The 11 best AC/DC riffs, by Airbourne's Joel O'Keeffe
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What you’ve got with Angus and Malcolm Young are two very different guitar players. Some bands will layer a lot of guitars, but AC/DC don’t need to do that. They have the ability to make their two guitars combine to make a wall of sound.
It’s not just two guitars playing the same riff. Malcolm Young is such a rhythm player, it’s kind of like he could be the drummer as well, and it all fits in perfectly with what he does. And then Angus is like the icing on the cake. Malcolm is literally the whole cake, and Angus is the sweet icing on top. You can’t really explain what it is that they do, you’ve just got to turn it up and hone in on what’s going on. It’s kind of like meat and potatoes, in that you can’t have the meat without the potatoes. Who just wants to eat just potatoes? They’re pretty boring. But you put them together and you go, ‘Fuck! This is a five star meal.’
You don’t have to be drunk, but fuck, it sounds good when you’re drinking with it too. And being who I am, I’m just going to go from a drinking point of view and say that when you have had a few drinks, you don’t want anything too complicated to listen to. You want something that’s really going to get you going, and that’s going to make you drink more. AC/DC is great at that.
Being a guitar player, I like to relate to a band on a different level other than just listening to the music. I like to know what it is that they’re playing. And I’m fucked if I can work out what Steve Vai’s playing after a few beers. The guy’s so advanced, and he’s so talented and smart, that everything he’s doing is just way above my head. And I like to know what’s going on as well as being drunk and rocking out. I like to play air guitar too. And not just fob around on the air guitar, but actually play what they’re doing right down to the actual key that the guitar solo is in. With AC/DC I know exactly what three chords they’re playing and what key the solo is in. I know everything, and then I can come back in and still sing with Bon [Scott] or Brian [Johnson].
It’s simple, sure. But fuck! When you turn it up loud it fucking rocks. Simple is not to be confused with boring. It’s like if you just like to drink pints of lager at your local pub, or all you drink is Johnny Walker. You don’t fucking want anything else. You just want what you want. And for me personally, AC/DC is what I really want, every single time.
11. THIS MEANS WAR (Blow Up Your Video, 1988)
One of the big points with picking this list aside from great riffs was to go from a point where the whole band is rocking and everyone’s on an edge. It’s not just Angus and Malcolm here; you can hear everyone going for it on this one. It’s one of their classics from the time when they were using a lot of notes in their riffs, which is similar to some of tracks that we’ll get to later down the line, and it’s got that real up tempo thing going on as well. I think it’s in E, which is a tough AC/DC key, and it’s a tough song. The guitars are all rocking, and it sounds like the whole band is on speed, but clearly they’re not, and it just always gets me going. It’s a hell of an ending to Blow Up Your Video too. You don’t expect it at all. It just comes out of the gates and you go, ‘Fuck, what the hell was that?’
10. HEATSEEKER (Live at Donington, 1992)
Heatseeker on Live at Donington is about 10 times the speed of the original song, and that’s why I put it here. It’s Malcolm’s playing style that’s driving the whole song too. You can hear it the whole way through – his right hand. It’s a very simple riff. Anyone could play it. But it’s the way that he plays it. Anyone can play specifically what he’s playing, but they’ll never have that same finesse that Malcolm has with his right hand that gives it that real kicking that he’s got going on here. You can really fucking hear that clear as day from Donington in ’91. I’ve got the movie on all three formats – VHS, DVD and Blu-ray – and I’ve seen it a thousand times. This is almost a better mix than the album version, actually.
9. ROCK YOUR HEART OUT (The Razors Edge, 1990)
This is a great song for hearing the two guitars at work. Angus and Malcolm are both doing two very different and specific things here. It almost sounds like Malcolm is playing both guitars, that’s how close they can be with their rhythm playing. If you’re sitting at home, only play the left or the right speaker and you’ll hear the magic happening. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. I always just play one or the other and listen to just Malcolm or Angus, to really hear how they work. And when you put them together you go, ’Fucking hell! This is another level, again.’
8. LANDSLIDE (Flick of the Switch, 1983)
This song is on Flick of the Switch, in the middle of the album, and it just comes out of nowhere. A lot of these songs I listen to when I’m drinking and I’m having a really good night, and then these tip me over the edge! This one is a real fucking rocker. If you play along with it then it gets your heart going. It’s like going to the gym. And Brian's just fucking screaming, and the whole song is real rollercoaster. Once again, it’s Malcolm really driving it along as well. You can clearly hear his rhythmic, percussive style pushing it forward. He’s beating the fuck out of his guitar and you can hear it. You put him and Angus together and it’s like lightning in a bottle.
