Bands will need sound boys forever

Duo bands: The White Stripes, The Black Keys & Co.

Why not for two?
by Christian Braunschmidt,

How many people do you actually need to be a band? Is three enough or does it have to be five who make music together? In the world of rock music, most bands should be somewhere between these line-up models. But what if there is only two of you?

Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones wrote it. The law that should fix the line-ups of classic rock bands once and for all. But can't two people make a lot of noise? The history of the classic pop duo goes back to the early 1960s - just think of great line-ups like Ike & Tina Turner or Sonny and Cher, who were accompanied by a band. This successful concept still works today; only that meanwhile rock bands have consistently turned to the narrow two-person line-up. But how can you imitate the powerful sound of a full-fledged five-man line-up with just two instruments? Does that even have to be the case? Doesn't the whole thing sound totally boring in the end? And don't you need tons of equipment for this?


Perhaps the most successful rock duo in the recent past are the The White Stripes - The fact that Seven Nation Army ‘, which later mutated into a football anthem, should have helped the two ex-spouses to undreamt-of prominence - after all, hardly an international match goes by without the fans shouting the catchy tune by the thousands in the stadium. Exactly here the great strengths of Meg and Jack White can be seen: The song structures, which are often kept very simple, are revealed very quickly and often have a distinctive melody. Guitarist and singer Jack White doesn't even try to create the sound of a full band with technical solutions.

Quite the opposite: the duo's, garage ‘blues-rock is characterized by a rough, dirty and at times a bit thin sound; the low-end of a bass is at best provided by Megan's kick drum. Why not? After all, there is no law that stipulates that a rock production must always sound fat. When choosing his equipment, Jack White liked to use old, rare amplifiers and fuzz pedals, which is clearly documented in the film, It Might Get Loud ‘by Davis Guggenheim. In addition to the legendary semi-acoustic from Kay and the iconic Res-O-Glas Airline guitar, crazy constructions such as the cigar box guitar are also shown. Somehow you get the feeling that the man can make something out of almost any type of guitar - his dirty, idiosyncratic sound definitely always remains his trademark.

Similar to the White Stripes, the two boys go from The Black Keys in front. The duo, consisting of Patrick Carney on drums and Dan Auerbach on guitar or microphone, is by now hardly less well known - at least you don't usually win a Grammy as a small underground band. Even this duo made no sound bones about the line-up, especially on their first albums, and didn't even try to simulate a whole band. Here, too, there is an earthy-dirty garage blues sound program and the really very rustic LoFi productions of the band do absolutely justice to the often simple song structures.

The Black Keys always managed to get the maximum out of their reduced sound and have written a couple of very atmospheric albums as a duo. Like his colleague Jack White, Dan Auerbach owns a really impressive fleet of old and sometimes rather bizarre equipment. In addition to various old Supro and Guild guitars, the bearded frontman also features a Fender Telecaster in a pretty vintage sunburst. Another heart of the Black Keys guitar sound should be a green big muff fuzz from EHX from the 90s, which sounds noticeably fatter compared to the really old pedals from the 70s. Another important factor in Auerbach's sound is probably the fact that three or more amps can always be heard at the same time. In addition to various vintage marshalls, old Danelectro, Magnatone, Ampeg or Fender amps are also used here. Either way, the band's sound has evolved a bit away from the garage duo to more sophisticated and elaborate productions without losing the always rough and bluesy touch of the early days.

What is phase here? When trying to send a guitar signal through two, three or more amplifiers, I would strongly advise you to ensure that all signals are in-phase ‘with one another. I therefore recommend an ABY switcher with which you can turn the individual outputs in phase. If this does not happen, you experience a considerable loss of sound, which is particularly noticeable in the deep mids and bass, as the speakers then basically work “against each other” and the sound sounds strangely hollow.

soon also superstars

If you made it easy for yourself, you could Picturebooks as the German equivalent of the Black Keys. After all, the guys from the tranquil Gütersloh have a similar musical attitude as their US colleagues and have a comparatively raw and unpolished sound. Of course, it's not that simple. The band, consisting of Philipp Mirtschink on drums and Fynn Grabke on guitar and vocals, definitely takes the garage sound pretty seriously. If the two are not hitting a stage somewhere in the world, the chances are high that you will meet the duo either riding a motorcycle or writing songs in their own extremely spacious garage. The said room also serves as a motorcycle workshop, rehearsal room and recording studio.

With the support of Claus Grabke - a skateboard legend of the 80s as well as a member of Thumb and the Alternative Allstars - the band's sound is practically constantly fine-tuned, whereby the guys are just as uncompromising as they are with their energetic live shows. Not only that Grabke relies on rather old and, according to his own statement, rather difficult to play semi-acoustic guitars, drummer Philipp Mirtschink decided to completely dispense with the cymbals of his drum set in order to get a more controllable surround sound. Either way, the result can be heard: In a masterly way, the duo know how to combine a really rough and dirty garage sound with extremely hit-capable melodies and a keen knack for good songwriting.

