How to play guitar like the Black Keys

Posted on 13th August 2021

You’re a drunkard. You feel hopelessly depressed, you’ve put on 25 pounds and the music career you once loved is on the ropes due to your band mate (who you haven’t talked to in several months) hating your wife and planning his own solo project. The wife, who you’ve been married to for 2 years and with for 9 has been sleeping with your best friend, lying and manipulating you, pushing you down and running around. But things are set to change. In mid-2009, you make the call, end things with the wife and organise a beer with the estranged band mate, you hug and make up and start planning how to become the biggest band in the world.  

This story hits home too hard right? Well, this was reality for Patrick Carney, the drummer for the Black Keys prior to ‘Brothers’. We can start learning from the band before even looking at the songs; never give up on the dream and if your bandmate thinks your partner’s bad news, listen to them, they care about you (and by ‘you’ I might just mean your playing ability). Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach recorded ‘Brothers’ in mid to late 2009 and released it in 2010, with a now classic album cover design directly influenced by Howlin Wolf’s 1969 release, which read ‘This is Howlin Wolf’s new album….’. This album established them as underdog rockers with growl and attitude and, despite having their feet firmly in blues rock, it won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2011. Although during 2011, something else was ready to fuel their fiery career. 

‘El Camino’, which ironically has a Plymouth mini-van on the front, dropped like a bomb in 2011 and secured their status as blues rock heavyweights. The album was written all during recording, so the songs are often short, with apparently the structure of each being the hardest part to decide on. The songs on the album are noticeably more to the point, faster and pull no punches when delivering catchy hooks. Well, apart from ‘Little black Submarines’ which kind of channels ‘Stairway’ vibes. This was an artistic decision as apparently the duo found it hard to maintain energy and do some of the slow burners off ‘Brothers’ justice in a live setting. Once again, another lesson to be learnt, always plan ahead as to how it will sound live. Adding a string section in the studio? Nice, but now try replicating that live with your power trio, you’ll probably need to alter the instrumentation and edit sections to compensate. 

In 2014 The Black Keys released ‘Turn Blue’, which although not as commercially successful as ‘El Camino’ garnered very positive critic reviews and was said to have marked a mature turning point in their career. According to the duo, parts of the writing and recording process were incredibly hard with most of the lyrics inspired by Auerbach’s then ongoing divorce and the two disagreeing on whether to pursue radio friendly straight forward hits or take a new melancholic, 70s inspired direction. In the end, the album is a lot more downtempo in comparison to El Camino and features some luscious instrumentation. 

To discuss how we can learn from the smart, sharp snarling guitar of Auerbach, we’ll have a look at one track from each of their most successful albums, covering the different ideas which go into such tight blues/garage rock hits. 

Tighten Up 

Maybe a surprise pick considering ‘Howlin for you’ resides on ‘brothers’, but ‘Tighten up’ is a great blend of how the Black keys kept a current rock sound mixed with the perfect blend of nostalgic soul and blues influences. The song is a built around a simple chord progression in F# minor, starting on the 1=F#m, then to the 3rd=AM, to the 4th=Bm and finally to a C#7 to pull us back home to the root chord. Due to how the chords are played, as upstroke stabs, a higher registered voicing works better, cutting through and helping them stand out. I just used the d to e strings and missed out root notes leaving that for the bass. Watching Auerbach live he commonly does the same, keeping all of the shapes between the 7th and 11th frets, using what looks like a simple barre on the 9th fret then 7th for the AM and Bm respectively, just watch out for the B note on the 9th fret as that will alter the sound of the AM to a add 2 sound. The other guitar parts in the track are single note lines built from F# minor pentatonic, being either descending pattern based lines down the scale or a repeated phrase built from the same notes, relying on a thick guitar tone to keep momentum. These simple yet catchy minor pentatonic riffs are an integral part of the Black keys sound and are easy to play/take inspiration from. The accessible nature of the parts is a reason why garage/blues rock is such a popular genre to play, with the riffs catchy and fun to play, being easy for fans to chant along to at a gig.  

