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Meet the AC/DC Superfan Who Unlocked Angus Young’s Back in Black Guitar Tone

on August 04, 2020, 2:00pm

We continue our celebration of 40 years of AC/DC’s Back in Black with the story of how one fan followed his obsession and became part of the AC/DC legend. Also, be sure to enter our huge giveaway below or here.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger AC/DC fan than Fil Olivieri. Growing up in Italy in the late ’70s, Olivieri heard If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It in a record store. Transfixed by the sound of Angus Young’s guitar, he begged his mother to buy him Back in Black on cassette. He would play the tape on repeat, falling asleep while his Walkman blared riff after riff through tiny earphones. “My brain was flashed,” Olivieri recalls.

Olivieri would make it his life’s goal to discover, understand, and replicate every facet and detail of Angus Young’s guitar sound. His journey of reverse engineering took him down many wrong turns and dead-end paths. While holed up in his parents’ basement, Olivieri would pore over guitar magazines and interviews to gain any possible insight into the AC/DC sound. He would bounce the left and right channel of Back in Black to separate cassettes so that he could hear isolated guitar overdubs in an effort to pinpoint particular tones. After countless amplifier, speaker, and effects purchases — none able to render the Angus sound — Olivieri finally found the missing ingredient in a tossed-off remark from Young in a 1984 issue of Guitar Player: “I just use a Schaffer-Vega.”

The Schaffer-Vega diversity system is a wireless guitar system engineered by Ken Schaffer in New York City and manufactured by the Vega Corporation in El Monte, California. Introduced to AC/DC by Schaffer himself prior to the If You Want Blood live recordings, the SVDS is responsible for the massive, saturated guitar sound on that album and preceding AC/DC studio records, beginning with tracks on Powerage. The device and a desire to recreate its sound would become Olivieri’s calling as an engineer (he had spent many years as an information technology engineer for software).

Olivieri’s passion inevitably led him to the man himself, Ken Schaffer, and the two became good friends as Olivieri later launched his own effects pedal company, SoloDallas. After years of arduous research and pitfalls, Olivieri finally procured the means and diagnostics to craft boutique stompboxes that render “Instant Angus,” as one reviewer so aptly put it. The sound speaks for itself. SoloDallas pedals are so accurately Angus that Olivieri was able to meet the AC/DC guitarist himself and bequeath unit #001 of the Schaffer replica to the living legend.

Consequence of Sound caught up with Olivieri for an extended interview about growing up on AC/DC in Italy, starting SoloDallas after years of obsessively researching the Schaffer-Vega, and his eventual face-to-face with his hero, Angus Young. Here are some highlights from our conversation.


On Hearing AC/DC for the First Time

I remember this vividly because it was one of those things that flashed my mind and gave me this passion. I was 10 years old. A friend and I went to a record store in Rome that does not exist anymore. My friend took me into this record store, and he said, “Fil, you have to listen to something.” Of course, we would be speaking Italian at the time.

He put me through a very rare thing. They already had earphones in Rome around 1978, ’79, so I could listen to the album directly at the store. That was If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It, which is a live album that came out in ’78 before Highway to Hell. And the weird thing about [If You Want Blood] is that it already had some Schaffer in it. It was a series of live shows recorded mostly in Scotland — we refer to those internally as “the Glasgow shows.” Angus had been using the Schaffer-Vega for about a year, because it had been given to him on a very special night on August 24th, 1977, at the New York Palladium by Ken Schaffer himself.

You could further saturate the amplifiers with this system. What happened to me when I heard that wireless device on If You Want Blood? I got immediately lopped — it hits you like a blade. Some of Angus’ solos penetrate you exactly like a blade because there’s that vibrato that’s cutting. Maybe because of the Mahogany in a Gibson SG, then going through the Schaffer, then going through Marshall amplifiers and a specific set of Celestion speakers. All these components, all these different layers put together: They truly cut through in a way that I thought was unique. That was what flashed this brain, many years ago, and it’s still flashed. The damage was done, and since then, I could not give up the search.


On Begging His Mom to Buy Him Back in Black at Age 12

AC:DC - Back In Black

I was already completely obsessed by AC/DC for two years. I was 12 years old, it’s July; I’m in Tuscany. The tape came out, and I was begging my mom, “Can you please, please buy me the tape?” She couldn’t resist, she said, “Oh my god, you kid!” So she came to Tuscany from Rome with the tape, [and on the Italian cassette version] “Back in Black” is the first song. The order was different. Can you imagine me? I’m 12 years old in 1980 in Tuscany; we hadn’t heard most of the sounds that were heard in the world. To us kids back then, we didn’t have what most other kids have. Can you imagine me hearing: [Sings opening riff to “Back in Black”]. Disintegrated. I’m lost. It’s done. I heard it, all the impact of that tightness. Then Brian comes, in my Italian accent: “Back in back, I hit th’ sack“. Since then, it never left me. I had to have those sounds.


