Keeping the flame of rock & roll alive

By Sergio Ariza

Dan Auerbach and the Black Keys have been central to keeping the flame of rock alive in the 21st century, making their music ring out beyond the homes of the longtime fans of that music and having managed to convert more than one millennial to the religion of rock & roll and guitars. That is just one reason why we would hold him in the highest esteem, but there is much more: because in a place where we adore the six strings, we also find specially fascinating a guy with incredibly varied, and surprising, taste at the time of choosing his models.    

Daniel Quine Auerbach
was born on May 14, 1979 in Akron, Ohio, into a family of music lovers. His second cousin was the also excellent guitarist Robert Quine, his father had an extensive collection of blues records and the family used to meet to play bluegrass. So when the young Auerbach decided that he liked that kind of music, they bought him an acoustic Martin like that of the Stanley Brothers. And when, after discovering Hound Dog Taylor, he decided to switch to the electric, his mother bought him a white Stratocaster. That is called a good start, with an acoustic Martin and an electric Strat, but Auerbach was not going to follow beaten paths, neither in terms of the music, nor in terms of his choice of instruments. During a visit to an instrument store in Cleveland the clerk convinced him to swap his Strat for a blue Teisco Del Rey. Auerbach would never regret it and it would be with that guitar that, with a tuning in D Major like Hound Dog, he would form his first high school band.


At high school he became friends with Patrick Carney and they started playing together. Even then, his vocation was still not clear, so he enrolled at University. It would be there where he would discover the musician who would definitively lead him to dedicate himself completely to music, Junior Kimbrough. Obsessed with the blues musician, Auerbach studied his records instead of what he was being taught on his course. In the end he decided to leave his studies, form a band and start playing in the city’s dives. Time passed and Auerbach became aware that if he wanted to get gigs further afield, he had to record a demo. The only person he knew with the right team to do it was Carney, so he asked and Carney agreed. But when the date arrived, none of Auerbach’s musicians showed up for the appointment. To avoid a disaster, Carney took the drumsticks and began to 'jam', as he used to do at college. That did not sound too bad, so they recorded the demo themselves and sent it to a dozen labels. Soon a small label in Los Angeles, called Alive, signed them. The Black Keys were born.

By the start of 2002 they were already recording their debut album. They did not seek out a famous producer or anything like that. The album was recorded in Carney's home studio, with two microphones and an 8 track tape recorder. It is a raw recording with a lot of echo, and with Auerbach assiduously seeking the riff and Carney pounding the drums as if his life depended on it. On the four covers of that album you can clearly see their influences, the album opened with Busted by the blues artist R.L. Burnside, then came Do the Rump by Auerbach’s idol, Junior Kimbrough, the third cover was She Said, She Said by the Beatles and, finally, No Fun by the Stooges. That is to say: roots blues, a taste for melody and the energy and noise of Iggy Pop’s band. On songs like Leavin 'Trunk it was possible to see that Auerbach had taken good advantage of listening to Kimbrough.

They called the album The Big Come Up and it was released on May 14, 2002. It sold few copies; but those who bought it thought it was amazing. Among them was David Lynch, who did not hesitate to buy another copy and give it to Billy Gibbons when he went to visit him at his house. The ZZ Top guitarist liked the album sufficiently to go and see the band live, and become a fan, and friend, for life. Gibbons went to say hello and said something that would be very important to them keeping their faith in themselves, at a time when they traveled from concert to concert in their dilapidated van and lost money with the group, "I do not know how you do this, guys but don’t change it, it's working. "

Word of mouth from the first album led them to sign for a new label, Fat Possum, which took them to San Francisco to record with producer Jeff Saltzman. But a few days later Auerbach and Carney realized that they were betraying themselves as they were sounding too conventional, so they listened to Gibbons and went back to Carney's basement to record their second album, Thickfreakness, in which they included the first great songs composed by the pair, like the one that gave the album its title, and Set You Free, the song with which they would savor their first success when it was included in the soundtrack of the movie School of Rock. On one of his songs, Midnight in Her Eyes, Auerbach uses one of the few bass lines you could hear on the first albums of the band, specifically a Guild SG style. However for the promo tour he mainly used his new six string acquisition; a Jerry Donahue Telecaster.


With Thickfreakness the band tasted success for the first time but also were compared with the biggest rock band of the moment, the White Stripes. The similarities were evident, garage rock and blues / rock, duets with guitar and drums without bass and, to top it all off, their names had colours on it, black and white. As Jack White’s band was there first, and was much more successful, suspicion happened to fall on Auerbach and his band. But it isn’t a problem if two groups sound similar, as long as they maintain an identifiable spirit and one can distinguish a song, or a solo, from the other band without problem. Something that happens clearly, the Black Keys are not Greta Van Fleet...

