In the late 1960s, everyone had to have an acoustic guitar. American youth had passed through the Greenwich Village folk boom and entered the West Coast Laurel Canyon scene. Young women who wanted to be men inspired by Joni Mitchell and Neil Young went to local musical instrument stores to pick out their art badge. In Europe, folks mixed traditional troubadour tunes with blues and rock, creating a genre that survives to this day. The most fuzzy psychedelic combos proudly displayed their introspective acoustic side. Everyone had an acoustic guitar. Of course, country music has never been forgotten. Except for a short interlude of microphone-hugging country crooners, Nashville kept the beat going.
So what makes the acoustic guitar so tireless? First and foremost, the beauty of its sound. Like the violin or the piano, the no-frills guitar has a purity of sound and purpose that moves unlike electronic instruments. In concert, the link between the musician and the sound heard by the audience is undeniable. It’s a tightrope walk, where technology can’t fool the listener. The fewer links in the chain, the closer the bond between performer and patron – and that’s the experience people dream of.d
Before you dismiss the seemingly flimsy, hollow-body cowpoke guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again.
Another more practical aspect is portability. Although street musicians have more recently turned to elaborate amplifier and loop setups for street gigs, few things beat a great vocalist backed by an acoustic guitar. Admittedly, I can’t imagine lugging an amp and synthesizer down to the beach to jam some Bill Evans while friends roast s’mores. Alright, maybe. But the simplicity of a bare guitar in a dorm hallway or coffee shop can be a refreshing break from the relentless onslaught of electronic pop culture. In a world of modern music’s autotune, backing tracks, and deadly ambush, 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 people.
Another strong argument in favor of the acoustic ax is its supremacy as an accompanist. Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t leave many viable options. Although Chet Baker had a career as a trumpeter crooner, playing the horn while vocalizing requires extra backup. Singing while playing the violin is not much easier. The piano is probably the most versatile survey accompanist, but while I love Diana Krall, Ray Charles and Elton John, their instrument of choice has them partying on the piano, not the other way around. You can argue that the electric guitar is a contender. Unfortunately, the slight portability drawback of needing an amp and its tendency to drown out vocals make it the second choice, whereas the acoustic guitar ticks all the right boxes.
All of this isn’t to say that an acoustic guitar doesn’t have the ability to deliver impressive solo performance. Some of the most inspiring and emotionally vibrant instrumental music is delivered acoustically. The list of players currently burning the sleeve across all genres is immense, perhaps the largest in history. The acoustic guitar’s forte is bringing a passionate, thoughtful melody to any song. This secret weapon has been applied to recordings by artists as diverse as the Beatles, Kiss and Dream Theater. In the rhythm department, the acoustic steel string has been responsible for the fundamental power of The Who, Alice in Chains, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses and countless other “heavy” bands.
So before you dismiss the seemingly flimsy, hollow-body, cowpoke acoustic guitar as the electric’s poorer cousin, think again. They might not be as loud or flashy, but they pack a big emotional punch that often flies under the radar. Several decades later, I wish I had paid more attention to what that first guitar student had to offer me. Maybe I would have kept it too