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Guitar is anything but a one-dimensional instrument.
Sure, metal seems to be the main genre representing the guitar these days, but when music wasn’t just about trap beats and 80s synths, it was utilized in so many ways.
And the acoustic guitar, specifically, has more colors to it than you might even remember. This list proves it.
Ready for the best acoustic guitar songs of all time? Let’s get into it!
“Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
Song year: 1971
Would it even be right to start this list off with any other song?
Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” is beyond legendary, and so far as what makes it so great, is mostly beyond explanation or comprehension.
We could talk about the details. The build and the gradually increasing tempo. The improvised guitar solo. All the great riffs scattered throughout the song (you’re lucky if you get two riffs in today’s pop songs). The mysterious lyrical content.
But as you know, a song is the sum of its parts, and the parts alone don’t make a song. In this instance, though, everything fell into place to create the song that’s held in the highest regard by audiences and critics alike.
“Layla (Unplugged)” by Eric Clapton
Song year: 1973 (original)
Again, I ask. What kind of list would this be if you couldn’t find “Layla (Unplugged)” by “God” himself Eric Clapton near or at the top?
MTV Unplugged was already a proven idea when Clapton took the stage. But this wasn’t like any Unplugged that came before it.
Clapton didn’t just take the songs he typically played on electric guitar and move them over to acoustic as most artists did. He prepared a set of songs suited to acoustic guitar specifically, and anything that wasn’t written for it, was rearranged.
“Layla” being the perfect example. And the result is breathtaking.
“Hole Hearted” by Extreme
Song year: 1990
So far as I’m concerned, you can’t talk about butt-kicking acoustic guitar riffs without bringing up “Hole Hearted” by Extreme. It’s just not right.
And while Extreme never achieved the popularity of a Van Halen or a Led Zeppelin, the guitar community nevertheless acknowledges Nuno Bettencourt as an unparalleled axe-man. And that he is.
“Hole Hearted” is a simple song with a bluegrass style vibe and cowboy chords. But the playing is nevertheless on point, and it just sounds delightful on a 12-string acoustic. The slide playing is also great and rarely heard on music these days.
“Wanted Dead Or Alive” by Bon Jovi
Song year: 1986
Oft quoted as a “guilty pleasure” band, Bon Jovi stood at or near the top of the hair metal movement. There were both good and bad things about it, but Bon Jovi typically exhibited more originality and purity than their peers.
Anyone who says it’s strange for a band like Bon Jovi to make a foray into country music (in recent years) clearly hasn’t heard “Wanted Dead Or Alive”, lush with western cowboy vibes. Sure, it’s got a hard rock guitar solo too – but that only makes it cooler in our eyes.
And the 12-string acoustic guitar riffs are iconic to say the least.
“Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” by Green Day
Song year: 1997
When it comes to acoustic guitar songs, we certainly can’t ignore the 90s. And if you don’t agree with this choice, there are bound to be other picks on this list you will.
Today, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” has basically been reduced to a glorified graduation song. Which is funny because it’s more about saying “good riddance” to a failing relationship. It’s an angry song even.
And that makes it punk rock!
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty
Song year: 1989
At this point, the inclusion of “Free Fallin’” might seem more obligatory than anything, and there is some truth to that.
But the simplicity of the song is what allows the melody and lyrics to shine through. It’s what makes it so memorable too.
The layered guitars are also a lot cooler than you may have given them credit for. Have another listen to the song and see for yourself.
“Be With You” by Mr. Big
Song year: 1991
Here’s a band whose story somewhat mirrors that of Extreme. Mr. Big found international success, especially in Japan, but let’s just say they were a little late to the hair metal power wave of the 80s, soon to be crushed by the rebellious plaid-wearing grunge bands of the 90s.
But Mr. Big was good. Super good. And if you’re a guitarist, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard the name Paul Gilbert.
Big even had a solid secondary run from 2009 to 2018.
“Be With You” might be one of their more subdued acoustic songs. That doesn’t mean it isn’t masterfully executed and combined with the big vocal sound that epitomized the 80s, it’s hard to call it anything less than satisfying.
“Wonderwall” by Oasis
Song year: 1995
When you sit down at a party with an acoustic guitar in your hands, there are a few songs that are bound to get requested (many of which are on this list) – “Free Fallin’”, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, “More Than Words”, and the like.
But sooner or later, someone is going to request “Wonderwall.” You can roll your eyes and play something else, but once it’s been mentioned, you know what the crowd wants and they’re not going to let you off the hook until they’ve heard those iconic four chords played in succession.
Often thought of as a love song, “Wonderwall” is in fact about an imaginary friend who’s coming to save you.
“Dust In The Wind” by Kansas
Song year: 1977
At this point, “Dust In The Wind” is beyond the point of irony and seems to edge on self-caricature. An existential anthem about the meaninglessness of it all? Now there’s a hit song!