But their sudden fame did not translate into money and they ended up doing a European tour that ran a deficit. To make matters worse, when they returned home they discovered that Carney's landlord has sold his house, leaving them without the place where they recorded their first two albums. At the beginning of 2004 they refurbished an old tire factory in Akron as a studio and began to record their third work, Rubber Factory. Songs like the acoustic The Lenghts, with excellent use of slide, see the group expand their ‘field of action’, while others like 10 A.M. Automatic showed that the group still maintained their excellent punch, with prominent use of one of his beloved fuzz pedals. It was the first work of theirs that entered the charts, at a modest position – 143 -, but it was also when the group allowed their songs to be used in ads, which ended their economic problems and led to Auerbach considerably expanding his equipment, by looking mainly for oddballs like his beloved Teisco; among the brands he went for are Harmony (with models like his beloved H78 semihollow), Silvertone and Guild.

In 2005 their first live album was released and the following year Auerbach paid off his debt to Junior Kimbrough by releasing the Black Keys EP Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. That same year saw the reléase of their fourth album, Magic Potion. However, with this they began to see that their formula and their 'do it yourself' sound was running out of steam. They had recorded it in a home studio, but the grit and the inspiration did not appear and the sound was more like shabby than raw. But chance put them in the way of a man with whom they were going to find a new sound, Danger Mouse. The famous producer, and half of Gnarls Barkley, was preparing an album with Ike Turner and asked the band if they could write songs for him. They did this but Turner died on December 12, 2007 without having completed the album. The Black Keys were proud of the songs they had written so they decided to record them themselves but decided to also hire Danger Mouse as a producer. For the first time they worked in a professional studio and the chemistry with the producer gave them inspiration with some of their best songs, like the emotional Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be and the powerful I Got Mine, with a great riff courtesy of Auerbach.

The results were apparent immediately and the album debuted at number 14 on the Billboard charts. But just as they were starting to finally gain ground things started to get difficult between the duo. The guitarist could not stand the drummer's wife and that was poisoning their relationship. Auerbach began recording a solo album without saying a word to the drummer and when Keep It Hid made its appearance in February 2009 Carney, that was divorcing, felt betrayed and formed the band Drummer. But in the end they made peace when the Roots invited them to play at their festival. It would not be their last collaboration with the world of rap as in that same year, they recorded Blakroc, a disc in collaboration with Damon Dash, in which the duo provided the musical base to hip hop legends like Q Tip, Raekwon and Mos Def.

It was a fun distraction but it seemed clear that the association with Danger Mouse needed to go on, and that was what happened with Brothers, the album that, almost 10 years after its creation, turned the Black Keys into the new saviors of rock. And with Brothers the Black Keys delivered a great album of swampy rock blues passed through a modern sound and with a lot of soul flavor. It was the Akron duo’s best album to date, with Auerbach freeing himself as a vocalist and daring to sing in falsetto for the first time; contrasting with his fuzzy guitars, like the Supro Martinique of '65 he uses on Howlin 'For You. The base is still guitar and drums but this time they added many more details, such as bass and keyboards. It's a very compact work, from the devastating start of Everlasting Light, Next Girl and Tighten up, to their tribute to the best southern soul of the 60s with Unknown Brother; and the excellent cover of Never Gonna Give You Up by Jerry Buttler.

But the streak continued the following year, as in 2011 El Camino appeared, the album that confirmed them as the greatest rock band of the second decade of the 21st century. The album arrived with their most famous song to date, Lonely Boy. On the cover they paid homage to the van with which they traveled the road in the early days of the band. If on Brothers they flirted with soul, on El Camino they travelled full speed down the classic rock highway, from nods to Led Zeppelin on Little Black Submarines, to Bolan’s Glam on Gold On The Ceiling. It was understandable that when it came to Auerbach choosing his main instrument for recording, it was a 1953 Les Paul, lo and behold.

After a three year break, in which Auerbach had time to produce and play on Dr John and Lana Del Rey albums, the Black Keys returned with Turn Blue, their fourth collaboration with Danger Mouse. The album was at least one step down from the previous two but still contained remarkable things like the irresistible Gotta get Away and, above all, the best moments of Auerbach on the six strings with Weight Of Love. After another break of five years, during which Auerbach formed The Arcs, the Black Keys have come together again in 2019. On June 28 Let's Rock will see the light, the band’s ninth album, a work that has been described by Carney as "a tribute to the electric guitar". At Guitars Exchange we are salivating...