Samick Motherlode

December 2014
more... ArtistsGuitaristsAugust 2010Dan Auerbach

Future Blues: The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach


There’s a lot of Jimmy Page’s “loud little amp”-style ambience on Brothers.

Small amps are all I’ve ever played, honestly, apart from live stuff. I’ve only played little amps in the studio, before I even knew that’s what so many of those old guys did. I was always trying to make my guitars sound like Willie Johnson from Howlin’ Wolf’s early electric stuff. And I think you gravitate toward that sound if you like those old blues records, because that’s typically what they were using—those little tweeds that were just exploding!

The fuzz on “Next Girl” and elsewhere on the album has a very glam feel—very fat, with a lot of low end and buzz. Did you double those lines with a bass or did you use some kind of octave pedal?

There’s no octave pedal on the album. It’s generally doubling, tripling, or quadrupling a guitar line in unison with the bass.


Donning cans and a biker jacket, Auerbach takes to the studio to wrangle riffs out of his Harmony H77.
Did you use many pedals for the album’s various textures?

I’ve got shelves of pedals—sick amounts of pedals. But I swear, I use the same pedals I’ve always played. I bought an early-1970s Ibanez Standard Fuzz pedal—the octave fuzz with the two sliders. I’ve been using it since the first record, and I cannot top it. It’s got two basic tones, bassy or trebly, and I use it on bass and guitar. It’s just wild. I also use those green Sovtek Big Muffs on the road. They’re fun for blasting a bigger amp. But when you want to get character out of a little amp, you really can’t beat those little Japanese fuzzes like the ones from Shin-ei. Those are my favorite—the absolute best.

No matter what size amp I use, I’m generally trying to find that sweet spot where the overdrive— the tube or speaker or combination of both—is constant but it still reacts well to pedals— fuzz especially. If there’s too much overdrive, the fuzz pedal farts out, and if there’s not enough the clean sound is too wimpy.

Do you have a preferred amplifier rig for live shows?

Right now, I’m using a Fender Quad Reverb along with a Marshall JTM45 and a vintage Marshall 8x10 cab.

Earlier you mentioned being more of a team player. And the rhythm on “The Only One,” for instance, is very inventive, but unobtrusive and deceptively simple. It reminds me of Steve Cropper playing in one of those Cambodian psychedelic bands.

[Laughs.] We actually felt like we were going for a Mulatu Astatke feel for that song. The super funky drums, the really tight bass, and the cheesy organ were the meat of the song, so I wanted to keep it simple but melodic on the guitar. It just needed to propel the song and not get in the way.

How does the open environment of guitar and drums affect the way you approach guitar— do you need to be more disciplined?

I don’t ever practice, if that’s what you mean by disciplined! [Laughs.] We just do what’s best for the record. I guess thinking more about the song is the discipline. I mean, we’re spending just as much time thinking about tambourine and handclaps, and then I let that guide the guitar playing. You can’t think about that stuff too much. You really just need to play and feel it. I was working with Scott Asheton from the Stooges— he was coming to my studio to hang out—so I asked him what kind of drums he needed. He told me he stopped caring about that stuff a long time ago. He said “A carpenter can’t blame bad work on his tools.” So I don’t think about the ways that gear or the fact that it’s just Pat and me working on a song limit what we do.

Your new studio figures significantly into the production of this record. How did you configure it, and what sound were you going for?

I’ve already learned a ton from recording bands in other studios. And more than anything else, I’ve learned the value of keeping it simple. Brothers doesn’t have a single song with any more than 12 tracks. All the drums are in mono—literally mixed to one channel—or sometimes we put the kick drum on its own channel. Then we’d put the bass on there, a couple of tracks of keyboards, the vocal, and the guitar. It’s super simple, and it always sounds bigger than when you mess with more tracks.

That seems to be common knowledge, but it’s a philosophy few have the courage to adhere to.

I think the ’80s really twisted peoples heads. Folks sold a lot of records back then. But not too many of them will stand the test of time. I want to make records that are timeless, that you can play whether you’re 80 years old or 25. That simplicity helps that happen—it gives you a more solid foundation.

It must have been different working in a hip-hop environment on the Blakroc record. What did that teach you about other possible roles for guitar in production?

The approach we took on Blakroc was really influential on Brothers. We started most of those tracks with bass and drums, which carried over to this record. That influenced the overall sound of the record and the way the guitars went on. I don’t think any hip-hop record has been made that way. We started writing the songs in the morning, finished them in the afternoon, and the rappers came in at night. They’d spend a couple of hours working on lyrics, cut the lyrics, and that was it. Song done. Hip-hop is so alive—and it comes alive even more in that kind of environment. Watching [Wu-Tang Clan MC] Raekwon— who could essentially write a film treatment in 45 minutes and then put it to a really raw backing track—felt like what it must have been like to hang out with Dylan or something.

You once mentioned learning a lot from watching videos in your early days.

Yeah, I used to get videos from the library—blues and bluegrass guys— and just watch how they did it. Watch their hands, pause it, rewind, replay, over and over again for hours. I remember getting [Les Blank’s 1967 documentary film] The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, and watching it was just humongous for me.

Outside the realm of soul and blues, which guitarists turn you on?

Marc Ribot. I got way into the Prosthetic Cubans record he did with Los Cubanos Postizos—I played along with it all the time. So it was a thrill when I was able to have him come in and play on Attack and Release.

Some of the tones on Brothers evoke the Latin Playboys records— which had some of the coolest, most oddball guitar sounds ever.

That’s why I got in touch with Tchad, because I loved those Latin Playboys records. Musically, they’re just blues and tejano, but when you add those sounds and guitar tones and a mix by Tchad, they become future music. It’s future and past combined into something timeless, and it’s beautiful. Tchad would call just to tell me how excited he was to be mixing our album. I don’t think he had gotten anything that minimal in years.

It sounds like that future-past thing has become a guiding philosophy for you.

Yeah, but I would never try to replicate the past or record someone stuck in the past. You have to have some individual sense of what you are and what you want to do. It’s cool to pull from those old sounds, because they’re timeless. But, again, one of the beautiful things about keeping the production simple is that it leaves plenty of room for your own ideas.

Dan Auerbach's Gearbox 

Guitars: Harmony H77 with Bigsby, Harmony Heath TG-46, Supro Martinique, Rickenbacker 360, Ibanez “lawsuit era” SG copy, Gibson Firebird VII

Amplifiers: Silverface Fender Musicmaster Bass amp, Ampeg Gemini II, Marshall JTM45, Fender Twin Reverb

Effects: Ibanez Standard Fuzz, Sovtek Big Muff, Fulltone Tape Echo, Tubeplex tape delay, Boss TR-2 Tremolo

Strings: .011-.052

Picks: Dunlop Tortex .73mm