Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

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.




Everybody Dance

I was going to write about disco. The main reason I was going to write about disco was because I love it. I’ve been teaching my disco lesson for about 12 years now, on and off. It’ slightly different every time but I’ve wanted to get across the important points about how the different parts work together. I’ve also been convinced that it’s going to be useful to someone someday because it’s bound to have a bit of a resurgence. And now it seems that may have finally happened. With Daft Punk getting to number 1, the BBC showing ‘The Joy of Disco’ and Nile Rodgers documentaries and Chic touring incessantly – not to mention the stellar success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album.

But I decided not to write solely about disco and to make this a fairly general thing about dance music and what are the important factors that make it work. This applies to pretty much all contemporary forms of pop-based dance music from disco to house to reggae to rock bands like AC/DC (for more on them see my previous post on the ‘International Write and Record an Album in a Month, month’ page on Facebook). So here goes…


1 The pulse

In dance music, you must have a strong pulse. This is the heartbeat of the song and the thing that will get you nodding your head, snapping your fingers, stamping your feet or shaking your leg. When people talk about the beat, this is what they mean. The tempo of the pulse can help determine your reaction to the music. Let’s say a resting heartbeat is about 80 beats per minute, anything above that may excite you while you are resting. It will try and push your own heart rate up. If you are already dancing, your heart beat will be much faster so you will need to have a song that is going at a faster tempo to keep your adrenalin going. If you’re at a rave and you’ve just taken a load of dodgy jelly beans then you may need the tempo to go up to 130 bpm or over to satisfy your new puppy-like desire for bouncing around. However, if you’ve been smoking banana skins (or whatever it is that people do these days) and you’re lying back on your sofa with your feet up, eating chocolate and the only dance move you can manage is a barely perceptible nodding of the head, then a hip-hop track at 80 or 90 bpm may be enough.

The pulse will usually be provided by the kick drum, though there are variations on this. With house or disco and some reggae tracks, you may get a kick drum on each beat. The low thud, just like a heartbeat, helping you to keep time; relentless and consistent. With other styles, the kick will accent the first and third beats of the bar and the snare backbeat will fill in the gaps. Funk has a heavy accent on the down beat (beat one), whereas one-drop reggae will leave this beat free so that you almost fall into the rest of the bar and the kick drum will accent beat three.

Quite often, the bass part will support the pulse – just listen to ‘Good Times’ by Chic to hear how that infamous bassline by Bernard Edwards supports the pulse on those first three beats before playing the other fancy bits before doing the same thing in bar 3 of this 4 bar riff (John Deacon’s bassline for ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ works in a very similar way ). Cliff Williams from AC/DC will usually double the pulse by playing 8th notes in his bass parts (take ‘Down Payment Blues’ for example).


2 The backbeat

The backbeat is what happens on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. These beats are normally emphasised by the snare drum. (On visiting Manchester Music Base, former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford described it as ‘the tyranny of the backbeat’.) The snare drum may be supported by handclaps, either real – as in disco – or electronic – as in house or hip hop (check out the handclaps in ‘Turn Me On’ by David Guetta ft Nicki Minaj ). Having a strong kick drum on beats one and three and a snare drum on 2 and 4 gives the piece a sense of a marching left-right-left-right rhythm. This is what gets you walking to the dance floor. Got a good strong pulse and backbeat? You’re halfway there. You’ve got the audience stomping and clapping already. All you need now is to fill in the gaps.


3 Off-beats

This is where the hi-hats come in. Often, anyway. Listen to Tony Thompson’s playing for Chic (or Sister Sledge or whoever), even if the hi-hat patterns are fairly intricate 16th patterns, he still accents off-beats, or there is the classic groove to ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba,  where the shakers do this job. You hear this all the time in house music, with a really strong four to the floor kick, snare and claps on the backbeat and hats on the off-beats.  You’ll notice none of the proper drummers try to do silly demisemiquaver hi-hat patterns. This is because they are not white boy music students trying to show off. The octave bass can often fill this role as well, such as Bernard Edwards’ bass in ‘Dance Dance Dance’, where you play the low octave on the beat and play the octave above on the off-beat.

In some types of music, other instruments are used to accent the off-beat, such as the guitar in ska. Bands like Mumford and Sons will do a similar thing by providing a strong pulse with a kick drum and making the guitar accent against that. Just listen to the way the guitar in ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii does exactly the same.


4 Syncopation

Syncopation is basically stuff that works against the pulse and the accents will land sometimes on the beat and sometimes off the beat. This could be a rhythmic chord part, such as a guitar (often in disco) or a piano (often in house music) or a synth; a percussion part; or even the lead vocal. Let’s take the ‘classic’ (and, by classic, I mean ‘not classic’) ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ by JLS . The main chorus vocal has a very distinct pulse of its own that conflicts with the main pulse of the song. Try tapping the pulse of the song with your right hand and the pulse of the vocal line with your left (or the other way round if you’re left-handed). You may find (if you do it properly) that for every 3 taps of your right hand, you will have tapped your left hand (the vocal hand) four times. This could be described as a four-over-three polyrhythm and it is extremely common in contemporary dance music, especially different types of house music.  The left hand and right hand only meet on ‘LONdon to jaMAIca, La to aFRICa…’ and thereby accent the wrong part of Africa, making it sound like a FREAK a. Quite often you will hear these syncopations taken from Latin American rhythmic patterns, such as the Cuban clave patterns or the Bossa Nova. The rhythm guitar part in ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross plays the reverse (2:3) Son clave pattern to great effect. 


5 Other stuff

It helps if you have a good sing-a-long vocal with a strong hook. If people can sing or shout on the dance floor, they get more excitable and a sense of camaraderie and team spirit ensues. Like football fanaticism but with more rhythm and no opposing team. Lyrics about dancing, music and escape from the humdrum monotony of modern life are often a key element. Check out ‘Lost in Music’ by Sister Sledge .

It also helps to divide those parts up between different instruments. People seem to assume to play a funky bass line or a funky guitar part or drum pattern you have to play loads of notes to have a strong pulse and syncopation but if you have a full band you can keep each instrumental part pretty sparse, then the different instruments don’t sound like they’re racing against each other. Listen to how simple the bass line is on ‘Superstition’, for example. It basically plays the root note on each beat, emphasising the pulse; it doesn’t play the complicated riff that lots of people assume it plays. . Or listen to the simplicity of the guitar and drum parts in ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ by James Brown .

It’s always worth going back to ‘Good Times’ by Chic. Check out from 3:12 where the track breaks down and you can hear the role each instrument plays: including the accents on the hi-hats; the electric piano playing the sustained chords on the first beat of every bar from 4:04; and the piano that comes in at the end of each bar from 4:40.


Anyway, hope that helps!