How To Write A Song Like AC/DC

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They’re crass, they’re loud, and they’re proud. This Aussie band rose to new heights when they made the 70’s a proving ground for their sound. What’s more, they’ve laid the deep-rooted foundations that would define what rock meant for decades to come. 

With a name like AC/DC, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an electrifying band. It just so happens that it lives up to that name well. By churning out one classic hit after another, AC/DC has immortalised its place in rock’n’roll history. 

That begs the question, what exactly is the secret to the band’s overwhelming success? Well, for starters, it’s the unique way they’ve built their songs over the years. Blast the first two bars of any AC/DC song, and it becomes immediately apparent where it gets its DNA from.

As luck would have it, it’s that same energetic formula that you can channel into your own composition too write an all too familiar AC/DC track.

That’s why we’ll be going over the necessary recipe and ingredients that you’ll need to get your song to sound like it deserves to be played on a long Sunday drive to downtown.

How an AC/DC song Gets Up Off Its Heels:

As classic of a band as AC/DC is, it’s the band members who have injected such personality into the sound. There’s much to be said about the unmistakable high-stakes energy that the band manages to weave. 

But any discussion is remiss without looking into the different instruments and roles that the band uses as its foundational ground. So, here’s how each member makes this magic happen:

Rhythm Guitar (Stevie Young):

After his brother’s tragic passing in 2017, Stevie Young was left to fill a hole that Malcolm Young created. But luckily, he has risen to the occasion ever since and kept his brother alive both in spirit and in sonic form.

Having been taught by Malcolm himself, Stevie is able to easily channel those characteristic rhythm guitar tones. On any AC/DC track, you can expect to hear the animalistic riffs and chords that Stevie’s rhythm guitar a staple of the band’s sound.  

Lead Guitar (Angus Young)

Sitting on the other end of the brotherly guitar duo is none other than Angus Young.

Angus Young’s approach on the guitar tends to be flamboyant yet tasteful. He’s able to utilize classic blues techniques in his solos to give them that classic bite. It’s an undeniable element that adds the ⚡ to AC/DC.

Bass Guitar (Cliff Williams):

Owing to the importance that rhythm has in the AC/DC lineup, it’s no surprise that star-studded bassists like Cliff Williams manage to carry the chaotic upheaval of the bad on their shoulders.

Cliff lays his bass playing in very foundational roles with the occasional rhythmic kick to it. His habit of playing the bass with a pick has associated his bass lines with punchy tones and groovy accents that create movement in AC/DC’s iconic tracks. 

Drums (Phil Rudd):

The second shoulder of AC/DC bearing the responsibility of the rhythm is none other than Phil Rudd himself. Behind the crunchy guitar tones and the warm bass sound, you can hear his vigorous drum lines providing a pulse to a song. 

Phil Rudd is appreciated for his tasteful restraint when it comes to drumming. Instead of launching into elaborate turnarounds, Rudd keeps a steady, solid beat going. This focus on impeccable timing helps lock in the swagger of the band. 

Vocals (Brian Johnson):

Brian Johnson made his way into AC/DC in the ’80s following former vocalist Bon Scott’s passing. And it was an entry that the rock world will not soon forget. 

Brian characterizes his vocals by singing with terse tonalities that compound everything else in the instrumentation. His high screechy vocals can be heard a mile away and are an unmistakable mark that adds to AC/DC’s sound identity. 

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How to Write a Song like AC/DC

If you want to play like AC/DC, then you need to channel in everything that makes them the new blueprint for classic rock. And that means following some common techniques, tools, and habits of the band. With that in mind, here’s all you’ll need to replicate an AC/DC song of your own. 

Bank on Rhythmic Displacement

AC/DC wouldn’t be anywhere if it didn’t have such a signature groove to keep the pace going. But more than their ability to keep a consistent rhythm is upsetting it for some interest-building and that is what sets them apart. 

The way the band usually does is by building rhythmic dissonance between different instruments. The drums usually play a straight 4/4 groove while the bass hints at a 3/4 time feel with its accenting. Even something as minor as this creates rhythmic interest in the groove of the song.

While all this is happening in the background, the guitars have their own displacement going on. They’re usually played with a start/stop kind of accent that hits every couple of upbeats in the song. 

The effect this creates is staggering. And it’s not hard to see why AC/DC songs just make you want to move in a certain way. Songs like Back in Black are common for this kind of rhythmic displacement that enforces some 16th note excitement with everything else going in with the mix. 

You can use this concept for some inspiration the next time you’re at your own musical drawing board. Instead of trying to lock everything down to a single time feel, try adding metric flourishes that help each instrument stand out. 

Harness the Power of the I-bVII-IV Progression

One of the most characteristic parts of AC/DC songs are the biting guitar chords marinated in fuzz and distortion. However, it’s not only the chords themselves that are characteristic but also how these chords progress to one another. 

The magic formula for each AC/DC chord progression is based on I-bVII-IV. Normally, rock guitar tends to have chords that move around safer destinations like 4ths and 5ths. But by hitting that flat seventh, AC/DC manages to create a progression that is less saccharine and more complex. 

