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Top 11 Acoustic Guitar Rock Songs
“To stand up on a stage alone with an acoustic guitar requires bravery bordering on heroism. Bordering on insanity.”
- “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)” by Rod Stewart
Actress Britt Ekland said Rod Stewart revealed that he wrote “You’re in My Heart” for her while they dined at a restaurant. “In the middle of the meal, Rod leaned over to me and whispered, ‘I’ve written a song for you,'” Ekland said in Classic Rock Stories. “No one took any notice as Rod softly sang the words into my ear. My eyes filled with tears. It was the loveliest song I had ever heard.”
Not so fast, says Stewart. “It wasn’t totally about Britt. The first verse could have been about Liz Treadwell. It could have been about anybody I met in that period — and there were a lot of them. It’s a very confused song in a way. It’s about a lot more than just women, it’s also about my love of soccer. That’s why my two favorite teams [‘Celtic, United’] are mentioned at the end. The chorus is about Scotland. So it ends up being about three women, two football teams, and a country. And the line ‘You’ll be my breath should I grow old’ — I think that must have been about my mum and dad.”
Stewart recorded “You’re in My Heart” for his 1977 album Foot Loose & Fancy Free. Fred Tackett, a member of Little Feat, played acoustic guitar on the track, a number four hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
- “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce
Jim Croce wrote “Time in a Bottle” in December 1970 when his wife Ingrid told him she was pregnant. The song was recorded for Croce’s 1972 album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West. Croce was accompanied on acoustic guitar by long-time collaborator Maury Muehleisen. “We wanted to keep it simple, with Jim singing and Maury playing — that’s it,” Cashman recalled in Mix. “But we stumbled over a harpsichord that was sitting in the Hit Factory, and Tommy was intrigued about the possibility of adding it to the record.”
West added two tracks of harpsichord, which complemented strings and Muehleisen’s guitar. “Time in a Bottle” was intended as an album track but was released posthumously as a single after Croce, Muehleisen and four others died in a plane crash Sept. 20, 1973. “Time in a Bottle” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1974.
- “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash
Crosby, Stills & Nash released “Southern Cross” in late 1982, a Top 20 single from their Daylight Again album. David Crosby did not rejoin the group until after the song was recorded.
The Southern Cross is a constellation visible in the Southern hemisphere. Its four brightest stars form a cross, which sailors use in navigation. “‘Southern Cross’ is based on the song ‘Seven League Boots’ by Rick and Michael Curtis,” Stills explained in the liner notes of the CSN box set. “The Curtis Brothers brought a wonderful song called ‘Seven League Boots,’ but it drifted around too much. I rewrote a new set of words and added a different chorus, a story about a long boat trip I took after my divorce. It’s about using the power of the universe to heal your wounds. Once again, I was given somebody’s gem and cut and polished it.”
The Curtis Brothers recorded a demo of “Seven League Boots” in 1974 with Stevie Nicks singing backing vocals with Lindsey Buckingham as producer. The duo recorded as Buckingham Nicks before they joined Fleetwood Mac. The song was unreleased when Stills discovered and modified it.
“Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash
“Seven League Boots” by the Curtis Brothers
- “Small Town” by John Mellencamp
John Mellencamp wrote “Small Town” in the early 1980s with the help of an electric typewriter, a gift from his then-wife, Victoria Granucci. “I’m the worst speller in the world, so Vicky had ordered an electric typewriter with a built-in spell-check system,” Mellencamp told the Wall Street Journal. “I’d put a sheet of paper in and start typing, but the words I misspelled weren’t being corrected. Frustrated, I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’m just a stupid hillbilly. What do I know? I was born in a small town’ . . . I had my Gibson Dove, so I put the guitar strap around my neck and started playing and typing lyrics.”
“Small Town” reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985. “That’s a vague song, ‘I was born in a small town,’ Mellencamp said in American Songwriter. “How many small towns can you apply to that situation? Is that LaCrosse, Wisconsin, or is that Bloomington, Indiana, or is that Collins, Texas? ‘I had myself a ball in a small town.’ I mean, doing what?
“It’s so open-ended . . . it’s so vague. But I think that’s what made the song work. And plus, I think I use the words ‘small town’ 975 times in the song.”
- “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty
“Free Fallin'” opens Tom Petty‘s Full Moon Fever, his first solo album without the Heartbreakers. Written with ELO’s Jeff Lynne, who also performed backing vocals, the track reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990. “Free Fallin'” features Petty on 12-string acoustic guitar. Petty explained in Billboard that the song only took a few days to write and record.
“Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff,” said Petty. “Just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing. Honestly, I thought I was just amusing Jeff but then I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’
“And I went to sing that and he said, ‘No, take your voice up and see how that feels.’ So I took my voice up an octave or two, but I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good. It was that fast. He had to go somewhere, and I wrote the last verse and kind of just polished the rest of the song and when I saw him the next day I played him the song and he was like, ‘Wow, you did that last night?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said. ‘We’ve got to go cut this,’ and we just took off to Mike Campbell’s studio where we knew we could get in and get it done that day. So we went in and made the record that day.”
- “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen
“‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ took me five or ten minutes,” Queen‘s Freddie Mercury told Melody Maker in 1981. “I did that on the guitar, which I can’t play for nuts, and in one way it was quite a good thing because I was restricted, knowing only a few chords. It’s a good discipline because I simply had to write within a small framework. I couldn’t work through too many chords and because of that restriction I wrote a good song, I think.”
