I used to joke about AC/DC only knowing three chords and that if you had heard one AC/DC song, you had heard them all. But I was just trying to be a comedian. To non-musicians, their catalog might seem a bit generic, while to seasoned musicians their catalog might seem simplistic and repetitive. AC/DC has not been known as a band who evolved over time, nor could they ever be accused of changing their sound to keep up with trends. They made up their mind what kind of band they wanted to be back in the early 70s, and they remained true to that vision for the next four and a half decades. AC/DC is not one of those bands that you typically discuss musicianship about. I’ve never seen their band members come up in greatest drummer or greatest bass player lists. Angus Young is known more for his showmanship than his lead guitar work. They’ve had two very unusual sounding vocalists: Bon Scott, whose voice was one of a kind, but not on a level that matched his contemporaries like Robert Plant or Ozzy Osbourne; and Brian Johnson, who had the unenviable job of replacing Bon Scott when AC/DC were at the height of their success, and who had a voice that sounded like he was gargling razor blades. But as you listen to their catalog of great songs, one thing does stand out more than anything else: the rhythm guitar playing of Malcolm Young, who passed away on November 18th, 2017.
Malcolm was the anchor of AC/DC in many ways. He was the anchor musically. His exceptional rhythm guitar work gave Angus the freedom to run around and do his naughty schoolboy routine. He co-wrote almost every song AC/DC ever recorded. Malcolm was the one who had the fully realized vision of what he wanted AC/DC to be. He was a humble musician, which is a rare character trait in most rock musicians. If you watch AC/DC videos, you will be hard pressed to find much footage of him in them, usually just a quick flash of him singing the background vocals and playing his guitar. He was content to stand in one place, focusing on keeping the rhythm machine going while Angus did his theatrical antics.
One of the things that made Malcolm’s rhythm guitar playing so unique was that he was directly influenced by the piano playing of the early rock and roll artists like Little Richard. In a 2003 interview with Billboard magazine, Young talked about how his approach to rhythm guitar developed. He said, “I was still playing guitar like a piano to get a vibe of a Little Richard song, so it was things like that, playing rhythm around where the rhythm came from on the record, but with two guitars. I’d listen to a song and say, “Hang on, I like that piano thing,” so I’d play the guitar like that and get the vibe from it, and it just evolved from the get-go.” (Billboard 2003)
Malcolm Young’s humility, and ability to recognize his strengths versus his brother Angus’ strengths, helped create one of the best guitar teams to ever play hard rock. In his interview with Billboard he said, “From the get-go, I was wise enough to say, “Well, I’m playing rhythm ’cause Angus could really soar with the leads.” I used to mess around a little bit with lead at the time but not much; Angus, he was just so much better, he just went for it and it was brilliant. My place was sitting with rhythm, and I love rhythm. I’ve always loved it.” (Billboard 2003)
Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar work created some of the most memorable riffs in rock and roll music. Most people think of AC/DC as a metal band, or at least a hard rock band, but Young thought of his band as simply a rock and roll band. When you think of the term “Rock and Roll”, you have to realize it started with those 1950s piano banging guys like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. Then guys like Elvis and Johnny Cash translated that into guitar-oriented music. But the common denominator was the rhythm, the swing, the roll. The rock came from how much heavier it was than popular music, but the roll was what made it danceable, memorable, relatable. With Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar approach, AC/DC rolled as much as they rocked.
Trying to come up with a Top Ten List of songs that prove Malcolm Young was one of the greatest rhythm guitar players in rock and roll history, if not the greatest, was a difficult task because there are so many great examples of how great he was. I forced myself to narrow it down to ten, and I’m sure it’s a list that will frustrate many people with its omissions. I tried to base the list not just on what my personal favorites are, but by several factors: how Malcolm Young’s rhythm guitar work anchors the song, what sets it apart from other rhythm guitar work, and memorability of the riff. So here goes my top ten list of Malcolm Young’s best rhythm guitar work.
First place goes to the title song off their amazing Back in Black album, which is still the greatest “comeback” story in rock and roll. Still reeling from the accidental death of their charismatic lead singer, Bon Scott, AC/DC created one of the great hard rock albums of all time. This was one of several songs that could have easily been the opening track, but it was the sixth song to appear on the album, first song on side B on the original vinyl. This is one of the most recognizable, and imitated, guitar riffs in rock and roll history. From that muted strumming at the very beginning to the opening chords, “Back in Black” is the shout of victory AC/DC needed to let everyone know that, despite Bon Scott’s death, they were an unstoppable machine!
“Highway to Hell”, another album title track, is the definitive AC/DC song. Another intro that is instantly recognizable and an example of how Malcolm always knew WHEN to come in with his guitar. Sometimes he played the opening chords and other times he let Angus start the song. This technique is what made so many AC/DC songs work – bringing in the power chords on the chorus and making it memorable.
