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 downA 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 arrangementOften, 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 songSometimes 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.
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 feelChanging 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 keyA 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.
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.
FingerpickingUsing 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 TechniquesA 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.
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 guitarNotice 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.
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 chordsDespite 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 LearnThe 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.