How to Pretend You’re in AC/DC

Posted: November 18, 2013 in Music
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Being AC/DC

AC/DC are one of the most successful rock n roll bands of all time. They began in the early 1970’s in Australia and are still hugely popular today. There are a number of factors that have helped to make them successful but what I’m aiming to do is to explore what is it in their music that works so well and how the songs are put together.

Lead guitarist and songwriter, Angus Young was once quoted as saying: “I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.” And, though this is very much an overexaggeration, there are a number of themes and ideas that reccur over and over again (besides which, they are now up to 15 albums). AC/DC are a band that play to their strengths and play with a lot of discipline and great understanding between the musicians. This isn’t about ego or showing off, this is about playing for the song.

In this lecture, I aim to focus on the way the instruments work together in the arrangement, as well as the chords that are used, the song structure and various other compositional elements.



Let’s start with the drums. AC/DC have one of the most distinctive and underrated rhythm sections in any band. Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams are key to the sound of this band and the drumming of Phil Rudd provides the foundation for the rest of the band to build on. To do this he has to keep things very simple but play in a very particular way. You will notice if you listen to any number of AC/DC songs that Rudd more often than not plays a straightforward 4/4 beat with the kick on beats one and three, the snare on the backbeat (beats 2 & 4) and the hihats playing 8th notes through the bar. The kick and snare need to be very strong to accent the pulse of the song and the hihats help glue the thing together and make it groove. The hihats are played in a semi-open style with more subtelty in the dynamic than the kick and snare. Usually, those hihat hits that fall on the beat are stronger than those in between each beat.

There are very few complicated drum fills in an AC/DC song and the main role of the drums is to keep the pulse strong as the guitars play a syncopated rhythm around that. This is a similar role to that of the drums in disco or house music or, in fact, most dance musics in 4/4 time with a strong pulse – just look at the role of the Surdo in Brazilian samba music.

However, the drums will often support the rhythm of the guitar changes at key points in a song, such as the end of a chorus, or in the introduction. This is usually done by the use of cymbal crashes in time with the guitar chords.



As with the drums, the bass guitar plays an important role in underpinning the pulse of the track. Very often, the bass will play even 8th notes across much of the piece and allow the chord changes to move around that, particularly in a verse. So, if the piece is in A (which a lot of AC/DC songs are) the bass player will paly a continuous stream of A notes while the chords may change from A to D to G or wherever.  Unlike with the hihats, the attack and volume of these notes will usually be very consistent and this helps to add tension to the verses. This tension is one of the key things that makes an AC/DC song work because it is released as we go into the chorus, but more of that later.



The two guitar players Malcolm and Angus Young are the mainstay of AC/DC. They are the only two people to have played on every AC/DC album and they write all the band’s songs. The two brothers were born in Glasgow and moved to Australia with their family when they were young. Older brother George was also a guitar player and songwriter in 1960’s group The Easybeats, whose biggest hit ‘Friday on my Mind’ [S5] was co-written by George Young and his Dutch songwriting partner Harry Vanda. The pair also produced AC/DC’s first 6 albums.

Angus Young, the younger of the two AC/DC brothers is one of the most iconic figures in rock. Noted for wearing a school uniform on stage and running around with boundless energy, Angus is also one of rock’s most celebrated lead guitar players. He has a ballsy, bluesy style in his lead playing but also plays with a similar nervous energy to the way he runs around stage.

The two have an excellent understanding of their roles and how the two guitars work together. Mike Fraser, who has engineered the last few AC/DC albums, says his philosophy on getting the big AC/DC guitar sound is simple. There is no massive layering of guitars; the two guitars given there own space in the mix creates the wall of sound. Often, the guitars will play in unison, one panned left and the other panned right but there are times when they will each perform different roles.

It is important when the two guitars are playing the same thing that having two guitars makes a difference to the output and the dynamics, which is why often a riff will start with just one guitar and the other will join in later. This enables the listener to really hear and appreciate the power of the two guitars.

Sometimes, though, the two guitars are playing different parts. Angus will play a distinctive riff higher up the neck and Malcolm will play the chords in open position at the bottom of the neck. This occurs in many AC/DC songs and is one of their trademark ideas.



AC/DC have had two lead vocalists in their recording career: Bon Scott, who was lead vocalist from the first album until he died in 1980, and Brian Johnson, who has been the lead vocalist since their biggest selling album, Back in Black, was released the same year. (Prior to that, there was also Dave Evans, who cut an early single with the band.)

Though the two are very distinctive, they do share certain similarities. The main similarity is that they both sing in a high register without singing falsetto. This helps to add energy to the track and give that feeling that this is high octane and ready to blow.

In the verses, the lead vocal often answers the question asked by the guitar chords. The guitars will play a chord sequence or riff and then leave space for the vocalist to deliver his line. This is a technique that runs through a lot of rock and blues music. Great rock and roll tracks like ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, great blues tracks like John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom, Boom’ or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ all use this trick. ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ is a classic example of AC/DC using this technique but it is found in abundance throughout their career.

Backing vocals


There perhaps isn’t much to say about backing vocals in AC/DC songs but they do provide an improtant role and are one of the key elements that make the band attractive to the audience that they have. The backing vocals are provided by Cliff Williams and Malcolm Young. Live on stage you will see the pair stood at the back either side of the drummer whilst Angus and Brian soak up all the glory up front. The rhythm pair will stand with their heads down, hair covering their faces, shaking one leg throughout the verses and bridges. Then, as the chorus is about to begin, they will walk forward to the microphones and sing the backing vocals.

There are no fancy harmonies, no complex counterpoint. The backing vocals will belt out the chorus like two blokes singing along in a pub. And that is exactly what a chorus should be. The idea of a chorus is that it is the bit that everyone sings along to. The word ‘chorus’ implies multiple voices so the AC/DC way is to make a chorus simple, sing-along and make it sound like anyone could sing with a few mates down the pub. What could be more appealing to a rock music fan?



So that is how the instruments work in an AC/DC song but how do we put it all together? Again, it would be very much an exaggeration to say that all AC/DC songs follow the same pattern but there are certain structures that occur again and again and they are not unique to AC/DC.

In Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s book ‘The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way’ ( ), they describe the structure needed to have a number one hit single in the UK. They suggest that you should start with the introduction, move on to the verse, then a chorus, another verse, chorus, then some kind of middle 8 and a breakdown before going back into choruses to finish. They say that a proper songwriter could put in a bridge or pre-chorus before each chorus but that should only be handled by skilled songwriters.

AC/DC tend to follow this model, as do many, many songwriters. Often the verse and the chorus will be in the root key but there will be a shift for the pre-chorus which helps give the chorus more impact when it comes in. The pre-chorus may move to chord IV or V. One trick that has been used on many songs is to play the same chord riff in the verse as in the chorus but keep the verses really tight, stabbing the chords in a staccato fashion and leaving spaces, then explode with those same chords in the chorus.




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