You might even remember Will Farrell singing it in Old School.
But yes, become a hit song it did, and considering the sheer talent of Kansas, it’s hardly surprising. The acoustic guitar is the centerpiece of the song, and it’s so memorable that even non-guitar players know what song you’re playing before you’ve started singing it.
There’s no denying that the vocals are brilliant in this song too.
“Patience” by Guns N’ Roses
Song year: 1987
“Patience” by Guns N’ Roses showed us that acoustic GNR wasn’t half bad. And it was kind of foreshadowing in terms of what was to come – especially from Slash, whose creativity seemed to know no bounds.
So far as songs are concerned, I would be inclined to call it more obligatory than genius. Then again, it’s more dynamic and creative than a lot of the cookie-cutter pop we hear these days.
And you certainly can’t hate some of the guitar playing on this number.
“She Talks To Angels” by The Black Crowes
Song year: 1990
At one point or another, most rock and hard rock bands released a gentle acoustic ballad.
“She Talks To Angels” works, though, because it still epitomizes the blues-tinged rock of The Black Crowes. Plus, the song quickly builds from a lone acoustic guitar to a full-band jam.
The acoustic guitar playing is cool to say the least, and it’s done with an open tuning to boot.
“Hotel California” by Eagles
Song year: 1976
Even though the electric guitar was quickly shifting from esoteric to mainstream (Jimi Hendrix had a big hand in that), the 70s was still a good time for the acoustic guitar (just scan the rest of this list).
When you hear people discussing or debating the many acoustic classic rock songs that left an impression, sooner or later (probably sooner), “Hotel California” is going to come up in conversation.
This is another situation where the sum is greater than its parts, but that’s exactly what the Eagles did so well. Their music was simple, but the embellishments made it sophisticated and beautiful.
People love the combination of guitars (including the 12-string acoustic), as well as the dual electric guitar solo played in thirds. What people seem to forget, though, is the Eagles played it and sang it flawlessly live as well.
“Blackbird” by The Beatles
Song year: 1968
What can be said about The Beatles that hasn’t already been said? Their influence is unparalleled. Their creativity knew no bounds. And their musicianship was often underestimated but more than enough to express themselves in myriad of ways.
“Blackbird” stands as an acoustic guitar masterpiece, regardless of how you feel about The Beatles. It has awakened more imaginations than are practical to count, and that’s reflected in the many cover versions by the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon, and countless others.
There’s no way we could place it at the top of this list. But to say it’s an important song would be an understatement.
“Long Way To Go” by Dan Reed Network
Song year: 1991
Funk rock band Dan Reed Network never quite took off in their heyday, and that’s a shame. So far as party rock is concerned, they had some killer tunes. At least they reunited and started making music again beginning 2015.
“Long Way To Go” is cool for several reasons. For one, the guitar work on it is great. For another, there’s a version featuring Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt on lead guitar and backing vocals.
From a strategic perspective, this probably should have been a love ballad (like “To Be With You” or “More Than Words”). Instead, the song delivers a socially conscious message. Either way, it still kicks butt.
“Angie” by The Rolling Stones
Song year: 1973
There’s simply no way to punch a hole in Keith Richards’ and Mick Taylor’s guitar playing on “Angie.” The song is simple at its core, but it quickly rose to the top of the charts and became a Stones classic.
The song itself is mostly about a couple breaking up. And to that extent, it probably resonated with plenty of heartbroken people.
For all those times when you need a little lift, there’s always “Angie.”
“Heart Of Gold” by Neil Young
Song year: 1972
I guess you could say Neil Young is a “take it or leave it” kind of artist, but you can’t deny the man his guitar playing. Even if he could care less which notes came out of his instrument.
Here’s a bit of trivia – this was just one in a series of softer acoustic songs Young wrote while suffering a back injury. Playing his electric guitar was apparently a little too difficult for the wounded Young, but he could still play his acoustic guitar sitting down.
“Heart Of Gold” also features James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals. You couldn’t assemble a more luxurious backup team than that!
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen
Song year: 1979
Queen is one of those bands that wasn’t afraid to give anything a try. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” features a classic rockabilly groove, and the music video even pays homage to acts from the 50s and is a verified tribute to Elvis Presley.
Freddie Mercury wrote the song on the guitar in just five to 10 minutes, even though he never thought of himself as much of a guitar player.
Of course, Brian May perfected it and added some wicked electric leads too.
“All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1968
Let’s face it – it’s hard to pick just one Dylan song. Not all were acoustic, nor were all equally influential. Some might not readily pick “All Along The Watchtower” as the top Dylan song either.