Mercury played acoustic rhythm guitar on the track, which became Queen’s first number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980. “It’s Freddie’s tribute to Elvis in a way, he was very fond of Elvis, and of Cliff [Richard],” Queen guitarist Brian May revealed on Absolute Radio. “Freddie wrote it very quickly and rushed in and put it down with the boys and by the time I got there it was almost done.” Mercury continued to perform the song on acoustic guitar in concert.
- “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young
Neil Young suffered from a back injury when he recorded “Heart of Gold” in Nashville in February 1971. Forced to wear a brace and unable to stand for long periods of time, Young could not play an electric guitar. Instead, he played acoustic guitar and harmonica on “Heart of Gold.” James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, in town to perform on The Johnny Cash Show, contributed backing vocals.
Released in 1972, “Heart of Gold” was Young’s sole number one hit. Its broad popularity caused Young to remark in the liner notes of his 1977 compilation album Decade, “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
Young’s vocals are reminiscent of Bob Dylan‘s, a fact that that was not lost on the legendary singer-songwriter. “The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold,'” DyIan recalled in Spin. “I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.'”
- “Angie” by the Rolling Stones
“Angie” was the number one single from the Rolling Stones‘ 1973 album Goats Head Soup. Written primarily by Keith Richards, the song features Richards’ acoustic guitar with piano accompaniment by Nicky Hopkins. Richards wrote “Angie” at a clinic in Switzerland as he detoxed from his heroin addiction.
There has been speculation that the song was about David Bowie‘s wife, Angela; Richards’ daughter, Dandelion Angela; and even actress Angie Dickinson. “I wrote ‘Angie’ in an afternoon, sitting in bed, because I could finally move my fingers and get them in the right place again,” Richards wrote in his autobiography Life. “I just went ‘Angie, Angie.’ It was not about any particular person; it was a name, like ‘ohhh, Diana.'”
- “Baby, I Love Your Way” by Peter Frampton
Peter Frampton first released “Baby, I Love Your Way” on his 1975 album Frampton. But it was the live version, included on 1976’s Frampton Comes Alive!, that reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Frampton told The Guardian that he wrote the song believing that his record company was about to drop him.
“I had three weeks off, so took my guitar to Nassau in the Bahamas to write another album, knowing it was probably make or break. I bumped into Alvin Lee from Ten Years After at the airport and thought: ‘I won’t get any work done now.’ I don’t remember anything about the next two weeks, but after Alvin left I thought: ‘I’ve got a week left to write the album.’
“The next day I messed around with my acoustic and in about 20 minutes came up with the chords that became ‘Show Me the Way.’ I had some lunch and a little swim and under a palm tree I then wrote ‘Baby, I Love Your Way.’ Both songs are about the girlfriend I was about to start living with. With ‘Baby, I Love Your Way,’ the sun was setting, so I wrote: ‘The shadows grow so long before my eyes.’ The moonlight brought the fireflies out, so they went into the song, too.”
“Baby, I Love Your Way” (from Frampton Comes Alive!) by Peter Frampton
- “Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp
“Give a Little Bit” opens Supertramp’s Even the Quietest Moments … LP. The single reached number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was written by Roger Hodgson, who performs on 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars. The song was recorded at Colorado’s Caribou Ranch studio. Engineering assistant Tom Likes explained in Colorado Music Experience that Hodgson had the idea to record his guitar solos in the studio’s elevator to achieve a “special” sound. “There were walls on three sides of it with the front being open. Brass gates kept someone from accidentally falling from the second-floor studio to the first floor.”
The elevator was lowered halfway between the floors. “This way the guitars sounded fuller than they did in the acoustically dampened studio,” said Likes. “After some experimenting with microphone placement and such, everyone was happy with the sound and we began recording.”
The song was written at the end of the 1960s but Hodgson did not suggest it for Supertramp for four years. “I’ve always had a longing,” he told Mix. “I’ve known that love is what I long for, what I want, what I believe we’re here to learn, ultimately. And things had begun to sour for the Beatles, with their breaking up, and the whole love revolution of the ’60s, and John’s ‘All You Need Is Love’ kind of fading, maybe it was an answer — ‘Oh, just give a little bit.'”
- “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
After a June 1967 gig at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, Otis Redding and his road manager, “Speedo” Sims, rented a houseboat in Sausalito for a few days of relaxation. Strumming an acoustic guitar, Redding began to write “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Redding had been listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. He hoped to produce a song that was an evolution from his R&B roots.
“We must have been out there three or four days before I could get any concept as to where he was going with the song,” Sims recalled in Performing Songwriter. “I just didn’t understand it. And lyrically, it sounded weird. He was changing with the times. And I was looking at the times change.”
By December, Redding returned to Stax studios in Memphis and worked with guitarist Steve Cropper to finish the tune. Cropper’s distinctive acoustic guitar accompanied Redding. “When I wrote with Otis, I always tried to make the lyric about him and his life,” said Cropper. “Songs like ‘Mr. Pitiful,’ ‘Sad Song’—those are all about him. ‘Dock of the Bay’ was, too. Otis trusted me. I always seemed to do the things he liked.”
Redding recorded “Dock of the Bay” and two days later was back on tour. Redding and four bandmembers died on Dec. 10, 1967 when their plane crashed near Madison, Wisconsin. Cropper finished producing the song, adding the sound of seagulls and waves crashing to the background, which Redding recalled from his time on the houseboat. “Dock of the Bay,” released posthumously, reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1968.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
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