the best unplugged acoustic songs or anything, just 5 I chose to analyse. Claptons Layla is a great example of an unplugged acoustic version of a song for sure
    I'm a big fan of rearranged acoustic covers of songs. I'd love to play in a pub one day doing just that with late 90's/early 00's girl band songs (seriously). But in saying that, I love it when a loud, electric, distorted song translates well to being played acoustically without having to change much at all. I'm quite often surprised how some songs are like that.
    If you want THE BEST example, take Eric Clapton's Unplugged or Pearl Jam's Unplugged If you want THE WORST, listen Lenny Kravitz's Unplugged ot Korn Unplugged... The thing is, that you can really make a pretty good cover or a reaaaaally bad one... To me, it's in the way you mix tempo, rhythm and chords...
    What are you on about!? Korn Unplugged is a brilliant record!
    Errrrrmmmmm..... NO!
    It actually is. You may hate Korn's original music, that's fine. But their acoustic album featured them taking songs that, at first glance, would make absolutely no sense in an acoustic format, and actually creating effective and interesting new versions of them.
    Simon Candy
    Yep, taking things like rhythm, tempo, and chords will make a big difference. Also, I personally love seeing how you can bring two parts together onto the one guitar. For example if there is a melody/riff playing with some chords behind it, and it's just yourself on guitar with no other guitar to back you etc.
    I think this is a great version
    Simon Candy
    Awesome! Love when a song is totally turned upside down and done in a totally different way. That was very cool! Thanks for the sharing
    Even though it's done on an electric, you could easily strip away the other instruments from RHCP's version of Havana Affair and go for it with an acoustic.
    John Fruciante actually plays it acoustic at one of his solo shows, it's a great cover definitely worth checking out. Imo Johns voice fits it a little better but both are great versions.
    This is awesome. I saw the guy that wrote the Britney Spears song, " Hit Me With Your Best Shot." He was playing it slowly on an acoustical guitar, kind of bluesy, and it blew me away! Played that way and with an adult singer, it sounds very adult like.
    pablorodri99 · Feb 18, 2016 07:01 PM
    Where's that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun rendition? It's not showing for me.
    Simon Candy
    It seems to have been left out by mistake. I'll see if I can get it put in. In the meantime here are youtube links to the original and the acoustic version I am analysing in the article: Original Girls Just Want To Have Fun:
    Acoustic version Girls Just Want To Have Fun:
    Simon Candy
    For sure! Sometimes there isn't much you need to do at all, although there are always subtle things going on if the unplugged version is done well