But here’s the thing. If not for the original, Jimi Hendrix’ legendary version would not have ever been birthed. And that would be more than just a shame.
Unlike Hendrix’ seminal reinterpretation, which featured several brilliant guitar solos, this one has harmonica interludes. And while it doesn’t evoke the same level of intensity and emotion the Hendrix masterpiece does, it still stands as an important work from this masterful songsmith.
“Fire And Rain” by James Taylor
Song year: 1970
It’s hard to choose just one song by James Taylor. The man is an absolute beast on the acoustic guitar. He’s quite the lyricist to boot.
“Fire And Rain” features great rhythmic guitar playing interspersed with colorful fills. This is typically the mark of a skilled guitarist, and that bias holds true here.
This isn’t a happy song by any means, but it’s dynamic, sentimental, and heartfelt. We can’t take that away from it.
“Wondering Where The Lions Are” by Bruce Cockburn
Song year: 1979
Speaking of beasts on the acoustic guitar, we can’t forget about Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
Bottom line – it doesn’t matter what kind of guitar you hand him. Electric, acoustic. It doesn’t matter. Just make sure there’s a guitar in his hands because he’ll play the hell out of it.
Even “Wondering Where The Lions Are” features some spectacular playing, though it might sound like a whimsical jungle song.
“The Sound Of Silence” by Simon And Garfunkel
Song year: 1965
“The Sound Of Silence” is a haunting classic by legendary folk duo Simon And Garfunkel. And it doesn’t just highlight their vocal chemistry, but also Simon’s more than respectable guitar playing.
The opening lyrics seem to paint a bleak picture, making you wonder whether it’s a song about existential quandary.
There has been much speculation on the meaning of the song, but one of the more popular theories is that it’s a song about the John F. Kennedy assassination.
“Over The Hills And Far Away” by Led Zeppelin
Song year: 1973
In the same way the “No Stairway!” meme has caught on it might not be too much of an exaggeration to say a “No Hills!” meme could catch on given half a chance.
The guitar playing in “Over The Hills And Far Away” is a thing of beauty and brilliance – it’s no wonder so many guitarists end up wanting to learn it.
The layered guitar parts also make this song, especially since this level of creativity is rarely heard in today’s music.
“More Than Words” by Extreme
Song year: 1990
Here’s a fun little game – try naming more than one Extreme song!
Well, if you’re not a guitar player, this might prove a little challenging. But if you’ve spent any time playing guitar, I bet you could name more than a few.
Here’s the thing. Extreme owed more to hard rock, hair metal, and funk than gentle acoustic ballads. But guitarist Nuno Bettencourt has gone on record saying, ultimately, “More Than Words” becoming a hit was a blessing.
And it did bring Extreme to a whole new audience.
“Cream (Live At Webster Hall)” by Prince
Song year: 1991 (original)
People talk about how great Prince was. But until you hear him self-accompany on the acoustic guitar, you might not know just how great.
“Cream” shows exactly how capable the man was. He was able to keep perfect rhythm, sing masterfully, and throw in some lead guitar fills just for fun (a feat considered difficult even by pro guitarist standards).
It’s hard to find a man as talented as Prince was.
“Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson
Song year: 1937
Blues music, and maybe even the acoustic guitar, might not be what it is today without Robert Johnson’s important contribution.
Listen to him play, and it’s almost as though there are two or even three guitars playing simultaneously. But multi-tracking was before Johnson’s time. He had to do it all in one go!
Incredible innovator Johnson found a way to combine bass, rhythm, and lead into a seamless package. We could literally pick any of his songs for this list, but we just happen to like “Sweet Home Chicago.”
“The World I Know” by Collective Soul
Song year: 1995
We think it’s a shame that Collective Soul consistently gets left out of lists like these, so we decided to do something about it.
“The World I Know”, if a little overdone, is still a great song, and generally something every beginner guitarist learned in the 90s and even 00s.
Collective Soul was kind of the bridge between bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam to Creed and Nickelback, and to that extent, they’re more influential than they’re often given credit for.
We suspect they had an impact on Goo Goo Dolls’ direction as well.
“Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls
Song year: 1998
We’re not sure whether we even want to acknowledge modern-day Goo Goo Dolls, but we’ll happily take a trip down memory lane to when their songs represented the soundscape of an underrated musical decade.
This song simply wouldn’t be the same if it was played on an electric guitar, and the unconventional open tuning made it stand out in a big way.
The lyrical content strikes us as “emo”, and the music is quite reminiscent of Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” (released three years earlier), but hey, you could make a strong case for this being pre-post-hardcore.
“Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton
Song year: 1992
If there was any doubt Slowhand should make this list twice, all you’ve got to do is delve into his catalog to know the man is a towering giant on the guitar.
“Tears In Heaven” is sad, as it’s about Clapton’s young son who plummeted to his death. But the song is transcendent.
