When I hear the term “unplugged,” I have to laugh. Almost every piece of acoustic music from the 1970’s was unplugged! Then, Nirvana comes along in 1993 with their “unplugged” concert, and people think it’s revolutionary!? And, as you’ll note in this Nirvana video, they still “plug-in.”

Thinking back to folks like Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver, as examples, not only did they have to handle the responsibilities of singing on pitch without auto tune but their instruments had to be good enough for an acoustic balance into (typically) a Shure SM57 microphone (proximity being critically important).

Lightfoot usually played a 60’s Martin D-28 and a 60’s Gibson B-45-12 twelve string on stage. Denver, on the other hand, typically played Guild guitars in the 1970’s. Martin, Gibson, and Guild were the big 3 American guitar manufacturers for acoustic instruments in the “folk” era. Ovation was starting to arrive on the scene and Taylor was new in 1975.

Living through the “acoustic” experience in music gave me a sense of what sounds “right” in a musical mix. When I play in a group setting I want — no, I demand — balance between all of the instruments. Nothing should “stick out” in a musical environment, the blend should be seamless. The voices must not outweigh the presentation of the backup band and vice versa. The voices and instruments must have a continuity throughout each song, or the effect is poorly received by the audience.

Compare this Gordon Lightfoot concert from 1972 to the video above of the 1993 “Unplugged” concert of Nirvana 21 years later. Listen for balance and a seamless presentation.

As sound systems increased in complexity and venues grew in size it became more and more necessary to have electronics built in to acoustic guitars. It made the sound person’s job easier – but the sound became a bit more brittle and, to my ear, more synthetic in nature.

I’ll take my old Martin D-35 and a Shure SM57 any day for sound quality.