Angus McKinnon Young, only made it to number 96 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. He made it to number 3 in my list. I don’t think the Rolling Stone’s list is a true measure of just how influential Angus has been as a guitarist. Maybe, my list swings too far the other way, but it’s my list!
Forgetting about Angus’s stage presence, which alone, makes him one of the most entertaining performers ever to rock a stage. What is it that makes him so special as a guitar player?
That Angus sound
The true signature of the Angus Young sound is one that has stood the test of rock n roll time. Forget your phasers, delays and fuzz boxes. The essence of his sound is his fingers. Not diluted by racks of effects. This is the ‘true’ sound of rock and roll. His sound owes as much to Chuck Berry rather than the million other of his contemporaries. In essence Angus uses the same sort of guitar rig as Chuck.
Eric Clapton became a living God, armed with a Gibson and a small Marshall amp. Playing with testosterone fuelled blues licks, gleamed lovingly from his idols like Freddy King. Clapton managed to get a sound so true and pure from his, (by todays standards) primitive setup, that amplifier designers have struggled ever since to beat with master volumes, transistors and hi gain pre amps. They all missed the point. This is the sound of a high output guitar, running through a low-gain amplifier, but with no cap on it’s power stage. This is the sound of speakers running near to the point of destruction. This is the sound after the pre-amp. This is the sound of a tube amp singing. Harmonics and overtones in abundance. It’s also the thunder of the room shaking in resonance to this tone.
Angus understands this. He is the master of the volume, but without using master volume. With the release of Rock N Roll Train, from the forthcoming Black Ice album. YouTube has been alight with guitarists showing us how to play like Angus. Some have got close, but many somehow miss the boat. Technically they have the chops, but what works for Joe Satriani is not the secret to the sound of Angus. Back off on the distortion and your getting close. Back off to the point of getting a clean sound, then when you dig in you get glass like distortion. Try playing an open G chord, can you hear every string? Angus can. For solo’s the volume goes up, but it is the rhythm that excites me so much about AC/DC.
The Rock and Roll Rhythm
There is one special effect, that you just can’t buy for your guitar rig. Money talks, but Malcolm Young swings. When ever you look at Angus, his older brother is not far behind. In fact, you could argue that Angus wouldn’t be Angus without Malcolm. These brothers in arms, are a perfect example of what it means to play in a band. They play together, as a team. United in their goal to rock the audience. Many young players miss this point, so focused on showing off, wanking all over their axes, leaving the audience cold. The Young brothers however, strip it down to the primordial funk that is rock and blues.
My music teacher asked the class to bring in our favourite record so that he could analyse it and show us how it was constructed. I took in Highway to Hell. The so-called teacher played the chords on the piano, and made some cutting comments about the lack of sophistication in the songs composition. Like so many music critics he missed the point. Their may indeed be only 3 chords in the song, but just like the blues, that is all you need. Any more is just wanking. Sure, some genres of music demand more theoretical compositions. But what makes AC/DC so special is that they have never followed the crowd and put in a power ballad, because that’s what everyone else does.
In fact, you can play AC/DC songs on a piano. Harry Vanda and George Young (another Young brother!), the early AC/DC producers, would make sure that the songs worked on piano first, before the band would lay them down on the multi-tracks. So, although they might seem simple, they worked hard on getting the songs right. If you could play it with 3 chords instead of 4, then they got closer to the very essence of what rock and roll truly is.
No matter how much training one has had, it won’t make you a rock and roll singer. Pavarotti for all his brilliance would never have been able to fill Bon’s shoes. This is not “look at me” musicianship. This is way beyond that. I am sure Angus has over the years picked up many different influences from jazz and other genres. But when Angus dons the school uniform, the AC/DC school cap is so highly tuned to deliver their trademark sound. Everything else is pure twiddle. They might not win awards for songwriting, but then they don’t play for the critics. They play for the millions around the world that hang on to every note that Angus wrings from his sweaty SG.
Today, at a party you can play thousands of different songs from your iPod. Put Highway to Hell on, and something magical happens. Those in the know will grin inanely at each other. The production cuts through better than many other songs you could play. Many are just slightly over produced, that long reverb may sound great in the studio, but it is just another mask to the true vibrancy of blues and rock. At full volume there is no space for twaddle or padding. AC/DC have no other settings to dial in. The interplay between Angus and Malcolm allows no waffle. Just pure rock, hard as you like.
How to sound like Angus
Ditch the effects pedals. Just plug straight in. Dial in to the point of distortion, then back off a turn. Grab a thick pick and let your fingers do the talking. At first, you might feel naked, suddenly exposed without the cover of fuzz. Yet, as you get used to it, you’ll realise that there is a whole world of tone available to your fingertips. Dig in harder it gets nastier, but all the while remember that the most important thing is how you play, not how fast or how many different scales or modes you can fit in.
Angus only plays with Gibson SGs and various flavours of Marshall. That works for him. It might not work for you. Sure, if you love that sound, go get yourself an SG. But if like me, you have a Fender that’ll work too. Again, it’s not what you play, it’s how you play. Everything else gets in the way. Everything else is not AC/DC. Everything else is not the music of the brothers Young, and good old fashioned rock and roll.
If you want to listen to how much I sound like the Young Brothers, have a listen to Old School which is my tongue in cheek tribute to the band. After listening, then put on an AC/DC track and see just how it really should be done! Let there be rock!