Why I love acoustic session work.
Playing acoustic guitar is an entirely different experience than playing electric. For that matter, playing an acoustic that’s plugged in is entirely different from playing an acoustic acoustically. Try your normal electric go-to stuff on an acoustic and you’ll probably be disappointed with the results. Plug an acoustic with a pickup straight into a DI or board, and it’s not going to respond or sound like an acoustic in your living room.
As a guitar nerd, I disliked that whole MTVUnplugged series. Mostly it was rockers just strumming away, kumbaya-style, on a harsh-sounding, plugged-in acoustic where you hear the pickup rather than the guitar body. Unless the song was either acoustically friendly or the artist came up with a completely different interpretation of the song, like Clapton did with “Layla,” most acoustic covers of electric songs undermine the guitar part.
Van Halen - You Really Got Me (Acoustic)
In 1978, Eddie Van Halen put his swagger, groove, and ferocious riffs on “You Really Got Me,” and turned a weird Kinks’ tune into a game-changing rock anthem. But watch their 2012 acoustic version: It sounds like a solid but unremarkable player sitting around a campfire. Eddie was a brilliant acoustic player, as “Spanish Fly” from Van Halen’s second album demonstrates, but that was Eddie doing a specific acoustic composition.
Acoustic guitar is a different animal than electric. Ergo, one of the greatest guitarists ever sounds like a mere mortal when trying to make an instrument do what it can’t do. In fact, a basic electric guitar in 1978 wasn’t capable of what Van Halen wanted it to do, so he built his own. But the point of Unplugged was to showcase the song more than the riff.
Most of my session work is on acoustic. I love playing acoustic sessions: low pressure. With electric sessions, you must deal with buzzy amps and scratchy pots that you only hear under the microscope of recording. Take away pedals, amps, pickups, or cables, and nothing goes wrong. There’s rarely equipment failure when you’re not plugged in. But that’s not the only benefit.
“It’s like putting something delicate and sweet, such as a tiny fawn covered in white spots, next to a grizzly bear on its hind legs.”
With electric sessions, there’s pressure to wow the audience with riffs and fresh signature parts. With acoustic, it’s always serve-the-song and rarely look-at-me. Usually you’re laying down a simple, sturdy foundation, supporting the vocals and building the bed for the electric to shred. If done well, it brings out the best in the song and the lead instruments. Acoustic sessions are probably a bit like being a pilot: smooth/simple/routine procedural bits with the occasional terrifying part where you must land a plane with a wing on fire (or play a fast bluegrass solo).
The juxtaposition of an acoustic with an electric is a tried-and-true production approach because those textures work perfectly together. Some of the most epic hard-rocking songs rock all the harder because they start with acoustic. Por ejemplo: Heart’s “Crazy on You,” Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
It’s like putting something delicate and sweet, such as a tiny fawn covered in white spots, next to a grizzly bear on its hind legs. The bear and the electric guitar seem even more powerful and scary by comparison.
That said, an acoustic guitar in the right hands can sound as big and awe-inspiring as a great three-piece band in full flight. Players such as Mike Dawes, Andy McKee, and Marcin Patrzalek cover bass and lead with 6-strings, then add their percussive element by beating on the guitar. They use internal mics and reverb to get a huge drum sound that you can’t pull off on a Tele or Les Paul.
Joe Bonamassa Official - "Woke Up Dreaming" - Live From Royal Albert Hall
On the other hand, masters of bluegrass flatpicking, like Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Tony Rice, play single-note melodies that, even when unaccompanied, sound complete. For an amazing example of a hybrid approach, check out Joe Bonamassa’s “Woke Up Dreaming.” At times, it’s classical fingerpicking. Then it’s Al Di Meola-eque blazing, then a hybrid thing that really sounds like two guitar players at once. I’ve listened to that track probably 20 times and I still don’t know how he does it.
Then there’s Tommy Emmanuel, who has everything in his bag. He does the percussive guitar-as-a-drum thing and combines it with Travis thumbpicking and break-neck flatpicking. And Jerry Reed played some of the most complex, funky guitar music ever recorded on his gut-string.
Guitar shredding predates electricity, so it all started on acoustic. Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, Skip James, Son House, and the Devil’s own, Robert Johnson (armed with a high-action wooden box with strings bought from a Sears catalog), reimagined what the instrument could do. It’s a long, winding journey, but the road to rock ’n’ roll and blues was paved with acoustic guitars.