To create your own Black keys style riffs you’ll need the minor blues scale shapes, a thick fuzzy yet not overly distorted tone and strong melodies. The minor blues scale is just the pentatonic with the flat 5th added and perhaps the major third, but only used to play the ‘blues curl’ and add tension.  When constructing chord progressions, once again, not many Black keys songs use more than four chords and mainly use straight forward minor/major/dominant harmony without many extensions or substitutions. The songs often utilise a 1-4-5 and show that there are endless possibilities with just a few chords and great song writing. The Black keys draw heavily from the classics, with artists like Credence, Zeppelin, Free and Freddie King being noted as big influences, so they might be worth a listen to get more into Auerbach’s head. 

Gold on the Ceiling  

Arguably the biggest hit from the Black keys entire back catalogue, ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ is really just a ‘best of’ compilation of all the magic ingredients which make them such a catchy riff laden powerhouse of a dynamic duo. The song is in the key of G minor and starts with a very Credence/Cropper intro phrase using power chord or 5th chord shapes descending down to launch into the riff. The song is very hook based, relying mainly on the swagger and strut delivered by a punchy riff to back up the vocals during the verses and the choruses, switching between single notes and power chords. The song has a few catchy solo breaks, where Auerbach uses a very ‘are you gonna go my way?’ style G string bend up in the 15th fret G pentatonic shape. Once again, very simple yet effective note choices. The solos are used when coming out of the choruses, a fairly common place for catchy solo parts in instrument-based pop tracks - think ‘Fire’ by Kasabian or even ‘Adore you’ by Harry Styles, a structure choice that we could play with when writing our own songs. Using a hooky solo part in such a way not only takes the overt, sometimes ill-placed full on solo out of the equation whilst keeping a focus on instrumentation, it allows for the momentum of the chorus to carry on, giving the crowd something to sing along with. The other main hook in the song is the fuzzy synth/guitar part which again uses a catchy G minor phrase to great effect being repeated throughout the song, sometimes under the vocals, so as to remain a recurring theme. 

Weight of Love 

The opening song from the duos third, most adventurous album, ‘Weight of Love’ channels Floyd and 70s psychedelic rock influences to make one of the bands most interesting tracks to date. The song follows a similar structure to ‘Gold on the Ceiling’ in an odd way, going; intro, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, solo, outro, so minus the double chorus at the end, shares the verse, chorus, solo break pattern. The song is in G major/E minor with an ambiguous Asus2/Major voicing played under the instrumentals. The intro and breaks are very trippy, spacey sounding with a big lead sound that was inspired by Neil Young, live Auerbach recreates this using old Reverb tanks and slap back delays. The acoustic rhythm is a great example of how simple shapes and open strings can be used to create a big sounding part that fills a lot of space sonically. The verses use classic chord shapes, Asus2, G, D, C with sparse strums and added tremolo. The lead in of bass and drums to the verses is particularly cool giving space that builds into the big crashing wash of the first chord. The chorus sections I played as power or 5th chord shapes and went E, D, A, G then E, D, C, B giving the second round more edge with the semitone movement between the C and the B. The choruses give way to the lead breaks, where Auerbach uses a mix of B minor and E minor pentatonic shapes heavily utilising the area between the 7th and 10th frets to resolve or incorporate a lot of the A note on the 10th fret and the D on the 7th fret. These notes work well because of the rhythm playing the Asus which uses a D hammer on from the major 3rd at points.  

Things to think about from this song would be the use of non-diatonic chords, or merely making them sus to sneak them into key. Also the use of seemingly ‘simple’ chords in the verse to make a washy thick foundation for the vocal lines. The tones used in the lead breaks are really gorgeous, with a live set at Austin City Limits being an example of this. The big delay, reverb sound can also be heard on the soloing of Andy Timmons who famously brings his delay in with an expression pedal, a great idea for sculpting your lead tone. Also in this live performance, the Rhodes sounds and the bass tone are also phenomenal, with the keys part after the first verse sounding incredibly cool.  

