When: Early 1983
Where: West Hollywood, California (Sunset Marquis Hotel)
What: This conversation with the feverish and manic performer took place at the beginning of 1983. Flick of the Switch had been released and the band had found themselves with another big record. Angus talked about the record, his beloved SGs, his Marshall amplifiers, and the unique sound AC/DC has been refining for so many years.
What really struck me was how small he was. I'm about 5'7 if the wind is blowing in the right direction and I towered over him. But he had a hell of a lot more energy than I ever did.
In an industry gone mad with detail, where every guitarist knows to the nth degree not only the gauges of his strings but the alloys which made them up, where every player has a rack of pedals, gadgets and gizmos which would befuddle most any NASA representative, Angus Young stands apart as a guitar player who's uninterested and unamused. When referring to his variously dated Gibson SG's, Young calls them This guitar
or This thing.
Rarely This SG.
He admits to not knowing the names of chords; and only upon joining AC/DC did he develop any sense whatsoever of chord names and descriptions. But for all his lack of technical knowledge, Angus Young is one of the rare players who has been able to propel the normally monolithic properties of hard rock out the window and replace them with intriguing overlays of rhythmic instruments.
Maybe more than any other guitarist ever, you're inextricably linked to the Gibson SG? What was the evolution that brought you to this particular instrument?
I started playing on banjos and re-strung them up with six strings. [But] an acoustic guitar, an old bang up little ten-dollar job, that was probably the first thing I started playing on. Me brother Malcolm got a Hofner off of one of me other brothers and he got a Gretsch and passed the Hofner on to me after much squabbling. It was semi-acoustic and had all been packed with cotton. But I never used to really take it as a serious thing; I just used to fool around with it. When I was about 14 was when I really started playing it seriously. I got an amplifier for about sixty bucks that used to distort all the time. It was a Phi-Sonic.
After that I got out and got a Gibson SG that I played until it good wood rot because so much sweat and water got into it. The whole neck warped. I bought it second-hand, it was about a '67. It had a real thin neck, really slim, like a Custom neck. It was dark brown. After about a year, you lose about half the power in the pickups so you either get them re-wired or put new ones in. Just ordinary Gibsons.
How do you explain what you and your brother Malcolm create as guitar players?
He'll get something and I'll play along. It's a natural thing. I suppose it's just something we do well together. He seems to have a great command of rhythm and he likes doing that. That to me is more important because if we're playing live and something goes wrong with my gear and my guitar drops out, you can still hear him and it's not empty. He's probably got the best right hand in the world. I've never heard anyone do it like that. Even Keith Richards or any of those people. As soon as the other guitar drops out, it's empty. But with Malcolm it's so full. Beside Malcolm always said that playing lead interfered with his drinkin' and so he said I should do it.
Soloing was pretty easy for me because it was probably the first thing I've ever done. I just used to make up leads. I never even knew any names of chords until Malcolm told me and then I picked it up from there. I don't regard myself as a soloist. It's a color; I put it in for excitement. It's not great loss if a solo has to go. We've made songs without solos.
Live you use four Marshall stacks. How do you control so much volume?
All the sound comes directly from the amps. That way it's your sound coming out. A lot of times you'll hear bands and it's a different sound coming out than what's on stage. Because you can clean it up [through a PAl and make it sound completely different than what they really sound like. We've always been wary of that and that's why we always tended to have a lot of amps on stage. And also it has a lot better feel to it especially when you're playing hard rock music.
Did these early instruments still have that tremolo arm attached?
They did but I took it off. I used to fool around with them but you begin sounding like Hank Marvin.
Talking about instruments from back in the day, you didn't start with Marshalls obviously?
I got a $60 amplifier and the tubes would turn blue when you used the push/pull treble pot. I remember one of the first gigs I played with that amp was at a local church. They wanted someone to fill in with the guitar and my friend say, Ah, he can play.' And so I dragged the amplifier down and started playing and everybody started yelling turn it down!
And why did you remain loyal to the SG for the remainder of your career?
|"Malcolm always said that playing lead interfered with his drinkin' and so he said I should do it."|
It was light [weight-wise]. I'd tried the other ones, Fenders, but you've really got to do a number on 'em. They're great for feel but the wiring just doesn't got the balls. And I don't like putting those DiMarzios and everything because everyone sounds the same. It's like you're listening to the guy down the street. And I liked the hard sound of the Gibson. All the other sort of Gibsons I tried like the Les Paul was too heavy. Hip displacement. When I first started playing with the SG there was nothing to think about.
