The riffs might seem simple — maybe just E, G, A, or a variation thereof, on repeat — but in the hands of Malcolm Young, they were so much more than that.
Lindsay McDougall would know. The Frenzal Rhomb guitarist recently learned 70 chord sequences by the AC/DC co-founder, who died yesterday, for a video project in collaboration with Newcastle musician Kye Smith.
Smith's YouTube videos, which have had millions of views, see him and other musicians play entire catalogues of famous artists (The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt) in five-minute medleys. One song runs into another, each lasting a few seconds.
"He edited the songs into a nice rhythm flow that he can then learn on the drums," McDougall said of Smith's process.
"I learned these songs, in order, and wrote a ridiculously long set list and practiced heaps. I had a bunch of goes at getting it right then we went and did the video clip, which was hilarious."
Filming took place in a substation near Newcastle (a friend let them in).
"It was actually high voltage there," McDougall says, a nod to the band's first major record, in 1976.
"We were miming in the video, but you had to play it correctly, because there are so many AC/DC guitar nerds, all over YouTube, picking apart my guitar riffs."
You cannot write Young's guitar riffs off as simplistic
You might know the chords, McDougall said. But there is so much more to it than that.
"There is so much intricacy and nuance to those simple, three-chord songs," he said.
"But the way that he plays them, even the pressure he puts on each individual guitar string, just completely changes the feeling of the riff.
"A computer couldn't play it."
McDougall reckons Young would have to be one of the greatest rhythm guitarists in history. Many of his peers — , Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre), Scott Ian (Anthrax) — agreed.
"Malcolm had an intensely powerful, percussive and economic style of playing," Ian said in an Instagram post.
"His uncanny ability to wring only the necessary notes out of his Gretsch was what made AC/DC — his riffs, feel and tone [were] the soul of that band."
There was no need to employ complex tricks or moves in writing great AC/DC songs, McDougall said.
"He knows how to get the most out of the smallest amount of chords, the smallest amount of space on the fretboards," he said.
"A lot of the guitar riffs are played right down the bottom, using open strings, if he can, rather than a lot of metal and hard rock, where the idea is big power chords — you are fretting every string.
"It's much more of an old-school, blues, rock and roll style. Not doing very much but achieving a great deal."
Young's work had a major effect on McDougall
In 2006, Frenzal Rhomb released Forever Malcolm Young, an album designed as a tribute to all those who toil away in the background. (Malcolm, compared to his school-uniforming-wearing brother Angus, was reserved on stage.) What's more, two AC/DC songs were played during McDougal's wedding ceremony.
"When you write punk rock songs," as McDougall does in Frenzal Rhomb, "you are not writing solos. The songs are over in three minutes.
"So, you listen to Malcolm. You listen to that kind of riff writing. Growing up listening to that teaches you to not overdo it just for the sake of it.
"It's something I'll be listening to for a long time."