Guitar repertoire recommendations
January 24, 2008 1:11 AM   Subscribe

Please suggest songs of increasing difficulty I should master on acoustic guitar for entertainment, edification or attention seeking purposes.

Dearest Hivemind,

My goal for this question is to end up with a nice chain of songs that I can master as my proficiency, and entertainment value, increases. Given my musical ignorance, might you give your suggestions a difficulty rating? I'm imagining a scale with Kumbaya at 1, but I've got no idea what would be at 10 on an acoustic guitar.

I realise that songs can be arranged for varying degrees of difficulty, so I guess I am looking for ratings/suggestions for canonical arrangements. Links to recommended tablature are appreciated, but not necessary.
posted by hifimofo to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Fruit Tree by Nick Drake. Sounds fantastic, is impressive to play, and not as hard as it looks once you get the timing correct. Most of Nick Drake's songs are very staisfying to master, and you also get to play around with tuning and the capo. Working on them should greatly improve your ability too, both the strength of your fingers when chording and your speed and dexterity when finger picking. There is a crowd of people all trying them on youtube, to varying degrees of success. Great fun.
posted by fire&wings at 1:56 AM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you're not quite at a level of playing to handle Nick Drake, Iron & Wine songs are generally pretty sounding, and simple. Though not very impressive. They shouldn't be at the top of your chain.

Feck, I'd give my middle nut to play like Nick Drake.
posted by Corduroy at 3:20 AM on January 24, 2008

Raise your standards. Learn the Segovia scales and then some classical pieces. There is a whole realm of impressive beyond "songs", to the point where you can impress yourself every time you play... and blow away an audience. Really. Gone.
posted by ewkpates at 4:09 AM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

For me, the two artists that sit at the top end in terms of difficulty are Paul Simon and Tommy Emmanuel. Two very different styles but both really difficult to play.

Paul Simon tabs are available on his website. Under stuff, click on chords and lyrics. "Something So Right" is one that I've heard other artists play solo note for note and it just sounds fantastic if you can get it down.

Tommy Emmanuel plays a Travis flatpicking style and you can watch him play Day Tripper/Lady Madonna here. He starts with Old Fashioned Love Song but then goes into Day Tripper/LM with instructions, etc. You can also find the tabs for a lot of Tommy Emmanuel on his website or just do a google search.

Check out that ending riff on Lady Madonna. Wow!
posted by gfrobe at 4:16 AM on January 24, 2008

Hi there,

It appears the OLGA guitar tablature website is down, which is a real shame, but in any case i'll give you my personal list of songs which i progressed through in order to woo women. It feels as though i'm giving you the "backpackng in western europe" story from "friends"!

I started with the norvana back catalogue. It's very easy. There are many songs which use the same chords and you can learn a lot of songs very quickly. I basically started with their "unplugged" album which I really liked. my first songs were "about a girl" and "polly". These are the songs you would rate 1 to 2 on your scale. if you're just starting out.

I remember at a later date being impressed that I could play "street spirit" by radiohead which is probably about a 3 on the scale, but if you're new to playing, it sounds great to learn it. also, people love it, and the more you practice it, the more smooth it gets and the nicer it is to hear at a party at the end of the night.

"yellow" by donovan is another one thats easy enough. I figured this one out after hearing it in the film "rules of attraction" where it sounds great. this is a good one to learn if you want to learn to sing along with your guitar playing. thats the kind of thing I found really difficult, but a song like this is probably the place to start because there aren't that many chords in it once you've got the basic rhythm down.

Now, i didn't know these at the time I was learning because they didn't exist, but there are a few Rufus Wainright songs that are really nice and pretty simple to play. A friend of mine taught me a tune I liked the sound of. i practiced it, got the hang of it, then listened to the lyrics of it. it turned out to be called, "the gay messiah" and i sincerely want to play it in front of a crowd at some point, and watch the peoples faces. "did....did he just say....d...WHAT!"