Despite all the love for vintage equipment, there is a surprising number of modern pedals on Fynn Grabke's pedalboard. In addition to various Boss and Nobels kicks, you can also see the Moonboost, designed in cooperation with Red Sun FX, which primarily serves to push the amplifiers a little more into saturation. Incidentally, here we find various vintage treasures from Fender, Marshall and Vox in live operation, above all the amps from the small manufacturer Earforce from Melle-Neunkirchen. Henrich Schmidts manufactures guitar amplifiers here at the highest level and - as in the case of the Picturebooks - responds to almost every special request of its customers. For Grabke he developed a version of his Earforce Two amplifier, which is equipped with two different sounding clean channels and is specially designed for use with effect pedals.

The Canadians from show that even a rock duo does not necessarily have to be determined by the sound of the six strings Death From Above 1979. After Jesse F. Keeler (bass, synthesizer) and Sebastien Grangier (drums, vocals) had considerable difficulties with their original band Femme Fatale in finding concert opportunities, they simply reduced their line-up to the bare minimum - not least in order to work more economically can. It was clear from the start that there would be no guitar in this duo and that Keeler would cover the correspondingly higher frequency spectrum with his bass, while Grangier also took on the vocals in addition to his powerful drumming. Musically, Death From Above 1979 move in a wild and quite exciting mix of styles of hardcore punk, indie as well as stoner and noise rock, which despite a certain tonal bulkiness always knows how to come up with concise hit melodies.

In order to get the widest possible bandwidth of his signal, Jesse Keeler relies on a setup with two amplifiers and speakers. While an Acoustic 450B is allowed to do its job on one side, an old, very rare Peavey Super Festival 800 is used next to it. Both amps run on a Traynor 8x10 box with a wild mix of different speakers.

What is interesting about this somewhat strange looking rig is the fact that the really rich, distorted bass sound comes almost exclusively from the amplifiers and there is no distortion pedal to be found on the pedalboard. Furthermore, not only the bass signal is chased through the impressive system, but also the iconic JUNO synthesizer from Korg, which is toned a little bit in line with the bass sound. For his instruments, Keeler surprisingly relies on an old Dan Amstrong bass from the late 1960s, which, with its heavy plexiglass body and short scale length, can definitely be seen as exotic.

If you talk about Death From Above 1979, the way to the guys is from Royal Blood not far, of course. The duo from England, founded by singer and bassist Mike Kerr together with Ben Thatcher on drums, is not so dissimilar to their Canadian colleagues, although there are obviously enough differences to turn their attention to both bands. With only two albums, the two guys immediately managed to raise their idiosyncratic garage rock sound with a distinctly British list to unimagined heights. The hype that has developed around Royal Blood is downright unbelievable - before the duo had even released a single song, let alone finished an album, they played at big festivals like Glastonbury or SXSW.

For his fat and really deep guitar-sounding bass sound, Mike Kerr initially relies on his Gretsch Electromatic G2220 Junior Set 2 and occasionally on a Hollow-Body Fender Starcaster Bass. When it comes to amps, you can see the British Sonnyboy lately with different Fender bass and guitar amps, almost always using a Super Bassman with the corresponding 8x10 box in combination with two Super Sonic 22 combos. Kerr likes to be mysteriously secretive about the rest and only reveals that next to the two EHX POGs, the most important thing is his ABY switcher, with which he can mute the different amplifiers in order to create more sonic dynamics.

GitBassBoxing? It can be particularly appealing within a duo line-up to send the guitar signal through a 2x15 bass speaker. Of course, not every box is suitable for this; Systems with tweeters and midrange drivers in particular sound quite acrid with a guitar. Personally, I have had good experiences with Mesa-Boogies 2x15s from the Diesel series, which are equipped with Electro Voice 15Ls. The Thiele bass reflex housing gives the guitar sound a good portion of boost in the bass and delivers a nice, wide sound image with a lot of assertiveness in the middle. Celestion's Sidewinder loudspeaker - which was often used in the Marshall bass boxes of the 80s - seems to me to be ideal for a distorted guitar signal.

steam hammer underground

Now that we've discussed a few of the different duo lineups with different sound approaches, it's time for a little turning point. All of the duos mentioned have more or less in common that the type of music should appeal to a wide range of potential audiences. Be it the White Strips with their super-catchy hits, the Black Keys with their accessible neo-blues sound or Royal Blood's simple but sometimes super-sexy sounding songwriting. The bands that now follow, on the other hand, rely primarily on unbelievable heaviness and therefore play much deeper in the underground.