I don't know how this came about but I think I had a lot thinner neck. Someone once said to me they [Gibson] make two sized necks, one was 1 and one was 1 and this was like 1 , thin all the way up. Even now I still look all over and I still haven't found one; I've been to a hundred guitar shops and I found the same guitar [model] but with different necks. It had a really thin neck almost like a custom neck.
And you can do a lot of tricks on it, too!
Did you ever experiment with the SGs when they were called Les Pauls [Eric Clapton's graphically appointed Cream-era guitar is probably the most famous representative of this model]?
Yeah, I had a really old one I bought, a 1962. But it had a very fat neck; it was good to play but it felt heavier than all the other ones. That's why I stopped using it. And when you're running around a lot, it weighs you down.
So from High Voltage on it's always been the SG. Have you ever tried using more modern types of instruments?
Yeah, I tried a Hamer but I wouldn't buy an expensive guitar - especially in my case. It's always getting beaten around. With the SG, you can do plenty of tricks with them.
You've always used the same guitar and all the AC/DC albums are always built around those pretty simple rock formula - how do you keep coming up with new songs that find an audience?
We try to do everything with a fresh approach. We try and get an idea of what we basically want from the album. We don't like to leave people dry or have them say, 'These guys have left us and gone off to something else.
' That self-indulgent thing. So we try and keep it basic. A lot of people say we work a formula but we don't. We try a fresh approach all the time.
I saw Deep Purple live once and I paid money for it and I thought, 'Geez, this is ridiculous.' You just see through all that sort of stuff. I never liked those Deep Purples or those sort of things. I always hated it. I always thought it was a poor man's Led Zeppelin.
And you've been faithful to Marshall amplifiers as well?
Ever since I've been in this band I've been using Marshalls. I've tried Ampeg and they weren't too good for the sound I wanted. On stage I have four stacks going, all hooked up with splitter boxes. 100-watt stacks it's good for your eardrums. I use a real lot of volume, I turn that up; I turn the treble and bass on about half and middle, the same. I don't use any presence. If I don't think it's putting out enough top, I will kick up the presence. Just over the years and fooling around with them you find something that sounds right. With Marshalls, if you're using a fair bit of volume, if you whack the treble and bass at half, that's where they're working. We get them from the factory, that's what we do. We go down there and try them out and fool around with amps and tell them what we want and they doctor them up. At the moment, they're all back to the old style of Marshalls, they're very clean. They don't have these master or preamp settings.
You have entered the modern age of electronics in your use of a wireless system.
|"We try to do everything with a fresh approach."|
Yeah, I use the Schaffer-Vega. I've been using that since '77. On the receiver you've got like a monitor switch you can boost the signal and in the transmitter you've got the same sort of thing. You can really give a guitar hell with 'em. I have used the remote in the studio and it worked really good.
I don't believe I've ever had a wah-wah or a fuzz box. It's just the guitar and the amp and if I need anything, if someone says they want a different approach to the sound, then I'll get it with the guitar.
I did fumble around with a fuzzwah a long time ago but my foot kept going right through it. I found that pedals were too much to fool around with. You'd be halfway through a solo and the batteries would go dead and conk out. And if you tread on the lead going to the pedal, something would always go wrong. Or some crazy kid would pull the lead out just at the moment when you're about to do your big number on it.
Your sound on Flick of the Switch is a combination of a clean tone but very big sounding. How do you describe your sound?
We wanted this one as raw as possible. We wanted a natural, but big, sound for the guitars. We didn't want echoes and reverb going everywhere and noise eliminators and noise extractors. Getting the sound has always been the easiest part of the guitar. Also, if you're playing it right, it's going to sound right somehow. I mean you gladly turn down if it's going to sound good. I mean it's not like, 'I have to have a wall of amps and a candelabra on top.' If you hit a chord and it's distorted, you clean it up. It's all what you hear. You fiddle around until you get a good sound. For me, I prefer the sound to be clean if I can get it clean. If you can get that natural distortion, fine, because I don't believe in boxes that sustain. And I don't believe in pushing the hell out of the amps because they become muddy and whooshy.
The way you talk about the guitar, it's almost as if what you do is an afterthought.
I tend to look at the music as a song; it sounds a bit funny talking about it as someplace to play a solo. My brother would beat me up. People tend to see me as a soloist. Poor people. You'd think they'd have something better to do. I mean there's a lot of comedy on TV worth watching. Yeah, people see that but I don't. I look at it as a band. I think Pete Townshend is rotten without Roger Daltrey and The Who. He's quite boring actually. Or the same with Zeppelin without John Bonham. To me it's not the same. I mean there are solo people who just do that sort of thing. I like it as a band, as a unit. You should hear me on my own. It's horrendous.
2008 Steven Rosen