When Gillian Welch and David Rawlings released their seminal debut back in 1996, they were often tagged as traditionalists—after all, the album title was Revival, with a black-and-white cover photo of Welch that looked as if it could have been taken during the Great Depression, and they played mostly stripped-down acoustic duets and sang about, among other things, sharecroppers and bootleggers. But beneath the duo’s retro aesthetic was something much more complex and new on the musical side, especially in Rawlings’ startlingly original lead guitar.
Rather than a boomy dreadnought, Rawlings played a funky little Epiphone archtop with hardly any low end; instead of picking clean single lines in the bluegrass style, he reached for harp-like overlapping notes; and over simple chord changes reminiscent of mountain ballads, he stretched the harmony with unexpected intervals and delicious dissonances.
More than 20 years later, Rawlings is still on that path—playing the same Epiphone over Welch’s steady rhythm, and thrilling audiences with the wildness and intensity of his playing. Even today, with a small army of acoustic musicians emulating the Welch/Rawlings approach and studying their arrangements, Rawlings sounds like a maverick—though he doesn’t really see himself that way.
“In my mind, Gillian plays more interestingly than I do, in terms of playing great, flexible, beautiful time with incredibly nuanced parts,” said Rawlings, backstage after a recent concert in Albany, New York, with his trademark archtop in his lap. “I mean the level of detail in terms of when she’s hitting what string, what note, volume level, the whole thing—you could put anything with it and it would be great. That’s why it’s an easy gig to do what I do.”
Welch is a dynamic and subtle rhythm player for sure, but no guitarist who’s delved into Rawlings’ singular style would say it’s easy to do what he does. That’s why Acoustic Guitar asked Rawlings to sit down, guitar in hand, and talk about how he approaches the instrument—on the occasion of the release of the first album billed simply under his name, rather than the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker he’s used in the past. Titled Poor David’s Almanack, the new album features five songs written by Rawlings alone (the other five are co-writes with Welch), ambling from old-timey banjo tunes to Neil Young–esque rock.
After our interview, Rawlings made a series of short videos exclusively for AG that provide a crystal-clear look at some of the songs and playing techniques that we discussed. Those clips are posted at the top of this page and transcribed below.
The Guitar Mix
One of the keys to Rawlings’ style is his instrument itself—a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop chosen to fit a very specific sonic slot in the mix. While in many duos the two guitars double and mask each other, that’s not the case with Rawlings and Welch—his guitar parts stand out no matter how softly he plays.
“In the earliest days, Gillian was playing a Guild D-25M, which was a nice guitar, and I was playing a Taylor 810,” Rawlings recalls. “I was in some cases being almost the bass player, because the Taylor had a bigger low end. But I wasn’t really satisfied, and that’s when I started to get the idea to try to find something that was like a Dobro or a mandolin and had a midrange sound that snuck in under our vocals. When I got that [Epiphone], we were able to start to build the thing where the two guitars are making one big sound.”
Interestingly, Poor David’s Almanack is the first album on which Rawlings almost exclusively played a different guitar: a 1959 D’Angelico Excel that’s much fancier and larger than the Epiphone—the D’Angelico has a slightly larger than 17-inch lower bout, compared with 14.5 inches on the Epiphone. This elegant D’Angelico (which you can see in Rawlings’ videos for Examples 3 and 4) once belonged to Henry “Homer” Haynes of the country duo Homer & Jethro; Rawlings got it from Ranger Doug of Riders in the Sky.
“I played it on a whim,” Rawlings says, “and it was the first time I’d played a guitar since [the Epiphone] that I felt like I could really do what I wanted to do on it.” In Rawlings’ hands, the D’Angelico sounds uncannily similar to the Epiphone—even Rawlings has trouble distinguishing between the two instruments based on sound check recordings. He always sounds like himself.
Along with the choice of instruments, an essential component of the Rawlings/Welch guitar mix is using capos. They always experiment with capo placement (and, occasionally, tunings) to find the right combination for a song, often winding up in different positions on the neck.
“The way I think about it is I want to see a landscape when we start playing,” says Rawlings. “I don’t know why you’ll get the capos in a certain place and play out of a certain position, and all of a sudden you’ll have that space—it doesn’t sound just like two guitars plinking away. We try to make a soundscape that, with the vocals, has a feeling and supports the song.”
“The Way It Goes,” from the duo’s 2011 album The Harrow and the Harvest, is a good illustration of how they spread out their parts. On the record, Welch plays Am shapes with a capo at the eighth fret, while Rawlings uses Em shapes with the capo down at the first fret. In performances these days, they each capo up one fret higher.
Rawlings recalls talking with country/bluegrass master Norman Blake about how when you capo up, especially between the third and sixth frets, “the voice of the guitar is nice for lead. Even the same notes open [un-capoed] just have a different feeling to them. You get up into that range, and the guitar cuts through a little more.”
Once they’ve found their positions on the neck, both Rawlings and Welch work out picking patterns that use pieces of chords and bass lines. “Neither of us is strumming across full chords hardly ever, because if you do that, you have nothing [more] to do,” he says. “You hit your whole guitar. What’s going to happen? Just that you hit it again.”
When playing backup or lead, Rawlings frequently cross-picks chord shapes—he describes it as “rolling around.” He provides an illustration in Example 1, which, he notes, “contains a few of the fill phrases and a good bit of the backup bass motion I use when we play ‘The Way It Goes’ live.”