7. BEATING AROUND THE BUSH (Highway to Hell, 1979)
To me, this song sounds very Angus-y – I just made that word up. It’s got a lot of notes in it, and whenever I hear a lot of notes I think there’s a bit of an Angus vibe going on. But you never know with those two. There was talk early on about Malcolm being the lead guitarist in the band, but he said, ‘I don’t want to do that. Angus, you do that, and I’ll sit at the back and run the band.’ There’s a lot of notes in this song anyway, and a lot of finger work, too. It’s the two brothers playing the way they both individually play. Angus is a bit more cruisey than Malcolm. He hangs on to stuff a bit longer and slides in and out, whereas Malcolm just fucking hits it. That seems to be their thing. And you put them together, and it’s just what they do better than anyone else. What a great double entendre for a song title, too. Especially back in the ‘70s when the ladies weren’t waxing yet. You couldn’t really have a song like that now.
6. ROCKER (Let There Be Rock: The Movie – Live in Paris, 1997)
This is 12-bar blues, the AC/DC way. This version is super-duper faster than the original release as well, and that’s why it’s in my list. The lyrics are very Bon Scott, and they’re also very ‘50s. Chuck Berry could’ve written it. It’s AC/DC doing ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, for 10 minutes. It’s fucking 10 minutes of them just rocking the fuck out.
5. FIRE YOUR GUNS (Live at Donington, 1992)
Just have a listen to this one. It’s Chris Slade on steroids, really bringing the tempo up, and everyone in the band jumps on board for the ride. The speed of this song is phenomenal. And Brian, once again, is just screaming his tits off. It’s fantastic!
4. BIG GUN (Last Action Hero: Music from the Original Motion Picture, 1993)
This wasn’t released on anything other than the Last Action Hero soundtrack, but fuck me, it’s great. Once again with the guitars, there’s a lot of notes in the verses, and when they hit the chorus it’s a different style of chorus for them. It’s just ballsy and tough! And if you listen to Malcolm right at the end of the song, in the last eight bars or so, he changes his rhythm and adds more to it, kind of like the way he does in It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). Big Gun. Check it out!
3. WHOLE LOTTA ROSIE (Live at Donington, 1992)
I love every single version of all these songs, but the reason so many of these Live at Donington ones are in my favourites list is because they’re harder and faster than the originals. You can take a live version from any time they’ve played this song, but at this particular concert everything just seemed bang on. The tempo was right up, and everything is super duper fast. That’s why a lot of meatheads in Australia, including myself, love the AC/DC Live at Donington album so much. You get it in your car and you drive around, or you go to someone’s house and you have a party, and you put the Live at Donington double disc album on and the fucking joint just gets rocking because everything is so fast. You drink faster, you rock faster, you have sex faster… the lot!
2. LET THERE BE ROCK (Live at Donington, 1992)
They close the first part of the set before the encore with this song. They’ve been doing that since they first wrote it back in ’77. It’s taken from a blues point of view, and they’re talking about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. It basically takes you from a point where there was no rock ‘n’ roll, to when there was. When they put it out, everyone was probably wondering what the fuck all this Abba and Bay City Rollers soft arse shit was. And AC/DC were like, ‘Well, do you remember a time before all of that when there was nothing. And then fucking Chuck Berry and Elvis came along.’ It’s the story of rock ‘n’ roll, told the AC/DC way, and it’s a fucking kick in the nuts. I imagine all these kids were walking round sick of hearing all the shit they were playing on the radio when this song came out, and then they heard Let There Be Rock and they were like, “I wanna hear more of this.’ And the Live at Donington version of the song is fucking unstoppable.
1. RIFF RAFF (If You Want Blood, 1978)
Riff Raff is my all-time favourite AC/DC riff ever, specifically from this live album If You Want Blood. You can hear the guitar and bass amps humming at the start, and you can hear the crowd coming in as well, but the amps humming are even louder than the crowd. And once the fucker starts, it’s a real Angus-Malcolm showdown. It’s like Deliverance with the duelling banjos, except it’s fucking loud, electric guitar driven rock ‘n’ roll. It’s more energy and balls than anything you’ve ever heard, and once the fucker kicks in you can’t stop. It’s like a freight train that won’t stop, and it doesn’t even need tracks. And when Bon Scott comes out and starts fucking howling over the crowd, this raw capturing of this particular take of Riff Raff is just phenomenal. It’s classic, primitive AC/DC. It’s a simple riff with raw power, done extremely fucking loud and hard. You can’t beat it. And then there’s name itself. To me, Riff Raff just says, ‘This in the pinnacle riff.’ That’s the one. And the album is as raw, hard, vicious and boozy as it gets. The band sounds right on the razor’s edge. But simply put, it’s the band going, ’If you want fucking blood then you’ve fucking got it!’ I’m sure there was blood all over the strings the night they made that one.