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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.

It’s a smoky, wet paved night in the windy city of Chicago. November 21st 1964 could’ve been any other night in the impoverished area, but down at the Regal Theatre something special was taking place. BB King was playing to an energetic, vibrant crowd made up of enthusiastic youngsters who were revelling in the new blues boom. As the curtains lift, the audience screams as he walks onto the stage and the sound crew starts recording what will be remembered as one of the best live albums ever made and one which will influence every blues player to follow it.  

The King of Blues failed to hit a bad note, his playing was the definition of touch and class with a buttery tone which is instantly recognisable. BB’s ability to phrase and use vibrato was like no other, and his influence can be found in all genres, in players of all instruments. So let’s look at what we can learn from such a towering guitar titan and how his playing can shape our own.  

How Riley became BB 

On September 16th 1925, near the tiny village of Itta Bena, the greatest bluesman to pick up a guitar, Riley B King, was born. Nestled deep in the swamps and mangroves, scored by the sounds of crickets and birds, Itta Bena was isolated and devoid of work or opportunity. For more stable income, when he was around 5, Riley’s mother moved the pair to be nearer her family on a farm still in the Mississippi, where he picked cotton, corn and milked cows. It was here that King would have his first encounter with the blues. 

The owner of the farm was, according to King, fair by farm owner standards - allowing lively church services and gatherings with music to take place. One of King’s family friends was the preacher, Reverend Fair, who taught Riley his first chords and got him singing at services. This along with his aunt’s gramophone, which played Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, was Riley’s introduction to music, especially early blues, and would lay the foundations for his life’s work. 

Riley had a tumultuous early life, losing his mother and grandmother at a young age, he lived for a while alone in a cabin amongst the trees whilst still working the cotton fields. Later he became a tractor driver, partook in military enrolment (but never served) and even got married. At around twenty-three he moved to Memphis and got his first gigs down the famous Beale St. This led to working on the radio and attaining his legendary nickname, ‘The Beale St Blues boy’ which later became ‘Blues boy’ and finally ‘BB’.  

The Thrill is Gone  

One of the songs which took this author and probably countless other players from learning the odd Peter Green or John Lee Hooker line deeper into the blues and opening the door to more sophisticated turn arounds was ‘The Thrill is Gone’. The track could possibly be the definition of the blues. Originally written in 1951 by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell, BB King’s cover was released in 1969 where it charted number 3 and number 15 on the Billboard RnB and pop charts respectively. The lyrics tell a story of a person wronged by a partner and taking the consequence of being lonely to escape the relationship.  

The song is built around a 12 bar blues in B minor, using the root chord of Bm7, the 4th chord Em7 and the 5th chord, which although normally is a F#m, in this context is an F#7. This is a common substitution, as the dominant 5th contains the major 7th of the root (in this context a F#7 contains F#, A#, C# and E, the A# being the major 7th of B), creating more tension to pull back to the 1 chord. Another deviation to the 12 bar format which makes it sound more melancholic comes in the turn around, where a GMajor7 is played for a bar before descending through a bar of F#7sus4 to F#7, to then pull back to the Bm7. The GM7 doesn’t muddle things for soloists, sharing the notes B, D and F# with the B minor pentatonic scale, it allows for the same lines used over Bm7 and Em7 to work perfectly over it. Another way to simplify viewing this is to play a standard Bm chord and then just play a G in the bass, it’s a GM7! By adding the GM7 it adds a natural minor (Aeolian) flavour to the progression, just with a substituted dominant fifth.   

We can steal interesting ideas from just the chord progression, including dominant substitutions and the way chords can give a song a modal theme. The flat 6th down to 5th to root chord movement is very common and a great way of adding emotion and the feeling of a descending ‘happy, tension, sad’ resolution. Playing around with modal flavours can also open up a lot of song writing doors, from obvious examples like Metallica’s ‘Wherever I May Toam’ which is very Phrygian to the more subtle Brain Adams ‘Run to You’ which uses Dorian.  