The guitar playing on “Tears In Heaven” is smooth and beautiful. And most acoustic guitar players with any mettle end up learning it.
“Maggie May” by Rod Stewart
Song year: 1971
Sometimes called “the perfect pop song”, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” is near timeless in its appeal. You wouldn’t expect the perfect pop song to have a classically inspired guitar intro though (album version only)!
Once the band kicks in, however, you can begin to hear what the fuss is all about. A tight strumming acoustic guitar, a groovy, moving bass part, a simple drum part, and Stewart’s signature smoky vocals to top it all off.
Other instruments come and go as the song advances, adding even more color to the tune.
“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song year: 1970
Another song with insane staying power, “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” keeps transcending time and generations.
And that’s because, at its core, it’s just a simple acoustic guitar strumming song. The lyrical content, though hints at something serious – John Fogerty said the song was about rising tensions in the band.
But if this song is any indication, it just goes to show tension doesn’t stop great bands from making great music.
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
Song year: 1973
The cowboy classic sing-along “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is basically a four-chord wonder. Yet, its simplicity is exactly what gives it staying power.
Go to any bar, pull out your acoustic guitar, start singing the ohh’s and before long, you’ll have the whole bar joining in with you.
The song has also been covered by artists too numerous to mention – Guns N’ Roses, Wyclef Jean, Avril Lavigne, Babyface, and others.
“Neon (Live At The Nokia Theatre)” by John Mayer
Song year: 1999 (original)
The original “Neon” by John Mayer is already all kinds of impossible groovy. Every guitarist can’t help but take notice of that electric guitar riff. It’s unusual, it’s cool, and it’s plain B.A.
If that wasn’t mind blowing enough already, Mayer played “Neon” live in L.A., unaccompanied, on an acoustic guitar.
Now, we’re not talking Clapton level of reinvention. At the same time, Mayer’s acoustic thumb slaps quickly cemented this riff as legendary, suggesting that this song perhaps belonged on acoustic guitar all along.
Plus, it’s a “finger twister” if there ever was one!
And if that wasn’t enough, Mayer added some jazzy self-accompanied improvisation in the intro and solo sections. Some of this could be heard in the original as well, but he took it to the next level in this live version. Simply incredible.
“Pinball Wizard” by The Who
Song year: 1969
You knew a Who song had to make it into the mix, didn’t you? And, while there are other great songs to choose from, we just couldn’t resist “Pinball Wizard,” for its fast-paced acoustic guitar strumming and abundance of riffs (when’s the last time you’ve heard this many distinct riffs strung together?).
The song itself is about a pinball wizard, as the title suggests. Not a revelation by any means, but the music makes it all worthwhile.
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
Song year: 1988
This bit of late 80s melodrama is unlikely to go anywhere. Why? Because of the unforgettably good acoustic guitar riff, which shows imagination while capturing pop sensibilities.
When it comes right down to it, this is a song about life. And life isn’t always easy.
This song was also the lead single from Chapman’s self-titled debut album. Impressive to say the least.
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens
Song year: 1970
We had to find a place for the insanely creative English singer-songwriter Cat Stevens on this list. “Wild World” seems like the right choice.
It’s been speculated that the song is about actress Patti D’Arbanville with whom Stevens had a two-year relationship with. Though Stevens himself said in concert that the song was about himself, which seems to contradict the critics who claimed it was misogynistic.
Stevens’ music even went onto inspire bands like Mr. Big, so his influence is undeniable.
“Breakfast At Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something
Song year: 1995
Here’s another pop tune representing the 90s, and while it’s basically a three-chord wonder, it’s hard to deny its appeal.
In bars and at parties, people love to sing along to this song, and who are we to shut them down?
The song itself is about a man desperately trying to find common ground with his girlfriend, and to that extent, it isn’t overly deep. But sometimes simple is best.
“Pinch Me” by Barenaked Ladies
Song year: 2000
Also known as “frustrated jazz musicians”, the Barenaked Ladies are more talented and musically adept than a lot of people give them credit for. And their use of acoustic guitars was (and still is) brilliant at times.
There are many songs we could have chosen in place of “Pinch Me.” But in many ways, the album on which it was released, Maroon, represents the golden age of the Ladies.
The guitar riff itself was interesting enough that it even got covered in guitar magazines, which is saying something.
And if you’re still not convinced, look up Ed Robertson’s solo acoustic version (“Bathroom Sessions”) on YouTube.
Best Acoustic Guitar Songs, Final Thoughts
Although we set out to cover the best acoustic guitar songs, and we certainly got into a few dozen, we know it’s a bit of an audacious claim.
There are so many other great songs and great players out there not represented here.
Still, we hope you enjoyed our list. We’ll see you again soon for another one!