Musicians, Please Explain Why I Love AC/DC...

See, I love some AC/DC: I was listening to Stiff Upper Lip this evening, and damn that’s a fine album. What I want to know is, what gives them their sound? It isn’t just bludgeoning blues-rock with catchy riffs: they’ve got a bounce, a swing, a shuffle, a groove that makes me want to snap my fingers and tap my feet, and I just don’t get that from my other favourite hard rock acts, from Led Zeppelin, Sabbath or Deep Purple. The Purps probably come the closest on jazzy tracks like “Lazy” and even “Burn”, but AC/DC always have that seemingly effortless bounce - which is presumably extremely hard to do: what gives musically?

Ah - aren’t you a genius? I could not agree with you more - I love, love, love AC/DC. They are the Penne Arabbiata of rock bands (a simple pasta dish made up of penne pasta, crushed tomatoes and red peppers) - you are only allowed the simplest of ingredients, so you either have the artistry to combine them perfectly into sensory perfection or prove to everyone that you’re a hack.

I don’t have a lot of time this morning, but let me get started. I can geek on this topic for a long time.

  • Guitar Tone - to put is simply, the Young brothers have some of the best tone ever. As I have stated many times in threads here on the SDMB, what’s key is that they do NOT use a lot of distortion/gain. They play old Marshall amps that are cranked and close mic’d - if you listen to What’s Next to the Moon on Powerage, for instance - Malcolm is playing the simplest of riffs in A, but the layers of harmonic distortion sitting on top of the basic picked notes give the riff movement and life.
  • String Gauge - Note that Malcolm plays a stripped down Gretsch guitar - he had pulled out unneeded pickups and controls long before EVH did with his Frankenstrat - with HUGE strings - at least .13’s. But unlike Stevie Ray, who used heavy-gauge strings to shape his lead tone, Malcolm uses his heavy-gauge strings to shape his rhythm tone: he can hit those strings sharply and they push his amp/tone into that perfect “just breaking up from a clean signal to a somewhate distorted” tone. What non-guitarists may not realize is that if you have a better tone, you are more likely to play LESS - you are much more willing to hit a note or chord and let it ring out, just ‘cuz it sounds so freakin’ good. AC/DC built their entire song catalogue about exploiting that fact and those basic ingredients…
  • Malcolm matters more than Angus - oh, and did I mention that Malcolm is far more important to AC/DC’s sound vs. Angus? Did you know that Angus ended up the lead guitarist because he couldn’t play the rhythm parts correctly (okay, he was a little kid just starting to play, but you get the idea about how important the rhythm parts are). But listen to ANY song you care about - Sin City, Back in Black, Livewire, Shoot to Thrill - the anchor of the song is Malcolm most of the time.
  • Phil Rudd is a drumming genius - as I have stated in a few threads, Phil Rudd is my ultimate rock drummer. Sure he is no Bonzo, but no one strips down the drum part to the essential the way Phil does. Maybe Joey Kramer of Aerosmith. But what’s amazing about Rudd is how simple is drum parts are - and yet they get that “bounce” as you describe it, Scissorjack.

So, as a first post, it is my assertion that the combination of great guitar tone, and how Malcolm and Phil Rudd work together that is the heart of AC/DC’s…well…AC/DC-ness…

By the way, I am not denying the importance, skill and appeal of singers like Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, nor the bad school boy punkishness of Angus - but those two roles / three people are the sizzle - Malcolm and Rudd are the steak.

Wordman got a little inside baseball with the string gauges and such, but he’s right that the keys are Malcolm’s tone and simplicity along with Rudd’s ability to find the perfect pocket. If I could sum up their signature in a word, it would be “groove.” They create a tremendously infectious groove that goes right to the biorhythms.

Angus is also a very good lead guitarist with a lot of energy, and they’ve been fortunate enough to have had two great frontmen, but ultimately it’s that groove that makes them sound like AC/DC. It seems like it should be easy to duplicate – in terms of technical musicianship, they are as simple a band as you’re ever going to find – but nobody else ever gets it quite right. I think Rudd is the real secret ingredient.

I’m sort of knowledgeable about music, most of the time, but I’m not a music scholar. Let me give it a shot. Identifying why their sound is so bouncy isn’t that hard, in my opinion: it’s syncopation.

What is syncopation? It’s when the accented, strongly played beats of the song get played not on the strong beats of the measure. (There are other ways that you can use syncopation but let’s stick to this definition for now.)

The strong beats of a standard rock measure are ONE two THREE four. Listen to AC/DC and you’ll be surprised how often the strong guitar chords fail to appear on one and three. Most of the time, in fact, they fall on the half-beat right before the strong beat. That — well, in an extremely simplified explanation — that is syncopation.