On His Years of Reverse-Engineering Research and Dead Ends

Ken Schaffer Fil SoloDallas Olivieri Meet the AC/DC Superfan Who Unlocked Angus Young’s Back in Black Guitar Tone

Ken Schaffer and Fil Olivieri, Photo courtesy of Fil Olivieri

When I started, I just wanted some clarity. I didn’t know about the Schaffer. I was an engineer in the marketing-software platforms. I was someone external from the music industry, especially the American one. I was obsessed with AC/DC but outside of the industry. So I just wanted to clear the information out there. I had been the first one to buy a number of devices — the wrong ones. The wrong guitar, wrong strings, wrong amplifier, wrong speakers, limiter, microphone, etc. Everything was wrong. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on the wrong stuff; then I had to sell that back. That’s what moved me. Because I failed so much over the decades. In that country, in Italy, there was a lack of information. Thanks to the Internet, I could humbly start my research and get in touch with the people involved, being willing to uncover the truth.


On Discovering the Schaffer-Vega

Schaffer-Vega Diversity System

When I was researching this stuff, Ken Schaffer called me an “isolated obsessive.” … I was in my parents’ basement in Rome, sitting in the chair when I got that bulb — the light bulb moment from those comics where the character gets an idea. I can see myself from the outside; it’s like an out-of-body experience. I can see myself sitting there, reading this article in Guitar Player February 1984. The interviewer asks Angus about his effects. Angus replies, quote: “I don’t use any guitar effects. I just use a Schaffer-Vega, for me it’s probably the best.” Why is he replying with a wireless system to a question about guitar effects?

I started Googling, and there was nothing about the Schaffer-Vega. All you could find in those days — try to launch the same Google today — was a picture of [Pink Floyd’s] David Gilmour on The Wall tour with this very small, tower-ish looking black box. I learned later, they called it “the Angus box.” … The Schaffer-Vega was the first clean boost of the rock ‘n’ roll effects. Eddie Van Halen also used it.


On AC/DC Incorporating the Schaffer-Vega into Studio Recordings

1978 Angus Young Ken Schaffer Palladium NYC Backstage Meet the AC/DC Superfan Who Unlocked Angus Young’s Back in Black Guitar Tone

Ken Schaffer and Angus Young (1978), Photo courtesy of Ken Schaffer

Angus would lay down a lot of the bits and pieces that you hear on every AC/DC album from the very early years onward. They would go through the cables first from the live room. What you usually hear on the very far right side of your stereo spectrum is Angus with the cable, most of the time. But then, all the other overdubs, which are massive, are from the control room with the sound engineer and with the producer. This started in 1978 in the studio with Powerage. It was produced by George Young. George asked Angus, “What are you using live that you’re so amazing?” Angus replied, “We’re using the Schaffer thing.” And then George said, “Use it then!” So Angus started using it on Powerage.


On Dissecting Back in Black Stereo Spectrum as a Kid

You can do this exercise. I used to do it when I was 13. You are going to split the stereo track just by rolling the pan [knob] to the left. Then you’re going to mono that signal, which you can do by re-recording to another tape. And then you’re going to start listening to songs like “Back in Black” or “Shoot to Thrill” — there are some licks and guitar parts where Malcolm is not playing. You will still hear Angus because the center track is a mono track, so that will technically bleed into the left channel. So you’re going to hear Angus’ guitar tone as it sits on the center track. That’s valid for the solos, that’s valid for the rhythm section as well.


On Meeting Angus Young and Presenting Him with the Schaffer Replica

SoloDallas Fil With Angus Meet the AC/DC Superfan Who Unlocked Angus Young’s Back in Black Guitar Tone

Fil Olivieri and Angus Young, Photo courtesy of Fil Olivieri

I panicked. I didn’t want to go when Ken said [AC/DC biographer] Susan Masino was in contact with Angus’ management. Angus is so hard to get in touch with. He doesn’t have a phone; he doesn’t have a computer. Because he doesn’t want to be in touch, because he gives it his all. Every time he’s put in touch with people, everyone’s gonna take him. He’s going to let you take him and bring him wherever you want; he’s that kind of guy. He’s a real, pure artist. So over the years he learned to not be fed to everyone. He’s wise. Nobody has access.

