Last week, one of the greatest riff-writers and rhythm guitarists in the history of rock died – Malcolm Young of AC/DC.
Malcolm Young was Angus’s elder brother, and while all of the focus has always been on Angus’s jaw-dropping lead guitar and onstage histrionics, it was Malcolm who ran the band. Without the sound of his Gretsch slashing out those super-tight chords in perfect lockstep unison with the bass and drums, the band would not have rocked half as hard, especially in the guitar solos – listen closely to a song like Gone Shootin, and you’ll find that when the solo really takes off, it is because Malcolm has changed what he is playing, not Angus.
Also, never has any musician done so much with so little – a few simple chords played atop basslines that pump out root notes – and for such a length of time: no matter how many times Young returned to the well, fresh water remained, water with the sharp, ice-clean bite that only the DC can deliver.
So perfect was the formula, in fact, Young never needed to change it. During AC/DC’s entire career to date, there has never been any deviation from the pattern: no minor chords, no acoustic guitars, no experiments with synths or brass sections or trios of backing singers. What you got was simple: Malcolm’s guitar on one side, Angus’s on the other, and a thunderous rhythm section straight down the middle.
Malcolm Young suffered dementia at the end of his life, to such an extent that his memory began to fail him: a music journalist wrote that the most heart-breaking sight he witnessed in his career was Angus, 30 minutes before a gig, teaching Malcolm how to play his own songs, a process they had to go through on every night of the tour.
Both the Young brothers have influenced my guitar playing style over the years, but it was not until I focused hard on how Malcolm played that I learned how to make music rock with the type of dense, dynamic wallop I had always heard in my head. Malcolm Young may be dead, but I am certain his music will still be relevant and influential 50 years from now to anyone who writes ROCK in capital letters.