Who is in the mood for empowerment? I know I am!
When I first set out to compose this list of the best female acoustic songs, I wasn’t quite sure I would be able to fill it, and I was sure I would have to make some compromises. But, upon flicking through my records, I was amazed and gladdened to see just how many of my favorite acoustic guitar music was written, performed, recorded, produced, and directed by women.
Though such a binary list is inherently a little bizarre, I think if it is going to go anywhere towards promoting some awareness of just how much of an impact women and other minorities have had on popular and/or acoustic music, then I am all for it.
1. ‘Dolphin’ by Linda Perhacs
A relative outlier and commercial flop, the ever-talented and divine Linda Perhacs has, since her heyday, become something of a leading lady for more traditional kinds of folk in America, crafting what I believe to be some of the best female acoustic guitar songs.
Her personal story is rather inspiring, too. She was initially a dental hygienist who, after operating on a label executive, was given the chance to record her mystical and pagan songs at a professional recording studio. Though she did not achieve much fame upon initial release, the record came to garner a cult following and has since been revered as a classic of 1960s folk.
2. ‘California’ by Joni Mitchell
The supremely talented and innovative Joni Mitchell would have to feature somewhere on this list, and where better than towards the beginning. Though I could have picked any number of songs by her, I chose this as an example of one of the good female acoustic guitar song because of the special significance it has to me.
Thus, I implore you, if you haven’t already, to go out and listen to all of her music, or listen to it anew if you indeed already have, basking in her innovative and one-of-a-kind alternate tuning techniques, at once so aligned with folk tradition and against it.
3. ‘Rainbow River’ by Vashti Bunyan
The same very much goes for singer-songwriter and all-around otherworldly representative, Vashti Bunyan, who experienced a similar trajectory to Linda Perhacs in that she became quickly disillusioned with the music industry back in her heyday of the early 70s, only to rediscover her passion later down the line upon a revival of interest.
Just supping momentarily on her divine and inimitable voice will have you convinced that her music is among the finest examples of one of the most successful songs.
4. ‘Prospect Hummer’ by Animal Collective & Vashti Bunyan
It would have been nigh on impossible for me to ignore this tune, a classic of Vashti Bunyan’s later period just after she had returned to the music industry. Freak folk and avant-garde pop artists Animal Collective sought to collaborate with the artist, presumably for having been so influenced by her early music (the comparisons are not a stretch to draw).
Characteristic of Bunyan’s tall tales, we have an adventure spun with silk delicate vocals of a cat’s daily adventures and attempts to understand the plights of humans.
5. ‘Montana Plains’ by Patsy Montana
One of the more obscure of the best female acoustic guitar songs here collected, this tune by Patsy Montana is no less potent for it. She was a multi-instrumentalist, and served as a powerful symbol for female artists everywhere, especially female country artists, for she was the first female country artist to have a single that sold a million copies, with the tune ‘I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart’.
‘Montana Plains’ is in fact a rendering of the original song ‘Texas Plains’, and would go on to be reworked for the smash hit mentioned above. Recycling has its perks, that’s for sure!
6. ‘Ring of Fire’ by Anita Carter
Though this song received much more fame and acclaim when recorded by fellow country artist and brother-in-law Johnny Cash (the patriarchy at its finest), this song was originally performed and recorded by June Carter Cash’s sister, Anita Carter, a prodigious talent in her own right, with a voice that would make any six-shooter fall from its holster in surrender.
This powerful version of the famous ‘Ring of Fire’ is most notable for these vocals, and for sounding inherently more like folk music than country, and the cavernous reverb in which these vocals are drenched only adds to the picture painted.
7. ‘Chuncho’ by Yma Sumac
Sumac’s name and reputation precede her, as does the flurry of rumors and hearsay that she herself likely planted. She claims, for example, to be descended from the Incans, the ancient civilization of the South Americas.
Whatever the facts are, the power of her voice cannot be denied, and though this isn’t exactly your everyday kind of music, it is precisely this four-octave, near-bestial voice that earns a place on this list of best female acoustic guitar songs.
We are shown the whole range of the voice within, from guttural grunts to swirling swoops echoing from ear to ear like birds trapped in a cave pleading for their captor’s mercy!
8. ‘Cocoon’ by Bjork
The same goes for Bjork, for her reputation and her oeuvre quite clearly precede her in a way that can be difficult to grasp. This intimate and delicate song from towards the beginning of her solo career is anything but difficult to grasp and can be rather uncomfortable in its upfront dealing with the intimacy and connection of a newborn relationship.
While not strictly an acoustic song, the main objective of the second studio album it comes from was to capture the intimate and close nature of the domestic, prospectively titled ‘Domestika’, and I feel this is something that acoustic music innately does itself, thus earning it a place as one of the best female acoustic guitar songs, and certainly one of my favorites.
9. ‘The Herald’ by Comus
If we have any fans of early progressive rock, or anyone searching for albums similar to those early King Crimson releases, then look no further than Comus’ debut album, First Utterance. The epic and unusual great song structure literally sings to its own tune, bending meter and flow to its own will and using it to tell a story of fantastical and medieval politics.
