how to play guitar like Dan Auerbach
The Black Key’s distinctive sound comes from the unique style of their guitarist, Dan Auerbach

The Hard Baroquer is a home musician that has pursued music as a hobby for nearly 20 years. An intermediate guitarist, beginner bassist and even sometimes dabbling on the harmonica, he is always learning something. In his free time, he runs The Hard Baroquer blog.

By The Hard Baroquer

Dan Auerbach is a guitarist that many players should play some attention to, in terms of how he plays his instrument and how he writes his music, regardless of who your guitar heroes are. Sure, much of his sound comes from his gear, but outside this limitation, Auerbach is a unique guitarist that others can learn lots from, not just those that want to sound like him or those that want to play guitar and write songs like Dan Auerbach does.

While he handles bass and vocal duties for The Black Keys, we’ll focus on his role as the axe-man for the popular blues-rock band. Auerbach has his own solo albums, but our focus will keep to his work with the rock band he fronts.

So let’s analyse what makes the Dan Auerbach style of guitar-playing what it is.

Gear

If you’re interested in knowing how to sound like Dan Auerbach, getting Dan Auerbach’s tone point accurate is incredibly difficult owing to his preference for vintage guitars. And he has a lot, and many of his vintage guitars are custom builds in themselves.

In terms of amplifiers Auerbach prefers vintage gear too, with a set up of 60’s era Fender amps.

However, you can get close with contemporary equipment that is modelled on equipment from the era. To replicate his tone to a good degree of accuracy, you need the below essentials:

  • Tube amplifier with decent low-end
  • P90 pick-up guitar
  • Fuzz pedal
  • Octave pedal
  • Distortion pedal
  • Overdrive pedal

Dan Auerbach’s guitar influences

Understanding Auerbach’s guitar style requires getting a good understanding of his own guitar heroes. It’s worth taking some time to listen to these influences and see for yourself how he’s implemented their techniques in his own playing.

Classic blues is the foundation of The Black Keys, with many fans pointing out that blues musician Junior Kimbrough was especially influential on the band in their early days. ‘The Big Come Up’ contains covers of Muddy Waters, Junior Kimbrough, and R. L. Burnside, all blues players worth listening to, and ‘Thickfreakness’ also contains a Kimbrough cover, Everywhere I Go. Other influences include Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson, while the blues rock element can be seen in the likes of ZZ Top and Captain Beefheart.

Guitarist Glenn Schwartz, allegedly ended the Black Keys’ hiatus as a discussion about him with another guitarist eventually led to a jam and recording session with Schwarz, rekindling Auerbach’s interest in guitars. The result: 2014’s ‘Turn Blue’ and hits such as Fever.

Since ‘El Camino’ The Black Keys have brought in a lot more influences outside of their blues roots, such as genres from the 50s, 60s and 70s, such as psychedelia. Auerbach has gone on record saying they are influenced by hip-hop not the blues, evidenced by their BLACKROC side project which featured acts such as Mos Def, Ludacris and RZA of Wu Tang Clan, among other collaborators.

Since their 2010, the band has been collaborating with producer and songwriter Danger Mouse since ‘El Camino’ who has helped sharpen the production and add some new elements to their song writing, while still allowing them to retain their roots.

Techniques to lay like Dan Auerbach

To master The Black Keys songs on guitar, it’s worth practicing a few techniques that Auerbach often employs in his playing. This will enable you to sound as authentic as possible when playing his music.

  • Master the pentatonic scale. Many of his riffs are pentatonic based (scales with five notes per octave), so learning the pattern for these on every string will be a strong tool in learning to play Auerbach’s songs.
  • Lead work is effect-driven, but minimalist in nature (lacks shredding). 2019’s ‘Let’s Rock’ introduced longer solo’s than their other efforts, but overall, is lead work inlvolves mastering how strong melodies that are brought home with heavy effects, such as fuzz, octave and whatever the hell he uses in Shine A Little Light.
  • Auerbach makes some use of sliding to add some flavour to his songs (Get Yourself Together; The Lengths; Hold Me In Your Arms), so work on your sliding in order to be able to tackle all songs that use this tool.
  • Layering guitars. Black Keys are a two piece with Dan Auerbach providing guitar, bass and vocal duties. Recordings have at least two guitars playing alongside one another which make the song sound more complex but it really him recording himself twice
  • Triads make up a good portion of Auerbach’s rhythms approach (and are wildly popular in rock music) as he uses these to give the rhythm guitar some extra direction. Triads can be as simple as barring the top three strings, or more complex chords of just three notes, but they are a must in any guitarist’s arsenal as they allow for the usage of chords with out needing to strum all six strings.
  •  A little legato practicing can help master some riffs and give them a more fluid sound, as opposed to picking each note.

Achieving the distinctive guitar style of The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach isn’t impossible, and doesn’t require a huge set up of vintage guitars. Understanding how he sees the guitar goes a huge way to playing like him and composing songs like he does.