Tones and Takeaways 

The Black Keys are a tour de force of song writing talent, showing how catchy and fun to play parts work with well written songs and how fuzz fried guitars can still feature on radio friendly hits. Dan Auerbach’s vocabulary is drawn from all of the great blues and garage rock bands, containing elements reminiscent of the Kinks, Zeppelin and (in an interesting way) Weezer. Some ideas present in Black Keys songs which we could use would be those concerning structure, song writing, catchy, sing-able guitar parts and how the minor blues scale can be used to create everything from crushing riffs to emotive solos.  

Recommended listening would definitely be the bands big three mid-career albums, each of them has a unique flavour of the same refined, hooky, garage rock juice. The band’s first album ‘The Big Come Up’ is also a real treat with exceptionally raw production, it features almost distorted vocals and a guitar which sounds straight from an RL Burnside album. The overall vibe and sound of the album is far from the radio hits or the slick production on ‘The Weight of Love’ for example, but it’s one for the real blues fans who enjoy Auerbach’s snarl and gritty guitar tones.  

Let’s look at the gear Auerbach uses during live shows and to get some of those classic tones. The Black Keys are known for their great guitar tones and Auerbach is often regarded as a guitarist’s guitarist. He knows what sounds good and what gear works, whether it’s when he’s producing for the likes of Lana Del Rey or dialling in a great guitar tone, having a signature vintage inspired touch which he brings to any project. 

Guitars; 

  1. Harmony H78 – Produced between 1965 and 1972, Auerbach acquired his Harmony from a guitar shop employee in the mid 2000s. The guitar is entirely hollow like an ES-330, fitted with gold foil DeArmond pickups and is mostly original aside from some inside electronics. Auerbach primarily uses the bridge pickup, whose tone has featured on some of the albums. Due to the sheer number of guitars Auerbach owns, a fair few get used on each song, let alone each album. Auerbach’s use of Harmony guitars, plus the revival in popularity of gold foil pickups in general, Harmonys have enjoyed a big increase in value over the last ten or so years. These days a used Harmony semi hollow will set you back anywhere between £800-£1.5, I say any used Harmony semi hollow because with the demand for the ‘Black Keys model’ so high, they sell so quickly. With this in mind, most hollow body, gold foil equipped Harmonys will get you in the sonic ball park and that cool vintage aesthetic. Looking at cheaper alternatives, a budget semi hollow body with a gold foil will do the job, so Epiphone, Ibanez or Grestch all do semi hollows under £400 and mojo pickups do gold foils for around £100 each. Another alternative would be an old Kay or Maestro, who both have used models currently selling between £300-600. 
  1. The ‘Glenn Schwartz’ Guitar – This is an incredibly custom guitar basically hand built by Glenn Schwartz of the bands the James Gang and All Saved Freak Band. The instrument has a single pickup and an extra 4 strings added across on of the F holes, and despite watching through a few live performances I have no idea what they sounded like or whether they were just cosmetic. Glenn passed away in 2018 and now the guitar goes with Auerbach on tour and gets used on different songs each set. To get anything close to this instrument aim for a semi hollow body with a mini humbucker, the central, angled position of the pickup is hard to replicate, a three pickup in middle position is the best bet.  
  1. Pre-law suit guitars – Auerbach currently tours with an Ibanez pre-Gibson law suit SG custom with a maestro and three pickups and an unbranded Les Paul with retro fitted filtertrons, a bigsby from Neil Young and new tuners. Law suit guitars vary in quality with year of production and the price reflects this, with some brands and years being worth a few hundred and others even a few thousand. A trawl through the second hand market will definitely get you something good, with brands like Tokai and Aria being great brands to look for. 

As mentioned before, Auerbach has a lot of guitars and is quite the collector. This list is based off of his current live selection, with other notable inclusions being the Guild Thunderbird, a ’59 Gibson Les Paul and a range of Supro guitars. Auerbach seems to favour the quirky offset styles of guitar, generally vintage, with older voiced pickups or gold foils. Probably the best takeaway from Dan’s guitars is to always go with what you think looks and sounds the best over what is trendy or the most expensive, however cliché it may sound. Also don’t be afraid to customise your instrument, if it’s a work horse that you don’t intend to sell than why not try different pickups or whack a trem on it? If you don’t like it you can just remove it and the screw holes and dings just add character. 

