Today we’re going to revisit one of my favorite periods of music, the grunge era. In particular, we’ll be looking at the significance of the acoustic guitar and its contribution to grunge during the 90s. We’ll also take a look at some landmark albums, and MTV unplugged performances from grunge icons such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice in Chains.
But if you are here for a list of the best acoustic grunge tracks of the 90s, I’ve included my top 20 list below (in no particular order) below.
Image Credit – “Nirvana Unplugged”, by Julio Zeppelin, licensed under CC BY 4.0
20 Best Acoustic Grunge Songs
- “Seasons” – Chris Cornell
- “Nutshell” – Alice in Chains
- “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” – Pearl Jam
- “Polly” – Nirvana
- “Pretty Penny” – Stone Temple Pilots
- “Touch Peel & Stand” – Days of the New
- “No Excuses” – Alice In Chains
- “Like Suicide” (acoustic version) – Soundgarden
- “Crackerman” (acoustic version) – Stone Temple Pilots
- “Black” (acoustic version) – Pearl Jam
- “Plush’ (acoustic version) – Stone Temple Pilots
- “Penny Royal Tea” (acoustic version) – Nirvana
- “The Shelf in the Room” – Days of the New
- “Right Turn” – Alice in Chains
- “All Apologies” (acoustic version) – Nirvana
Continue reading for more great songs and iconic acoustic performances from the grunge era.
What is Grunge?
The grunge era exploded out of Washington, Seattle in the late 80s, peaking during the early 90s before becoming gradually diluted into post-grunge typified by artists such as the Foo Fighters, Bush, and Collective Soul.
Grunge, aka “The Seattle Sound” was more or less, a musical revolution emanating from one American city, Seattle, and initially through one local Seattle record label, SUB-POP Records.
At its inception “grunge” represented a massive cultural shift in popular music that was best exemplified by Nirvana’s “Nevermind” replacing, then King of Pop, Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” at the top of the Billboard charts.
While record execs didn’t see it coming, the style over substance approach to hard rock and popular music (best demonstrated by hair bands such as Poison, Cinderella, and Motley Crue) of the late 80s had well and truly passed its use-by date.
Once Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves, this (mostly regrettable) era of pointy guitars, and self-indulgent over-produced pop fell instantly out of favor, and bands including Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Screaming Trees, and Stone Temple Pilots, were thrust into the spotlight.
So what’s all this got to do with the acoustic guitar?
While it’s true the grunge sound could be best summed up by the legendary Boss DS-1 distortion pedal grunge also had a distinct acoustic side, as many of the artists mentioned above performed, and released a trove of acoustic material.
Why Does the Acoustic Guitar Work so Well with Grunge?
Neil Young, often referred to as the godfather of grunge, folk grunge (and any other label you want to put on it) was often cited as a major influence by both Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who both recorded material with him at different stages of their careers.
Much to his dismay, Cobain even referenced the Neil Young lyric “It’s better to burn out than fade away” from the song “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)” in his suicide note.
The influence Young’s music had on Alice in Chains is also evident in songs such as “Over Now”.
While the flannel-wearing Young was certainly responsible, in part, for the aesthetic of grunge, his 1979 release with Crazy Horse “Rust never Sleeps” was seen by many as the precursor to the music of grunge 10 years later.
“Rust Never Sleeps” was an eclectic mix of bare acoustic tracks such as “Thrasher”, and “Ride My Llama”, coupled with electric guitar tracks such as “Hey Hey, My, My (Into the Black)”, delivered with a punk rock attitude that fit the 90s grunge era like a glove.
Other significant influences on the grunge scene aside from Black Sabbath, The Ramones, and The Pixies (to name a few) were The Beatles and Led Zepellin.
Both bands used the acoustic guitar extensively, and both were a significant influence on the songwriting of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden especially.
Perhaps, another reason grunge worked so well on the acoustic guitar, aside from the songs being great songs, and therefore easily transferable to the acoustic guitar, was the use of alternate tunings.
While drop and open tunings are far from exclusive to the acoustic guitar, tunings like drop D “(Heart-Shaped Box” – Nirvana, “Spoonman” – Soundgarden) along with open tunings such as open G (“Even Flow” – Pearl Jam, “Big Empty” – Stone Temple Pilots) lend themselves particularly well to the acoustic guitar, especially drop D, perhaps the signature tuning of the grunge era.
Landmark Acoustic Grunge Moments
There were a number of standout acoustic grunge moments during the 90s, below are three of the most significant.
Seasons – Chris Cornell
By the time the movie “Singles” had been released which included cameo appearances by members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, grunge had been thrust into the spotlight.
Director Cameron Crowe, by all accounts a big fan of Soundgarden, based the movie in Seattle at the height of the grunge era (1992) ensuring the accompanying soundtrack would receive enormous interest.
The singles soundtrack featured an impressive array of Seattle-based artists including Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Jimi Hendrix, and The Lovemongers (Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart) performing Led Zepellin’s, “The Battle of Evermore” but the standout was the haunting acoustic track “Seasons‘ By Chris Cornell.
