The Riff Factory

While some rock musicians would never release an album unless it was a genuine reflection of how much they had developed since their previous CD, some musicians aren't AC/DC.

"It's great if you can tap your foot to it," says AC/DC rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young. And he's serious. Dead serious. Just as serious as when he says his band's music is a great accompaniment to doing the nasty.

This, after all, is AC/DC he's talking about, not your thinking man's rock and roll outfit. This is a band that has, over the past 25 years, barely varied from a formula of beefy chords, bombastic bass lines, meat-and-potatoes drumming, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and song titles that are an adolescent boy's wet dream.

So within the proper context, the tap-the-foot theory is really spot on. The 47-year-old Young and his 44-year-old brother Angus -- the pasty-skinned, elfin chain-smokers who are the brains behind AC/DC -- are part of a cock-rock tour de force that can still kick some serious ass. And they can still play their instruments skillfully in front of thousands of lighter-flicking fans night after night.

Corny? Sure. Anachronistic? Definitely. But if you listen to hard-core AC/DC fans -- or, more important, to respected musicians and even some critics -- the Youngs have already found the holy grail that guitarists have been searching for ever since the instrument was invented: the perfect riff.

Which song contains said riff is debatable, but it likely can be narrowed down to a handful of tunes, among them: "Whole Lotta Rosie," "Highway to Hell," "Shoot to Thrill," "Thunderstruck" or perhaps in the band's most commercially successful hit, "You Shook Me" (from the gazillion-selling Back in Black album), or the obscure "Shot of Love" from The Razor's Edge.

And that's the thing about AC/DC's latest, Stiff Upper Lip. There are some equally brilliant riffs on it. The album hearkens back to the bluesy style of the band's creative zenith of the late 1970s. Ever since the release of Back in Black in 1980, which has generated enough cash for the Young brothers to retire 20 times over, AC/DC hasn't released an album that even comes close to good. Until now. Having George Young, the boys' older brother, back in the fold as producer didn't hurt. George, who produced some of the albums from the late 1970s when Bon Scott was lead vocalist, has helped regain the focus of the glory years.

When it came time to peek into the vault and comb through the stash of hundreds of taped guitar riffs that the Young brothers collect -- and admittedly plagiarize from themselves -- Young says, several bluesy cuts stood out from the rest.

Rock star wanna-bes, start taking notes. The trick, George said during a lengthy dissertation we'll call AC/DC Songwriting 101, is in the intertwining of two riffs. Like on "Shot of Love." Here, the two guitar parts are separated into the left and right channels of the mix. Think of the delivery as a jazz band would: Malcolm is the player who states the main riff, and Angus is the axman who picks up on that riff and shoots it off into some heady netherworld for 32 bars. Listen carefully to the chord structure and the drum beats, and you'll discover more about how this Rodgers and Hammerstein of fist-pumping arena rock works its magic. Angus Young is often thinking of two melodic lines simultaneously, one that turns up in the basic introductory riff -- and what would an AC/DC song be without that instantly recognizable chord right off the top? -- and the other that becomes the lyrical melody.

"The guitar riff spells out the lyric melody line, every time," says George. "We've got thousands of riffs, and you know there have been plenty of guitarists who come up with a riff. I mean, anyone can do that shit. But then can they come up with the melody to work on top of the riff?"

George and Angus also map out the basic percussion (another AC/DC trademark: the cymbal crash on the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 bar) and bass lines (listen for them to ascend when the chord progression descends, and vice versa). They then take this material to drummer Phil Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams. What's more, the brothers also pen each lyric that Brian Johnson growls. And oh, yeah, Angus thinks up the album titles, too.

"Most of our good ideas seem to come on the road," George says, recalling times in the dressing room in the late 1970s when he and Angus concocted some of the riffs that ended up on Back in Black. "Then we put them away and reviewed them later. And the fact that we take our share of breaks from each other is important, too. If you're together too much, the writing can become stale, like anything else. When we do get back together to start putting stuff together for a record, well, it's really a lot of fun. It's like a train starting up, and when we really get rolling, you don't want to jump off."

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr