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AC/DC's Angus Young Talks Picking Hard

(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The following is from Angus Young's classic Guitar World column, "Let There Be Rock." Interview by Nick Bowcott.

AC/DC are more than just a great rock band, they're an institution.

Trends may come and go, but their unique brand of rhythm 'n bruise has proven to be timeless. Angus Young, the band's lead-playing livewire, has also deservedly attained a legendary standing in the business. In fact, one of modern rock's leading lights, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains recently referred to him as "the absolute god of blues-rock guitar."

In the first of a series of exclusive lessons with Guitar World, Angus talks about his unique playing style ...

"Style? I didn't think I had any!" laughs Angus. "I just plug in and hit the thing really hard. That's my style ... or lack of one! That's why I use extra-heavy Fender picks—there's a lot of plastic in 'em so it takes longer to wear 'em out! Actually, because I'm so small, when I strike an open A chord I get physically thrown to the left and when I play an open G chord I go right. That's how hard I play, and that's how a lot of my stage act has come about. I just go where the guitar takes me."

GUITAR WORLD: Did you play that hard from the moment you started or is it something that evolved?

I've always liked to really hit the strings. I grew up with Mal [Mal is Angus' nickname for his brother Malcolm], who, besides having a great right [picking] hand, really understands how to get the most out of a guitar. He would always tell me, "don't tickle it, hit the bugger!"

The funny thing is, when you learn to play really hard you also learn the instrument's limitations. I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and t hat's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.

The verse of "Sin City" [Powerage] is a good example of this being put into action.

Yeah, we belt out the main riff pretty hard during the intro and the chorus, but when the vocal comes in we ease back on it a bit. Doing that adds a bit of color and dynamics to the song. You can't always be going for the throat, mate! You need some relief from time to time.

Do you ever reach for your guitar's volume pot and turn it down a tad when you're easing back on the intensity?

Yeah, I'll roll it back just a hair for that kinda part sometimes. It depends if I think I'm being cool—which is pretty friggin' rare, actually! [laughs] Normally, I'm too lazy to do that, so I just pick a little lighter instead. Or, sometimes I might even sit out for a while, like I do at the start of "Livewire" [High Voltage]. Mal starts the thing off with the chords and then I just jump in when the rest of the band comes in. That's the beauty of having another guitarist there, I can nip off for a quick smoke and leave Mal to it! [laughs)

Do you ever switch to your neck pickup to create a different tonal vibe?

I used to do that a lot; I'd be fiddling about with the [pickup selector] switch all the time. I still hunt back and forth sometimes now, but only if I'm in a diddly mood.

On stage though, I rarely do it. Hell, you can do a lot to alter your tone just by changing where you pick the strings—you don't even have to flick that switch! If you pick near the bridge you get more top and as you move further away from it your sound gets more bassy.

Another thing I'll do to add a bit of color to a part is pick it with my fingers. I do that quite a bit, and so does Mal.

Like at the start of "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" [Back in Black] for example...

Exactly. I kick the thing off by picking out the riff using my pick and my fingers together [a technique known as hybrid picking]. Then, when the band comes in, I just hammer it out to get a more dynamic thing happening.

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