The song was written after Cornell stumbled across a fictitious demo tape for one of the movie’s central characters Cliff Poncier (played by Matt Dillon).
Cornell thought it would be funny to write and record a real demo tape for Poncier, and “Seasons” was one of the songs included.
A year earlier Soundgarden had released Badmotorfinger and Cornell had found himself on the cover of Spin magazine, as the hard-rocking belligerent face of grunge.
Seasons demonstrated the versatility of an artist that would eventually be recognized as one of the best songwriters of his era, and one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time.
Cornell’s guitar work has long been underrated, and the Zeppelin-ish acoustic guitar tuned to F5 was a mix of blues, and folk, with inspired lyrics (“Dreams have never been the answer, dreams have never made my bed.”). It was nothing short of genius.
Cornell’s love of the acoustic guitar was apparent throughout his career before his untimely death in 2017. Anyone who has had the pleasure of catching a solo acoustic Chris Cornell performance knows what an amazing artist he was.
And for those who haven’t seen the movie, keen Soundgarden fans will hear a few seconds of an acoustic rendition of the song “Spoonman” during the movie.
Spoonman was another song Cornell wrote for Poncier’s fictitious demo tape, which predates the release of “Superunknown”, in which “Spoonman” was the lead single (winning a Grammy in 1995 for best metal performance) by two years.
Jar of Flies and Sap – Alice in Chains
Perhaps nothing typified acoustic grunge better than AIC’s two acoustic EPs “Sap” (1992) and “Jar of Flies” (1994) which both showcased a band equally at home on the acoustic as the electric guitar.
“Sap” was the second release for the band after their debut album “Facelift” put them on the map. Unlike” Facelift”, “Sap” comprises an almost entirely acoustic set including:
- “Right Turn”
- “Got Me Wrong”
- “Am I Inside”
Along with the chaotic hidden track “Love Song”.
Following the release of the band’s third studio album, 1992’s “Dirt”, Alice in Chains spent a week recording “Jar of Flies“, which went on to become the first EP in history to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard charts, narrowly missing out on a grammy along the way.
Legend has it the band didn’t have any of the songs written prior to going into the studio. Regardless, “Jar of Flies” featured a number of classic acoustic grunge songs including:
- “Rotten Apple”
- “I Stay Away”
- “No Excuses”
- “Whale and Wasp”
- “Don’t Follow”
- “Swing on This”
Days of the New – Days of the New
Released in 1997, well after grunge’s initial peak, Days of the New’s debut release (Orange) catapulted a band riddled with inner turmoil, into the stratosphere. And although late to the party, and lacking the heritage of the other bands mentioned here, along with “Jar of Flies” is one of the best examples of acoustic grunge music.
Guitarist and songwriter Travis Meeks’ nasally, angst-ridden vocals, and heavy use of open tunings exclusively on acoustic guitar found their mark.
And, on the back of the no. 1 hit “Touch, Peel, and Stand’ and top 40 hit “Shelf in the Room” the album went on to sell over 1.5 million copies worldwide.
Tensions within the band (Meeks claimed the other members of the band held him back musically) soon brought along the demise of the original lineup, parting ways in 1999.
MTV unplugged was largely responsible for the resurgence in popularity of the acoustic guitar during the 90s. Prior to this, popular music was dominated by drum machines, synths, and pointy electric guitars.
Eric Clapton’s 1992 unplugged episode, turned the tide, perhaps more than anything else. But the performances of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nirvana, were perhaps the finest MTV unplugged episodes ever recorded.
We’ll take a closer look at all four performances below.
Pearl Jam 1992
While the album release of Pearl Jam’s MTV unplugged didn’t make it into stores until 2019 – 2020 the band’s unplugged performance in March 1992 was iconic, capturing the energy and raw power of a band on the precipice of international stardom.
Guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, fresh from touring with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nirvana, had little time to prepare, attempting to unsuccessfully rent acoustic guitars, before scrounging up a Takamine, Washburn 12-string, and a Chet Atkins Streel string.
The band recorded the set in March, 7 months after the release of their debut studio album “Ten” (August 1991) which, after a slow start, on the strength of the debut single “Alive” was about to explode.
Stripped-back acoustic versions of “Jeremy”, and “Alive” were particularly memorable, given additional breathing room, and Vedder’s performance, in particular, was the epitome of grunge in all its angst-ridden glory.
The highlight had to be the acoustic version of “Black”, shown above.
Stone Temple Pilots 1993
Stone Temple Pilots were considered by many, at the time of their debut release “Core” and their debut hit “Plush” as a band that had more or less, jumped on the grunge bandwagon.
History shows this was largely an unfair criticism of a band that was particularly versatile, as evidenced by their later releases, particularly the follow-ups’ “Purple” and “Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop” which demonstrated a wide range of musical influences.
Regardless of the criticism, STP’s New York acoustic performance on MTV unplugged was inspired and helped establish Stone Temple Pilots as one of the big four grunge bands, alongside Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.