Another song, which sounds brilliant and isn't actually as difficult as you would think is "the deer hunter" theme tune. for which you can find loads of tablature. I wouldn't say that it teaches you anything about playing because there are so many different types of chords in there, but its something that you can learn to play from the tab and sounds great. its a long one though so it'll take a long time to learn it. This one might really be for later.

anyway. thinking of increasing difficulty, the song i was always aiming for when I started, and which people really like to hear, is "anji" by simon and garfunkel. If you're a beginner its really hard because there are two rhythms going on it. but thats why its the one to aim for, and the one you'll amaze people with when you can play it. its a great wee acoustic number and you'll love playing it. i imagine this is about a 6 on the scale of difficulty. With all of this, proper guitar players and classically trained people may scoff, but if you're just looking to learn some nice songs and get better then i loved this one.

on top of all this of course, are just the pop songs that you hear, and the requests that you get from people.

oh, and one other, once you've got the hang of "anji" is "classical gas" by eric clapton. thats a great wee sounding tune. and probably a 6 or 7. Not really that hard, but sounds great. thats the one to aim for if you ask me!

Have fun!
posted by galactain at 4:51 AM on January 24, 2008

Anysong by Paco de Lucia or Al Di Meola.

For a really great album check out "The Guitar Trio", its Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin & Paco de LucĂ­a after 13 years of not playing together.
posted by Black_Umbrella at 5:00 AM on January 24, 2008

Here's Bireli Lagrene playing Nuages. I think that probably counts as a 10.

I think a fairly standard progression would be from open chords to barre chords, and then legato techniques (hammer-ons and pull-offs) in terms of the left hand. For the right hand, you would go from simple strumming to basic fingerpicking and flatpicking, moving on to faster and more complicated picking and then perhaps the slightly harder hybrid picking technique (pick and fingers at the same time).

I know you're looking for specific songs, but for most people I think steel-string acoustic playing is more about feeling, improvisation and personal expression than it is about cranking out canonical arrangements, which don't even exist for a lot of great music. Isaac Guillory for example didn't play the same piece exactly the same way twice. Top players tend to have very different characteristic styles and personal techniques. Some have a lot of formal training, some have none at all.

If you focus hard on confident rhythm playing, you'll soon be able to play the chords for almost any song and sing over the top. That impresses people, and it'll give you a firm basis for moving on to work on flashy pieces. I've done the opposite and regret it - I was never very interested in straightforward strumming and my left hand strength and fretting always suffered because I didn't put in the hours of bashing out barre chords that you really need to get through if you want to be able to play consistently.
posted by teleskiving at 5:37 AM on January 24, 2008

Somewhere around 2 or 3 has to be "More Than Words" by Extreme. It also correlates negatively on the cheesy scale.
posted by Jofus at 5:58 AM on January 24, 2008

I've been putting together a acoustic guitar/song book for a while now, you can grab a copy if you want.

It's mostly simple, fun songs- about eighty in total.
posted by Static Vagabond at 6:19 AM on January 24, 2008 [6 favorites]

Don't forget Blackbird. It's dead easy (okay, maybe a 3 or 4), but sounds a bit more impressive than that.

Personally, though, I've got a fakebook full of chords (many of which were cribbed from Gunther Anderson) for campfires that everyone seems to enjoy. Can't beat "Under the Sea" for the end-of-the-night singalong when the fire is dying and the whiskey is nearly gone.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:21 AM on January 24, 2008

I don't know how advanced you are, but for "entertainment, edification or attention seeking purposes" I love FretKillr's YouTube channel, featured recently on the Blue. I think that's first-rate.

Also, seconding Tommy Emmanuel: there's lot's of good YouTube of him.
posted by RussHy at 6:32 AM on January 24, 2008

Hmm, increasing difficulty, acoustic guitar.....

Start with traditional songs like "Water is wide" by Karla Bonoff and James Taylor. Circle be Unbroken, and perhaps Amazing Grace. Everyone knows these songs, and they provide a nice baseline. Easy to play, and generally 4 - 6 chords.

Go into older folky type as next stage, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, maybe some Don MacLean. Vincent is an awesome piece that lots of people love, but very few guitarists play it. Green Day's "Time of your life" or some of the Beatles pieces that have been re-done are also fairly easy to play and impress. If your voice can do it, throw a little Dwight Yoakum into the mix, as his songs are 4 chord specials, but require good vocal control. Neil Young/John Mellancamp/Steve Earle/Chris Isaac for starts (Jimmy Buffets "Why don't we get drunk" always brings out the loud ones).

