Over five-plus decades of international stardom, Australian rockers AC/DC have established themselves at the forefront of the blues rock and hard rock genres. The band’s raw, aggressive style took hard rock from a subgenre of classic rock as a whole to its own space at the center of the stage.
Owing to their longevity and success AC/DC’s guitar styles have also inspired countless artists across nearly every genre of guitar music today — from rock and metal to alternative and even country. Between all of their hits, their unforgettable tours, and all of the other artists that they’ve influenced, it’s hard to argue that AC/DC is one of the most influential groups in the history of guitar music.
But despite AC/DC’s widespread success, many musicians underestimate just how many influential guitar techniques they pioneered. The Australian band are some of the best guitar players of classic rock, and their techniques are still as fresh and useful today as they were when the band was first starting out. Beyond their inspirations, the band has also influenced genres like punk rock guitar and grunge guitar players.
If you want to improve both your rhythm strumming and your lead guitar lines, AC/DC is a great band to look to for advice. As you discover more of the band’s style, you’ll also be able to hone your own playing style as well. Study these techniques, and you’ll improve your classic rock guitar playing in no time!
AC/DC’s music, played with humbucking guitars like this Epiphone, emphasized simplicity over virtuosity.
In any discussion about AC/DC, simplicity must be the first and the last technique mentioned. It’s such a crucial element of the band’s style that any article without it would be making a grave omission.
Throughout AC/DC’s career, they’ve employed a simplistic ethos in many different forms: guitar parts are often unadorned, leaving plenty of space between lines (something we’ll touch on in more depth later), lead lines often feature no rhythm section playing behind them, and drum patterns are usually straightforward and steady rather than flashy and swinging.
Some critical observers view this simplicity as a mark of a lack of musicianship — yet the restraint and touch show a lot more than a simple lack of chops. AC/DC’s simplicity is not the result of a lack of skill, but rather a conscious decision to keep the music focused and pointed towards one goal throughout every song.
This ethos translates particularly clearly to the guitar. Listen to AC/DC guitar parts across the band’s entire career, and you’ll instantly hear that trademark stripped-back, raw sound. It’s not the flashiest, and it’s far from the most complex playing, but it delivers on all of the objectives.
One of the band’s earlier songs, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” is an outstanding example of this simplicity. Listen to the song below, and notice how the simple rhythm guitar riff fuels the entire body of the tune. It’s deliberately easy to follow and to-the-point; rather than tip the entire hand in the beginning, the band saves it for the solo towards the end and leaves the main rhythm part to be as uncluttered as possible.
That simplistic riff, with the ascending motion and the constant reference back to the open E chord, maintains a driving rhythmic feel while maintaining a stable center over the course of the song. Notice as well how the guitar drops out during the verses, rather than play over the singer’s vocals. And even though the solo in the middle of the track is rather complex, many other AC/DC solos are more simple. If you want to get started playing simple, effective solos, check out our list of easy solos for beginners. Then, you can also learn how to improve your solos with our detailed guide.
The ripping power chords provide plenty of color and punch in between each line — but if they were placed beneath every line, they could quickly become boring and monotonous. In a similar vein, a guitar accompaniment beneath the vocals risks cluttering the melody and detracting from the focus of the song. The smart choice to keep everything simple helps give this song a serious punch and propel the momentum for the duration of the tune.
Keeping Your Own Playing Simple
Incorporating AC/DC-style simplicity in your own guitar playing forces you to be judicious about what you play, and make use of space as well as notes. Oftentimes, players (particularly beginners and intermediate guitarists) feel pressure to fill up as much space as they can with notes, whether or not those lines really advance the center of the song.
This urge is understandable, particularly for players who struggle to play notes at the speed they want to. If you’re not able to play as fast as you’d like, you can always try out some exercises to improve your fingering technique, strengthen your scale work, and focus on your picking speed. These mechanical exercises can all speed your playing up over the course of weeks, months, and years of practice.