As you can see, he does a lot more than straight rhythm—especially during the gaps between vocals, as in measures 14–15 and 38–39. “In between the lines, it felt like it needed to have a bit of a Django [Reinhardt] and Stéphane Grappelli feeling, a little bit of wild picking,” he says. “It’s a balancing act of not leaving the rhythm or the bass part for too long.”
The Harp Effect
In soloing, Rawlings rarely plays single lines like most lead guitarists would—he adds open strings or other fretted notes alongside and around the melody. He again cites Norman Blake as an inspiration, in particular the way Blake fleshes out his solo sound with cross-picking on his 1975 album Live at McCabe’s. The goal, says Rawlings, is simply “to keep excitement and energy in the room and make a big sound. I don’t know how to say it other than it lets people have a good time.”
In Example 2, Rawlings plays a break that he says is similar to what he might do in the second solo of “The Way It Goes.” Notice the way he continuously alternates melody notes with higher open strings. In measures 14–17, he adds a gorgeous, harp-style passage—alternating fretted notes up the neck with open strings, and eventually landing on the bass note of the G major (capoed up two frets, so it sounds as an A) as the chorus kicks off.
This harp passage could be played with single notes, he says, but “people aren’t going to clap if I do that.” The harp technique “does the job in the moment of providing enough drive and excitement to fly into that next section.”
Inside and Out
If you pick apart Rawlings’ playing, you’ll soon notice how often he emphasizes notes that are not in the underlying chord. Throughout Ex. 1, for instance, he highlights the F# on the fourth string over the Em. (Again, I’m referring to pitches and chord names in relation to the capo.) He often plays the “outside” note along with a chord tone, in many cases just a half step away, so there’s harmonic tension. So starting in the first measure of Ex. 1, when Rawlings plays the F# over an Em, he follows it with a G—which is part of the Em—on the open third string.
“I was always attracted to the sound of a second or a ninth—it made me feel happy,” he explains. “But on guitar, I found that if I tried to play those notes as single notes, they just sounded like jazz—they didn’t feel appropriate for what we were doing. And they didn’t sound big enough either; with two acoustic guitars, it always sounded a little too precious or small. So I immediately started trying, if I was playing a ninth, to put in another note that was more in the key along with it. I love the sound of seconds and close intervals and dissonance, so I would just play both of the notes.”
You can see this idea at work even in a simple solo like Example 3, which is similar to the intro of “Airplane” from Poor David’s Almanack. In measure 8, for instance, he plays a repeating C-to-B figure on the first and second strings over an Em7 and then a C chord—over both chords, the solo figure uses one chord tone (B over Em7, C over C major) and one outside note (C over Em7, B over C). He plays this figure on adjacent strings so he can let the two notes, a half step apart, ring against each other. The last note of the solo follows suit: Over a G chord, he plays a G (root) with a high A (ninth) over it—a signature Rawlings sound.
Doing That Rag
On Poor David’s Almanack, the loping song “Yup”—Rawlings’ setting of a folktale about a woman being taken to hell by the devil and fighting so hard he brings her home again—provides an occasion for some fun ragtime-style picking. The song is all on one chord, and Rawlings uses a capo at the fourth fret to play what he calls the “broken calliope” licks in Example 4. “This solo really leans on the flat-third-to-natural-third motion I first encountered in Doc Watson’s ‘Black Mountain Rag,’” notes Rawlings. “Thanks, Doc.”
That minor-to-major-third move also figures into the final video Rawlings shared (Example 5)—a classic solo he plays on the bluegrassy “Red Clay Halo,” from the 2001 album Time (the Revelator). (An earlier version, an outtake from Welch and Rawlings’ debut, was released in 2016 on Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg.) The solo is a real cross-picking workout—eighth notes almost nonstop over a fast tempo—with a twist: He manages to add the capo on the seventh fret in measure 2, and then remove it for the ending, without missing a beat. To accomplish this, you’ll need a Kyser (as Rawlings uses) or another type of quick-release capo.
“This solo owes a great debt to Norman Blake and Doc Watson,” says Rawlings. “I was trying to borrow a bit of their cross-picked double shuffle feel. I haven’t changed it much over the years, as it is always fun to play and the capo trick is a crowd pleaser.”
Looking Back and Moving Forward
In many ways, Rawlings’ new album reflects a deeper understanding of his relationship to his musical forebears, as both a guitarist and a songwriter. Though he and Welch have always tapped into the roots and branches of American folk, on Poor David’s Almanack, Rawlings for the first time consciously built all the songs on pieces of traditional melodies or lyrics—of course, adding his own stamp on them as well.
The album, he says, “came out of 20 years of thinking about folk music and the roots of things, and seeing that so much beauty comes out of the fluidity of writing from things that move you. Sometimes I listen to songs that I love and I think, ‘Wow, it’s like we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Whether knowingly or unknowingly, everyone is taking something and adding 30 percent of themselves to it and keeping the stone rolling in the river, getting smoother and smoother and more perfect. That’s really all any of us can do or hope to do.”
What They Play
David Rawlings plays a 1935 Epiphone Olympic with plain bronze bulk light-gauge strings and a Fender extra-heavy pick. Gillian Welch plays a 1956 Gibson J-50 with D’Addario phosphor bronze medium strings and an old genuine tortoiseshell pick.
On Poor David’s Almanack, Rawlings mostly played a 1959 D’Angelico Excel, while Welch picked a high-strung 1960 Gibson Hummingbird. Both use Kyser capos and amplify both guitars and banjo onstage with Shure SM57 microphones.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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