Amps;  

  1. Fender Quad Reverbs, which are used as cabs for a Fender Bandmaster – Auerbach used to use a Marshall Head to power the cabs, in conjunction with a Fender Twin or Quad reverb, but in his more recent rigs has switched the Marshalls for Bandmasters due to the tube vs solid state rectifiers. Auerbach now prefers the tube rectifier sound due to the softer sound and although the Quad reverbs have their own amps, they are bypassed in favour of the Bandmaster. These days a Quad reverb will set you back £700 to 1.1k and a Bandmaster Amp head will cost £600 to 2k dependent on age and condition. Looking at alternatives, a Fender Vibrolux combo will be the closest at the thousand pound mark, whilst a Blues Deluxe will get you close for £800 to 1k. The session player uses a Super Reverb, so that could be an option. 

(Auerbach’s amp set up is incredibly complex considering it’s only for one guitar so we will miss the various attenuators, pre-amps and extra reverb tanks which help power Dan’s Tone-Henge and mainly focus on the amps themselves) 

  1. Danelectro Challenger – The current gigging rig uses two of these, one ran into two Marshall cabs and one dry into the desk. Ridiculously rare amps that use 4 6L6 tubes and rarely show up for sale, made in the late forties through the early fifties they currently cost around £300-600 used as the quoted market price, but the last one I could find sold for £900. For alternatives, most vintage Valco or Danelectro amps can get you in the area for anywhere between £300-800, so although not cheaper, they are definitely easier to find. 

Pedals; 

  1. Fuzz pedals – Auerbach uses three main fuzz pedals with others coming and going so we’ll discuss the main three in one entry. The Shin-ei FY-2 Companion is definitely the most interesting fuzz on the list, with his model not having any controls it’s ran through an EQ pedal to give more control over the signal, mainly boosting the mids which it naturally cuts and adjusting the overall level. Another pedal made by the same Shin-ei company is the rosac fuzz wah, which Auerbach only really uses for the fuzz which is treated as more of a different flavour of ‘big muff’ style fuzz. The last of the three main fuzz pedals Dan tours with is an electro harmonix sovtek ‘Green Russian’ big muff, although he has been seen with a black Russian era big muff and countless other varieties. To get any of these exact pedals is going to require time and money, all discontinued and all rare the Big Muff alone sells for around £350 these days. So in terms of alternatives, electro harmonix still make the big muff in countless flavours, most have probably crossed Auerbach’s board so definitely try a few and find the one that speaks to you. His session guitarist, the player from Buffalo Killers uses an MXR CSP038 Custom Shop Brown Acid which was a gift from Dan when they started touring, these normally retail for around £150 but currently at some places they are on sale for around £120, so definitely worth checking out. 
  1. Boss Phaser, Delay, Tremolo, Tuner and Octave – Although only alluded to in a rig rundown video when the guitar tech discusses Dan’s signal purity, these may have been made true bypass but are otherwise stock, still in production pedals. New models can be found for around £80, with the octave being dearer at £120. Used you could probably get all three for just over £200. 
  1. Cry-baby Wah – needs no introduction and can still be bought new in a variety of flavours, look to spend around £80-180. 

Auerbach is as much a pedal fiend as he is a guitar and amp enthusiast so many different brands and models see their way on to his board. He has used Catalinbread belle epochs, Strymon El Capistans and a range of Earthquaker pedals so it’s really a case of reading interviews he gives, looking for vintage replica style pedals (like the belle epoch) and finding which works for you. Remember that versatility matters when we don’t all have the Black keys style budget or connections so always think about how much usage you’ll get out of a pedal before parting with serious money, as I don’t know about you but I have a few ‘used for one band or gig’ pedals that I probably put too much money into that I can’t resell for anywhere close.  

To find out more, check out our courses here.

by Will Francis
Performing initially around central Essex in quiet, rain-soaked jazz dives, Will now resides in the windy-indie city of Brighton, finding his place in the growing RnB and Soul scene. Having played guitar, bass and synth for numerous acts over the years, in numerous venues and at a variety of festivals, he is an experienced session player, composer and guitar/theory educator.
View all posts by Will Francis

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