But in terms of songwriting, it’s often better to leave some space in your guitar parts rather than fill every beat in each measure with a lick. Advanced guitarists are able to recognize where space is necessary, and adjust their playing appropriately to preserve enough room for the pulse of a song to “breathe.” It’s essential to maintain this space in order to avoid bombarding listeners with more notes than they can comprehend in a short amount of time.
Tying in with simplicity is another concept central to AC/DC’s image and style: their riffs. Nearly every AC/DC hit begins with a guitar riff, which then repeats throughout the rest of the song. Most of the time (but not always, thanks to songs like “Thunderstruck”!) this riff is pretty simple and based heavily around power chords and the pentatonic scale. But even though the vast majority of AC/DC riffs may be easy to play, they still serve an essential purpose to the band’s music.
The technique of placing riffs at the very beginning of the song was not something that AC/DC invented–but the no-bones, raw feeling it creates fits perfectly with the hard rock attitude and stripped-back style of the band. More than any other group, AC/DC have remained committed to this riff-centered style. It’s an easy way for casual listeners and diehard fans alike to recognize the band’s music at first listen.
Beyond just making AC/DC’s music more recognizable, however, their riffs serve to define and drive the songs. Simple, bite-size riffs (like the riffs in “TNT” and “Back in Black”) are easy to repeat throughout a song and give listeners something to latch on to that will stick in their heads even after the music finishes playing. Check out a song like “It’s a Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)” for another great upfront riff:
What’s particularly interesting about these riffs is how AC/DC often use them as a sort of substitute for more fleshed-out rhythm guitar lines. Oftentimes, these riffs repeat underneath the verses and choruses of a song, without any other part that would provide a change of pace. The relentless driving energy gives the band’s music a chugging, heavy feel that helped them stand out as pioneers in the genre of hard rock.
Riffs can be a great addition to your own playing style — but they require a great sense of timing and a knack for coming up with small, easily digestible licks that deliver a lot of musical meaning without extra fat. That’s especially true of riffs in the style of AC/DC, which are stripped back as much as possible and don’t feature much in the way of fancy embellishments. If you want to hear some other simpler riffs, we’ve compiled a list of 10 easy guitar riffs for beginners.
Building Riffs in Your Playing
To build some riffs, you can try to work out different combinations of power chords and bass-heavy rhythmic chords. Most AC/DC riffs evolve out of blues, which means that they rely heavily on the minor pentatonic and blues scales. If you want an easy shortcut to create some gritty hard rock licks, try playing around in these scales and arranging some combinations of notes in a catchy, quick, and repeatable pattern.
But as AC/DC have demonstrated, how you use a riff is nearly as important as the composition of the riff itself. To incorporate AC/DC’s guitar techniques into your playing, make sure to repeat your riff throughout the course of your songs, and incorporate it prominently underneath vocal lines (particularly in the chorus). If you want to, you can even make it the first and last sound that your listeners hear in your songs! This is a device that AC/DC have used in plenty of their songs, and it’s a great way to make sure that your listeners remember the core of your tune. If you compose a strong riff, this tactic may even get people humming or whistling it throughout their day!
AC/DC’s incredible rhythm stems from the fusion of their guitars and drums.
Rhythm and Pulse
As we’ve already talked about a bit in the sections above, AC/DC’s music is known for its driving rhythm and heavy, chugging pulse. While they were far from the first band to begin using steady rhythms in their songs, AC/DC did take the backbeat of their songs to a level beyond most of their contemporaries.
If you listen to almost any song by the band, you’ll notice that the drums maintain a steady, pounding backbeat throughout the tune. This is usually accomplished through a “four on the floor” pattern, which means that the bass drum plays on every beat of the measure. These solid, rocking beats maintain a steady rhythm underneath the verse, chorus, and bridges. But while it’s used in the drums, AC/DC also uses the guitars to create a forceful rhythmic pulse and keep their listeners engaged.