In 1988 when BB played and toured with U2, he is infamously quoted as saying, during the recording of a feature track, that he didn’t play chords and someone else would need to play them. Although as proven in lessons BB gave later in life and just the content of his phrases played in ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, it was obviously a matter of choice as he definitely knows his chords. Over the track, BB gives a masterclass in blues phrasing and how the guitar can sing. Over a minor blues like ‘Thrill is Gone’, BB King is at home in his normal fretboard position, the bottom half of the second position of minor pentatonic.

This position contains the D minor shape from the CAGED pattern with the root on the B string, having the triad itself laid out on the thinner strings really works for BB who is famous for his big bends and unique vibrato. The song itself starts with a rake into the root note on the B and then a descending line from the third on the E string to the root on the D string, a perfect demonstration of the box shape in use. BB King’s soloing style is all about articulation; he could make 4 notes sing and tell more stories than most could make a whole scale. His vibrato is fast and energetic, achieved from pivoting between the neck and just after the knuckle of his first finger, in almost a circular motion. His bending technique is similar, where the strength in his first finger shows, often utilising the ‘blues curl’ lifting the minor 3rd up to the major 3rd, a move commonly found over a minor blues.  

BB King’s soloing goes up a notch during ‘The Thrill is Gone’ when the turnaround approaches where his clever note choices let the chords do the work, perfectly demonstrated during his Montreux performance. When the GM7 and F# come around you can often hear him articulately pick out notes from the related major 7 and dominant 7 arpeggios and he sometimes uses chromatics to fill in the gaps. This technique is great when tackling a backing track which perhaps uses non-diatonic chords, just remember or listen for when the chords arrive and treat them as their own entity until you can follow it back into key, a very similar idea underpins the basics of bebop soloing and so gives a slightly jazz sound to your phrases.  

Sweet Little Angel 

‘Sweet Little Angel’ is a great track off of BB King’s second album ‘The Blues’ which was released in 1958 and, like the rest of the album, is more of a straight-ahead typical blues. The album, being obviously one of his earlier recordings and on a lower budget, is a lot rawer production wise, especially when compared to his ’69 album ‘Completely Well’ which featured the track discussed above. ‘Sweet Little Angel’ is built around a very standard 12 bar blues in C#. Using only dominant chords, it’s a quintessential 1-4-5 blues making it a perfect track to practice and learn dominant blues soloing.

There is an exceptional live version on YouTube with an extended intro where BB really shows what he can do and how the ‘BB Box’ can be fully utilised. The BB box can be used over any major or dominant blues and is considered to be the area on the B and E strings around the root note. Just imagine a D shape major triad with the major pentatonic laid out a few frets ahead. I personally think of the area as the bottom half of an Ionian shape, so in this case to get it in C# mixolydian, I would just picture F# major from the G to E strings, resolving lines on chord tones. In the intro of the live version, you can also hear BB outlining chord changes and using some chromaticism, definitely a product of Django Reinhardt’s influence who apparently, he discovered when he moved to Memphis. We can borrow the BB box to help us create simple yet emotive phrases for tackling soloing over a dominant chord progression, mixed in with skilful, nuanced bends and occasional ‘join the dot’ chromatics and we have some solid tools to put to use.  

Tones and Takeaways 

An important takeaway from the King’s playing style is to think more like a saxophonist or a vocalist, not being afraid of space and getting every last emotive drop from a sustained note or buttery bend. BB King’s playing epitomises simple done well, his playing doesn’t contain sweep picked passages or long extensive bebop lines and it doesn’t need to. Even in the first few bars of ‘Thrill is Gone’ BB uses a vast dynamic range, he played his phrases like spoken ones, knowing which notes to emphasize and dig in on and which to leave softly spoken.

BB also reminds us to practice vibrato, it’s something we use all the time and adds character and nuance to notes. One of the best ways to practice it is by simply listening to players who you wish to emulate and then listening to recordings of yourself - what can you change to get that sound that is in your head? BB once famously said that he knows what he sounds like and he knows what he wants to sound like, but the two have never aligned and if they did he’d have nothing left to chase.  

