I’ve long hated electric musicians, mostly because it’s easy to sound alright without having any real ability. Entire genres are built on this, letting people that have little talent get rich because of their distortion pedals. It’s a cheap trick that anyone can do if they know how to form a power chord (fifth). I don’t say this for jealousy, or as a groundbreaking rally for change. I was taught how to play guitar classically in high school, and now can play nearly any style I really want with the exceptions of Country and Jazz. For me, the way to measure a musician or a whole band is to see how they transition between electric and acoustic.
This is not true for all musicians – some can do things with electric instruments that simply cannot be done with acoustic. I’d name a few, but they don’t really matter all that much for this argument. What matters are the artists that can handle their instruments and songs well… plugged and otherwise. I’ve excluded certain acts from this list because they’re no-brainers (Goo Goo Dolls are a perfect example, since they’re mostly acoustic anyway).
That’s a lot of intro. Enjoy it.
A Perfect Circle
A Perfect Circle was one of my favorite bands as a teenager, and they’ve stuck with me as I grew older. On the albums they have a few acoustic driven songs, but very few that really grab the listener are unplugged. Instead, they’ve got a very good acoustic set of songs that can be easily found online, all of which are mature and breathtaking.
They matter on this list because they’ve done more than just take the same songs and swap instruments. “The Hollow” was completely rewritten and arranged for the new instrumentation, including less conventional drums and piano along with acoustic guitar and bass. This arrangement stays current through most of the acoustic versions available, including “Weak and Powerless,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “3 Libras.” They all take on a nearly mystic feeling. They are all distinct from and as powerful (if not more so) than the original album recordings.
Coheed and Cambria
It’s no secret that I’m a fan boy for Coheed, but I think this isn’t without reason. I’ve mentioned some of their acoustic work in previous posts. It’s important enough for this to be redundant.
Like A Perfect Circle, they’ve completely re-arranged various songs to transition better into the world of the unplugged. “A Favor House Atlantic” and “Here We Are Juggernaut” are fantastic examples of songs that are far more powerful on steel strings than they could be on nickel. Coheed and Cambria have a much more expansive body of acoustic songs than most other bands on this list. Most aren’t all that special unplugged, but the ones that are particularly grab the listener in a chokehold without letting them up to breathe until the song’s finished. “Favor House” was streamlined to reduce the monotonous crunch of the palm muted power chord chug and boil it down to a raked open progression with feeling. “Juggernaut” most notably now has an airy guitar line… written in a major key, rather than a minor key. It’s slower, and less driving. The track is much more relaxing for it.
Many songs need little work to sound acceptable acoustic, “Welcome Home” is already very well structured for unplugging outside of some effects in the solos. The listener hardly notices they’re even missing. “From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness” sounds just as happy and uplifting acoustic as it does in the album’s recording, with the only needless addition being an octaver on the vocals. This withstanding, the whole piece is lovely. “Blood Red Summer” and “The Running Free” have little changed about them, yet both are somehow better acoustic than they were originally. Maybe this is why I’m such an avid fan.
Godsmack’s first album is one of my favorite hard rock albums of all time. Then they released the second album, and things fell apart for my opinion of them. After another bad album, they decided to release an acoustic album and saved themselves.
Like all other bands on this list, they arrange songs that were previously electric for a new life, and like all other bands on this list, the new versions are usually better than the originals. A notable difference is that two new songs were written solely for acoustic instrumentation, “Touché” and “Voices,” if memory serves. Both are worth the album purchase.
Not everything is so fantastic unplugged, “Keep Away” feels like it was only included because of it’s popularity as the original single. The new arrangement of “Awake” (now entitled “Asleep”) is soulless and monotonous. It’s an inspired attempt, and on principle it’s a nice twist to leave only the bones of the song that convinced so many hundreds of thousands of people to buy the second album. It just doesn’t work very well. Despite all this, they’re still talented enough to stand on this list alongside the other juggernauts.
A neo-punk band can rock out with nylon and steel strings? For serious?
They don’t have all that many songs acoustic, but there are enough to make them noteworthy. Besides already acoustic songs (“Swing Life Away” and “Hero of War”) they’ve done “Prayer of the Refugee,” “Ready to Fall,” “Re-Education Through Labor” and many others acoustic. Stripping down the screaming and strummy chord progressions shows well written, hooky, powerful songs that have pop sensibilities without sacrificing meaningful significance. They aren’t generally all that different from the originals besides the change in vocal tone and naked strings, but that’s enough to make it notable.
Stone Temple Pilots
There are a lot of things that contribute to STP’s placement on this list. Most notably is Scott Weiland in his prime, when he could still control his voice and do nearly anything he really wanted. Didn’t matter that he was a fledgling drug addict, all that mattered was his considerable vocal ability. Everything else for the acoustic recordings was perfect as well: Simple percussion, straight-forward guitar, and nearly unchanged bass. That’s all it really took to make some of the best songs in the grunge era even better.
Most notable are “Big Empty,” “Plush,” and “Sourgirl.” With the exception of “Sourgirl,” nearly every song available unplugged were from the earlier career, with the later being the last real single before the band fell apart (and from what I understand, recently reunited or some silly nonsense). I wish they’d kept up with the acoustic material, they could’ve done so much more.
Pearl Jam – They have some fantastic songs acoustic, but none really surpass the originals in terms of improvements or arrangements. “Black” is the only one that really stands out.
Lacuna Coil – Lacuna Coil probably should’ve been included above just for Christina Scabia’s ability alone, and how nice her voice sounds with acoustic guitars. The problems come from the other singer, who really sounds quite terrible. While the guitarists aren’t bad unplugged, they and Christina alone cannot make the songs sound as good as they do when distortion covers the other guy’s voice. However, “Heaven’s a Lie” is quite awesome unplugged.
Staind – They don’t do anything all that special with their music acoustic, and honestly get kind of boring as they go. The one important note is that they cover songs quite well. “Nothing Else Matters” and “Black” are both lovely. Also, “Epiphany” was already acoustic, but it sounds so nice unplugged. This is probably just Aaron Lewis’ voice being so lovely.
Ill Niño – I really wanted to put this band on the list, but they’ve got a few problems. They’ve only got two unplugged songs (and “How Can I Live?” is fantastic acoustic). The singer also can’t seem to control his voice, which is a huge problem. If he had vocal lessons and they wrote more acoustic, then I’m sure I’d love them more.
No Doubt – Not gonna lie, I was never much a fan of No Doubt. I knew a few songs from them, but nothing ever really grabbed me. Unplugged, they’re a cubic shit-ton more interesting, but they don’t really feel like they’re doing all that much to the music. I enjoy them more this way, but they don’t quite rub musically as a band should when they transition between an amp and a sound hole. I think I do enjoy them more now though, for what it’s worth.
This is just how it works in my taste, you don’t have to agree. Maybe you want to count an act like Pink Floyd, who mostly wrote in acoustic. I love them too, but there’s no transition to really look at. Maybe you want to look at the Paige and Plant acoustic thing they did a few years ago. It was cool, but really fucking weird. Doesn’t work very well acoustic without the aid of an entire orchestra. Doesn’t make the mark for me.
End of today’s rant.