Then into something like Landslide by Fleetwood Mac, or Crystal by Buckingham Nicks. Tears in Heaven by Clapton is an easy enough song to play, but will take some practice. Try some Collective Soul or Wallflowers and maybe some Nickel Creek. This will challenge you, but also provide the audience with a good listening experience when they have exhausted their repertoire. Quieter songs normally take a little more intricacy than loud bar type songs. And that's OK.

2* what Teleskiving said also, its about improv, confidence and consistency. If your voice is weak, you need to compensate through better guitar playing and showing those little nuances that distinguish you from other methodic strummers.

Oh, and NO Stairway to Heaven or House of the Rising Sun. Please?

For a listen of where you want to get to, try Mediterranean Sundance by Al Dimeola and Paco de Lucia. Wow.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 6:35 AM on January 24, 2008

Johnny Cash is both remarkably fun and remarkably easy.
posted by General Malaise at 7:18 AM on January 24, 2008

I saw Al Dimeola live a few months back and watching him play was like looking into another dimension.

Recommendation on a cool song that will help you improve your skills: "Patterns in the Ivy" by Opeth.
posted by baphomet at 7:53 AM on January 24, 2008

I think anything by Michael Hedges would be brilliant. Here's the tabs and Youtube video for Aerial Boundaries, just to give you an idea of difficulty.

I've heard from more than one place that he is one of, if not the, greatest acoustic player ever.

Obligatory link to him covering All along the Watchtower because it's simply amazing.
posted by Industrial PhD at 10:02 AM on January 24, 2008

"Blackbird" is an unfailingly impressive (and deceptively easy) song to play for people. It's even easy to sing the lyrics while smultaneously playing it on guitar, which is something I normally have difficulty doing.

Also from the White Album, "Mother Nature's Son" is another good singalong tune, with a moderately difficult guitar arrangement.

Anything from Billy Bragg's first two albums would be great additions to a solo guitarist's repitoire. I really like "Milkman of Human Kindness"

If you don't mind retuning your guitar, there are several amazing Led Zeppelin/Jimmy Page instrumentals that are both easy to play, relatively obscure (you wont get any "Stairway to Heaven" rolling eyes) and beautiful sounding. In particular, "Bron-yr-Aur and "Black Mountain Side" (yes, he ripped off Bert Jansch, but it's a beautiful song, regardless). The DADGAD tuning used on Black Mountain Side is my favorite alternate tuning ever. Sounds incredibly beautiful, and makes easy things sound more difficult than they really are.
posted by melorama at 10:05 AM on January 24, 2008

I don't know that I would include improvised music (as in Al DiMeola) in this difficulty spectrum. It's an entirely different skill set.

Check out The Clap by Steve Howe of Yes. Not improvised, although it may sound that way. It's quite challenging.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 12:05 PM on January 24, 2008

Here's how i learnt -
1. Print out the tabs of songs you like into a big pile.
2. Shuffle.
3. Try and play the top one, if you can, awesome, if not, put it to the bottom of the pile.
4. Repeat.
posted by spongeboy at 4:00 PM on January 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

For entertainment purposes:

- Hit Me Baby One More Time. Listen to the Weezer version and you'll know what I mean. Easy, easy. Maybe a 2 on your scale but you can embellish it a little.

- Dancing Queen by Abba. I shit you not, this is a fun song to learn and play on acoustic. A good mix of chords. Not really tough once you get the hang. Maybe a 3 rating.

Sorry, this is all I've got for now.
posted by quadog at 12:46 AM on January 25, 2008

To really hit that '10', I second ewkpates and say learn classical.

The most impressive guitar playing I've heard were classical pieces from Segovia and from Villa-Lobos.

Learn how to do harmonics. My all-time favorite was something from Villa-Lobos that had lots of harmonics in it. Really amazing. Sorry, I don't remember the name of the piece. IANAG (not a guitarist), but was impressed many years ago in college by friend who did play.

Here's a book with Villa-Lobos music and with instructions at back on fingering and also on how to play harmonics.
posted by marsha56 at 7:22 PM on January 25, 2008

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