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Going Unplugged


Nirvana did it. Eric Clapton did it too. So did Pearl Jam, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, KISS, R.E.M. and Springsteen. These artists and many others, who are known more for their electric performances than they are acoustic, have all at some point unplugged and gone bare bones with their music.

Now, we're not talking "unplugged" in the literal sense, as in no amplification. What we're referring to here is when a musician plays a stripped-down version of their electric repertoire on an acoustic instrument that is amplified, but to a lesser degree. If you remember MTV Unplugged, you'll recall the series wasn't actually a showcase for artists playing their instruments without amplification, but rather for bands performing their songs on acoustic instruments that were plugged in to smaller, less powerful amps.

Going unplugged adds a degree of intimacy to a song that approximates playing in one's living room or around a campfire. It can sometimes feel a little too personal for comfort though, like Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," which he wrote to cope with the pain of the tragic loss of his four-year-old son, Conor, and Nirvana's haunting, legendary Unplugged in New York performance, which was recorded four months prior to Kurt Cobain's death. Especially poignant is Cobain's rendition of Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night."

When you take a song unplugged, you can't simply play the same song, note for note, on a different instrument and expect it to sound as good as or even better than the original. In most cases, it won't. Average will be as good as it gets. The challenge in going unplugged then doesn't concern trying to be heard, but involves the ability to take an electric song and make it translate as an acoustic one. Compare the plugged-in version of Eric Clapton's signature song "Layla" with the unplugged version, which he completely reinvented. Same song, very different sound.

The key to reworking heavier songs as acoustic numbers without sacrificing the power and passion of the song is to keep in mind the differences between electric and acoustic guitars as well as the context of the original song. Are you playing unplugged as part of a band or in a solo situation? If you are creating a solo acoustic version of a song that's played by a whole band, you'll need to compensate for what the band provides.

The following are some tips to help you adapt an electric piece to an acoustic guitar and make it every bit as compelling as the song it's based on:

Add bass lines to your chord progressions. Learn the existing bass line to the song you're creating the acoustic version from and include elements of it in your arrangement, especially if you are creating a solo version where it's just you, your guitar, and a vocal. This will help fill out the sound more and create movement within your chord progressions.

Swap out power chords for open and barre chords. For a bigger, fuller sound on your unplugged song, replace the power chords in the electric version with open and/or barre chords. This can be a great way to build the intensity and dynamics in your acoustic song when you don't have the distortion of the electric guitar at your disposal. You don't necessarily have to replace every power chord, it really depends on the context of the song. Whether you go with open or barre chords will also depend on the situation in regard to chord picking, embellishments, strumming approaches, etc.

Strum more. Another way to compensate for the loss of distortion, sustain, and lack of other instruments (assuming you're playing without a band backing you) is to strum more in your acoustic version. Strumming can have a very percussive effect on your acoustic guitar, providing you with a cool groove, and can be a great tool for compensating for the lack of other instruments if you are playing solo. It's also great for building intensity and dynamics in your song.

Add bits of melody to chord progressions. A very effective way to round out and add interest to your sound, especially if you are creating a solo acoustic version, is to include hints of the song's melody in your chord progressions. In doing so you will end up with some really sweet embellishments and extensions to your chords. This approach will fill out the progressions of your acoustic song more, and can even provide a nice instrumental break within the song.

Try fingerpicking. Fingerpicking allows you to play more than one note simultaneously. Using your fingers also provides a different tone compared to that of a pick. It comes in especially handy at times when you're walking the bass line and want to put in the chords on the upbeat, and when adding melody lines to the song. Fingerpicking is also useful for arpeggios and embellishment techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, all of which help beef up your sound and make it more captivating.

Incorporate percussive elements. By introducing slaps, knocks, raps and other hands-on-wood effects into your playing, you can enliven and add greater sonic interest to your unplugged performance. Percussive elements are a great technique to emulate the feel of a rhythm section in a solo acoustic song.

Use slides. Certain techniques are harder to execute on an acoustic guitar than they are an electric. String bending is one of them. Due to the extra tension in the strings of an acoustic, it can be difficult to bend them. Sliding is a good substitute. Sliding to your note instead of bending to it will provide a slightly different sound. It's nuances like this that will give your unplugged song that acoustic sound.

Try double stops. Double stops are a great tool to consider when it comes to soloing on your acoustic guitar. Double stops are when you play two notes together at the same time. They help to add intensity to your solo lines. A nice contrast is created between the double stops and your single notes when you use them, and they also thicken up the sound of a riff. This provides you with yet another way to compensate for the lack of distortion and sustain of the electric guitar.

These are just a few ideas to help you get started stripping down your songs. If you play a lot of solos, be sure to dig deeper into the techniques for soloing unplugged.

Have fun experimenting and retooling some of your old favorites. Of course, while you are learning to rework your electric songs as acoustic numbers, it helps to carefully listen to some artists who have done it. Compare their unplugged songs to the original versions to see what those artists have done, then take those ideas and implement them into your own unique takes of songs on your acoustic. 

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