Premier Guitar

Future Blues: The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach

July 20, 2010
Describing his approach to producing Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the legendary David Briggs once declared “The more you think, the more you stink!” It’s a priceless observation that might as well be painted on the door of every rehearsal space or studio where rock and roll is made. And it’s a beautiful reminder that, while there’s plenty of room for the cerebral in great music, rock is fundamentally a thing better felt than pondered.


Dan Auerbach (right) wields his ancient three-pickup Supro (note the six on/off switches) while he and drummer Patrick Carney lay down tracks for the new Black Keys LP, Brothers.

Since they began brewing their funky, wicked stew of blues, garage punk, and soul in Akron, Ohio, in 2001, the Black Keys—guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney—have been steadfast in their commitment to feel, instinct, and the magic of a killer tune. They also work tirelessly. Through 2008, they toured behind six LP releases—including gigs opening for Radiohead, Beck, and Pearl Jam—and crisscrossed America and Europe on their own.

The last two years have been more prolific still, even by the Keys’ own lofty standards. Auerbach released an impressive solo slab of swampy, gorgeous rock and soul balladry called Keep It Hid and built a studio in his Akron home, where he continues to produce up-and-coming bands like Radio Moscow and the Buffalo Killers. He and Carney also decamped for two weeks to New York to help produce and serve as a backing band on Blakroc, a deeply funky collaboration between the Keys, producer Damon Dash, and hip-hop heavies such as Mos Def, RZA, Q-Tip, and Raekwon that may be the most realized, organic, and promising synthesis of rock and hip-hop ever attempted.

This past May also saw the release of Brothers, the Keys’ seventh and most colorful and varied release. Reflecting the experiences of Keep It Hid and Blakroc, it features less of the savage garage riffery that defined their last half-dozen releases. But it’s bursting with hooks, delicious riffs, economical rhythm work, and some of the gnarliest, most stinging fuzz leads this side of “Satisfaction.” Brothers was mixed by famed engineer Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, Latin Playboys, Phish, Tracy Chapman) and it marks Auerbach’s maturation into one of the most versatile guitar-playing songsmiths in the business. He weaves his expressive, rough-and-tender voice around licks and lines that evoke everyone from Steve Cropper, Jimmy Page, and Cream-era Clapton to Ethiopian jazz great Mulatu Astatke, Ernest Ranglin, and Curtis Mayfield in songs that are fresh, infectious, funky, and timeless.

On the day of the new album’s release, Auerbach very generously took time to talk to Premier Guitar about oddball gear, production, influences, why simplicity and economy rule, and why the song is always king—no matter how hot the player.

The new Brothers cover reminds me of This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album (the psychedelically tinged late-’60s album that Wolf himself despised), and the sound reflects that period where psychedelic, soul, and blues were all colliding. Did that LP or Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud influence this record?

Oh yeah. We love that stuff. But those records didn’t necessarily change my guitar sound or playing. How those bands play as an ensemble was more important to us. We’re more into the arrangements as a whole and how the guitar fits in that mix.

The guitars almost take a backseat on some songs, but they seem much more varied in terms of texture. Did the songs call for that, or were you working from new influences?

Actually, I just started to worry about guitar a lot less and just concentrated on playing. I was less concerned about the perfect guitar or pedal for a song. I’ve realized that when I play guitar, it just sounds like me. But the songs were really what affected the way I played more than a specific guitar or pedal. They were built around heavy bass and keyboard lines, and it wouldn’t have been right to jump in there with a super bassy, heavy fuzz-tone guitar like I do a lot of the time. That would’ve been kind of stupid in the context of these songs. So it was fun to play the kind of thin, buzzy lead tones that were coming out of my Supro when I plugged it in.

The record also sounds influenced by more obscure late-’60s and early-’70s funk and soul. Did you discover any new players from that period that moved you?


Auerbach and his Bigsby-equipped, three-pickup Harmony H77 onstage with drummer Patrick Carney.
I was listening to a lot of this band called Invincibles—they’re kind of like the Impressions mixed with Stax, but less Chicago and more Memphis. I got really into finding obscure soul and stuff. My soul collection must have quadrupled over the last year. I also got way into Electric Mud and the electric Howlin’ Wolf stuff we were just talking about. That’s how I am, though. I do a lot of research and get way into things and players, and I dig—and then dig deeper. So yeah, I was listening to a lot of soul. I did the same thing when I first got into the blues. My dad played me Robert Johnson and Son House and from there I started listening to Skip James and Fred McDowell—getting further into the country-blues stuff. There’s still so much out there that hasn’t been played, and it’s so exciting to keep digging and finding inspiration.

A lot of the guitar parts on the new album sound like horn lines.

Well, I was thinking much more like a team player than a soloist this time around. I really started thinking about what was better for the song. So sometimes I would be playing fuzz bass like a trombone. [Laughs.]

And the shot of you with the Rickenbacker 4001 on the gatefold reinforces the idea that fuzz bass was an important part of what was going on.

Well, there’s a ton of clean bass, too. But yeah, we worked from a lot of bass grooves. I was playing all those bass parts through a little silverface Fender Musicmaster Bass amp with a 12" speaker. There’s just a volume and a tone knob on the thing. I used it a lot for both guitar and bass.

It’s cool to see you using Rickenbacker guitars outside their typical context.

Rickenbackers are the unsung heroes of rock ’n’ roll. They’re still made exactly the same way they always have been. They’re built just great, and they’re one of the only companies that only builds stuff here in the States anymore. And they play so well—so much better than most new guitars I check out that it’s just sick. They’re so smooth. A lot more early rock ’n’ roll records than you might think were made with Ricks. The idea that they’re just for jangling is pure nonsense. Those single-coils are fantastic and have a lot of character. They may not be quite as hot as DeArmonds, but they’re hot enough. You can do anything you want with a Rickenbacker—anything.

What other guitars made it onto this record?

I used my white-and-black Supro a lot. It’s got two DeArmond single-coils that look like humbuckers, and it’s got a weird bridge pickup that’s supposed to sound almost like an acoustic pickup—it just sounds so weird. I used that for the solo on “Howlin’ for You.”

That solo buzzes like a mosquito. I couldn’t figure out how you got that tone.

It’s just that weird Supro pickup through a little Magnatone with a 10" speaker. You put that sound on top of a big Rickenbacker bass and a fuzz bass, along with some organ—all holding down the bottom end—perfect! It’s heavy without being too much, y’know? There’s still some space in the mix, but it’s really heavy!



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 



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