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The emotional wallop of the acoustic guitar sometimes flies under the radar. Even if you mostly play electric, here are some things to consider about unplugging.
I have a love-hate relationship with acoustic guitars. My infatuation with the 6-string really blasted off with the Ventures. That’s the sound I wanted, and the way to get it was powered by electricity. Before I’d even held a guitar, I knew I wanted a Mosrite, which I was sure was made of fiberglass like the surfboards the Beach Boys, Surfaris, and the Challengers rode in their off time. Bristling with space-age switchgear and chrome-plated hardware, those solidbody hotrod guitars were the fighter jets of my musical dreams. I didn’t even know what those old-timey round-hole guitars were called. As the singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey strummed off into the sunset, the pace of technology pushed the look and sound of the electric guitar (and bass) into the limelight and into my heart. Imagine my disappointment when I had to begin my guitar tutelage on a rented Gibson “student” acoustic. At least it sort of looked like the ones the Beatles occasionally played. Even so, I couldn’t wait to trade it in.
By the late 1960s, everybody had to have an acoustic guitar. America's youth had gone through the Greenwich Village folk boom and entered the West Coast Laurel Canyon scene. Young women who wanted to be Joni Mitchell and Neil Young-inspired men floated on down to local musical instrument emporiums to pick out their badge of artistry. In Europe, folkies blended traditional troubadour tunes with blues and rock, creating a genre that survives to this day. The most fuzzed-out psychedelic combos proudly displayed their introspective acoustic side. Everybody had an acoustic guitar. Of course, country music never forgot. Except for a short interlude of microphone-hugging country crooners, Nashville kept the strum going.
So, what makes the acoustic guitar so indefatigable? First and foremost is the beauty of its sound. Like the violin or the piano, the unadorned guitar has a purity of sound and purpose that is moving in a way electronic instruments are not. In concert, the connection between the musician and the sound the audience hears is undeniable. It’s a tightrope walk, where technology cannot fool the listener. The fewer links in the chain, the closer the bond between performer and patron—and that’s the experience people crave.d
Before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied cowpoke guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again.
Another more practical aspect is portability. Although buskers have more recently turned to elaborate amplifier and looper setups for street concerts, not much beats a great singer accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Certainly, I can’t imagine dragging an amp and a synthesizer down to the beach to jam some Bill Evans while friends roast s’mores. Okay, maybe. But the simplicity of a naked guitar in a dorm hallway or in a coffee shop can be a refreshing break from the relentless attack of electronic pop culture. In a world of autotune, backing tracks, and the layered-to-death ambush of modern music, a fingerpicked guitar is like a walk in the woods on a spring day. The fact that it can be easily taken anywhere makes it the instrument of choice for so many.
Another strong argument for the acoustic axe is its supremacy as an accompanist. Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t leave a lot of viable options. Although Chet Baker managed a career as a crooning trumpeter, playing a horn while vocalizing requires additional backup. Singing while playing the violin isn’t much easier. The piano is probably the most versatile sounding accompanist, but as much as I like Diana Krall, Ray Charles, and Elton John, their instrument of choice forces them to bring the party to the piano, not the other way around. You can argue that the electric guitar is a contender. Unfortunately, the slight portability downside of needing an amp and its tendency to drown out vocals makes it the second choice, whereas the acoustic guitar checks all the right boxes.
This all isn’t to say that an acoustic guitar lacks the ability to deliver impressive soloing performance. Some of the most inspiring and emotionally vibrant instrumental music is delivered on acoustics. The roster of players currently burning up the fretboard in every genre is immense—possibly the most in history. The acoustic guitar’s forte is to bring passionate and thoughtful melody to any song. This secret weapon has been applied to recordings from artists as diverse as the Beatles, Kiss, and Dream Theater. In the rhythm department, the acoustic steel string has been responsible for the foundational power of the Who, Alice in Chains, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, and countless other “heavy” bands.
So before you write off the seemingly fragile, hollow-bodied, cowpoke acoustic guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again. They might not be as loud, or as flashy, but they pack an emotional wallop that often flies under the radar. Many decades down the line, I wish I’d paid more attention to what that first student guitar had to offer me. Maybe I’d have kept it, too
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The classic sound of a seminal stompbox gets shrunk down into a micro-sized box.
Lil' RAT, your go-to distortion pedal for every gig, whether it’s rock, blues, punk, or jazz. This is the standard sound that all other distortion devices are measured against. Heard on thousands of recordings, it has helped define the sound of the past three decade’s most influential bands. And now 1/2 the size!
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