Highway to Hell:

1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1
.   .   . x x X .   .   . x x X .   .   . x x X . x x X . X . x X

Problem Child:

1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1
.   .   . x . X .   .   . x . X .   .   . x . X .   .   . x . X 

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap:

1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1
X   .   .   . X . x .   .   . X . x .   .   . X . x .   .   .   X


1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1   2   3   4   1
X   .   . x . X .   . x X x . X .   .   . x . X .   . x X x .   X

Now, AC/DC is not the only band to use syncopation: far from it. It’s a technique which has been embedded in popular music since ragtime hit in the late 1800s. But since AC/DC has stripped down its sound to the bare essentials — they’re the quintessential garage band, I feel: two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals — you can really feel Malcolm’s syncopated grooves in every song, without anything to get in the way.

Is there more? Yeah. But I’ll let somebody else explain their use of power chords. (Which, as with syncopation, AC/DC isn’t the only band to do it, but they do it so well.)

Thanks for the responses - as a non-musician, I probably understand about a quarter of what’s been posted, but yeah, for me Malcolm’s rhythm playing, underlaid by Phil Rudd’s drums really gives AC/DC that swing: they seem to have kept the “roll” in rock ‘n’ roll, as against going for widdly-wee soloing and show-off drum fills that are technically adept but hollow and pointless narcissism. AC/DC have never lost sight of the fact that it’s supposed to be fun, but they never lapse into arch self-parody: Angus Young’s duck-walking and Brian Johnson’s shrieking cackle are never a substitute for the music. I’m going to play “Can’t Stand Still” again, damn it and I’m going to whistle along - and how many hard rock bands can you whistle to?

All good descriptions, and all I have to add is that it has always been about not only mastering the elemental, but also making the elemental big enough so that there isn’t any room for the fluff.


No love for Cliff William’s bass playing?!? The man’s bass work is extremely solid and tight, never flashy but always on the mark, with a bad-ass sound. The rhythm section of AC/DC is a big part of their “snap-fingers-tap-feet” attraction. The guitarists could noodle whatever and the band would still sound energetic, tight and groovy, thanks to Phil & Cliff. BTW, Cliff has graced the cover of Bass Player Magazine, so his playing is noted, despite it’s lack of tapping, slapping or popping.

Cliff is a cool bass player, but his approach to simplicity has never jumped out to me as ingenious as much as efficient and functional. I would look to someone like James Jamerson of Motown’s in-house band as simple and efficient, or Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads (I think her so-simple-it’s-haiku bassline for Take Me to the River is a perfect example - nothing to it, but it moves things along just so…it’s all about feel)

Lots of good answers here, but to this guitar player

is the phrase that best answers the question in the OP. Rudd is simply great.

Yup, Phil Rudd and Malcolm Young are the geniuses of that band (Hi, WordMan!).

I’ve always thought that while Angus is a great showman, most of his leads are kind of channelling B.B. King or Albert King with some anarchy thrown in for good measure.

I also think that they lost a step or three, songwise when Bon Scott died (I think Back In Black had already been written for then most part by then, but I could be mistaken). Nothing wrong with Brian Johnson, though.

Anyway, as others have suggested, things like thick strings, resolutely masterful simplicity, and that Australian eglatarianism that never let them get too big for their britches all blended to make them one of the greatest of all time.

Another thing to consider is that Harry Vanda and George Young, former Easybeats and geniuses in their own rights, got their production just right and left the buzzes, hums and room sounds in, which gave it a lot of presence. Mutt Lange did a pretty good job, but he tends to lay it on too thick and kind of negated some of what was great about them.

I believe the riffs had been written, but Johnson wrote the lyrics. I saw a “Behind the Music” on AC/DC once, where Brian Johnson was talking about the writers block and paralysis he had when it was time for him to write some lyrics. He felt self-conscious about stepping into Bon Scott’s shoes. He told a story about being completely stuck for ideas on one particular song which had a killer main riff. He was sitting with pen and paper when a storm started outside. He heard some thunder and wrote down, “Rolling thunder.” He then heard rain start pouring down and wrote “pouring rain.” After that he unlocked and the words came easy. I don’t have to tell any AC/DC fans what the song was.

Point of trivia: George Young of the Easybeats is the older brother of Malcolm and Angus.

Yup, George is big bro and I would definitely say an influence…

The Easybeats ROCKED! (Warning: YouTube clip)

Another thing I forgot to mention is that Bon Scott was a nutty genius himself, and had more going on than meets the eye…

He had a checkered past prior to AC/DC, doing stints in a bubblegum group, The Valentines, and a prog-rock group, Fraternity. (more YouTube clips)

Very true. The best musical advice I ever got was that it’s all about contrast–if you want the loud part to really sound loud, you don’t necessarily make it louder, you just make the quiet part quieter. If you want the fast part to really jump out, slow down the slow part.

So the key to making those big syncopated riffs sound even bigger and bouncier is to play them over a sparse, straight-beat rhythm. Fancy playing would just take away from it, and it takes a good drummer to realize that.

Actually, in most popular music, it is the back beat (two and four) that is emphasized. That’s part of the defining characteristic of rock music (note the heavy whack of the snare on two and four.) What you’re describing more is the emphasis of the off beat, beats in between one, two, three, and four.

True. But to a non-musician I didn’t want to try to explain eighth notes. :slight_smile:

Which is basically a long-winded way of saying that AC/DC rocks the shit!