Back when MTV launched Unplugged - back when MTV was a music channel - the rock climate was heavily skewed towards big productions. Think Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, - lots of big reverbs, stacked vocals and studio layers that took rock away from its ‘friends in a garage’ roots and made it sound larger than life. It was crazy amounts of fun, of course, but it seemed that fans were craving a little more humanity from their music. What MTV Unplugged provided was a way to hear your favorite musicians, stripped of the studio sweetening. It also ignited an acoustic boom, and soon every band had their acoustic ballad. ‘Unplugged’ soon took on new meaning beyond the show: it wasn’t just a TV program any more, it was a style unto itself. And so this list looks at songs that were actually featured on MTV Unplugged as well as songs that hit the upper reaches of the charts during the acoustic boom that followed. Unplugged still exists but not at the scale it once did. But that’s okay: the cultural ripples of the Unplugged era of the early 90s are still felt today, and there’s no shortage of acts picking up acoustic guitars to speak their musical truths.
Eric Clapton - “Layla”
The acoustic thing was already popular but Eric Clapton’s MTV Unplugged episode was the rallying point that turned it into a true cultural phenomenon. With the influence of “Tears In Heaven” and “Layla,” it seemed that everybody wanted to buy an acoustic guitar and play low-key, in-the-pocket grooves and melodies. Clapton took the opportunity to play plenty of blues covers too, which drew attention to legends like Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. The album of the performance hit number 1 in many countries and it went all sorts of platinum before being certified a diamond record for shipping over 10 million copies in the United States.
Mr. Big - “To Be With You”
Mr. Big were and are a 70s-influenced hard rock band who happen to be home to two of the greatest shredders ever - guitarist Paul Gilbert and bass player Billy Sheehan. So what happens when those four hands wind back the energy and play a singalong acoustic song instead of a jillion-notes-a-second shredfest? You get a huge #1 hit. Mr. Big went on to be utterly huge in Japan and they’ve never shied away from playing their biggest hit, unlike some bands who struggled with their acoustic smashes. Such as…
Extreme - “More Than Words”
Extreme are another band who were heavy on the shred and the hard-hitting rock grooves, but unlike Mr. Big the band had an awkward relationship to their mega hit “More Than Words.” Although Extreme have always had a “We’ll try anything’ approach to songwriting, but this very sense of experimentalism led to this song which placed unfair expectations on their music. Extreme are anything but a pretty-sounding acoustic band, and listeners who bought their album Pornograffiti weren’t prepared for the virtuosic funk-metal contained therein. The band fought against record company pressure to record a follow-up in the same vein and they never reached the same chart heights but - 90s-2000s breakup notwithstanding - have continued to follow their own path and play for the fans who love the band for everything they do, not just that one song that happened to resonate with pretty much the entire world.
Stevie Ray Vaughan - “Pride And Joy”
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Satriani appeared on the same episode of Unplugged - not together though, unfortunately - and Stevie opened his set with a driving 12-string acoustic rendition of “Pride And Joy” which showcased his increased confidence as a vocalist every bit as much as it showcased his in-the-pocket rhythm playing and Hendrix-inspired rhythm/lead hybrid work.
Saigon Kick - “Love Is On The Way”
Active from 1988 to 200 and now reunited, Saigon Kick were another of those ‘not really hair-band but hitting at the end of the hair era’ bands. Their debut album was released in 1991, but it was their second, The Lizard, that contained “Love Is On The Way,” a nuanced and downright pretty ballad with beautiful vocal harmonies and delicate acoustic work. The song reached #12 on the Billboard charts and was certified gold.
Nirvana - “The Man Who Sold The World”
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged episode showed a whole new side of the band, and the choice to play a cover of this 1970 David Bowie track was an inspired one. Nirvana’s version didn’t deviate very far from Bowie’s original in terms of arrangement, but the acoustic textures and the gravel of Kurt Cobain’s voice tapped directly into the lowdown spirit of the song. And Bowie loved it. Unfortunately the two never got to meet or work together, although Bowie has said that he would have loved for that to happen. Could you imagine that collaboration?
Metallica - “Nothing Else Matters”
Okay, to your and my guitaristic ears, we hear this song and know that it’s mostly a whole bunch of clean electric guitars. But the clean guitars and lonesome melodies of this 1991 classic give it a free pass because it’s fun to ponder whether this song would have attained its level of mainstream acceptance if the Unplugged boom wasn’t happening at the same time. Sure, “Enter Sandman” was a huge hit and it attracted the interest of rock fans who hadn’t previously listened to Metallica, but “Nothing Else Matters” was the Metallica song that even pop fans had to stop and pay attention to.
There are plenty of other great acoustic tracks of the era - either on Unplugged itself or simply from that time. What are your favorites?