The image of frontman Scott Weiland, lounging in a rocking chair while the opening arpeggios of “Crackerman” ring out on Dean DeLeo’s 12-string acoustic guitar his tech, Kevin Zazarra had built, lives long in many fans’ memories.
The band played a 30-minute set consisting of “Plush”, “Creep”, “Wicked Garden”, “Big Empty”, a swinging version of “Sex Type Thing”, and a cover of David Bowie’s “Andy Warhol”.
Bassist Robert DeLeo (Brother of guitarist Dean DeLeo) has stated the majority of STP’s music originated on the acoustic guitar. And the year prior Dean DeLeo and Scott Weiland had performed “Plush” acoustically for MTV’s Headbangers Ball with DeLeo playing a Martin D-28, which ended up being the B-side to the single “Creep”, only being released to UK audiences.
Despite the band’s initial nerves, STP delivered a stellar acoustic set on MTV Unplugged, showing many who considered the band a flash in the pan a glimpse of what was to come.
Alice in Chains 1996
Of all the grunge bands that leaned heavily on the acoustic guitar, AIC was perhaps the greatest exponent of acoustic grunge. As a result, Alice in Chains and MTV unplugged always seemed inevitable.
Still, fans had to wait until 1996, despite numerous offers to the band prior, before seeing AIC in this setting.
This was the band’s first live show in almost 2 1/2 years, and sadly one of vocalist Layne Staley’s last live performances, before his tragic passing in April 2002.
The release of the live album debuted at no. 3 on the Billboard charts, going platinum. But, some critics weren’t convinced, claiming due to AIC’s previous acoustic releases that the performance lacked the magic and mystery of their Seattle counterparts, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, who the public had never seen in an intimate setting before.
The setlist contained a mixture of tracks from previous albums, including:
- “No Excuses”
- “Sludge Factory”
- “Down in a Hole”
- “Got Me Wrong”
- “Heaven Beside You”
- “Over Now”
The highlights undoubtedly being “Nutshell”, and “Would?”.
Guitarist Jerry Cantrell played a Guild JF-55 Jumbo, with the guitarist later claiming it was his first exposure to a quality acoustic guitar. Cantrell now has his own signature acoustic guitar, the Gibson “Atone” Songwriter.
Well known for their chaotic live shows, the fact that Nirvana’s 1993 performance on MTV’s unplugged went by without a major hitch was a surprise to some, especially considering the drama leading up to the performance.
Sadly it was only a few months later (April 1994) that Cobain took his own life, just months prior to the release of the critically acclaimed “MTV Unplugged in New York” in November 1994, which helped cement Cobain’s reputation as one of the most influential musicians of the 90s.
By all accounts, the lead-up to the show was difficult. The band and MTV execs were in disagreement about the setlist proposed by Cobain, who, feeling uninspired by many of his contemporaries’ MTV unplugged performances, was wanting to show a different side to the band.
This included omitting many of their hits (Smells Like Teen Spirit, and Lithium were left out) and being joined onstage by members of the band The Meat Puppets.
In hindsight, the setlist was inspired, with songs such as “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” (both written by The Meat Puppets), not to mention a cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Saved the World” being highlights.
Other performances included Nirvana’s “About a Girl”, “Come as You Are”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Dumb”, “Polly”, “Something in the way”, “On a Plain”, along with covers of “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” (The Vaselines), “Oh Me” (The Meat Puppets) and the traditional blues song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night/In the Pines” (Lead Belly) round out the set.
The standout, for many, was the acoustic rendition of “All Apologies” from the band’s third album “In Utero”, recorded in September 1993. The song was especially poignant after Cobain’s death, as it was the final song on “In Utero”.
Cobain played most of the set on a right-handed (strung left-handed) Martin D-18E, the oddball acoustic-electric guitar made by Martin complete with two DeArmond pickups and tone and volume pots mounted directly on the soundboard of the guitar. It was arguably the perfect choice of guitar for the similarly unstylish Cobain.
While the D-18E was only manufactured for 1 year before Martin decided to call on end to what was otherwise an unsuccessful experiment, Cobain’s D-18E sold at auction 5 months after his death for 1 million dollars (the most expensive sold at auction at the time).
The guitar has since been resold for 6 million, which makes the guitar the most expensive ever sold at auction.
The acoustic guitar featured heavily during the grunge era, but in many ways, acoustic grunge has been carried forward, with many of the artists of the era continuing to have a strong affinity with the instrument.
This includes Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) whose Travis Picking classic “Just Breathe” went platinum in 2014, not to mention Chris Cornell’s many acoustic releases (1999s “Euphoria Morning” contained a number of great acoustic tracks) and solo acoustic tours.
More recently Stone Temple Pilots released the all-acoustic “Perdida”, and the acoustic guitar continues to be a driving force for Jerry Cantrell whose independent 2021 release “Brighten” contains a number of acoustic infused tunes. While we may never see such a significant shift in popular music again (music is less cyclic now thanks to the internet) the music of the 90s remains popular to this day, with acoustic grunge still playing a large part.