The Basics Of AC/DC-Style Guitar Playing

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(Image: © Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella)

AC/DC are among the best and most famous rock bands of all time, with scores of iconic hits like "Highway To Hell," "Back In Black" and "You Shook Me All Night Long." The distinctive playing of guitarist brothers Malcolm and Angus Young defined the band's sound, and cemented their place in rock history.

It’s fair to say that AC/DC's guitar style is a topic that could be explored in enormous depth, with the many technical, tonal and compositional elements at play in the band's music. What we’re going to look at here though, are the absolute basic essentials to get you started—playing the right kind of things, in the right kind of way, with the right sound. 

1. Get The Sound

First, you need roughly the right sound. Otherwise—no matter technically good your playing is—it’s just not going to sound right. The AC/DC sound is a recipe comprised of a few simple, high-quality raw materials, rather than a concoction of pedals, technology and quirks. 

In short, it’s an electric guitar with humbucker pickups, plugged into a valve amp with the volume and EQ cranked up and the gain way lower than you might think. It’s easy to hear AC/DC as a ‘high-gain’ sound that requires you to crank your gain up to 10, but this isn’t the case. Follow the steps above and you’ll hear a more authentic tone. The power comes just as much from the pickups and a cranked valve amp as it does from gain. 

You may need to tweak this based on the equipment in your setup, but use the above as a starting point and you’ll get pretty close.

2. Power Chords

Power chords are key to the AC/DC sound. Particularly the most common power chords, the ‘root and fifth’ kind. These are famous for their heavy, low-end sound and their being technically neither major nor minor. This means that they provide a more driving, dynamic element to a song than an emotional one.

Again, this is a starting point—AC/DC guitar parts often involve plenty more than just power chords. However, very often the parts will be power chords with a changing bass note, or power chords with a riff played in the gaps, and so on. So, power chords are your route into the style. If you get the sound right as above, and blast out some power chords, you’ll be well on the way.

3. Expressive Rhythm Parts!

Here’s a bit more elaboration on the above. What does the band do to make these power chord-based rhythm guitar parts more interesting? Well, it’s mostly about adding rhythmic or expressive interest. Some of the main ways they do this are:

  • Strongly accenting certain beats, particularly less obvious beats, to make a dynamic, exciting rhythm
  • Lots of gaps, pauses, staccato beats and stop/start playing in the rhythm parts. This breaks things up, creates rhythmic interest and creates space for interplay with the lead guitar.
  • Expressive techniques, i.e. Sliding from one chord to another, chords with bass notes hammered onto from on open string, low-end legato riffs between chords etc.

As before—the list goes on. The essence of the point is that once you’re on the right sound and using the right kind of chords, don’t forget to add expressive and rhythmic interest to create a better, more interesting and more authentic guitar part.

4. Pentatonic Scales

Now, we move more toward the lead guitar element. Many of the solos in AC/DC tunes are based on pentatonic scales, particularly the minor pentatonic scale—the heart of classic rock soloing. You probably know position 1 of the minor pentatonic scale, nearly always the first scale a rock-oriented guitarist will learn.

If you don’t already know them, learn the remaining four positions of the minor pentatonic scale (how to play the same scale elsewhere on the fretboard so the whole neck becomes open to you). Though Angus Young often sticks to pentatonic scales when soloing, he rarely sticks to one area of the neck.

5. Soloing Habits

Another point that could be discussed forever. But the key elements are held in the patterns of behavior in Young’s soloing. Including:

  • Climb the Neck—Constructing solos that begin low down the neck, then work their way up as they progress. This naturally adds anticipation, growing intensity and expression—the sense that the solo is ‘climbing’
  • Pentatonic Scales—It doesn’t take much for any of us, when soloing, to fall into our own familiar patterns—our usual licks, moves and note choices. In a way, there’s nothing wrong with this, that’s what Angus Young himself does, and part of why his guitar sound is so distinctive. However, if our aim is to emulate the style, we need to be in his patterns, not our own. One jazzy note choice and the authenticity is gone. Keep it pentatonic!
  • Lots of Legato—Legato playing is crucial to this style. Loads of slides, hammer ons and pull offs, enabled of course by the sustain provided by the underlying power, volume and to an extent, gain. A good excuse to develop or revise your legato playing!
  • Bag of Licks!—A lot of the time, we’re trying to improve our soloing by making it feel less like a sequence of licks and more like a cohesive solo. Here, we want to do the opposite. Many of Young’s solos are in very deliberate phrases, or licks. It’s partly what makes them memorable, and he definitely has his own bag of tricks—often fast, repetitive licks. 

If you follow this advice, you’ll be AC/DC-ing it up in now time. You can also learn from this advice about how to emulate other guitarists’ and bands’ styles by applying the same key principles and asking yourself the same key questions about their sound.

Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitartricks.com. GuitarTricks.com has over 11,000 lessons covering everything a beginner guitar needs to know to get started, as well as more complicated techniques like tapping, sweeping, scales, and more.