This often comes through the use of heavy ringing chords. Rather than playing with dynamics and using lighter strumming patterns, Malcolm and Angus Young nearly always lean into their guitars with everything they’ve got. The result is a heavy, forceful chord that establishes the rhythm rather than simply accenting the backbeat from the rhythm section. The song T.N.T. is a great example:
The lack of single-note lines on strong beats also helps AC/DC improve the pulse of their music. While quick bluesy riffs often appear in licks like the opening riff to hit single “Back in Black,” they rarely come on the strong beats of the measure. In other words, the guitars build on almost all of the stressed beats from the rhythm section with power chords and heavy, banging accents strummed all at once. This lends a sense of immediacy and punch, rather than delicate chordal lines or lead figures.
The entire “Back in Black” album is an outstanding example of rhythmic hard rock. The LP made our list of the 100 best guitar albums of all time!
Applying This Technique To Your Own Songs
As you look for ways to apply AC/DC’s rhythmic techniques to your own songs, it might sound like a difficult proposition — after all, the Australian rockers created a sound that’s instantly recognizable as their own. Emulating their rhythm risks turning your own music into a weak copy of their songs rather than something original and unique. There is a way, however, to incorporate AC/DC’s rhythm and pulse into your own songs without making it sound repetitive or derivative.
If you’re building a song from scratch, you can always start out with a solid four on the floor backbeat. This is a classic AC/DC technique, but it’s not something that they used exclusively — and therefore, not a ripoff of the band’s style. Over those lines, try to accent the strong beats of the measure (usually the 2 and 4, where the snare drums usually hit, but sometimes the 1 as well) with quick, choppy power chords or other double-stop patterns.
At this stage, the chord progression itself isn’t as important as the rhythm and pace of your playing. Make sure to hit those central beats in time with the backing beat of the bass drum; you can always edit or fill in the specifics of the chord progression later. Once you have established a foundation for your track, you can embellish the space in between each beat with single notes and other lines. As we’ll mention in a minute, power chords and the pentatonic and blues scales will work best for the spirit of this exercise.
Syncopation is a technique which incorporates elements of both harmony and rhythm — though it’s often thought of as a drum technique, AC/DC were fond of using it with their guitars to great effect.
In the most basic sense, the term “syncopation” describes the combination of accents which land on both the strong beats and the off beats of a measure. When done properly, syncopation creates a bouncy, swinging feel with a great variation between measures and beats. Syncopated rhythms are often much more interesting to listen to than vanilla “straight” rhythms because of this reason.
AC/DC, like we mentioned above, loved to use the interplay between the guitars and the drums to create syncopation in a song. Take another listen to “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” and listen to how the drums during the verse land apart from the major strong beats in the measure. The guitar, meanwhile, reinforces the strong downbeat with ringing power chords. This brings the pulse of the song in and out of focus, swinging it back and forth between a straight and a livelier rhythm. It’s a dynamic, driving feel that’s far more entertaining to listen to than a standard drum pattern during the verses would have been. For a more in-depth look at this, read our article on how to make your playing more dynamic!
For an example of syncopation using only the guitars, you can also look at the massive hit “Back in Black.” The first measure of the riff, with the massive power chords hit in staccato phrases, is all on the heavy beats. This is fairly standard stuff for the band. But while the first part drops downwards in pitch and everything lands on beat, the second measure inverts both the sound and the rhythm. Here, the guitar riffs move upward and begin on all of the “and” beats, in between the numbered downbeats.
In contrast with the first measure, this riff feels “off-balance” and swinging wildly as it climbs back to the beginning of the cycle. It’s a great alternative to the stately beginning, and an outstanding way to see how the band mixes both traditional rhythms and more adventurous syncopation in their music!
Power Chords and Pentatonics
While the rhythm might have been the thing that made listeners move in their seats, AC/DC’s sound was built on power chords and pentatonic scales as much as it was on strong bass drum backbeats and heavy rhythmic accents on stressed beats in the measure. These basic chords and fundamental blues and rock and roll scales provided the perfect palette of sound for Angus and Malcolm Young to craft some of the most enduring riffs and solos in rock and roll guitar history.
Power chords are named because of their bassy, powerful sound. They revolve around the bottom four strings of the guitar (the bottom three for chords with a root on the sixth string, and the fifth, fourth, and third strings for chords with a root on the fifth string), which situates them much like a traditional barre chord in terms of style.