BB King has pretty much a spotless discography in terms of recommended further listening. Live at the Regal is an amazing live album and a masterclass in how to play a crowd, a skill which BB mastered with his confidence, talent and charisma. As noted by Joe Bonamassa, BB could get a standing ovation by just walking on the stage. The King appeared countless times on stages with other blues legends like Buddy Guy and Robert Cray and are all easily found on YouTube, each showing how guitarists can converse on stage without it being a competition. There is a very special concert where he joins Gary Moore on stage for a version of 'Thrill is Gone' which is simply a masterclass in trading tasteful and melodic lines, and one could spend a whole afternoon stealing ideas from it. 

In terms of tone, he had one of the most recognisable sounds out there and by using minimal equipment, here is a list of the gear he used with alternatives. 

Guitars: 

Talking about that classic BB sound in general, most warm tones, out-of-phase or not, will get you close. The varitone was the inspiration behind Peter Green and Gary Moore rewiring their Les Paul pickups with one placed back to front, but in his later life BB King admitted he didn’t bother much with it anymore. When working out his lines and style for this article, I used a Gibson Firebird with two 60s style pickups set in the middle or neck positions, with the tone rolled off a little and I was surprised by how close I could get. 

Amps: 

Pedals: 

To find out more, check out our courses here.

The year is 1984, you watch Dynasty then head to the cinema. There, the glorious sound of one of the greatest guitar solos of all time fills your ear, how does he do it? How can I learn from this? How can I play like Prince? 

Well you don’t need to ‘go crazy’, do a montage to ‘When Doves Cry’ or even have a puppet monkey reinforcing that “life is a b**ch” to emulate the Purple one.  The legendary performer, actor and creative powerhouse that was Prince had mastered twenty seven instruments and released his debut album at the tender age of twenty. Truly in a class of his own, his career spanned from 1978 to his death in 2016.

The Style

His musicality was unmatched, influenced heavily by funk and disco, as evident in his first records, his music grew over the years to incorporate hip hop, rock, punk and jazz elements. Along with the eclectic and intense nature of the music, the lyrics often dealt with themes of sexuality, desire, troubled relationships and social issues. As described by a biographer, “The whole thrust of Prince’s art can be understood in terms of a desire to escape the social identities thrust upon him by simple virtue of his being small, black and male.”  

To bring us back to topic, the same intensity and conviction can be heard in every note he struck. Playing since the age of 7, he was a very accomplished guitarist in all areas of technique, theory and feel. He taught himself at first, the batman theme being the first tune he worked out (ironically a franchise he would later work on thanks to Tim Burton - check out the track Electric Chair for a funk rock fret-ripping rollercoaster), he later got lessons from a local gigging guitarist. His understanding of music and immense talent can be heard in all his recordings and live performances, some we’ll have a look at here and see what we can glean from the mercurial genius of Prince. 

Purple Rain 

Let’s start with arguably his most famous ballad, although one that ironically he probably plays least on and which isn’t funk. The track has a near legendary intro, which along with all the rhythm parts is played on the recording by The Revolutions Wendy Melvoin. The chords are fairly simple, a I-VI-V-IV progression with some colourful extensions, Bb(add9)/D to a Gmin11 to a F(add9) and a Eb(add9).

Although these chords can present a challenge at first with big stretches and fast shifts required, especially to articulately fret the Eb in its full root A string voicing. Once nailed, there is nothing to fear as the verses and the chorus share the same chords just in a different order. Like in much of Princes playing, the progression and number of chords is rather tame and commercially viable, it’s the colourful extensions that add the melancholy and emotion, and is an idea worth stealing when writing your own progressions.  

The Solo

The fills and solo on the track are delivered with conviction and passion, epitomising Prince’s lead playing. The solo takes place in Bb major, same as the rest of the song, so G minor pentatonic is a good place to start. The solo starts with a loose and wild double stop idea using a C and an F which comes in where the break occurs in the chorus, juxtaposing the silence or usual BV delivery of the song’s title.

The rest of the solo is largely improvised changing from performance to performance, some melodic devices stay the same though, like the famous melody at around 5:40 (in the official music video) which uses the 1st, 7th and 2nd of Bb, reminiscent of the Jurassic park theme. Using motifs like this in your playing is a great way to add coherence to solos, create something people can sing along with and add more emphasis when you do decide to add a faster passage. The note choice of the motif also helps, the 7th and 2nd are very emotional notes, especially when put over the chord progression, which uses Bb(add9). The same notes are used in the faster passages of the solo when Prince employs the root 15th fret shape of G natural minor, for rapid repeating licks and runs, it creates a sophisticated descending sound, like falling rain, purple rain.  

