So heres the tricky bit about taking up the guitar, or any instrument, particularly when you’ve been out of the loop of learning for a while. You know what you want to play, because you listen to music, which is why you want to play in the first place, but there’s not an obvious path as to how to get there. So, to that end, I’ve written put a list of songs that I’ve used a lot in lessons and classes and that I think either demonstrate a technical or musical point that can then be applied to other pieces. Another advantage of using songs rather than exercises is building a repertoire, as the more stuff you know, the quicker it is to learn new things.
This list is in a rough order of increasing difficulty, and are all acoustic songs. Its by no means definitive, and I’ve put short notes under each song, suggesting why I think each one is useful. So if anybody is absolutely new to the guitar and wondering where to start, I think theres a lot to be said for starting with a song like blowing in the wind, or Babe I’m going to Leave you is great to start fingerpicking on. Another thing is that it doesnt have to be the full version of a song right at the start….sometimes its easier to keep it simple and get the rhythm going then add to it later. In another post i’ll put tabs outlining some key points, but there are plenty of sites where you can find tab for these songs.
Blowing in the Wind – Bob Dylan
Well known, classic 3 chord trick song in the key of G (G, C & D). Offers a lot of rhythmic possibilities, but at its most basic is a great song to start putting those chord progressions together
Walk the Line – Johnny Cash,
Another 3 chord trick (this time in A – A, D and E), which are slightly more difficult to move between than G, C, and D. Like Blowing in the Wind, this can be played very simply (4 downstrums per chord), but to get the ‘sound’ an alternating bass technique is needed
Time of Your Life (good Riddance) – Green Day
In the Key of G, but this time with a fourth chord, the relative minor, Em. The intro gives a chance to play single notes across the strings, while the main body of the song has quick chord changes and more complex rhythms
House Of the Rising Sun – The Animals
Count this one in groups of 3 as its in 6/8 time. A more complicated chord progression and picked arpeggios on every chord on this arrangement of a traditional song.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana / Wonderwall – Oasis
Power chords – most chords contain 3 notes, power chords only contain 2. These are the backbone of rock music and Smells like Teen Spirit combines power chords with some muting and a fast strumming pattern. Wonderwall also has a fast strumming pattern, and although no power chords, it’s a good look at how chords fit together using common shared notes
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You – Anne Briggs, Led Zepplin
Written by folk singer, Anne Bredon, this appeared on Led Zepplin I. Like any of these tunes, you can simplify it down a bit to make a good beginning fingerpicking piece. Add in the melody and you have a fully fledged fingerpicking tune, that’s within reach. Theres a couple of unusual up the neck chords later on, but they aren’t as complex as they may first appear, although do take a bit of work.
Norwegian Wood – The Beatles
A second tune in 6/8 time (counting in 3s). A simple enough, if slightly off the wall chord progessison in the main, but it’s a masterclass at playing a melody line and chords simulateneously
Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie
Avoided up to now, but you cant dodge those barre chords forever. This contains a Bm, and barred versions of Am, G and F along with the open chords. House of the rising sun also contains an F, but you can play this without a barre. Not quite so here.
The Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young
Neil young has essentially 2 totally different guitar styles…the on your face elctric style and the country influenced acoustic style. Needle and the damage done first has the melody played in the treble strings against a descending bass line, then in the bass strings against rhythmic chordal stabs
Factory Girl – The Rolling Stones
Another song putting the melody in with the chords, but different from the needle and the damage done and Norwegian Wood in the way that it HAS to swing. No list of essential acoustic guitar songs would be complete without a Keith Richards nod, and this is great.
The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel / Don’t Think Twice it alright – Bob Dylan
More Fingerpicking…both these songs have similar chord sequences and fingerpicking patterns. The fingerpicking is a good introduction to alternating thumb style or travis picking ….when that’s solid, theres intro’s and other little runs that make the instrumentation
Pride and Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan
A 12 bar blues is one of the most important things to be able to navigate on the guitar, and the key of E a favourite for most guitarists. This is a supercharged version, with walking bass lines and fast lead runs in the rhythm guitar parts
Oh Well – Fleetwood Mac
Not really an acoustic guitar song, but it works really well on acoustic, and has an acoustic guitar in it. Get those hammer ons and pull-offs going. Every note has to be clean to make this work, then add some left hand muting into the second part, and hit the strings hard
More Than Words – Extreme / May you Never – John Martyn
Two very different songs with one major thing in common. The Rhythmic fingerpicked guitar parts give a backbeat, or click on beats 2 and 4 mimicking that of a snare drum. Tricky to perfect but great for when other fingerpicking styles just wont cut it.
Heres a late edit to this post (december 2012). Another take on the same subject