dan hawkins

Dan Hawkins, left, exclusively plays Gibson Les Paul Standards, while Justin only uses Les Paul Customs. “If you look at the EQ, I am on happy face and he is … happy face,” Dan says, laughing. “We are the same on many levels.”
Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography

Guitar-playing brothers keep it sexy, with fat-toned dual Les Pauls, trim glam looks and hooks, and some help from Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift never thrashed around her living room or lip-sync’d to one of your songs. But you’re not the Darkness.

“I didn’t think we could get any sexier,” guitarist and lead vocalist Justin Hawkins told Billboard in response to Swift’s 2016 ad for Apple in which she rocks out to the band’s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” “But somehow,” Hawkins continued, “Taylor raised the bar.”

The Darkness—the lamé-suit-wearing, falsetto-singing, glam rockers from Lowestoft, England—embody rock ’n’ roll’s glorious, flamboyant id. They preen, cavort, and swan (if that’s even a word) with the best. “I would like to play less because I do enjoy the swanning,” Hawkins says, justifying his role as the band’s solos-only guitarist. “I enjoy a good swan.”

Justin Hawkins, along with Dan, his brother, are the Darkness’ guitarists. Justin takes solos and Dan does most of the heavy lifting. Together they pump out hook-driven, anthemic, head-banging music. Their songs, like their outfits, are attention grabbing, infectious, and fun. They are everything hard rock—especially their type of hard rock, which sits at the intersection of mid-’70s glam and late-’80s hair metal—is supposed to be.

Of course Taylor Swift gyrates around her house to their music. Who wouldn’t?

But spectacle and bravado aside, the Hawkins brothers are also serious craftsmen. Sure, they’re funny, but humor’s just their functional MO. Talk tone, songwriting, or gear—or any aspect intrinsic to music making—and they’re informed, experienced, and opinionated. Those qualities, in addition to being world-class showmen, go a long way in explaining their consistency and success.

Dan is the band’s tonal authority. He plays Les Paul Standards and his pickups are hot. “I just want it to be loud,” he says. “That’s the thing: It needs to bark and sound a bit shit for it to sound like me.” He has similar taste in amps. “I am running an absolutely stock, factory spec, 1959 Super Lead,” he says. “At any time, I have one Super Lead running two cabs loaded with Greenbacks.”

Justin also plays a Les Paul, although his is a Custom. “When I put on a Les Paul Custom, it feels like I am slipping into a warm bath full of my own saliva,” he says. “It couldn’t be more familiar.”

"When I put on a Les Paul Custom, it feels like I am slipping into a warm bath full of my own saliva." —Justin Hawkins

Pinewood Smile, the band’s fifth release and their third since reforming in 2011, came out in October. It’s what you’d expect: great hooks, shout-along choruses, tight playing, and ripping guitar solos. It’s also accompanied by the usual, over-the-top videos, although nothing as outrageous or disturbing as the space-aliens-meet-A-Clockwork-Orange imagery of their official video for “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”

We caught up with Justin and Dan while they were in Europe on tour in support of Pinewood Smile. We talked about songwriting, acoustics, pedals, and how they distinguish their guitar tones. We also discussed the art of choosing the best key when crafting ass-kicking choruses. Plus, Justin explained his various picking techniques and Dan told us how he makes his Les Pauls even heavier.

When did you first start playing?
Justin: I was inspired to play, initially, by Brian May. I really loved his tone and vibrato and everything. I thought his playing sounded like a singing voice. I wanted to be able to do that. Whenever I went to guitar lessons, I was always asking to learn Queen stuff. I was encouraged, because my brother was playing drums, as well. I felt like we could possibly be in a band together. My parents were really supportive of that, because they wanted us to be like the Jackson ... 2 [laughs]. My father is a hard-working builder. I think he wanted us to have the opportunity to do whatever we wanted. When we expressed a little bit of interest in music, he was really behind it and made it an easy decision.

TIDBIT: Justin Hawkins cut all his guitar tracks for Pinewood Smile while perched in the control room. The rest of the band recorded its tracks together, on the floor.

Dan: I started on drums when I was 8 and I played straight up until I was about 14. At around age 12 or 13, Justin was in a band and they needed a bass player. I said I’d help them out, having not played much bass at all. We did a lot of Marillion covers, Bruce Springsteen, Genesis—a bit prog-y. I moved to London when I was 17 as a bass player for a couple of bands. When I was 24, I think, I was in a band and the singer realized I was a better guitarist than the guitarists. He sacked the guitarists—both of them—and I got moved onto guitar. I never really thought about being a guitarist, which is why I’ve got such terrible technique.

