Black Keys Tone on a Budget
By Daniel Brooks
Last week we took a look at the Black Keys, whose passionate celebration of guitar-driven music continues to draw a steadily growing audience. An essential part of their success is Dan Auerbach's guitar sound, a big, distorted presence that comes from a variety of unusual guitars, the blended output of three different amps, an assortment of fuzz pedals, a few modulation effects and a tape delay. His sound and their music are deeply rooted in tradition and well within reach of most guitarists. Fortunately for those of us who want that sound for our own creative purposes, most of his gear is relatively easy to find, and there are inexpensive alternatives for each piece of equipment.
Auerbach's favorite Harmony, Silvertone, Teisco Del Rey, National and Supro guitars were all in production for many years and are still available to those who seek them out. They were the first instrument of many who went on to become legendary guitarists, and are remembered fondly for their price and quality and often kept as a valuable part of one's collection. There are collectors willing to pay a little extra to revisit their first guitar, so it's not uncommon to see some of these formerly inexpensive but good quality instruments going for a price you might expect to pay for a good new guitar. If you have a little extra time to shop around, you can still find one for only a few hundred dollars, but you can also get that vintage look, feel and sound through those guitar manufacturers like Eastwood, Airline, Hanson, Italia, Reverend and, of course, Fender, who are all creating good, inexpensive instruments worthy of comparison to the vintage models.
Dan Auerbach's amplification is a bit more of a challenge to recreate. As you probably know, a good amplifier can be the most expensive part of any rig, and Auerbach's stage setup relies on three different models, a Victoria Double Deluxe, a Fender Quad Reverb, and a Marshall JTM-45. All three amps are on all of the time, their outputs blended for an almost three dimensional sound. None of these are particularly rare, but the price of all three, or even any one of these, can be prohibitive. Fortunately, if you own a reasonably good tube amp you can use a foundation overdrive pedal to recreate the sound an old vintage amp. The Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret MKIII, the Wampler Plexi-Drive, or the Jetter Gear Gold 45/100 will transform your amp's tonal signature and overdrive profile to that of a vintage Marshall, while the Boss FDR-1 Fender Deluxe Reverb pedal lends the clean, rich sparkle of a vintage Fender amp. It is uncanny how completely and accurately these pedals change your amp's fundamental sound.
The Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret MKIII uses a JFET circuit designed after the actual tone stack and preamp stage of a vintage Super Lead. Open it up and flip the internal switch for the equally authentic sound of a Super Bass, with all of its beefy, clean power that sounds magnificent with single coils or P-90s. And while you're in there, adjust the internal trim pot to fine tune the pedal's output to your amp. You'll be amazed at the transformation.
The Wampler Plexi-Drive will give you all of the tones of a Super Lead at any setting, it cleans up with a turn of your guitar's volume control, and it offers a Bass Boost that lends some serious gravity to your sound.
The Jetter Gear Gold 45/100 is a new design that offers the full range of sounds from an old JTM-45, from the normal input to the bright input, and even a jumpered option for the best of both.
If you are playing through a pair of amps, you might consider putting a Boss FDR-1 Fender Deluxe Reverb pedal in front of the cleaner of the two. Perhaps not as dramatic as the Marshall pedals, but it will lend the subtle, glassy sounds that are the signature of a Fender tube amp.
The beauty of these pedals is that they retain the characteristics of the amp they represent, even when stacked with other pedals. This is important, since no matter which foundation pedal you use, or even if you're playing through actual JTM-45, or a Fender Quad Reverb, you will have to stack it with a fuzz pedal to get that Black Keys sound.
Dan Auerbach claims to have a collection of more than a hundred effects pedals, quite a few of those are fuzz pedals, and several of his favorites are on his pedalboard at any time. Used individually or together to sculpt a layered sound, a fuzz pedal, or two, or four, adds an extra dimension of harmonic richness and sustain, and you simply cannot achieve the same sound with any other kind of effect. He has a rare Shin-ei Companion Fuzz and a Shin-ei Fuzz-Wah that are no longer in production. If you are lucky enough to find one of these, you'll want to pair it up with an MXR ten-band EQ to restore the "scooped" mids. Chances are, you'll end up seeking another fuzz long before you see a Shin-ei. There are many great ones.
Auerbach's old Russian Sovtek Big Muff is no longer available on the market, but there are several pedals based on its legendary, massive distortion that will transform your sound in fantastic ways. For the past couple of years, Auerbach has come to rely on the Earthquaker Devices Hoof fuzz, which is a germanium/silicon hybrid based on the Sovtek Big Muff, but featuring a shift control that refocuses the tonal sweep of the effect for even greater versatility.
Next to the Hoof, the Blackout Effectors Musket will get you closest to the Black Keys' sound. The silicon driven Musket, and its germanium/silicon hybrid sibling, the Blunderbuss, offer a phenomenal range and control over some of the greatest fuzz sounds you can ever expect, or even hope, to hear.
The Mojo Hand Colossus Fuzz is another outstanding germanium/silicon hybrid that clones the Sovtek wall of seismic sound to perfection, with a mids toggle that offers three different midrange sweeps, and a mids control that fine tunes them to your needs.
The Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi with Tone Wicker is a good, low cost option. The tone wicker switch opens up the high end for a bright sustaining bite, while the tone switch bypasses the tone control for a raw, unbridled effect.
Dan Auerbach also uses an Analogman Sunface, a custom-built Fuzz Face clone housed in a much smaller enclosure. Not as high gain as the other fuzz pedals on his board, but the original Fuzz Face offers a distinctive sound unlike any other, and it is its own inexpensive alternative.
Auerbach's modulation effects include a Boss OC-3 Super Octave, Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter, and Boss TR-2 Tremolo that add layers of otherwise impossible effects, and they are already as simple and inexpensive as any you'll find anywhere.
On the other hand, the Fulltone Tape Echo that serves as the last effect in his pedal train is as expensive an effect as any. Fortunately, there are a few excellent echo and delay pedals that will give your sound that incredible warmth, warble, and depth that, until recently, you could only get from magnets and a lot of moving parts. These new pedals are much smaller, lighter, and more reliable than their mechanical counterparts, and they'll give you that fantastic sound for a fraction of the cost.
The Earthquaker Devices Disaster Transport gives you all of the classic tone of a vintage tape echo machine, with additional control over the depth and speed of the modulation.
The Empress Tape Delay serves up vintage tape delay sound with an extraordinary set of controls like tap tempo, multiplied tap tempo for rhythmic variations, and a world of sound and operation choices.
One of our favorites is the Catalinbread Echorec. Modeled after the legendary Binson Echorec, it reproduces the natural modulation of the original rotating magnetic disc and fixed heads but with even greater flexibility in the tone, gain, and delay times.
TC Electronic's Alter Ego has several outstanding delay models built into its circuitry, and one of the most impressive is the Echorec. Mix it back a little and pair it with a foundation overdrive and one of the fuzz boxes we mentioned earlier, and you'll find a sound so epic that you might not ever want to leave your rehearsal space.