Bass Transcription: AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long

Before we get into anything about the bass part on ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, just pause for a moment and think about the insurmountable pressure that AC/DC singer Brian Johnson must have been under during the recording of Back in Black. Imagine becoming the new vocalist of a band who have already released six albums (the last of which, Highway to Hell, enabled the band to finally crack the US), have a sizeable and loyal fanbase and whose previous, larger-than-life frontman has recently died. You now not only have to prove that you have what it takes vocally to deserve a place in Australia’s biggest band, but your personality and stage presence also have to be sensitive and respectful. No pressure, then.

Fortunately, Johnson stepped up to the challenge and delivered a tour de force performance on Back in Black, which was a huge critical and commercial success. In fact, the record is not only the band’s most popular but also holds a place in the list of the top 10 biggest selling albums of all time, having shifted somewhere in the region of 50 million copies to date.

The album was recorded at Compass Point studios in Nassau as there were no available studios in the UK, although I’m sure that the band didn’t object to the Bahamian climate or the tax advantages offered by working in the Caribbean. The polished sound of Back in Black came courtesy of producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, who also applied his production magic to numerous artists including Def Leppard, The Boomtown Rats, Muse and Shania Twain and has become notorious for his tireless work ethic in the studio. 

Gear-wise, long term AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams is associated with Musicman Stringray basses strung with flatwounds. which he nearly always plays with a pick. This combination of flats and plectrum allows for a clear attack without an overly bright tone, enabling the bass to retain warmth without sacrificing definition. For the recording of ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, engineer Tony Platt recalls that the bass was recorded with two mics on Cliff’s Ampeg Portaflex along with a DI.

AC/DC – ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ Bass Transcription PDF

As you’d expect from AC/DC, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ is not complicated; it’s a three-chord rock song with a six-word, shout-along chorus perfectly designed for audience participation. That isn’t to say that it has any less merit than prog rock or fusion (in fact, you could argue the exact opposite…), it’s just that our priorities here are centred around the fundamentals of time feel and note length.

The transcription offers a great way for less experienced sight readers to work on dotted and tied notes, as well as providing plenty of practice on syncopated 8th-note rhythms. Even if you’re a veteran chart reader, there’s still lots to learn here; this is a tune I’ve had to gig many times, so even if it doesn’t contain any flashy licks it might just make you money.

In spite of the simplicity of the song, there are still some subtleties in Cliff Williams’ bass line that are worth noting:

  1. Your note lengths dictate the groove: Cliff’s verse groove in bars 41-44 offer a masterclass in rhythm section interaction; notice how the note on beat 1 of bars 41 and 43 are held for their maximum value before being cut off on beat 2, allowing room for the snare drum.
  2. Simple doesn’t have to be boring: There’s some neat contrary motion between bass and guitars in bars 44/45 created by the simple decision to play the G above the D, rather than below.  Bar 48 shows Cliff moving away from the root and playing an F# under the D chord, giving us a first inversion sound and a clever semitone movement better the G chords on either side. This simple twist is most effective because he only does it once, catching our ears by surprise. Bars 86 and 90 also feature a neat chromatic walk-up to transition between the D and G chords.