However, power chords are distinct in one major way: they only contain the root and the fifth of the chord, without the addition of a major or minor third interval. Because they lack a third (the interval which determines whether a chord is major or minor), they’re technically neither major nor minor chords! Combined with their bass-heavy, growling sound, that ambiguity allows them to be used in pretty much any situation. Whether your song calls for a major chord or a minor chord, a power chord can slot in easily and effectively.
The minor pentatonic scale, meanwhile, is the foundation for much of blues and rock music. Its structure builds upon and mirrors power chords, preserving the aggressive sound across the entire guitar neck. The blues scale is an extension of the minor pentatonic scale with the blue note (a flatted fifth) added for a bit of extra dissonance. Take a look at a diagram of the A minor pentatonic scale below (with the blue note added) to see what the blues scale looks like. You can transfer this pattern anywhere along the neck; the root is the first note on the sixth string.
Because power chords can be either major or minor, the bassline often indicates the tonality of the chord — in other words, whether the listener should interpret a power chord as major or minor. If you want to understand a bit more bass theory, check out some of our bass-specific articles! We have lists of the 15 best basslines to learn for guitarists, the best basslines to learn for beginners, and how to transfer your skills on guitar to the bass.
While playing power chords and pentatonic scales is an exceptional shortcut to a bluesy, heavy sound in the style of AC/DC, you’ll also need to master a couple of mechanical techniques on top of the notes that you play. Pick attack is one of the most important of these mechanical devices. With the right type of pick and the proper stroke methods, you can make your guitar sound much more like AC/DC, even as you play the exact same notes!
Before discussing why pick attack is so important to AC/DC’s sound, it’s important to understand what the term “pick attack” actually refers to. When musicians talk about another player’s “pick attack,” they’re mentioning the technique and the force with which that player picks the strings. This might seem like a small point (in fact, oftentimes people think that pick attack borders on the semantic) but it can have huge effects on your tone.
If you need an example, AC/DC serves as a great one. The percussive, punchy sound that the Young brothers achieved was thanks as much to their picking technique and sharp, dug-in pick attack as it was to the notes they were playing! As another bonus, pick attack is a relatively easy technique to incorporate into your own playing. If you’re struggling to master the classic sound of AC/DC, switching up your pick attack could be a quick way to fix your tone.
Pick Attack in Your Playing
Many AC/DC songs incorporate prominent pick attack to create staccato, choppy power chord parts. These parts, in turn, emphasize the underlying rhythm and create a frenetic, syncopated feel in the listeners. You can use this same pick attack technique to great effect, particularly in the genres of hard rock, blues rock, classic rock, and even metal.
To pick like AC/DC, emphasize speed and power over any sort of delicate touch. Stay precise, but don’t be afraid to dig into the strings and extract a more percussive sound from them! As long as you can keep the strings ringing at the same time (and make sure that the overall feel of the chord remains choppy and tight) then this heavy pick attack can create a wonderfully aggressive yet precise sound.
If you’re struggling to play as fast as you’d like, it might be helpful to review some speed-building exercises for beginners first. These will improve your technique to aid your pick attack and fluidity.
On the other hand, you could also appropriate this technique from AC/DC and take it the other way: towards legato picking (which tends to be slower). While it certainly wasn’t slow in any sense of the term, AC/DC have also used legato pick attack, which is softer and incorporates the pick at an angle more slanted towards the strings. This is a great technique for playing single-note lines, because you can use it to create either light, airy landscapes or dig in and produce a choppy, staccato effect that’s much closer to cut-off power chords.
Take a listen to the opening riff of “Thunderstruck” for a great example of this. Every note is precise and can be heard clearly, but they all connect together thanks to this legato pick attack. Rather than easing off of the gas pedal completely, Angus Young maintains a biting, hard dug-in pick attack but slants his pick a bit to reach across to the different notes in the riff. It sounds lovely, and it’s a great way to switch up your style without losing your energy or clarity!