It seems that title tracks are the theme so far, but this was totally intentional. Released stateside years after its Australian release, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” is a gritty, bluesy, aggressive album and its title track encompasses all of these qualities. Power chords start the song off and all but fade off for the main verses, where the drums keep the rhythm going. “Dirty Deeds” also has one of Angus Young’s best guitar solos. Anyone who plays rock guitar has learned the main riff and chord progression of this song.
“You Shook Me All Night Long”, from Back in Black, is the closest AC/DC ever got to writing a “pop” song. It was hugely successful, and a popular song played by DJs at dances. Again, Malcolm was all about that rock and roll, and “You Shook Me” has plenty of both, making it an instant classic, still played at dances and still one of the great sing-along songs of all time. Even Celine Dion covered it, but let’s not talk about that.
Yet another title track, “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” has THE most epic intro of any AC/DC song other than “Hell’s Bells.” Malcolm Young’s heavy as hell power chords coming in behind Angus Young’s lead intro is the song that put them on the same level as metal bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. In fact, Malcolm’s playing on this song is heavy enough to fit on a Black Sabbath album, especially in the way it moves from slow, plodding power chords to a sudden transition into a faster tempo about four minutes into the song.
“Whole Lotta Rosie”, from the Let There Be Rock album, took standard blues chords and revved them up to maximum speed, in a way that only Led Zeppelin had accomplished with their song “Rock and Roll”. Not only could Malcolm hold a steady and heavy rhythm, but he could do so at breakneck speeds. Using a call and response technique at the beginning, where each vocal line was met by a stop and start blues riff, the song doesn’t waste much time before kicking into high gear. “Whole Lotta Rosie” is hard rock for driving and breaking the speed limit at its best.
“T.N.T.”, from both their 1975 Australian-only release of the same name and their first internationally released album, High Voltage, is one of THE defining AC/DC songs, as far as I’m concerned. That opening riff, accompanied by the gang vocals of “Oi! Oi!” probably influenced just about every hard rock band to come after them, and maybe even a few punk bands too. Everything about this song is pure AC/DC, and realizing they were making such an aggressive statement in 1975 blows me away. “T.N.T.” is a memorable song because Malcolm’s chords on the chorus accompany Bon Scott’s vocal in unison, creating a hook that is not easily forgotten.
My choice for number eight might seem odd to a lot of AC/DC fans, and I have to admit this is more of a matter of personal taste. I just couldn’t be objective when it comes to the Highway to Hell track “Touch Too Much.” It is my all-time favorite AC/DC song, and the song that really made me take notice of them when I was in ninth grade. “TTM” is not a typical AC/DC song. It has a maturity in its song structure and strays somewhat away from the “AC/DC formula.” Forced to work with a different producer than the pair they were used to working with, their older brother George Young and his Easybeats partner Harry Vanda, they were originally supposed to produce Highway to Hell with KISS producer Eddie Kramer. Thankfully, this didn’t work out and Mutt Lange, who would go on to make Def Leppard the hit machine of 80s hard rock, came on as producer. I don’t know how much of an influence Lange had on the writing and arranging of “Touch Too Much,” but it certainly was a different song for them. Heavy and catchy and even a little danceable, Malcolm’s power chords on the chorus and steady, slightly muted, picking on the verses makes for an incredible song on an album that was full of great songs.
“Thunderstruck”, from 1990 release The Razor’s Edge, is another song with a killer intro. Malcolm mirrors Angus’ lead picking with some rhythmic picking of his own, saving the power chords for later in the song. I have to point out that I particularly like the video AC/DC made for “Thunderstruck” because it’s one of the few that gives Malcolm a fair amount of camera time. He may have been content to stay in the background, but watching him was a real joy. He was so into playing and just sincerely enjoyed what he did.
Last but not least is “Rock and Roll Train” from AC/DC’s 2008 Black Ice album, sadly the last album to feature Malcolm Young’s playing (though he did help write the songs for their 2014 album “Rock or Bust” before succumbing to dementia and other illnesses that rendered him unable to play or tour anymore.) “Black Ice” was a hugely successful album, a return to form for the band, and “Rock and Roll Train” was a song that sounded as if it could have been a “Back in Black” song that didn’t make the final cut. Malcolm’s playing on “Train” kicks major ass, trudging along like a locomotive and is a testament to AC/DC’s ability to rock just as hard 35 years into their career as they did at the beginning. It also reminded the world that the brothers Young could still write a hell of a pop/hard rock song.
Malcolm Young’s death hurt the rock and roll world in a big way, but he left us with a shitload of great songs and inspired countless rhythm guitarists. Not everyone is a lead guitar player, and Malcolm was just fine with that; because he wasn’t about hard rock, he wasn’t about metal, he was all about rock and roll. Rest in peace, Malcolm. You were, and always will be, the rock god of rhythm guitar.
Honorable mention goes to the following songs:
“If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”
“Shot Down in Flames”
“Girls Got Rhythm”