How to Solo Like Angus Young, Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi
Regarded by many as the three most vital purveyors of pure hard rock/heavy metal sonic evil, AC/DC’s Angus Young, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi have each forged a distinct, instantly recognizable guitar style and sound.
After decades of dedicated service, all three players continue to influence countless up-and-coming metalheads the world over, and an in-depth study of each guitarist’s distinct musical personality is mandatory for any aspiring hard rock player.
Young, Page and Iommi share a few similarities in their respective crafts.
All three have relied on Gibson solidbody/dual-humbucker-style guitars for the majority of their careers, inspiring signature models of their respective axes: Angus Young has favored Gibson SG-type guitars and has his own Gibson signature model; Jimmy Page is most closely associated with the 1959 sunburst Les Paul, replicated in limited quantity by Gibson (with a retail price of more than $20,000); and Tony Iommi’s long association with the ’61 SG led to the creation of the similarly designed Gibson Tony Iommi model (as well as the custom-made SG-type Patrick Eggle and JayDee models that Iommi also uses). When soloing, all three guitarists most often use the bridge pickup.
Armed with their respective axes, the three defined the sound of metal in the late Sixties and early Seventies by relying on specific amplification: Jimmy Page favors Marshall SLP-1959 100-watt amps modified with KT-88 tubes, while also employing Voxes, Hiwatts, Fender Super Reverbs and Orange amps.
Angus Young has generally used Marshall 100-watt “Plexi” models along with JTM-45 “Plexis.” Iommi is also known for his use of Marshall and Orange gear and has long been a fan of Laney amplification; he even has his own Laney 100-watt signature amplifier.
Another commonality among the three guitar gods is their choice of scale for soloing. In the spirit of their American blues guitar heroes, all three rely most heavily on the minor pentatonic scale. FIGURE 1a shows the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G) played in fifth position; FIGURE 1b shows the same scale as played in an extended pattern that traverses the neck from the third fret to the 12th. The root notes are circled in each figure; once you have become familiar with these fingering patterns, be sure to move them to all other keys.
Let’s now look at these two patterns one octave and 12 frets higher: FIGURE 2a depicts A minor pentatonic played in 17th position while FIGURE 2b shows an extended pattern that spans the 15th–22nd frets, ending with a whole step bend from D to E. Young, Page and Iommi all cover the highest reaches of the neck in many of their solos, so be sure to practice the minor pentatonic scales in every key and all over the fretboard.
With his comedic school-boy outfit and hyperenergetic stage antics, Angus Young has been both celebrated and reviled for his over-the-top persona. But in truth, he is simply one of the greatest rock soloists ever. His intense, exciting playing style is equal parts adrenaline, blues rock fire, and precision, all of it spiked with a crash-and-burn attitude. In other words, it’s hard rock at its absolute best.
One of Young’s greatest solos is the one he recorded in the AC/DC classic, “You Shook Me All Night Long” (Back in Black). FIGURE 3 presents a solo played in this style: it’s played over a repeating I-IV-V-IV chord progression in the key of G—G-C-D-C—and is based primarily on the G minor pentatonic scale (G Bb C D F); bars 1–4 are played in third position, and then the next phrase shifts one octave higher to 15th position in bars 5–8.
The figure begins with a whole-step bend from C to D on the G string that is sustained and played with vibrato for three beats. Use your ring finger to fret the note and both your ring and middle fingers to push the string, with the middle finger one fret behind the ring finger. This two-finger bending technique is known as reinforced fingering and is used extensively by Young as well as Page and Iommi.
The first note in FIGURE 3 is a prime example of Young’s signature bend vibrato: upon bending the string with the ring and middle fingers (the index finger may also be used to help push the string for additional strength and support), the bend is then repeatedly released partially—somewhere between a quarter step and a half step—and restored to a whole step (“full”) in quick, even rhythm.
When executing this type of bend vibrato, you’ll find that it helps to push your fret-hand thumb against the top side of the neck, as this provides leverage for the fingers that are pushing and releasing the string. Young’s vibrato is relatively fast and not very wide and will require practice and keen listening to emulate authentically.
The C-to-D bend is followed with an index-finger barre across the top two strings at the third fret, and in bar 2 the pinkie frets F (second string/sixth fret), followed by the same reinforced ring-finger bend and release on C (third string/fifth fret). At the end of bar 2, after fretting the G note, roll the tip of the ring finger from the fourth string over to the fifth string and then back. This “finger roll” may take some practice to get used to, but it’s a very useful technique that is worth learning.
What makes a solo like this great is its simplicity and melodic quality. Each idea is balanced against the next in an effortless way, and the overall result is a memorable solo that one could easily sing—an earmark of every great hard rock guitar solo.
Beginning in bar 5 of FIGURE 3, the second half of the solo relates to the first half in that it also leads off with a sustained bend, this time from a high F, the flatted seventh, to G, the root note, which is played vibrato in a similar manner. When playing minor pentatonic licks like these in high positions, many blues, blues/rock and hard rock players adopt a three-finger approach—index-middle-ring—for the majority of their licks, presumably because of the closeness of the frets. Young, however, chooses to use his pinkie in many of his licks, regardless of his fretboard position.
I wrap the solo up in bar 8 by switching to a riff based on G major pentatonic (G A B D E). A staple of blues soloing is to alternate between the “sweet” sound of major pentatonic and the darker sound of minor pentatonic, and Young does just this in many of his solos.
Another great example of Young’s masterful soloing can be heard on the title track to Back in Black. FIGURE 4 shows a solo played in a similar style. This example is played over a simple repeating chord progression in the key of E: E-D-A (I-fVII-IV). The majority of the solo is based on the E minor pentatonic scale (E G A B D), although I begin with a phrase that incorporates notes from the E Dorian mode (E F# G A B C# D) by including the sixth, C#. The placement of this pitch is critical in relation to the accompanying chord progression, as it lands on the A chord, and C# is the major third of A.
Like FIGURE 3, the goal with this example is to illustrate Young’s clear sense of melody and melodic development: FIGURE 4 begins with a “hooky” phrase that is developed by descending the G string in a similar manner across the first two bars. At bar 3, I jump up to the 12th-position E minor pentatonic “box” pattern, beginning with a high D-to-E bend and vibrato that is sustained through the first two beats of the bar, followed by a fast phrase based on descending 16th-note triplets.
The solo then stays rooted in 12th position through the remainder of bar 3, all the way to the end of bar 7. As with the high-position pentatonic licks in the previous example, the majority of these licks may be played comfortably with three fingers.
Particularly noteworthy is the classic lightning-fast blues/rock/metal run that spans bar 7 of FIGURE 4: based entirely on descending 16th-note triplets, the run begins with a pull-off from a high G (first string/15th fret) to E (12th fret) followed by D (second string/15th fret). The next 16th-note triplet starts one note lower, on E, and is followed by a pull-off from D to B (15th fret to 12th fret). The pattern of starting one note lower with each subsequent 16th-note triplet and using pull-offs wherever possible is repeated throughout the run.
As the solo develops, analyze each beat and notice how the progression of the lines contributes to the overall phrase. Young is a master of “phrase-ology,” a skill/gift that lends an almost effortless quality to his solos and the feeling of constantly pushing the music forward and telling a story.