The flutes and vocals here operate on a similar plane, attempting to bridge the gap between human and aviary.
10. ‘Fell Sound’ by Mirroring
Though heavily treated, there are indeed acoustic guitars and female vocals with the gargantuan and oceanic space that this song carves out, offering forth a sea within which to float should the outside world become too much, where there is no reflection when you look down into the water’s still void, and where you make not a ripple by entering it…
The group is a side project of Liz Harris, perhaps more famous as the lead vocalist of the band Grouper, wherein the treated aspects of this song are turned up to their max capacity.
11. ‘These Days’ by Nico
Most famous as a one-time member of the famous experimental rock and roll band the Velvet Underground, featuring on their seminal debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, she has had quite an illustrious career of her own, starring in a film or two by Andy Warhol (hence the aforementioned collaboration) and recording a number of her own works.
This merry and miserable baroque pop tune comes from some of her earlier work, capturing the signature blend of these two emotions that singles Nico out from other artists of the time and of a similar caliber.
12. ‘After Hours’ by The Velvet Underground
Speaking of which, perhaps it is time to mention one of the Velvet Underground’s gentler tracks, and one of the few to feature drummer and original member Maureen ‘Mo’ Tucker on lead vocals.
This track in its original form comes as the final track from their self-titled third album, placed directly after the chaotic and lengthy dirge of ‘The Murder Mystery’.
Thus, rendering this beautiful twee ditty even more soothing in the context of said album, almost a direct symbol of the tense relations between the band at the time when contrasted with the delicate beauty of some of their music from this period.
13. ‘Rainy Song’ by Takako Minekawa
Nostalgic and futuristic pop stylist Takako Minekawa might not be on the radar of your average music listener and might be more well known for her more upbeat cuts, but she certainly knows her way around an acoustic guitar ballad.
This kind of guitar ballad is rendered all the more special by being so infused with the signature electronic bleeps and bloops and delay effects that make her takes on 60s psychedelic music so refreshing.
14. ‘Yume Utsutsu’ by Lamp
Another of the best female acoustic guitar songs to originate from Japan, this particular tune plays far more delicate than the previously mentioned Minekawa tune, with confident yet shy guitar arpeggiations and vocals so soft you could blow them away with a single breath.
It is sometimes a wonder that such delicate and beautiful music can exist without the universe interfering somewhat and at least laying down a few ground rules first.
15. ‘green’ by mage tears
Our next track in this compilation of best female acoustic guitar songs is one sparked by the former. I am reminded of the grooves of this mage tears song of the previous song very much, the vocals that are spun from silk and could be blown right away at a moment’s notice, the hiss of the outside world knocking in slow motion at the door of this small ditty away from the chaos of the main road.
There is scarcely any doubting bedroom folk and the power it has to unite people in these trying times when even leaving your own home can be an odyssey all its own.
16. ‘Me Her’ by Christine Bougie
This tune is one of the few on this list to be one of the best female acoustic guitar songs that are purely instrumental. And yet, it loses not a shred of its ability to tell an emotive and compelling story.
Christine Bougie, while a powerful multi-instrumentalist in her own right, is perhaps best known as a lap steel guitarist, and on this track she combines these potent abilities of hers with a luscious chamber classical group, providing dramatic and pastoral swells upon which the lap steel glides like an ineffable bird of paradise.
17. ‘Loomer’ by My Bloody Valentine
While this does stretch the definition of these best female acoustic guitar songs a fair bit, I believe there are considerable arguments to be made for the case of its inclusion here. Albeit texturally, there is an acoustic guitar featured throughout the song, pumping it forth like a throbbing twitch, atop which Bilinda Butcher’s angelic vocals whirl, vocals which have been compared by John Doran to ‘an angel falling through a black hole, or something.’
Without the acoustic guitar and/or the female vocals, this song would be only a shred of what it presently is, thanks to Bilinda Butcher and co’s inherent ear for musical texture and production.
18. ‘Sleepwalking Through the Mekong’ by Dengue Fever
Rarely will you come across a list of the best female acoustic guitar songs that features music from Cambodia! Well, the band met in the South West of America, but the vocals are all in Cambodian, creating a unique and interesting fusion of these two sensibilities, communicating without a single word the complex geopolitical ties America and such countries wear loudly upon them.
Very much in line with the title, the song is a somnambulist trance through a dense and humid atmosphere, indeterminate, with very little to hold onto that won’t vaporize instantly upon contact. Tread carefully, folks!
19. ‘Haenim’ by Kim Jung Mi
In a similar vein, for our next pick we have a seminal track from the Korean psych-rock folk artist, Kim Jung Mi, originally released at the advent of the 1970s, and whose yearning yelps transcend just about any language barrier that any higher power could erect (see Tower of Babel), for ‘if Francoise Hardy is the Marianne Faithful of France, then Kim Jung Mi is, I suppose, the Francoise Hardy of Korea’.
‘Mr. Shin’s ethereal cover photo—the blue graininess of the sky dripping into fading clouds, with Kim Jung Mi surrounded on her sky-high isolated mountaintop by flowers—is the perfect image to represent what is, without a doubt, one of the best psychedelic albums ever created.’
