Sunday Morning: Top 10 Angus Young Guitar Solos
AC/DC guitarist Angus Young may be one of the unlikeliest guitar heroes in rock music, simply for the fact that he’s not trying to be a guitar hero at all. Far from the flashy pyrotechnics of many of hard rock and metal’s most celebrated players, Young’s artistry lies in his ability to use the simplest chords and scales to build musical tension and excitement. While his trademark schoolboy uniform and manic stage presence are his visual signatures, musically Young’s playing is characterized by a strong reliance on both major and minor pentatonic scales, which he mixes freely in the blues tradition. He has stuck with the Gibson SG for basically his entire career, and his firm adherence to the same types of tones, chords and scales is the cornerstone of AC/DC’s instantly recognizable trademark sound. Rarely has any guitar player done so much with so little — as you’ll see in our list of the Top 10 Angus Young Guitar Solos.
‘For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)’
A prime example of how less is oftentimes more when it comes to Angus Young, “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” spotlights several of his trademarks. Beginning with clean chords that give way to a typically powerful riff, the track features a slow, heavy groove over which Young intersperses rapid bursts of notes with deep bends that he repeats for emphasis and tension — only to release it with another flurry of fast notes. A strong start to the Top 10 Angus Young Guitar Solos.
‘Bad Boy Boogie’
The tough-guy swagger of “Bad Boy Boogie” provides a perfect showcase for more of Young’s signature moves. The guitarist takes a long pause in which he’s almost playing the silence before swooping into his solo, where he alternates stuttering rhythmic lead bursts with faster runs. But the centerpiece is a long passage where he just rides a single note with repeated emphasis over the riff, gradually getting louder to create a musical tension that’s almost unbearably awesome before topping it off with a lightning-fast run.
Critics who have called AC/DC a one-trick pony evidently haven’t heard “Ride On,” which shows a very different side to the group. A straight, plaintive blues track with subtle chords and an unusually sensitive vocal performance from Bon Scott, it also features a crying blues solo that demonstrates a more melodic, even prettier side to Young’s playing — if you’re allowed to use the word “prettier” in describing AC/DC. His phrasing here is like an amalgam of B.B. King and Jimmy Page, deserving a nod as one of the Top 10 Angus Young Guitar Solos.
Deceptively simple, but devastatingly affective. The stuttering rhythm guitar to “T.N.T.” is almost a precursor to punk in its raw approach and “Oi! Oi! Oi!” chant. Young’s solo employs a basic musical strategy, which is pause, bend one long howling note, then follow with a string of fast notes. Then repeat. He ends the song with a climbing passage before descending into a maelstrom of guitar noise.
‘Let There Be Rock’
Geez, Angus, give us a break, will ya? This is yet another extreme example of Young’s sonic tension building, with nerve-shattering results. The track’s already furious up-tempo onslaught gets even crazier when Young uses his trick of repeating licks over and over — but this time he modulates for even more suspense before he finally lets it go. It’s like being bashed in the head over and over, then going back and asking the guy who did it to do it again.
‘Highway to Hell’
Young reveals his true mastery of the blues tradition with his solo from “Highway to Hell.” Which is appropriate, since the song’s lyric is somewhat of a variation on the old blues legend about making a deal with the Devil in exchange for musical fame. This time it’s the road itself that is the “highway to hell,” and Young expresses that angst with a blues-rock solo that could have almost come from Check Berry, mingling the straight pentatonic minor scale and a few major notes in the classic blues sense.
Never a radio hit, “Rocker” is a song (and solo) that many fans point to as one of Young’s best. It doesn’t get any easier — or better — than this, with a barnstorming riff that makes you want to slam a few drinks at your local roadhouse. Young uses perfectly-phrased fast repeating licks, intermingled with incendiary blues rock runs, to amp up the energy in the way that only AC/DC can, playing off Bon Scott’s vocal screaming to great effect. This song has often served as a live showcase for an extended solo from Young, becoming a high point in the set over the years.
Turns out that just because Young doesn’t usually play with a lot of technical flash, that doesn’t mean he can’t. The opening solo to “Thunderstruck” features Young playing a jaw-dropping series of arpeggiated notes very fluidly, picking each one in the series so cleanly that if you took away the backing track, you could be listening to Robert Fripp on a latter-day King Crimson record. Later in the song he takes a bluesier turn for a more expected solo that somehow manages to fit right in, for one of the strangest — and coolest — tracks of his career.
‘You Shook Me All Night Long’
After Bon Scott’s untimely demise, it seemed unlikely that AC/DC could continue. The band proved its doubters not only wrong, but stupid with ‘Back in Black,’ which became the best-selling album of their career. “You Shook Me All Night Long” is a guitar tour de force for Young, featuring a compelling riff and a solo that shows off his truly distinctive tone and phrasing. Young starts off in the lower strings with a series of bends, staccato notes and squeals before ascending into the upper reaches of the neck for some deep blues bending and sustained phrases that are so perfectly fit to the song that he might as well be singing them.
‘Back in Black’
What better way to end our list of the Top 10 Angus Young Guitar Solos than with back-to-back classics from “Back in Black.” The title song from that iconic album features one of the most effective power riffs in rock music history, and Young plays off that riff for another solo that sounds almost composed, it fits the song so perfectly. He’s playing simple notes to offset the chords at the beginning of the solo, then jams on some blues bending that’s pure Young magic. But it’s the outro solo that’s the real classic here, as Young intermingles more stuttering blues licks with rapid-fire runs and call-and response riffing. Go on — we dare you to listen to this without nodding your head like a character out of Wayne’s World.