Since AC/DC’s humble beginnings in Sydney with Angus and Malcolm Young in 1973, the band have gone through the kind of drama that makes War & Peace look tame. Their initial success with Bon Scott was followed by the lead singer’s early death by alcohol poisoning in February 1980, and then their incredible re-birth with Brian Johnson and the seminal Back in Black album. Malcolm, often seen as the driving force behind the group, was then afflicted by premature dementia and succumbed to the disease on 18 November 2017. So, yes, the band have had a tumultuous past and with over 200 million albums sold are undoubtedly among the most successful acts of all time, but all that can melt into the background when Angus puts on his schoolboy uniform, straps on his guitar, and starts to let rip in front of a huge audience moving like an endless sea of energy in front of him.
In honour of Malcolm, and all members of this amazing band, here is Guitars Exchange’s choice of AC/DC’s greatest riffs of all time.
10) Beating Around The Bush (Highway to Hell, 1979)
This four minute song, written by Angus, Malcolm and Bon Scott, kicks off with a memorable riff that repeats throughout and is set off by two searing solos at around two minutes, and then a longer closing solo one minute later. “Honey I got my eye on you because you do all the things I want you to […] beating around the bush,” Bon Scott throatily sings in this typically sex-oriented song.
9) Girls Got Rhythm (Highway to Hell, 1979)
Bon Scott wrote and sang this rocking number that also deals with how girls please him, and is full of humour and double-entendres, for example in the line: "girls got rhythm... back seat rhythm". Grammaticians and pedants will notice that there is no possessive apostrophe in the title, which suggests that ‘all girls have got rhythm’; something which Scott said that he learnt from his myriad tours. The riff again opens this belter and holds the song together until the solo breaks in at the two minute mark, at which point it reprises.
8) Whola Lotta Rosie (Let There Be Rock, 1977)
Another woman features in this song, but this time ‘Rosie’ was a lady who broke the usual stereotypes by being ‘rotund’ and very forward in expressing her needs: she apparently came backstage after a show and said to the band "Who wants it?" Again the riff launches the song, and just grows stronger, as Bon Scott explains “I’ve never had a woman like you.” Angus can be seen playing a Gibson Angus Young SG Standard Electric Guitar on a blazing live version at River Plate, in December 2009.
7) TNT (T.N.T., 1975)
Two singles were released from the eponymous album – It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll) (December 1975) and T.N.T. (March 1976). Penned by Angus, Malcolm and Bon Scott, it made the top 20 of the Australian singles chart. Bon Scott sang lead vocals on the original version but there is also a Brian Johnson version, which appeared on the Live: 2 CD Collector's Edition. There’s only one adequate reaction to this riff; drop your melon and headbang!
6) Riff Raff (Powerage, 1978)
Riff Raff was one of three big hits off Powerage, along with Rock 'n' Roll Damnation and Sin City. Angus starts the song with two rapid guitar chords before the riff proper begins. I prefer the live version at Glasgow’s Apollo Theatre from 1978, but particularly do not miss the energy that Bon Scott and Angus generate in the live video clip (see the link below) from April of the same year.
5) Let There Be Rock (Let There Be Rock, 1977)
The driving riff on Let There Be Rock kicks off a song - and a history lesson - that lasts over six minutes. Set against a biblical style structure the lyrics explore the roots of rock ‘n’ roll: “In the beginning, Back in 1955, The white man had the schmaltz, The black man had the blues,” which, without being explicit, references legends like Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, who both released era-defining songs in 1955. A concert staple, this rocker always raises smoke when played live. Whether it is myth or not, Angus once said: "I remember the amp literally exploded during the recording session. My brother watched it with crazed eyes, and he told me 'Come on! Keep on playing!' while the stuff was steaming."
4) Hell’s Bells (Back in Black, 1980)
Hell’s Bells kicks off the legendary album Back in Black, but uniquely replaces Angus Young’s typical ‘riff moment’ with the chiming of a 900 kilo plus bronze church bell, in honour of the passing of Bon Scott. Angus then slowly comes in, accompanied by Phil Rudd’s wonderfully mournful dreambeat, before the song returns to its mesmerizing and iconic riff. The band later used the bell on stage and often Brian Johnson would be the one chosen to strike it; Bon Scott was known to ‘raise hell’ during his short time on earth and this track provided a perfect homage to him.
3) Highway to Hell (Highway to Hell, 1979)
This anthem contains one of the most recognizable melodies in rock history, and it was the band’s first song to chart in the US. Inevitably it caused controversy with religious groups, especially as Angus appears on the front cover wearing horns. SongFacts report that Highway to Hell was the nickname for the Canning Highway in Australia, because so many lost their lives there by driving too fast. This stretch of road runs from where lead singer Bon Scott lived in Fremantle and ends at a bar called The Raffles, which was ‘a big rock 'n roll drinking hole in the '70s’. "Ain't nothing I would rather do,” sings Bon Scott, “Going down, party time, my friends are gonna be there too." Another anecdote is that, in the film School of Rock, Jack Black chooses this riff above all others to teach the guitarist in the band how to rock.
2) Thunderstuck (The Razors Edge, 1990)
Angus used to say that this song was inspired by a plane that he was flying on, which was hit by lightning and nearly crashed. Whatever the truth of it, the huge riff persists through the majority of this song and impacts people of all ages; I can attest to that as my eight year old son would not stop playing it on our car radio during a very long holiday drive; and I’m sure many other parents have experienced the same: “Thunder, thunder, thunder, thunder […] there’s no turning back.” Electricity crackles and sparks whenever AC/DC play this anthem at their concerts.
1) Back in Black (Back in Black, 1980)
Back in Black is probably the only riff that is as well known as Highway to Hell in AC/DC’s rich back catalogue. Released shortly after Bon Scott’s death, this eponymous track helped Johnson make a strong bond with AC/DC’s fans that was almost impossible to imagine shortly before. In some ways Johnson had almost been anointed, because Scott had seen him sing in 1973 and had mentioned his talent to his bandmates, who then contacted Johnson shortly after Bon Scott’s death. Angus had had Back in Black’s main guitar riff kicking around for years, before he found the best moment to employ it. "Forget the hearse 'cause I never die" sang Johnson on Bon Scott’s behalf, and in a rock song of genius, he ensured that he never would.