Have you ever tried to play like one of your guitar heroes, but weren’t able to get your tone quite right? Allow us to lend a hand. Straight from the Gibson archives, “Gibson’s Classic Tone Tip” can help you sound just like some of music’s biggest stars and greatest legends. In this installment, we’re featuring master tapper and permanent schoolboy Angus Young – the man behind the sweet crunch of AC/DC. Follow this guide, and you’ll be shaking all night long.
Aside from the perennial visual of the flop-footed, duck-walking, headbanging schoolboy tearing around the stage, the AC/DC experience is summed up most potently in the monstrous, bone-crushing chords and searing, razor-sharp leads of the bands rhythm and lead guitar duo, Malcolm and Angus Young. As the real wailer of the two, Angus’s legendary sound makes a great case study for the Get That Tone series. This seminal hard-rock guitarist’s tone is so distinctive and so widely admired in rock circles, that it represents just about as well-defined a signature sound as you can name. That said, we could frame it as a trick question of sorts that forms an important lesson that really should remain at the bottom line of every installment in the series.
Q: “In addition to his 1968 Gibson SG Standard and a couple Marshall stacks, what’s the secret of Angus Young’s guitar tone?”
A: “Angus Young.”
Young’s signal chain is as simple as it gets, with no effects pedals or other gadgetry between guitar and amp, and goes a long way toward proving that the most compelling sounds often come from the basic ingredients used right, and played with a hell of a lot of attitude. Plug in a great SG with powerful yet clear humbuckers, crank up the amps so a cutting lead tone is always on tap, and simply roll down the volume control to clean it up. End of story… Or is it? Actually, as straightforward as his sound chain is, there are still some nuances to consider.
Imagine Angus’s tone with your eyes closed, and a real maelstrom of rock bluster comes to mind. Listen again to the studio or live recordings, however, and really focus on what’s going on sonically, and you can hear that this isn’t the super-saturated, high-gain tone of a lot of shred, thrash, and nu-metal players, but a walloping, meaty, enormous classic-rock guitar tone that can be quite clear and well defined in places — verging on, heaven forbid, clean at times — but which absolutely roars when he winds up the guitar volume a couple digits for the heavy chord work, or all the way for his screaming, eviscerating lead lines. Listen to the relentless legato hammer-ons of “Thunderstruck,” for example, and you might be inclined to believe otherwise, but inject an SG with the hot Gibson Angus Young Signature humbucker in the bridge position into a raging Marshall tube amp, and that’s the kind of smooth, stinging, yet distinct lead tone you’re in for. This is the lead sound of most players’ dreams. Of course, few of us have the space in which to let all that 100-watt tube fury breathe, so our own efforts to approximate it require sticking the right distortion or overdrive pedal somewhere in the chain.
Then, for angle on a different facet of the Angus Young tone, revisit the unmistakable opening chords to “You Shook Me All Night Long.” That isn’t a “dirty” guitar sound as such, but it is definitely huge. There are crisp, crackling highs, muscular yet rather sweet mids, and a thumping low end that’s classic Marshall, all blended with a round, fat, crisp, and slightly metallic-edged guitar tone that just screams hot-PAF humbucker in the bridge. In this situation, the thinner, lighter, all-mahogany construction of Angus’s guitar of choice, the SG, helps add a little more percussion to the tone—heard in the snap, clank, and bark in the attack of the chords—than you might achieve from doing the same thing with a heavier, thicker-bodied Les Paul (which would usually yield a smoother, creamier tone).
Angus Young has remained unusually faithful to his guitar of choice. His No. 1 SG is an original 1968 Standard model that was born with a Lyre vibrato tailpiece (removed by Young and replaced with a fixed stud tailpiece), and which is reported to have an extremely thin neck. He owns plenty of SGs for backup and studio use, but this is the AC/DC guitar, now represented in the Angus Young Signature SG, complete with Angus Young Signature pickup in the bridge position (an overwound PAF-style humbucker with Alnico V magnet).
As for amps, Young has been equally faithful to Marshall, but has run the gamut of this amp maker’s models through the course of his career, from the JTM45 with which a lot of his recorded work is associated, to JTM50s and JMP50s, to the multiple-stacks of big custom JMP100s that are often used live. And, to bring us back to the point I made at the start of this piece, he always sounds like Angus Young. On the enormous stages upon which the AC/DC live show takes place these days it’s usually impossible to see exactly which amp model he is using, but it’s encouraging to the rest of us to know how completely a player can make just about any rig their own. Angus has gigged and recorded mostly through Celestion speakers over the years, preferring G12H-30s for a time, and using Vintage 30s in more recent years, with a cab load of G12M Greenbacks thrown in now and then for good measure. Lately, however, in the live arena he often runs through an isolation cab under the stage, which is miked and fed into the massive house PA and monitor systems. Of course you could mike up a 4-watt Fender Champ or Gibson GA-4 through that system and it would come out sounding enormous, but even when the ingredients are out of view, Angus’s tone retains the unmistakable Brit-rock bluster of a wailing Marshall.
Angus attacks his .010-.048 gauge strings with an extra heavy pick, and augments his technique with a lot of hammer-ons and –offs from a strong left hand. Solos usually grow out of a general blues-rock foundation, but include a flair and drive that have come to represent their own breed of rock lead guitar. Ultimately, Young’s playing style—partnered with AC/DC’s approach to song writing—is an impressive testament to the timeless power of a pure, powerful rock guitar sound. Without resorting to effects or gimmicks, Angus Young has churned out riff after solid riff over the course of a 30-year playing career, and has always managed to sound like signature AC/DC, without repeating himself to an extent that would begin to sound tired or stale to the fans. That in itself speaks to the glory of a good SG and a cranked Marshall, along with a whole lot of attitude behind the pick, and in the final analysis, defines the mark of a major musician.
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