In the world of heavy guitar music, volume reigns supreme. Anyone lucky enough to have experienced a live performance by AC/DC or Guns'n'Roses can testify to the sheer exhilaration that comes from five musicians actively attempting to deafen their adoring audience through the magic of rock.
But do you actually need five people in a rock band to truly blow the house down with musical intensity? Queen, Metallica and Black Sabbath easily managed this feat with four musicians in their line-ups. And three-member bands have frequently matched or exceeded even those levels of sonic ferocity - consider the music of Green Day, Nirvana, Motorhead and Muse (not to mention the Jimi Hendrix Experience), all of which easily compete with larger line-ups in terms of sheer musical power.
We at GuitarHead adore the sounds made by all these bands, irrespective of the extent of their cadre. But whilst our respect level for groups containing at least three musicians is high, what truly causes our jaws to drop are rock acts containing just two members.
Power duos musicians certainly aren't the most common core line-up in the history of guitar bands, but a few hard-rocking tag-teams have been blowing audiences away for many years. Let's take a look at seven of our favourites...
Flat Duo Jets (1983-1999)
Words that have been used to describe the Flat Duo Jets over the years include (but certainly aren’t limited to) ‘crazy’, ‘psychobilly’, ‘roots’, ‘demented’, ‘visionary’, ‘possessed’, and ‘genius’. We’d agree with all of these terms, particularly ‘visionary’ and ‘genius’, and even the ‘psychobilly’ description that many have tried to tag onto the band. But the magnificently lo-fi music of guitarist/singer Dexter Romweber and Chris "Crow" Smith realistically defied such microscopic categorization, covering a range of styles that managed to sound simultaneously retro and contemporary, and delivered with passion by the truckload. Various bands of the 1990s and 2000s have cited their work as an important influence, including...
The White Stripes (1997-2011)
Responsible for the most recognisably catchy intro riff since Smoke On The Water, the White Stripes had already established their brilliantly unique musical and visual aesthetic six years before Seven Nation Army fell out of a backstreet London studio and into Grammy Awards history. Clad entirely in black, white and red, husband and wife duo Jack and Meg White were one of the most prominent forces in the garage-rock-revival scene of the early noughties, managing to simultaneously blow the audience away with incredible music whilst confusing the hell out of the music press (“Are they brother and sister?!?” and “How can radio stations play stuff this raw without a bassist?!?”).
Black Keys (2001-present)
Guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney had already been jamming together on and off for five years prior to scheduling a lo-fi recording session in Carney’s basement – which none of the other recruited backing musicians decided to attend. Thus was formed the Black Keys, whose largely improvised 6-song demo of "old blues rip-offs and words made up on the spot" resulted in a deal with Alive records in 2002. This Ohio blues-rock duo went on to tour the world, release 5 albums (certified from Gold to Triple platinum in 6 different territories), collect 5 Grammy awards, and generally cement their status as one of the greatest garage rocks acts ever.
Death From Above (2001-present)
The career trajectory of this Canadian dance-punk duo hasn’t been lacking in drama since their 2001 inception, resulting from vocalist/drummer Sebastien Grainger and bassist Jesse F. Keeler meeting at a 2001 Sonic Youth concert – although rumours persist that they were originally introduced in prison/on a pirate ship/at a gay bar! The bands original 5-year run produced just one album; then followed a 5-year hiatus, an official 2011 reunification, and two subsequent albums, all surrounded by a truly exhausting international touring schedule of their frenetic live act. Fans also know this group as ‘Death From Above 1979’, resulting from a cease and desist letter filed against the band by Death From Above Records. Grainger and Keeler responded by bolting on the legal minimum number of numerals needed to keep the first part of the name, and “declaring Jihad” on DFA records...
The Kills (2001-present)
Even though there's a kind-of third member involved here (the drum machine), the musical cocktail of American singer Alison "VV" Mosshart and English guitarist Jamie "Hotel" Hince definitely qualifies as a power duo in our eyes. The pair had been exchanging musical ideas on tape whilst working with other bands, and eventually laid down a fairly minimalist demo, sparking the major label interest that finally resulted in a 2002 EP Black Rooster, and 2003 album Keep On Your Mean Side (recorded, incidentally, at the same studio where The White Stripes had laid down Elephant just months before). Their lo-fi, stripped-down indie/garage/blues-rock sound has been met with enormous popularity, both within commercial media soundtracks and on stages around the world. “Fried My Little Brains” is a particular office favourite here at GuitarHead!
Royal Blood (2011-present)
They say that “seeing is believing”, and many sceptics have needed to see Royal Blood performing live in order to actually believe that they’re just a duo! Mike Kerr’s truly unique bass sound involves dividing the signal between three amplifiers, two of which push the tone up one octave and into the realms of standard 6-string territory, thus creating the very effective illusion of more than one guitarist in the mix. Along with the hugely skilled and magnificently deadpan drummer Ben Thatcher, Royal Blood have been lauded as one of the most original recent acts in rock, with Jimmy Page stating that “They’re such fine musicians ... they play with the spirit of the things that have preceded them, but you can hear they’re going to take rock into a new realm – if they’re not already doing that”. We definitely won’t argue with that assessment.
Our final power duo proves that, notwithstanding stripping down the amount of guitarists, a band can also simplify the drumkit to great effect. Slaves consist of guitarist/bassist Laurie Vincent and singer/drummer Isaac Holman, who performs on his feet using sticks on flat-mounted bass/snare drums, cymbals, and not much else! This very dance-orientated punk outfit have been nominated for both the Mercury Music Prize and the BBC's Sound of 2015, with wonderfully suburban lyrical themes that, according to one reviewer, “put the party in the political”.
Wrapping it up
And that’s it – proof that less can be more when it comes to plotting your next (or even your first) full band line-up. So if you know at least one drummer, there’s absolutely no excuse to not have a new act ready to tour within the month.
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Okay, we're done rambling, if you happen to learn some of these skills and decide to go on stage, please do send us the backstage passes. Until next time...peace out!