We wanted to know if Angus was interested in the Schaffer [replica], and we came to know he was very interested. So Susan says, “I just got in touch with Angus, and he would love to reconnect with Ken Schaffer.” … They want to get this “tower” thing. “Let’s get together in Vancouver,” they said. I wanted to stay in Rome. I told him I was terrified, but Kenny said, “What’s wrong with you? Let’s meet in Vancouver and catch up. The date is set. Come with me or don’t talk to me anymore.”

Terrified, I booked a plane, we met in Vancouver, and we walked up the stairs to The Warehouse studio. Angus, [his wife] Ella … they were all around the table eating rice. They all turned around and looked at us. I could hear their necks rotating. I was terribly jetlagged because this was Vancouver, and I was coming from Rome. I completely panicked without showing it. I couldn’t show it; I was a grown man at that time, 40 or something. They turned towards us: “Hello, friends.” We were 10 minutes early; they were still eating! We interrupted supper.

They sat me down right between Angus and Ella. I was a prisoner. I couldn’t escape. This is me, a guy who’s been in love with this hero for my entire life. I used to fall asleep in my little bed with my Sony Walkman blaring AC/DC since age 10, dreaming of walking up on the stage and being given a Gibson SG to play along with Angus. That was my recurrent dream. Now I was sitting next to the guy. He smiled at me. I couldn’t speak. I said, “Hello, everyone” and tried to crack a smile. Probably horrible. Ella saw it. She said, “Fil, it’s better if you eat something, you must be terribly hungry my boy.” I went, “Uh, yes.” So she gives me this thing she cooked for everyone; I think it was chicken and rice — very good. I filled my mouth, so I didn’t have to talk anymore.

So Kenny and Angus started talking, and Kenny asks me, “Fil, isn’t it true you heard Angus in the center position on those albums?” Yes, that’s the truth. So my knowledge came back to me, and I could finally connect with something I could talk about. I felt better talking about what I know. So Angus looks at me with a genuinely surprised look and says, “Is that so? So show me your hands.” And this is a typical thing he does, because he’s a little guy with small hands. He looked at my hands, and my fingers were like Italian sausages. They were thick and fat. He looked at my hands, shook his head, “Nah, these are big hands mate.” He showed me his hands: little fingers. Looking and shaking my hero’s hands — what a moment…


On Starting SoloDallas, The Schaffer Replica, and the Legacy of AC/DC

 Meet the AC/DC Superfan Who Unlocked Angus Young’s Back in Black Guitar Tone

SoloDallas Products

I got flashed. I had to do it. I started to do it just as a hobby, but then you get even more focused. Then came the Schaffer that I found in this process, trying to find what it is. That’s how I became even more obsessed. Then I abandoned everything else I was doing, just researching [the Schaffer]. Then it became my company.

My background is scientific, and I love the scientific method. An experiment becomes the truth and the rule once that experiment can be replicated in a different laboratory by following instructions. [In this case], when another player somewhere in the world has been able to successfully replicate the sound we all had in mind at the beginning — thanks to one of our Replica products — then I can consider our experiment (i.e., making these products) as a rule of the market.

Eureka, the experiment has worked. I have people emailing, texting me, business law — when that starts happening … I’m working my ass off. Every day, 18 hours a day to spread the word, to spread the truth. It’s not only a great sound because it’s AC/DC; it’s because AC/DC strove to capture the perfect combination of sounds with a select amount of gear and a certain recipe with brilliant minds. That’s why those records still sell today. It’s not only about AC/DC. It’s about balance.

Enter the Back in Black 40th Anniversary Giveaway!

We’re giving away a massive prize pack of gear to have you rocking just like AC/DC. Included is a Gibson Custom SG “Red Devil” guitar just like Angus Young’s; the latest SoloDallas Schaffer Tower EX signed by inventor Ken Schaffer; a Marshall JTM45 amp with a SoloDallas Black Mod converting it to a JTM50, just like the one Young used on Back in Black; and a Marshall cabinet loaded with vintage speakers (a total retail value of over $15,000). Five runners-up will each receive a Schaffer Replica Storm pedal and Back in Black on vinyl.

Enter simply by filling out the widget below. Note: If you do not see the widget, click here to enter (open to U.S. and Canadian residents only).

AC/DC Back in Black 40 Prize Pack