A great live recording, the first actual recording of the song, can be found here, it shows what Melvoin plays and Prince playing ideas that would help form the recorded version. 

Kiss and Lady Cab Driver 

To keep this article from becoming a novel, we’ll discuss Prince’s funk mastery by just looking at these two tracks and see what we can add to our groove arsenal.  

One of the Purple ones most recognisable tracks and probably the most famous use of an Adom9, ‘Kiss’ is a masterclass in funk minimalism, showing that a tight drum groove and attitude can go a long way. The song uses the I, IV, V chords of the key of A, using dominant voicings throughout and pausing in the choruses to emphasise that A dominant 9 chord. There is slight variation with the bridge where the song moves to a 14th fret E9. The track would change regularly live, so it’s a great piece to learn and practice your funk rhythm. The chords are simple and the feel makes it, try playing the rhythm part with ‘chickas’ or without and see what sounds better.  

Almost an evolution of these tight funk ideas is ‘Lady Cab Driver’, the song is mainly one repetitive groove around B minor 7 and E minor 7. The song has plenty of space for improvisation and includes a simple yet pretty melodic idea that uses E min pentatonic with the added 2nd, reminiscent of some of the melodies in ‘Purple Rain’. The rhythm parts are very Nile Rodgers, cleanly executed with deftly placed ‘chickas’. Here is a great live version. 

Tone and Takeaways 

So what can you learn from Prince and use in your own playing? The biggest takeaway would be the value of a part. He was a master composer who understood every instrument and his guitar parts were always placed with purpose, he rarely or never overplayed. His rhythm parts utilised space and his lead playing balanced melody and flair. And remember, the bigger the venue, the less notes you need. A slightly out of tune unison bend played like Prince is worth a thousand notes. 

Other tracks to listen to for more inspiration would be ‘Raspberry Beret’ for the funk intro, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ for the two guitar solos and an exceptional live performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, linked here.   

In terms of tone, here is the equipment the man himself used, with alternatives. 

Guitars:  

  1. Hohner Madcat telecaster – A Japanese designed telecaster released in the 70s, its alternative bridge design meant the pickup was closer to the bridge itself, and it allowed a certain ‘honk’ that Prince thought was perfect for funk. Discontinued these days, used examples sell for anywhere between the 1.2 and 2 thousand mark, although for us mere mortals, any telecaster will get us in the ball park. Check out the squire classic vibe series for serious value for money, now all you need is a leopard print pickguard… 
  1. David Rusan Cloud Guitar and Jerry Auerswald Symbol guitar – These instruments were custom pieces and were normally saved for music videos, movies or huge shows like the Grammys. Prince seems to have favoured the Hohner for most live events, possibly due to the versatility it offered when compared to the EMGs of the Cloud guitar. Master built replicas exist for mortgage rivalling prices and cheaper replicas can be bought at around the £500 area. Although for distinctive looks or tone, many companies make offset style guitars, and they can always be fitted with EMGs. 

Amplifiers 

  1. Soldano SLO 100 – Used in his early career, they were very popular in the 70s. With a clean and a gain channel they offer great versatility. These are still being produced today for around three and a half thousand. Alternatives would be most valve amps with 6L6 tubes and two channels, alternatives are offered by the likes of Blackstar and Orange for £600+. 
  1. Mesa Boogie Lone star – One of the most famous amps in history, being used by the likes of Andy Timmons, Dave Grohl and Two Door Cinema Club, it’s truly capable of most styles and has a creamy compression when pushed. Prince used these with 3rdeyegirl, and the amps can be found online for 1.5 to 2 thousand, worth every penny. 

Pedals 

  1. Prince was a classic Boss pedal man through and through, using them for all his vibrato, distortion, flanger and driving needs. Seeing as these are all still being produced, unless you’re looking for vintage, they can be bought at most stores. 
  1. Dunlop Cry baby – The only wah pedal you need. Still readily available with an array of flavours to choose from. 
  1. Octave pedal – Prince used a Digitech Whammy and various line six multi effects through his career. An electro harmonix POG is a modern way to nail the intro tones on ‘When Doves Cry.’ 