First there is the Swiss duo Bölzer that consists of guitarist and singer Okoi Thierry Jones, who comes from South Africa, and drummer Fabian Wyrsch. Last year, the two of them mixed up the metal scene with their album, Hero ‘and proved that even a more classically oriented death metal band does not necessarily depend on the services of the deep four-string. The songwriting, which is actually quite straight, manages to combine the hard riffs of Death Metal with the atmosphere of Black Metal, without the result sounding like a clumsy mix of styles, but rather like a strangely native Swiss herb mixture. Okoi Jones relies on a rather down-to-earth recipe for his wall-of-sound. Live you can often see the tattooed Waldschrat with different Marshall or Orange amplifiers, whereby the signal is of course split to at least two amplifiers.

Jones ten-string B.C. Rich Bich, who is rarely seen in the wild. Lately, however, the guitarist has increasingly played his Les Paul copy with a walnut body, which was also made with ten strings, which was specially made for him by the manufacturer Guitar Total. For a sound that is as wide as possible and that shouldn't leave any gaps, the use of these rather exotic guitars definitely makes sense, as the additional stringing naturally creates a noticeably wider sound. Bölzer are a prime example of how you can sound like a full-blown metal band with just two instruments and create an incredibly dense atmosphere.

Another band, whose rapid rise probably amazed the entire German metal scene, are the colleagues of the Bremen duo Mantar. While Bölzer is also responsible for concise riffs but also catchy melodies, there is pure violence with Hanno Klänhardt (guitar, vocals) and Erinç Sakarya (drums). Their debut album 'Death By Burning' caused quite a stir and at least since the current work 'Ode To The Flame' it should be clear that the two musicians with their brutal mix of styles of Death Metal, Punk, Rock'n'Roll and Powerviolence doesn't take prisoners at all - just listen to the hit 'Era Boreales' once. The noise wall that is rudely thrown around the ears here sounds so dense and massive that with the best will in the world you never get the idea that you are only dealing with a two-man band here. To achieve this effect, Hanno relies on a considerable number of guitar and bass amps. More on this in the interview in issue 01/2018.

Last but not least, I would like to talk about a band that was unknown to me up to now, but in my opinion a very hot band, which should dominate the annual top list of one or the other music journalist. We're talking about Bell witchwho have just released their third album, Mirror Reaper ‘on the US label Profound Lore and have kept the American funeral doom scene busy for years. The current work by Dylan Desmond (bass / vocals) and Jesse Shreibman (drums) is a no less than 83 minutes long opus that creates an atmosphere that could hardly be more oppressive and powerful. The mixture of soft, fragile-looking passages - the vocals are a bit reminiscent of The Who or Led Zeppelin - and larger than life-size chord breakers almost takes your breath away in many places. In doing so, Mirror Reaper ‘moves at a single, slow pace throughout the entire season and focuses on condensing the atmosphere more and more until the whole thing ends in a surprisingly shallow finale.

In terms of content, Bell Witch deal with the untimely death of founding member Adrian Guerra, who died unexpectedly at the age of 36. The sacred-looking, clean vocals, which alternate with deep growls, create a clear picture of sadness and depression and always provide absolute goose bumps. But not only musically, Bell Witch are one of the most exciting metal bands these days; The technical implementation of 'Mirror Reaper' is also interesting. The incredibly spatial drum sound of Shreibman - John Bonham would have tears of joy in his eyes - provides a massive foundation on which Desmond can wonderfully stack his almost exclusively tapped bass chords. Yes, you read that right, here we are not dealing with a guitar at any point, only with slow tapping movements on the bass. While Desmond takes care of the massive and fat bass lines with his left hand, he grabs the melodies in the high registers with his right hand that give the album its hypnotic atmosphere - slow-motion tapping, so to speak. In order to cover the largest possible tonal range, the bassist uses an Ibanez six-string from the SDGR series and sends the signal through a variety of different amplifiers from Orange, Ampeg or Verellen. The pedalboard, among others.equipped with a full-tone OCD, a delay from Boss and an EHX Holy Grail then takes care of the rest - so basically none of this is rocket science.

happy for two

I very much hope that I was able to give the interested reader a little insight into the different duo line-ups and would like to encourage everyone to just try it together - regardless of whether there is a bassist or a guitarist. Sure - it takes a few technical tricks to create the same tonal massiveness as a large ensemble, but maybe it doesn't have to be. But it is definitely possible. Two amplifiers, a good ABY splitter (see info box) and basically you can start - sometimes it's just the nicest couple.

Have a listen too ... An absolute must for gear freaks is definitely the Doom / Sludge duo Jucifier, which brings back memories of the Grateful Dead with its gigantic backline. The two Swiss from Closet Disco Queen, with their eccentric instrumental krautrock, are also interesting for the specialist audience simply because of their exquisite selection of amplifiers. A dark Doom team comes from Sweden that goes by the name Switchblade and has been rolling around with monotonous and tough riffs for years - definitely a tip for fans of the old Doom school. The albums by the guys from Black Cobra and Eagle Twin, released on the US label Southern Lord, could well be worth a try for fans of deeper riffs with an occasional blues touch and a penchant for muddy, dirty licks.


(published in Guitar & Bass 01/2018)

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