The Black Keys: Blues with a Twist
The Black Keys have come from recording entire albums in single sessions and crossing the States in their “Gray Ghost" van to reaching main stream success with their past couple of albums.
The band's debut album The Big Come Up from 2002 set a precedent in the band's recording process, with the duo doing all recording in drummer Pat Carney’s basement. While not a straight up blues outfit, The Black Keys do have their roots in the blues, particularly paying homage to southern blues masters like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. But what initially set the band apart from just regular I-IV-V progression blues is guitarist Dan Auerbach and Carney’s unique approach to music.
Playing in a band consisting solely of drums and guitar requires an especially keen sense of musicality in order to be able to convey just what you want the listener to hear. As a musician you have to work very hard at getting your point across so that you don't just get lost in the wall of noise created by a guitar an drums that aren't reigned in by a solid bass line. What set The Black Keys apart is first and foremost Auerbach's original approach to playing guitar, Carney's (in later years) hip-hop flavored drum rhythms, and Auerbach's distinctive voice.
Dan Auerbach has stated in several interviews that he has a genuine interest in guitars and experimenting with effects, as well as understanding what effects work with a particular melody. Fuzz pedals play a major part in the band's sound, and Auerbach is great at getting the right balance between a fuzz guitar sound, and his vocals; something that can be frustratingly difficult as anyone who's ever tried their hand at playing guitar through a fuzz pedal and singing at the same time knows. Auerbach talked to Premier Guitar about his obsession with effect pedals: "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."
Auerbach is equally particular when it comes to choosing the right amp for recording. While he uses big amps on stage for obvious reasons, Dan employs a "less is more" approach when recording in the studio. Instead of blowing the roof off of the studio with big stacks, Auerbach favors small amps, seeking out great tone and characteristics and building songs around that rather than a wall of amps. Auerbach talked to Total Guitar about some of the small amps used for the band's latest album El Camino "Everything from a little five-watt Tweed amp to my Ampeg Gemini II," he confirms. "I know I used that a bunch because I blew up the speaker. I also used the Magnatone M10 a bunch."
While The Black Keys sound like a blues rock outfit to the casual listener, the band themselves are quick to point out that they draw quite a bit of inspiration from rap and hip hop acts like Wu-Tang Clan. This became more apparent when the duo provided the music to Blakroc, a collaboration album with several rap and R&B acts. You can also hear it in the band's last couple of albums, who while still maintaining the blues inspired riffs we've grown accustomed to focus more on melodies and arrangements.
Dan Auerbach's voice is almost like an instrument in itself, and plays a major part in providing a genuine rootsy feel to the band's music. It is so strong and unique, but its character has changed considerably in during the band's ten-year recording career. On the first few albums, Auerbach's voice actually sounded older and more mature than it does today. However, this may be the result of the band using very primitive recording equipment in their early career.
If you've just come to like The Black Keys by way of Brothers, or El Camino, I strongly recommend exploring the band's first three albums The Big Come Up, Thickfreakness, Rubber Factory, along with Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough, which is an EP with only covers of late blues master Junior Kimbrough. This is blues rock at its best, and proof that the blues is still very much alive; a comforting thought these days as the old Chicago blues giants are almost all gone. As stated before, the band recorded their first few albums in Carney's basement. In fact, Thickfreakness was recorded in one massive 14-hour session, which is refreshing these days when many bands take up to a year or more to complete an album, while wasting tons of money on expensive studio time along the way. Although The Black Keys have moved on to recording in studios, they seem to have held on to some of the tricks learnt early on, as Auerbach tells Total Guitar: "On every track of El Camino there's the sound from the guitar amps bleeding into the drum mics, which kind of gives it a little bit of raw flavor."
Hopefully that raw flavor is something Dan and Pat will hold on to when it's time for the next album by The Black Keys, which the duo has said will be recorded in early 2013.