To find out more, check out our courses here.

Hank Marvin is marvellous. I remember in my early days of guitar wonderment being obsessed with Buddy Holly. My parents got me a tape of ‘Hank Plays Holly’ which featured instrumental, guitar lead versions of Buddy Holly’s most favoured tracks. My parents didn’t dig it, but for me it provided a spark that started a flame which is still burning now in my playing.

Hank is a famous British guitarist who became incredibly popular in the early 60s with his group ‘The Shadows’; they would play guitar centric instrumental music and back up Cliff Richard. It was around this time that Fender produced the Stratocaster, a guitar with 3 single coil pickups, a ‘tremolo bar’ (a whammy bar in today’s language) with awesome paint jobs. The guitar was often described as a futuristic spaceship compared to other electric instruments of the time.

The Gear

Hank loved using Strats, he loved using the whammy bar. His phrasing is so crisp and articulate, and a lot of it is down to his musicianship and fingers, but it’s safe to say the Strat enabled him to create a sound that had never before been explored and still remains instantly recognisable today.

The tone Mr Marvin uses is clean, very clean. He’s known for using Vox AC15 and AC30 amps – a British clean(ish!) amp with a unique mid-range compared to the American amps Fender made which were more scooped and a little more clinical. Often this clean tone was embellished with a lush reverb and various echo effects. Hank liked tape echo style delays; this gave him a classic slap back sound. Often the reverb, or another longer delay, would be used on top of this core tone to create more space and sustain for the clean melodic single note lines he was playing. Reverb is like ‘gain’ for a clean sound, it gives the note a ‘memory’.

So, the setup is quite simple… get a Strat style guitar with a nice whammy bar/trem. Single coils will get you the right character. Nice clean amp and a simple reverb (spring will work nicely) and tape echo. There are tonnes of both cheap and expensive options available for these bits of gear, you can’t go to wrong. The most important thing to work on is the delivery. Let’s look at the key elements of Hank’s style.

The Technique

Hank knows the fretboard. Often his melodies are based around triads fitting around each chord. Good knowledge of the CAGED system and how the Pentatonic & Major scale lay out within it will help. He very rarely bends more than a half step, but when he does, it’s very in tune and accurate. Vibrato is almost always articulated with the whammy bar or very subtlety with the fretting hand. He’s a master of the bar. Adding subtle and extreme effects to the pitch, often mimicking a pedal steel player or slide guitar, gives his melodies a much more vocal like phrasing. His attention to detail in phrasing is immense, every note gets attention. Check out his cover of the Beatles ‘Michelle’ on his 2017 album ‘Without a Word’. Not too much, not too little. It’s a beautiful and haunting sound.

His pick attack is also very dynamic and subtle. It sounds like he’s picking with the pick tip at a fairly parallel angle to the string, this gives a thicker and more blunt attack. It’s also possible he uses classic picks and fairly heavy strings. Mixing this with a sensitive touch gives the notes a nice bloom. It also often sounds like he’s using the bridge pickup on the Strat for his single note leads, he may also be playing with the tone control on the guitar to get rid of some of the ‘shrill’ top end that the bridge pickup can add. But it’s equally possible he’s EQing from the amp end and most likely mic placement is a big part of the mix, creating warmth and clarity in his more modern tones.

One more thing…

One more thing to add, it’s noticeable at points that Hank is also really handy with the volume control, subtlety controlling the attack of each note with the volume. This may be done with a volume pedal or with the volume control on the guitar itself. It’s likely that he originally did it with the volume on the guitar. This became one of the many selling points of the Fender Strat when it first came out, the volume control is quite close to where the picking hand little finger might be hanging out. Making it easy to reach for volume swells and picking switching.

So there we have it, in a nutshell. A quick how to guide on the amazing Hank Marvin and how to get his sound with gear, technique, and theory.  Hank certainly put the Strat on the map and is a master musician. I’m off to buy a jacket, some wayfarer glasses and a fiesta red Strat, see ya later!

To find out more, check out our courses here.