20. ‘Courtyard’ by Bobbie Gentry
This dust-aged song of pastoral yearning, likewise, speaks to generation after generation of music listeners, transcending the shackles of the time in which it was composed. Most powerful is the fact that Gentry was one of the first female artists in the whole of America to compose and produce her own iconic songs.
She burned brightly and within a decade or two quickly became tired of the music industry, deciding to disappear and retire, which is understandable. We can only be thankful she left such marvels behind in her wake.
21. ‘Sebastiana’ by Gal Costa
A list of the best female acoustic guitar songs would be remiss not to mention such a hallowed Brazilian vocalist, one of the most revered vocalists from the annals of Brazilian pop music.
She has collaborated with just about every big name in the Brazilian music industry, and this particular tune sees her co-writing a song with inimitable Gilberto Gil, who I would hope needs no introduction, having collaborated himself with Stan Getz and dozens and dozens of others.
22. ‘Aguas de Marco’ by Elis Regina & Tom Jobim
This song has taken on a whole new life under the precise and marked tutelage of Art Garfunkel, though this was originally a hit between two Brazilian songwriting giants, Elis Regina and Tom Jobim, who, in my opinion, instill in this song a rather more sincere and emotional tone, where Garfunkel sounds a little lame (and we wouldn’t have it any other way).
In this version, for example, there is a far more raw quality to the recording, able as you are to hear the breathing of both artists frequently against the microphone, as well as the breakdown of each into laughter and nonsensical silliness right at the end. These are unique qualities to be cherished at all costs.
23. ‘My Sweet Lord / Today Is a Killer’ by Nina Simone
I would hope this seminal jazz and soul vocalist needs no introduction, though you might not be so familiar with this cut. Even if you are familiar with it, it is likely to be because of the original version of the song, as written and performed by George Harrison, released on his gargantuan double album All Things Must Pass, sealing the split of the Beatles in fine wax.
This version, however, is luscious and features an extended band of acoustic instruments and a gospel choir, reinventing the song while also combining its religious subject matter with an obvious stylistic influence to devastating effect.
24. ‘St Martin de Porres’ by Mary Lou Williams
This cut comes from the mind of an oft-neglected arranger and performer of jazz music, Miss Mary Lou Williams, who also spent much of her career composing, writing, and arranging hundreds of songs throughout her career onto more than one hundred 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm records.
She was writing and arranging for Duke Ellington, and acting as a friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie, just to name a few.
This selection of the best female acoustic guitar songs is a marked departure from her earlier pop-oriented music. Her first record after taking a hiatus from public performance and converting to Catholicism is a mass in the truest sense of the word.
25. ‘Smoke Rings’ by Mary Ford & Les Paul
Rounding off our list of the best female acoustic guitar songs, we have an ode to everyone’s favorite suicidal pastime, smoking cigarettes. The narrative of the song follows Mary Ford watching the flow of a series of smoke rings ringing out like sound waves through the space of the room. I haven’t smoked in several years, but this song is enough to make anyone who no longer smokes hot under the collar.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, my selection of the best female acoustic guitar songs has provided some inspiration, not only to your record collection but also in your playing. Gathered here are some of acoustic guitar music’s most beautiful and innovative guitarists, so there is plenty here for any acoustic guitarist seeking to pave their own way through the acoustic guitar canon to learn.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Though admittedly the acoustic guitar sees less use in the popular music of today than it has in the last half-century or so, it would be remiss to say that said popular music is completely devoid of acoustic guitar. There are, in fact, several mainstream examples of the acoustic guitar, such as Avicii and Aloe Blacc’s ‘Wake Me Up’, which was not only popular at the time but took the world by storm; you couldn’t go more than a day without hearing somewhere at a certain point in its arc of popularity.
I would imagine that this is down to preference, for I would hope that my own choices in this vein would be very different from yours or anybody else’s. This is the beauty of consciousness epitomized. We are all unique souls in our own way, our subconscious painting within certain bounds a singular and special conscious. You are free to like whichever pop songs you wish, free to call any the best, for I am sure they are to you.
Logic says that the easiest acoustic guitar song to play would be one that uses one chord throughout, or is otherwise harmonically and tonally centered on one chord. Instant examples that spring to mind are Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’, or Gladboy’s ‘Wither Tree Skank’, all of which more or less flirt with one tonal center and one tonal center alone throughout the songs. By this logic, most of the minimalist classical canon would be easy to play, but its surface simplicity belies an inherent complexity in repetition.
I would imagine that this is down to preference, for I would hope that my own choices in this vein would be very different from yours or anybody else’s. This is the beauty of consciousness epitomized. We are all unique souls in our own way, our subconscious painting within certain bounds a singular and special conscious. You are free to like whichever pop songs you wish, free to call any the best, for I am sure they are to you. There are plenty of different types of acoustic music, too, so this is a pretty difficult question. Are we talking about classical chamber music, or folk, and which type of folk for that matter? Pastoral new folk, or medieval folk from years of yore?