Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
The rock and roll world suffered a tremendous loss late last week when it was learned that Malcolm Young, AC/DC’s brutal, steady rhythm guitarist had died after a three-year-long battle with dementia. Tributes innumerable poured in from all corners of the globe from superstars and regular fans alike. Though he wasn’t much of a talker, Malcolm spoke with ferocity through his ever-faithful Gretsch Jet Firebird cranked, as always, to its absolute limits. As our own Steven Hyden so eloquently put it he, “lifted more asses than a Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon.”
While most guitarists are judged by their ability to break out in the middle of a song with a searing solo, Malcolm’s bread and butter was the riff; that captivating, repeating melody that remains the backbone of any solid rock track. It isn’t glamorous work, but a great riff is the necessary ingredient that can lift a song from merely fantastic to instantly legendary. It’s hard to think of another band who created more iconic riffs with less fuss than AC/DC. Usually using just three chords — sometimes two, and maybe even four if they were in the mood to get frisky — the Aussie rockers put together some of the most unforgettable, high-octane passages of music in the rock and roll canon.
The formula never really strayed, but that was kind of the point. When you throw on an AC/DC record, any AC/DC record, you already know what you’re in for. I personally love that monstrous E chord blast at the beginning of both “T.N.T.” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” when for about two-seconds you aren’t really sure whether it’s the one song or the other. The band’s very name is synonymous with a certain kind of egalitarian rock excellence, blissfully free of extemporaneous noise pollution. Even as the singers changed, the sound never wavered.
So, with that in mind, and with Malcolm at heart, I thought now would be as a good a time as any to revisit 10 of the band’s greatest guitar riffs. Note, this isn’t a ranking of the group’s best songs, but a survey of that essential ingredient that runs through the very heart of each of them.
10. “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)”
Opening with a ringing, double-string riff that drops up and down the fretboard like an indecisive elevator, “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)” is a track overstuffed with different guitar melodies. “There’s some good riffs on there,” Malcolm noted in a 1992 interview about the album itself with Team Rock. “But there’s only one song we like, and that’s the title track.” The rhythm guitarist enters the picture about 15 seconds in, strumming with the down-tempo swagger of an exhausted dinosaur, then there’s the volcanic guitar solo, and the massive blast of cannon-fire, allegedly inspired by the nuptials of Princess Diana. But it’s that opening riff that demands your attention; a disconcerting chirp warning you of all the danger that’s about to come.
9. “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)”
This is the just the third single that AC/DC ever released, but even at this early stage of their career, the Young brother’s ear for ear-wormy guitar riffage is already supremely evident. Using just one chord — a delightfully well-chucked A — Malcolm gives “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)” a distinctive, rollicking swing. Many people allow themselves to become preoccupied with the “rock” element of the band, but AC/DC never forget that it was supposed to “roll” as well.
8. “Whole Lotta Rosie”
The manic, three-chord intro to “Whole Lotta Rosie” comes screaming out of the speakers like serrated samurai sword swinging at your head. It’s electric and intense, matching the audacity of singer Bon Scott’s tale of a one-night escaped with a zaftig Tasmanian woman. The guitar line had actually been kicking around the band earlier as the backbone to a different song called “Dirty Eyes.” For “Whole Lotta Rosie,” the Young brothers strapped a rocket onto the riff and out came the irreverent rocker we know and cherish today.
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
“You Shook Me All Night Long” is one of the more economical riffs the band cobbled together over the years. It’s not a direct assault on your senses, but rather a call for physical interplay. The off-kilter silences in between guitar bleats again lend the track a swing that demands, at the very least, some respectful head-banging; at most, full-body convulsions.
Boom! The thunderous strike of a single E chord washes over you like a tidal wave. It lingers for several seconds while a thunder of tom-toms heralds the introduction of a swirling melange of Es, Gs, and As that combines together to lay the funky foundation for Bon Scott’s foreboding tale of the life of a rock and roll outcast. He’s “dirty, mean, highly unclean,” much like the raunchy melody itself.
5. “Highway To Hell”
If you were to rank the greatest AC/DC songs, I think you’d have to give “Highway To Hell” either the first or second slot on the list. But, again, that’s not what this particularly inventory is all about. “Highway To Hell” is a song that’s greater than the sum of it’s individual parts. It’s Bon’s honking vocals, the sharp backing melodies, the rolling toms, the Chuck Berry-flavored solo all working in concert that elevates the song into the immortal cut that it became. As iconic as that lone, fuzzed-out, intro lick is, Malcolm and Angus have created better.
4. “Hells Bells”
Without question the most foreboding passage of music in AC/DC’s entire canon. The demonic riff that heralds the beginning of “Hells Bells” rivals anything Tony Iommi accomplished in Black Sabbath, and sets the tone right at the beginning of Brian Johnson’s first album with the band that things are going to be very different going forward. Fun fact, the bell in the beginning of the song actually tolls 13 times, because attention to detail is everything.
“Thunderstruck” opens with a frenetic flurry of notes, attacking your ears like a kicked-over hive of extremely pissed off wasps. Angus hammers down on his fretboard with a frenzy, while underneath, Malcolm rushes in with some squishy rhythmic strums, adding a semblance of order to the mania. While the studio version of “Thunderstruck” is an absolute achievement, I have to declare the live rendition performed at the Monsters Of Rock Festival in Donington, UK. in 1991 the definitive take. That opening scene, featuring a lone shot of Angus hammering out this riff while gazing out at the denim-clad crowd, is one of the most amazing images in the band’s long history.
2. “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”
Opening with the same growling E chord heard on “T.N.T,” the title track to one of AC/DC’s greatest albums doesn’t linger in the same way. Angus goes in for the kill straight out of the gate, replacing one guitar snarl with another, upping the register, then settling back down again. The sequence gallops with the rhythm of the drums while Bon playfully begs you to call him at “36-24-36.”
1. “Back In Black”
Back In Black is a phenomenal record, packed with some of the most explosive, heart-stopping rock and roll songs ever committed to tape, but towering above them all is the first track, on the album’s second side. If rock and roll can really be distilled to “three chords and truth,” AC/DC’s “Back In Black” might be the de facto example of what that really means. An E, a D then an A; that’s it. Single strums. No chucks, no fuss. It’s as straightforward as say “Smoke On The Water” “Seven Nation Army” or “Whole Lotta Love,” a sequence of notes every guitarist is compelled to learn from the day they pick up the instrument for the first time. It’s the most infectious, enticing, irresistible riff that AC/DC ever created, and ranks high-up on the short-list of the greatest riffs of all-time.
While everyone can agree on the combined greatness of the Young brothers, there does exist a nebulous dividing line amongst AC/DC fans between the Bon Scott bros and the Brian Johnson stans. I’ve yet to encounter any Axl Rose heads, though given the contrarian nature of the Internet, I’m sure a few of them exist on Reddit or some such place. You can appreciate the one, but will always feel a greater level of fealty for the other. As for me personally, I love ya Brian, but I gotta go with the original.
Tragically, Bon Scott died just as the band was finally breaking big across the world. The exact circumstances of his death are somewhat mysterious. What we know for a fact is that he was found unresponsive in small car on the cold morning of February 20, 1980. The official verdict is “death by misadventure.” Just seven months earlier however, Bon was at his prime best during a gig at Oakland Coliseum. Everything that made him one of the greatest frontmen to ever hold a microphone and saunter across a stage are on full display during this eight-song 50-minute set. Clad in nothing more than a pair of tight-fitting blue jean, Scott holds a crowd of 70,000 people in the palm of his hand as he wiggles and wails over tracks that would soundtrack keggers and frat parties from here until eternity.