As I was listening to Pink Floyd’s song “Wish You Were Here,” I thought to myself “this is a great acoustic song.” I remember learning how to play the guitar part when I was first learning how to play guitar. Then I caught myself: this is not really an acoustic song! It’s considered acoustic because it has prominent guitar parts that are played on acoustic steel-string guitars, but the song also uses electric instruments (namely an electric bass and keyboards). So, what really is an acoustic song?
By definition, an acoustic song is one that only uses acoustic, non-amplified instruments in the performance and the recording of the music. A good example of this would be “Vincent” (also known as “Starry, Starry Night”) by Don Mclean, which uses acoustic steel-string guitar, vibraphone, and strings in the original recording. The sound of the acoustic instruments are recorded straight into the microphone and onto recording media with no signal processing or effects along the way.
Before the advent of electric instruments such as electric guitars and Hammond organs, most recorded music was acoustic. After Rock ‘N Roll came into full swing acoustic songs still filled a special niche in popular music. Artists such as John Denver and Bob Dylan were creating acoustic music that had a certain intimacy and subtle power that still appealed to many people. Electric-based rock was the proverbial “new kid on the block.” The contrast between acoustic and electric music became more prominent as synthesizers and guitar distortion became more widely used in pop music of the 1980’s and beyond.
Since MTV introduced the MTV Unplugged concerts and recordings the definition of acoustic songs has changed a bit. Although these performances are supposed to showcase the artist’s more intimate side using primarily acoustic instruments, you will often see a Hammond organ, an electric bass, or distortion guitar pedal used in these concerts. The MTV Unplugged performances would not be acoustic by the purist definition of acoustic songs, but the music industry and music fans alike have modified the definition for songs that are predominantly acoustic with maybe one or two electric instruments used. Using this more “updated” definition would then make Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” an acoustic song.
Some rock artists from the 1980s and 1990s, especially hard rock bands such as Guns ‘N Roses and Extreme, were known to infrequently record songs using only acoustic guitars that were a departure from their normal electric-based output. These have also come to be identified as acoustic songs. But these days even songs that are primarily electric but also have prominent acoustic guitar parts and riffs are often considered acoustic only because acoustic guitars or an acoustic piano were a major part of the music.
Purely acoustic music in the world of mainstream rock is actually kind of rare. Few artists specialize in acoustic music although many do create acoustic versions of some of there electric-based original songs. Acoustic music still has it’s place as a more intimate, often different view of an artist and their music, and many music listeners still appreciate acoustic songs for their softer, personal, and more organic nature.