Neil Young is unquestionably one of the most gifted and prolific singer-songwriters of his generation. While known for wielding an electric guitar with biblical intensity, it’s Young’s acoustic prowess that we celebrate.
Young has long driven a mallet through the complex heart of being human, vulnerable, and aware – and intensity that resonates throughout his acoustic balladry. That his non-electric canon stands shoulder-to-shoulder with electric behemoths – ‘Cortez the Killer’, ‘Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)’, and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ among them – speaks to the strength of his acoustic artistry.
Whether it’s the windswept despair of ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ or the poignancy of ‘Old Man’, there is one constant in Young’s acoustic output: an omnipresence of deep reflection in where lyrics and melodies commune seamlessly. The aforementioned classic Young acoustic tracks exemplify his deft chord changes and memorable guitar work; his uniquely nasal voice always maintains an urgent longing, underscoring the emotion.
Some might argue that his acoustic playing is even more potent than his electrified presence as it is raw, unfettered, and pure. Consider ‘Helpless’, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, or ‘Ambulance Blues’ – a nine-minute acoustic ballad that examines the way time changes everything. ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ is one of the tracks from the abundant Harvest, proving his ability to create a country-rock classic with relative ease. Echoing that country vibe decades later came the infectious Harvest Moon. It certainly rates as Young’s best acoustic work from the 1990s. Young’s acoustic technique is a significant contribution to these classics, often delivered with his mainstay Martin guitar (and a penchant for dropped D tuning). Besides the guitar, his acoustic output can be heard as he accompanies himself on different instruments – including piano and harmonica – proving visceral in Young’s capable hands.
Born in Toronto, Canada in 1945, Neil Young cut his teeth with local garage rock band The Squires and as a solo folk act in the clubs of Toronto in the early 1960s. He moved southward to Los Angeles around the middle of the decade in his old black Pontiac hearse. His first brush with fame was as a founding member (along with Stephen Stills) of Buffalo Springfield. The band had almost instant success as forerunners of the California folk rock movement and their classic anti-establishment hit ‘For What It’s Worth’. The band imploded soon after due in part to the battling egos of Stills and Young. Neil quit and re-joined the band a few times before leaving permanently in 1968. That’s when Young first focused his attentions entirely on his solo work for a time. His eponymously titled first album was released in early 1969 and included more of the country-folk vibe he explored with Buffalo Springfield, as well as various instrumental music provided by Neil himself. His long-term band Crazy Horse supported Young’s second album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Following the completion of the record, he began jamming with Crosby, Stills & Nash, eventually joining the group for their spring 1970 album, Déjà Vu. While the band evolved to the point of being known as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Young continued to record as a solo artist, releasing After the Gold Rush in the summer of 1970 with its accompanying single ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. This established Young as a solo star, with his fame only amplified through the association with CSNY. Over the ensuing decade, Young’s star as a solo act ascended further via the half acoustic, half electric Rust Never Sleeps.
Although Young experimented stylistically during the 1980s, incorporating rockabilly and electronic music, and has dipped in and out of CSNY along the way, it is his solo work as an acoustic player that proves to be timeless. If you’ve not witnessed Young live minus Crazy Horse in the exhilarating acoustic realm, a good reference point would be the classic album Live At Massey Hall 1971.
Besides his gargantuan contributions to music, Young has spent his life championing health-related issues (due in part to the challenges his children have faced), has battled serious medical issues himself, and has not withered with respect to his musical output. Now, in his late 60s, his live shows are as powerful as ever. He continues to rock as hard as ever. Long may you run, Neil.