When did you start taking guitar seriously?
Dan: Sad to say, that hasn’t actually happened yet [laughs]. I learned enough guitar to work out how songs were written. I learned everything on acoustic—and a pretty shit one, really. My strings are a slightly lighter gauge now, but when I started playing [electric] guitar I was playing on .011–.056 gauge strings—sometimes it was .012—and with wound G strings, because I’d only ever played on acoustic. I went straight onto electric and it just felt like it was going to fall apart. I was breaking strings left, right, and center, so I put the closest thing to my acoustic strings on and that’s how I started.

Did drumming inform your guitar playing?
Dan: One hundred percent. I think the best rhythm guitar players must have been drummers or are able to play drums. I know I am not much of a lead guitarist. I don’t have the technique and I have no idea what I am doing. If I ever play a solo, I’ve worked it out. I am trying to play a tune; I am not ad-libbing. I focus very hard on getting the rhythm right.

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Rig Rundown - The Darkness

Fueled by a pair of brothers rocking Les Pauls and the bass rumbling thanks to Gibson Thunderbirds, this U.K. outfit is here to rock and roll.

PG's Chris Kies hung out with Dan Hawkins, Frankie Poullain, and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness before their gig at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rhythm guitarist Dan Hawkins received this 2000 Gibson Les Paul Standard—his current number one—from his brother Justin when the band started in 2000. Dan refers to this instrument as “Dune,” a tribute to one of his favorite sci-fi films that was directed by David Lynch. He left the stock 498 humbuckers in the guitar because he likes that they crank out an aggressive bite thanks to their high output. The only change he’s made to the guitar is adding a TonePros bridge and tailpiece for better intonation.

The second guitar Dan will carry onstage is another 2000 Gibson Les Paul Standard that has a much lighter, more subdued burst on its top. This particular guitar usually rides in drop-D tuning. Dan carries three guitars because he often hammers his thumb against the string causing them to go out of tune and blood to be spilled. This aggressive approach came from Dan’s time on his first instrument: the drums.

His third Gibson Les Paul Standard was made in 1997. He claims this LP is the brightest one of the bunch so he uses it for songs that require a janglier tone and a capo like “One Way Ticket to Hell and Back” and “Givin’ Up.” All three guitars are using Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky .011–.054 strings.

Hawkins’ main amp is a Marshall plexi 1959 Super Lead head that is always on, and always loud. The Friedman Small Box Head is still in the experimenting stages of Hawkins tonal equation, but he says he likes adding it into the mix as a solo boost and for chugging, palm-muted rhythms.

Dan’s tidy board starts with the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner and then goes into Devi Ever Shoe Gazer, MXR Uni-Vibe, Wampler Faux Tape Echo, Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion, Marshall DriveMaster, Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer, Mike Hill Services MH-808, and a TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay. And if you’re wondering what the “Destroy” button on Hawkins’ switcher does—it kicks on both amps, the Wampler Tape Echo, the Devi Ever Shoe Gazer, which is dialed in such a way that Hawkins says, “you’ve never heard anything like it.”

Bassist Frankie Poullain’s main ride is a 1990 Gibson Thunderbird he affectionately calls the “Brown Bastard” that he bought from a guy named Welsh Ray. He favors this beast because the aftermarket pickup “kicks serious ass and is my pride and joy.” (Frankie and his tech can’t figure out where it came from or what model pickup it is.)

While the Brown Bastard has had issues with its headstock breaking multiple times, Poullain likes it because the awkward body shape is similar to his stature—long and lanky—and he feels the fragility of the headstock gives the bass a human quality.

His second Thunderbird is from 2009 and goes on tour with Frankie because it has a consistent, midrange-specific sound.

And his third bass is a 2013 Gibson 50th Anniversary Thunderbird. Fashion-forward Frankie digs this bass because it goes well with his onstage outfits, but he does prefer this 4-string when more top-end is needed. All three are loaded with Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky Roundwound .045–.105 strings.

Typically depending on Hiwatt heads for bass amplification, here in the U.S. Frankie has been playing through an Orange AD200 MK 3.

The only pedal in Poullain’s signal chain is an Aguilar Tone Hammer that he uses to add drive and tighten the Orange’s low end.

Lead guitarist and tantalizing frontman Justin Hawkins uses nothing but white 2001 Gibson Les Paul Customs. Seen here is his go-to axe that is generally used most of the night aside from any songs with alternate tunings or if a string breaks.

Equally stunning is this matching 2001 Custom that has been relegated to backup duties on this U.S. tour because it has less bite and responsiveness. Both guitars are completely stock, but Hawkins has contemplated adding a sticker to one of them. He’s taking his time making that decision.

In past years, Justin has relied on a handful of Marshall plexi 1959 Super Lead heads, but was finding that he was adding more and more things to the signal chain to chase the tone in his head. After stumbling upon this Wizard Modern Classic II he was able to go right back to his favorite setup—a LP Custom into a cranked tube head. The EVH 5150 III was a rented backline for the U.S. tour dates and was only used in emergencies or larger venues.