When you try to pick like AC/DC guitarists Angus and Malcolm Young, make sure to keep a firm grip on your plectrum! Then, try digging into the strings with more force than you usually use. Stay steady and consistent, particularly when you play chords. Each note should ring out equally; if you have trouble playing barre chords or strumming every note in a certain chord, keep practicing at a slower, easier tempo until you can get it right.
Precision and steadiness are particularly important for AC/DC’s guitar techniques because their music revolves so heavily around basic backbeats and guitar syncopation. Without crisp, cleanly executed pick attack, the overarching structures of the band’s songs would quickly crumble and break down.
Marshall amplifiers were the foundation of AC/DC’s gritty tones.
One area of guitar playing style that many people overlook is tone. And even though tone might not be a certain playing “technique” in the strictest sense of the word, AC/DC’s guitar tone still merits inclusion here because of the way it factored into their overall style. Simply put, it’s almost impossible to imagine how AC/DC could have been successful without their crunchy, fiery distorted tones.
These tones were powered by Marshall stacks, using large tube heads and massive speakers cranked up to overdrive them. The guitars that were favored by the Young brothers, like Gibson SGs and Gretsch Jets, were also equipped with humbucking pickups. In contrast with lighter single-coils or even P-90s, these humbuckers provided a sound with plenty of heavy, dirty grit yet lots of harmonics and brighter saturation as well.
AC/DC’s tone is instantly recognizable, particularly among their hard rock and classic rock contemporaries. Once again, their sound speaks to the nuances of their playing techniques — while they might be easy to approximate, AC/DC are hard to copy exactly thanks to the amount of subtle nuance and extra work that went into their sound behind the scenes.
Whether or not you’re interested in approximating the specific sounds of vintage AC/DC records, this is a lesson that you can take with you in any and all genres: finding a signature sound that’s easily distinguishable from the crowd is often as much a matter of your physical sound as it is a matter of your playing style and chops. If you’re a guitarist looking to establish yourself (either as part of a larger band or as a solo artist on your own), you should experiment with lots of different guitar and amp combinations (plus as many pedals as you can find) in order to create a sound that works well for the material you want to play and is instantly recognizable as your signature tone.
Finding your own recognizable tone is a great way to set yourself apart from the pack of other players on your instrument, no matter what model or style you prefer to play. But beyond these broad lessons, AC/DC’s tone also enhanced many of the pieces of their playing habits which already existed, and opened up some extra techniques for them to take advantage of on stage and in the studio.
One of the most noticeable aspects of AC/DC’s tone is the saturation (and some slight compression as well) through their Marshall JCM800 amps. With the heavy overdrive applied to their guitars, AC/DC’s axes sound full-bodied, gritty, and crunchy. They’re sharp without being piercing, and dirty without being sludgy — traits which served the band well on myriad different songs.
That unique blend of grit, crunch, and clarity allowed AC/DC to perform techniques that might not otherwise sound good with heavier or cleaner guitar sounds. For example, many AC/DC riffs feature staccato stops between chords or single notes. Thanks to the crunchy guitar tones, these sudden stops carry a percussive sort of impact while also remaining clear enough to prevent any sloppiness or confusion over the chords being played. The riffs are easy for listeners to decipher yet still pack much more of a punch than standard, wavy clean riffs would.
The band have also harnessed that sound to great effect during their live tours. Marshall stack amplifiers are notoriously powerful, particularly when arranged in a wall blanketing the back fo a massive stage! These heavy-duty amp heads and speaker cabinets allowed the band to crank their guitars up to absurd levels of volume and crunch; in turn, this tone could create a visceral impact on listeners that was felt as much as it was heard.
When Angus and Malcolm Young employed a sudden, unexpected stop in the middle of a riff, listeners could maintain the momentum while feeling the pause physically as well as in their ears. This kind of cutting bite wouldn’t be possible if the guitars were layered with even more gain (particularly sludgy shoegaze-style fuzzes, which boost mid frequencies) or cleaned up to their pristine sounds.
In your own songs, you can harness these tones to grab your listeners’ attention and cut through heavier mixes. The crunchy Marshall sound is both vintage and modern at the same time — it can blend in with plenty of different styles.