Rhythm Is King: Malcolm Young’s Rock-Solid Riffage
Malcom Young’s iconic riffs—long considered the sonic glue of AC/DC—appear deceptively simple. Look again.
• Strengthen your downstroke technique.
• Create more space in your riffs.
• Integrate single-note lines with chord stabs.
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Playing rhythm typically accounts for at least 90 percent of any given gig, yet it seems like most guitarists dedicate insufficient time to mastering it. Even though it’s such an important part of one’s playing, it’s easy to see why it can be overlooked—rhythm guitar lacks the limelight. Trust me, focusing on your rhythm guitar chops and playing in the “pocket” is essential. Other musicians will take notice and respect you for your strong grasp of the fundamentals. This will get you hired!
This column series will delve deep into all things rhythm guitar. We’ll analyze the masters of the art form across all genres and eras, as there is something to be learned from everybody. You’ll find that these skills will help you in ways you never thought possible. We’ll also discuss how to develop guitar parts in a studio context, how to develop pocket, the art of simplicity, and many more concepts that make rhythm guitar such an intriguing and engaging subject.
There’s no more fitting way to begin this column than by writing about one of the most underrated guitarists in the history of rock music: AC/DC’s Malcolm Young. He has dedicated his life, not to lead guitar, with all its flash and praise, but to rhythm guitar. He’s the ideal example of someone who committed his entire career to the mindset of selflessness and simplicity, giving up his ego for the betterment of the band. His playing left an indelible mark on such rhythm guitar greats as Dave Mustaine, James Hetfield, and Scott Ian, many of who modeled their entire approach to guitar on Malcolm’s discipline and dedication to rhythm.
When I think about Malcolm’s playing, “deceptively simple” comes to mind. While AC/DC riffs are often some of the first a guitarist will learn, let me assure you these songs are not easy to play. Trying to achieve the proper tone, timing, and phrasing in songs like “TNT,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” and “Highway to Hell” require a steep learning curve.
Let’s start with tone. The assumption among many guitarists is that more gain equals more rock. Actually, it’s quite the opposite and Malcolm is a perfect example. Malcolm’s tone is far cleaner than even a diehard AC/DC fan would ever expect. His loud-yet-clean approach leads to maximum note clarity and dynamic range. When his string attack is soft, his tone is almost completely clean. However, when he lays into the strings, you can hear that classic AC/DC amp breakup. This lets him achieve all possible sounds in-between these two extremes with every pick stroke. The sheer power and aggression of Malcolm’s playing is proof that more gain does not equal more rock. Just take a listen below to Angus and Malcom’s isolated guitars on “Highway to Hell.”
Now, let’s move on to what I consider Malcolm’s secret weapon: his picking hand. The consistency of his right hand is, in my opinion, unparalleled. A large part of this consistency stems from his affinity for downstrokes. When you analyze his playing, this is not surprising in the slightest. Malcolm’s sound is based upon a heavy-handed, percussive approach that sounds like a freight train. The truest way of achieving this sound is by playing mostly downstrokes. Songs like “Shoot to Thrill” and “If You Want Blood (You Got it)” are both prime examples of his true mastery of this technique (check out the video links at the bottom of the column). If you try playing either of these riffs with alternating pick strokes, you’ll quickly realize that they lose their power and identity. Pay close attention to your picking as it may be the difference between a train wreck and a masterpiece.
In Ex.1, we have a riff in the style of Malcolm Young that encapsulates much of what makes him a unique player. The entire riff is played with downstrokes. This will be a forearm workout for any player. Palm muting also plays a big part in accurately recreating this riff. It’s difficult to convey the intricacies through tablature, so be sure to listen closely to the audio. In addition, notice how none of the chords contain a major 3. Malcolm will typically omit the 3 on both major and minor chords to avoid sounding muddy. Both Malcolm and Angus are hyper-aware of the chord shapes that will best fit the needs of the song, and you should be too.
Ex. 2 is reminiscent of the riffs that Angus and Malcolm wrote after singer Brian Johnson joined the band. From Back in Black forward, the band began to develop a more melodic approach to their riff writing without sacrificing the classic AC/DC sound. Songs like “Back in Black” and “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” are great examples of this. We are in the key of B and this example uses one of my favorite AC/DC-isms, a power chord with the b7 in the bass. Just as in the previous example, the 3s are not played. It’s important that you are acutely aware of the subtle differences in chords structure, as they can have a colossal effect on the overall vibe of the riff. Pay close attention to detail.
Many AC/DC riffs incorporate both single-note figures and chords. Songs such as “Night Prowler,” “Riff Raff,” “Have a Drink on Me,” and “Girls Got Rhythm” are examples of AC/DC’s masterful interplay between the two. Ex. 3 contains a single-note phrase (which should be played exclusively with downstrokes) at the beginning of the chord cycle, followed by consecutive open chords held for two beats per chord.
When playing rhythm guitar, space is your friend. Malcolm is a keen follower of this philosophy and incorporates it throughout AC/DC’s music. Ex. 4 is similar to songs like “Highway to Hell” and “Problem Child,” where chords are quickly muted after the initial attack. This creates moments of silence that grab the listener’s ear. Carefully scrutinize both your right- and left-hand muting. The goal is to have nothing but dead air in those spaces.
Ex. 5 is all about right-hand restraint. When holding a chord for four beats, many guitarists will continue to strum it, rather than letting the chord ring out from the initial attack. The verse of “Walk All Over You” is a great example of this. Don’t strum chords unnecessarily. Often times the most musically mature choice is to let the chord simply ring out. When you reach the D chord, this is your chance to let your restraint shine. Let it ring—you’ll be surprised how rewarding it can be.
Alternate-picked single-note riffs are also part of the AC/DC arsenal. The bridge to “Back in Black” and the intro to “Beating Around the Bush” come to mind as truly exquisite examples of this style of riff writing. Ex. 6 is in a similar vein. The picking here won’t be easy, so take your time. Start below the recorded tempo and strive for clarity. It’s important to focus on note definition—this riff will sound like a mess without it.