Almost every other AC/DC song features this progression, and it’s why it has become too heavily associated with the band. In fact, it’s harder to pull this progression off without having to sound like them. 

Over the years, it’s almost used as a joke to poke fun at the band’s heavy reliance on this particular progression. It’s even gone to the point where band members like Angus Young have acknowledged and run with the joke. Here’s a direct quote from the man himself: 

“I’m sick and tired of people saying that we put out 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”

The next time you want to convey that you’re making an AC/DC song, you can safely lean on the I-bVII-IV. You’ll be able to rest assured with the knowledge that you’ve reached plagiarism levels of similarity with the band. 

Use Pedal Tones to Backseat Arrangements

Speaking of safety nets, there’s one that gets prominently featured in AC/DC songs. It’s the harmony that forms between the bass and guitar. And it’s used to link these two instruments together.

In songs like Back in Black, this is used when the chorus starts with the guitar riff and the bass supporting it. For the first few bars, the bass and guitar both double down on B and then switch to an A. No matter what the guitar and the bass play, those two pedal tones are always featured in the back of the song. 

When combined with the instruments’ rhythmic displacement, it creates a nice disjointed but subtly groovy feel to the track. At no point do the pedal tones overpower the arrangement. They just hang back to provide some invisible support to the mix. 

It’s an easy concept to apply on your own and can even help you write simple bass lines without having to stray away from its rhythmic duties. 

Entice the Listener to Chant Along

AC/DC’s power doesn’t just lie in making you want to move. They also have the ability to make you have a strong urge to utter something with their songs. 

The band has countless examples of songs with lyrics relating to satanic themes that make you want to sing along. A band would be scrutinized for picking this kind of imagery for their lyrics in any other context. But AC/DC manages to power through it with their energetic songs. 

It’s something AC/DC has admitted to in interviews by saying how they take the music more seriously than the lyrics. And it shows. They can joke around with any subject matter in the lyrics and still get a crowd to recite their words back to them.

You don’t have to look any further than the intro to songs like Thunderstruck. It launches into an electrifying riff accompanied by stadium-like chanting until the song is cheered on. You can use this to greatly affect your songs by structuring the musical energy and lyrics to elicit an almost involuntary reaction from the listener.  

Base Everything in Mixolydian

The palette of tones that AC/DC uses can be very distinct. Even if you don’t know how to recreate their sound, you’ll definitely know when you hear it. And the secret spice rack that makes that happen is the Mixolydian mode. 

Large chunks of AC/DC’s discography are based solely on the use of Mixolydian. Whether it’s the guitar riffs, the vocals, the solos, or even the bass lines, they all sprout from that sickly-sweet set of notes. 

In fact, even AC/DC’s song structure is based on hitting the b7 and resolving back to the 4th or the root. This presents a unique opportunity for you to cobble together their sound in any kind of track. Just by adhering to fundamental facets of the mode, you’ll be able to present that familiar AC/DC flavour right away. 

Push Vocals to the Limit

An AC/DC song without vocals would just be another country-rock jingle. It’s the vocals that practically set the tone for the band. When you hear Brian Johnson rip it up on the mic, you know you’re listening to AC/DC.

The vocals for the band tend to be more stressed than what your average rock singer is comfortable with. They’re belted out with a chest voice and a borderline falsetto to push that screechy tone out. 

It’s something that works really well in the mix with all the other instruments and can’t really be substituted all that well. It helps that Brian has a raspy voice quality that adds to the carnal nature of the band’s sound. 

The advice for replicating AC/DC’s vocal parts is simple; just push them to the limits. You’ll feel a lot of strain on your voice if you try to force the vocal quality. Instead, focus on achieving a high enough head voice first and then focus on getting it to distort under pressure. 

Seal the Deal with a Ripping Solo

Last but not least, you can’t package an AC/DC song without having a killer solo by Angus Young himself. This will be the icing on the cake that you’ll need to really send your song flying AC/DC style.

The Angus school of guitar solos relies on three main factors: anticipation, vibratos, and scalar interchange. These factors stamp his all too familiar signature on any solos you hear in their songs. 

His solos will often start on the first few frets before jumping up higher in pitch to create suspense and anticipation. From there, he’s able to blend his tones by mixing minor and major pentatonic scales to elicit crude but palatable rock tones. And, of course, the mammoth-wide vibratos help sell the unique character of the solo. 

You can approximate many of Angus’s solos by starting with traditional blues or country phrases and dialing them up to eleven. Just remember to throw in copious amounts of vibratos, held bends, and fast pentatonic fiddling. 

Closing Thoughts

AC/DC is an everyman’s band conceptually and practically. Their compositional tendencies and skills make up what the rock genre takes for granted today. But even in such a simple and foundational sound is packed with tons of creative depth. 

Luckily, you don’t have to get thunderstruck trying to make heads or tails of their craft. If you’ve read the tips above, then you should have enough guidance to harness that AC/DC jolt in your fingertips. 

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