With this list, I present to you a collection of what I deem the Top 10 greatest acoustic rock songs of all time. Limited to ten choices, this list is far from comprehensive—how could it be?—and features what I consider highlights, with selections that are the most meaningful to me personally. If they’re not already in your listening rotation, be sure to add them.
10. “Pink Moon” – Nick Drake
Known for his incredible fingerpicking technique, penchant for alternate tunings, and withdrawn personality, English singer/songwriter Nick Drake released just three albums before passing away in 1974 at the age of 26 after an ongoing battle with depression. The product of the songwriter’s desire to create a stripped-down record of solo guitar and vocals, Pink Moon is a departure from his first two albums, which were arranged mostly for a full band. Played on a guitar tuned C G C F C E, lowest note to highest, the title track is the only one on the record to feature another instrument (piano).
9. “Crazy on You” – Heart
Starting off with one of the most memorable intros of the ’70s, which features absolute acoustic shredding by songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Nancy Wilson, “Crazy on You” is a triumphant mixture of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and vocals fueled by a driving rock edge. With impressive guitar work performed by a woman in a male-dominated genre—a rarity at the time it was released in 1976—the song is also an early touchstone of female guitarist achievement.
8. “Avalon Blues” – Mississippi John Hurt
Written by one of the most extraordinarily talented acoustic players of the Delta blues genre and perhaps of all time, “Avalon Blues” might not technically be a “rock” song—but it’s hard to argue with its place in the evolution of the genre. On this track, Hurt makes an orchestra out of a single instrument, his picking hand scaffolding a bass line and treble voice with just four fingers at a breakneck—or at least rather challenging to imitate—speed.
7. “New Slang” – The Shins
The most recent song on this list, the Shins’ 2001 single off the band’s debut album, Oh, Inverted World, was rocketed into the pop culture limelight when it was featured on the soundtrack of the 2004 film Garden State. The acoustic ballad makes use of just the I, IV, V, and vi chords in the key of C major, running on a combination of the classic progression and frontman James Russell Mercer’s intricate lyrical imagery.
6. “Exit Music (For a Film)” – Radiohead
Originally written for the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, “Exit Music (For a Film)” was later released on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album, OK Computer. The progressive alternative rock group’s hits feature an array of acoustic and electric tracks, but this one stands out with its surreal lyrics, subdued vocal, and textures furnished by acoustic guitar and synths. I also enjoy jazz pianist Brad Mehldau’s interpretation of the tune.
5. “Astral Weeks” – Van Morrison
After the release of Van Morrison’s 1967 debut record, Blowin’ Your Mind!, and its hit single “Brown Eyed Girl,” audiences and record executives alike expected more of the same from the songwriter on his second full-length album, Astral Weeks. What was delivered instead was an eight-track, stream-of-consciousness blend of folk, rock, jazz, and blues. The album’s backing session musicians were not provided with any lead sheets, and for the title track, flautist John Payne entered the booth never having heard the song before.
4. “Midnight Rider” – The Allman Brothers Band
Described in Gregg Allman’s autobiography as “the song I’m most proud of in my career,” “Midnight Rider” was the second single from the Allman Brothers’ second studio album, Idlewild South (sharing a disc with its B-side, “Whipping Post”). Carried by Duane Allman’s acoustic guitar and Gregg’s vibrant vocals, the song didn’t have chart success until it was re-released on Gregg’s debut solo album a couple years later. It was also famously covered by Joe Cocker, reggae artist Paul Davidson, and Willie Nelson.
3. “Blackbird” – The Beatles
A staple in the folk-rock compendium, “Blackbird” was famously written by Paul McCartney after he was introduced to a certain fingerpicking technique by Scottish folk singer Donovan. Featured on the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 record, or the “White Album,” the tune is one of the few songs by the group that features just solo guitar and voice—with the exception of the background birdsong samples—and though it might sound complicated to play, it’s actually a great song to learn for beginners.
2. “Space Oddity” – David Bowie
A Bowie classic, this track was released on the singer/songwriter’s second self-titled studio album, in 1969. The rock legend composed “Space Oddity” for the film Love You till Tuesday and wrote it from the perspective of the fictional character Major Tom—a creative theme carried on by his later use of characters Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke.
1. “Wish You Were Here” – Pink Floyd
A melancholic ballad from the album by the same name, “Wish You Were Here” was performed on both six- and 12-string acoustic guitars and sung by guitarist and co-writer David Gilmour. The song is often thought to be dedicated to co-founding member Syd Barrett, who left the band in 1968 due to severe mental health issues—but in interviews, bassist and co-writer Roger Waters has said the lyrics were more directed toward himself and are open to interpretation.