Rock history was built on a foundation of rhythm guitar. Think about it. The two main musical pillars of the style – Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — were primarily rhythm players. And the list goes on to include a wide range of six-string rhythm kings who’ve created distinctive sounds, ricocheting from James Hetfield in metal land to Catfish Collins in funk nation.
Malcolm Young has been among the world’s most prominent rhythm guitarists for the past 40 years. As a founding member of AC/DC and the group’s primary songwriter along with his signature SG toting, school boy uniform wearing brother Angus, Malcolm has powered up the classics “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Jailbreak,” “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll),” “The Jack,” “Highway To Hell,” “Back In Black,” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and many others.
Young’s style is proof that guitar playing doesn’t have to be fancy to be great. It’s his slashing open chord attack that makes the first bars of “Dirty Deeds” instantly recognizable, and his simple E-D-A chop — similar to the beginner’s warhorse “Gloria” — that drives the gut-punching “Jailbreak.”
Achieving a sound similar to Malcolm Young is equally uncomplicated on paper, but, as with every great guitarist’s signature tone, there’s also a special, individual mojo that’s all his own. That mojo is an important component of Young’s six-string voice on stage and on album, composed of small things like how he grips the strings, the exact weight on the strings from his palm when he mutes, the precise angle of attack of his pick, the force of his strumming and his sheer, unique personality.
Mojo is commercially available, by the way. Visit a juju or voodoo shop or a Santeria bodega near you to get a clue about what Dr. John keeps in that little bag around his neck and what Muddy Waters declared that he had working. But everybody’s ultimately got their own mojo — even six-string chameleons like chops-meister Guthrie Govan or blues totem Duke Robillard — and that’s what makes them special.
At base level, Malcolm Young’s tone both live and in the studio thrives on the scratchy sound best produced by a British style high-gain amp like a Vox, Hi-Watt or Marshall. Keep the lows rolled off of the amp to start dialing in an approximate tone. Drive the lows from the guitar’s electronics. Crank the treble up all the way, too, on both the amp and your guitar’s pots. And start rolling off mids until your ears are happy and your axe sounds scrappy.
Playing a semi-hollowbody guitar or a modified hollowbody makes this easier. I can get closest to Malcolm’s rabid cat-scratch sound with my vintage Gibson ES-345 or my 2011 Epiphone Dot — both semi-hollowbodies. They are less resonant than solidbodies, which makes them more airy and bright, and less sustaining. Malcolm uses a hollowbody, either with a chambered interior and sealed top or, on early classic AC/DC recordings, with the f-holes stuffed with socks or covered over by plastic. Without something to dampen the resonance of a hollowbody guitar, it will howl at the kind of volume needed to approximate AC/DC’s rhythm sound and be potentially unmanageable, which, by the way, is why Gibson invented the semi-hollowbody guitar in the 1950s.
String gauge is another factor. Most metal and hard rock players prefer light strings for fleet-fingered single-note excursions. That is not Malcolm’s territory. He plays his open chords as heavy and measured rhythm strokes. For that, try a .12 gauge string set. Malcolm’s gauge of preference is .12 to .58 and the bass strings are primarily what he hammers. He also mutes those strings with his palm, keeping feedback and unnecessary harmonic detail at bay, and creating his distinctive accents.
Note that his open chords and barre chords are played mostly on just the four low strings and that his measured attack leaves room for the bass and drums beneath to emerge. Malcolm usually plays off the beat as well, which gives both his guitar and AC/DC’s simple pulsing bass — which is squarely on the beat — room to breath.
One more thing. Malcolm Young has more in common with Catfish Collins than one might think. Both are masters of the groove, and that requires not only having a great sense of tempo but the ability to break up chords using up and down accents and choking them off. Muting with the palm and the fingers of the fretboard hand are crucial to accomplish this. As left field as it may seem, check out the playing of Catfish with his brother Bootsy Collins and with James Brown, and scratch picking inventor Jimmy Nolen’s tracks with Brown as well. Nolen’s pioneering performances on “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are extraordinary, and both guitarists offer definitive examples of choking and accenting that can be absorbed and applied to any style.