Carlos Santana perhaps needs no introduction. He has been one of the main public faces of guitar herodom for many years. His unique style mixes blues, rock and Latin elements of music in a way that hadn’t been heard before.

The Gear

First of all, let’s take a look at what he uses in the guitar and amp department. He is known for playing PRS guitars - he has his own signature model guitars with PRS which is based on a Les Paul style design. He appeared at Woodstock in 1969 equipped with a Les Paul and two P90 pickup and his current signature PRS guitar features two Humbucking pickups.

The Les Paul/PRS sound itself is a lot thicker and warmer than a Strat or Tele sound which is, of course, a key element of Santana’s core tone. He was also known for using Mesa Boogie amps, however he has also plugged into multiple amps such as Dumble and Bluetone. His association with Mesa Boogie really put the Amp company on the map, even putting the ‘Boogie’ in Mesa Boogie - legend says he tried a Mesa amp and said “this thing really boogies” and the name stuck. The Mesa Boogie Mark 1 is mixed with a Dumble ‘Overdrive Reverb’ amp to get his core tone.

Don’t worry, we don’t have to break the bank to get a similar sound to Santana. What we need to ‘emulate’ his tone is a humbucking guitar, something with a thickish neck, and an amp with a nice amount of gain/sustain, but not a metal type sustain. This can be done by focusing on using the amps drive channel alone if you have a Fender Blues Junior or something along those lines. You could also use a Fuzz Pedal on a medium setting to get a similar vibe. A tiny bit of hall reverb and you should be there. Rolling the tone control back on the bridge pickup should help warm up the sound. The rest is in the hands and the music.

Technique

Articulation is everything. In his best moments, Santana sounds like he is singing through the guitar. So, focus on developing dynamic control of the left and right hand through pick attack, fretting hand hammer ons and pull offs. My advice is to learn his lines, play along to his solos and really lock in with the timing and dynamics of his phrasing, this will teach you more about how to ‘sound like’ Santana than buying any pedal or learning licks from TAB would do.

Santana is great with ‘embellishing’ phrases. Another aspect of his phrasing within Minor Pentatonic is that he’ll use notes from the mode around it to add details. Often, he’ll articulate these with quick trills and hammer ons. Bending within the diatonic scale is something else which gives his sound some distinction for the time. Mixing these diatonic melodies with pentatonic blues licks. Sequences are also important, being able to move up and down diatonic scales following a melodic pattern of 3 or 4 notes. This creates a cascading effect which again offsets the bluesy phrases.

Harmony and Vocabulary

His vocabulary on the guitar is based in blues and Latin styles of music. Blues, of course, uses a lot of Minor Pentatonic & Blues Scales. So understanding how to navigate this pattern will help when picking up some Santana phrases. He often adds the 9th to the Minor Pentatonic which is a way of expanding that tonal pallet. However he goes further with diatonic scales, in particular Dorian, which is the second mode of the Major scale. This scale is basically a pentatonic (1, b3, 4, 5, b7) with an added 2nd/9th & 6th/13th.

A lot of his songs follow this mode and the chords that come with it (for example Am7 to D7 which is an ii to V movement in G Major). This scale is used in many different styles of music, but is perhaps most ‘obvious’ to the listener in this Latin blues rock style. Santana will also use the Natural Minor Scale (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) - Black Magic Woman is a good example of this with the chordal movement of vi to ii (for example Dm to Gm). Often songs will also include an interchange of modes moving between different tonalities based on these basic sounds.

One Final Point

It’s important to use space! Leaving space between phrases, developing themes, repeating patterns using the scale approaches from the last paragraph. When you want to add some heat, you speed up a little or simply play phrases closer together. Again, focusing on the singing aspect of phrasing will help you improve in the right ball park.

I can’t stress enough, however, the importance of learning licks by ear from your favourite artists to get a deeper understanding of their phrasing. Not only will you learn some cool licks, you’ll pick up the rhythmic and melodic habits of the player. The information won’t just enter your fingers, it’ll enter your melodic tool box in your brain! So endeavour to learn by ear, slowly, bit by bit, aand try and understand the core elements. Before you know it, you’ll be able to emulate your favourite players convincingly.

Good luck!

To find out more, check out our courses here.

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