Amplified Observations: Making an acoustic guitar sound psychedelic is hard, but some artists make it look easy

This week’s column is about to open your third eye. But not in the traditional way.

That’s because it’s about a sleeper genre that never seems to get discussed: acoustic psychedelia. And although that might not be a “documented” genre, it’s at least what I use to identify this specific trend.

Psychedelic music is almost synonymous with trippy guitar effects, echo-chamber-like reverb and wild, oscillating vocals. But pull the plug out of the socket and what are you left with? Surprisingly enough, more than a handful of good tunes.

Psychedelic rock, pop and folk are not limited to Strats and fuzz but can also be achieved effectively using the basics: a guitar, a voice and an enticed imagination.

Around the highwater mark of psychedelia in the late ’60s and early ’70s, several artists released acoustic records chock-full of naturally occurring weirdness and mysticism. Musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, George Harrison, Tim Buckley and others took to a softer side of the substance-fueled sound, focusing on the fantastical and mystical elements underlying much of what had already run its course.

Even Townes Van Zandt, the celebrated country singer, dabbled psychedelic acoustic music with his 1972 cut “Silver Ships of Andilar.” Andilar is almost as mythical of a place as what Neil Young describes in his 1970 song “After the Gold Rush.”

That approach might not seem to be a big deal, but in essence, those musicians attempted to elevate the capability of acoustic instruments to possess an aura of psychedelic wonder. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s an impressive feat.

It was a particularly strange moment when I realized Simon & Garfunkel’s largely acoustic 1968 album Bookends also incorporates psychedelic lyrics and effects. How else could you explain songs such as “Punky’s Dilemma” or “Voices of Old People”? Other songs of theirs such as “The 59th Street Bridge” also illustrate a groovy sonic landscape.

Nowadays, we think of psychedelic rock as sounding garage-y or with more effects than an alien spaceship. However, although absent in the main genre, acoustic psychedelic might have found a home in musical places such as freak folk or psych folk with bands such as Mount Eerie, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Akron/Family.

But either way, music from the initial wave like Love’s “Alone Again Or” is still easily accessible and as vibrant as ever.

If anything is important in the wider picture here, it’s that an approach like acoustic psychedelia only illustrates the true capabilities of musical creativity and the strange desires of the human spirit.

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