Gillian Welch’s lead guitarist and musical partner, interviewed on the release of his first solo album, talks about the development of his playing style (with musical examples).
Dave Rawlings likes to say that he “plays in a two-piece band called Gillian Welch.” Although Rawlings has been a very present partner throughout Welch’s career, co-writing songs, singing intriguing duet harmonies, and creating a rich, unique two-guitar sound with his fluid single-line solos, broken-chord crosspicking, and earbending harmonic choices behind Welch’s steady rhythm, the focus has always been on Welch. Fans who have been eagerly awaiting the next Gillian Welch album (the last, Soul Journey, was released in 2003) were likely intrigued by rumors of a Dave Rawlings–led band and were probably surprised and pleased when the Dave Rawlings Machine turned out to consist of the same members as the “two-piece band called Gillian Welch,” this time with Rawlings singing lead.
Live Dave Rawlings Machine performances have consisted of curiously chosen covers, including Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and Bright Eyes’ (with whom Rawlings has toured) “Method Acting”; bluegrass songs like “Diamond Joe” and “On My Way Back to the Mountain”; and originals, both new Welch/Rawlings tunes like “The Bells of Harlem” and “It’s Too Easy” and songs Rawlings wrote with others, like the Ryan Adams collaboration “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” and the early-Dylan-like song written with Old Crow Medicine Show fiddler Ketch Secor, “I Hear Them All.” But for his debut album under his own name, A Friend of a Friend, Rawlings stuck mostly to originals and co-written songs, the exceptions being Jesse Fuller’s “Monkey and the Engineer,” “Method Acting,” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”
Rawlings says that the album primarily happened because “there were just some newer songs that we had written together that we liked and where we thought, ‘Oh, it’s nice when I’m singing them.’ But I’ve always thought it would be a sort of a horrible bait and switch to have something say ‘Gillian Welch’ and then when you put it on have my voice come out. As much as we like playing as a little band, Gill has this beautiful voice, and when you see the track, that’s what you want to hear. I have no problem with that.”
As Rawlings admits, “There’s not that much guitar playing on the new record,” in part because he’s singing lead and thus “there’s less time to play guitar,” but Rawlings guitar fans will be more than pleased by his sparkling solos on “Sweet Tooth” and the “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer” medley. The primary sound, however, features Rawlings guitar in the midst of a funky string band that includes Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show members Morgan Jahnig (bass) Ketch Secor (fiddle and harmonica), Willie Watson (guitar), Kevin Hayes (guit-jo), as well as Tom Petty alum Benmont Tench (organ and piano), Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott (trumpet and organ), and Karl Himmel (drums).
I had the chance to sit down with Rawlings in San Francisco the day between his and Welch’s performances at the Fillmore and the 2010 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival to talk about how he started playing the guitar, how he creates such a full two-guitar sound with Welch, and where those mysterious “ghostly” notes he’s known for come from.
How did you get started playing the guitar?
Rawlings When I got a guitar, I didn’t have any idea that I wanted a guitar. I played saxophone for a minute in the fourth grade, and I enjoyed the practicing element of it. I mean, I liked music. But I realize now that I have a lot less of an affinity for any instrument that only makes one note at a time. I’m kind of interested in how notes sound against other notes.
So one day in the winter of 1985 I was walking home from the pizza parlor with my friend Glen, and he said, “You gotta ask for a guitar for Christmas, and I’m gonna ask for a harmonica.” He’d decided that he wanted to sing “Heart of Gold” at the talent show and he correctly assumed that he couldn’t get anything bigger than a harmonica out of his folks, which was true, and that my folks would go the $35 for whatever it was, the Save-Rite Harmony guitar, which was also true.
So I started going through the Mel Bay book, and part of the reason I think I gravitated toward playing lead guitar was the Mel Bay books didn’t have any chords in them. It was all this single-line stuff. I started playing through them and recognized right away, in the way that you do when you’re young, that I understood it and was decent at it. Which was a great feeling. As soon as I started playing guitar, I said, “Oh, I see how this works.”
I remember somebody showed me this [Example 1], and then I thought, “But wait, those notes have to be everywhere!” And I methodically figured out [Example 2] all the way up the neck until it repeated, and I went, “And it repeats!” [laughs] The math part of it always came easy.
And you were playing Neil Young songs and stuff like that?
Rawlings Oh yeah, we were playing all of that. That was all old music, but somehow we’d discovered that, in the face of metal. I mean, I like AC/DC as much as the next guy. That was a band I loved—I’d play little bits, like the beginning of “Back in Black,” or “Hells Bells,” or something—but I didn’t really like the hair bands. Mostly I was just learning how to play Neil Young and Bob Dylan songs, because they were my favorite music. And within a year or so, I had a punk band with some other friends, where we wrote our own songs and I’d come up with complicated little guitar parts. I bought a blue Squier Strat with 315 one-dollar bills from my paper route.
At some point, I saw an ad in the back of some paper for a working country band. So I went and auditioned for this guy and he said, “Well, you don’t know anything about country music.” I knew I liked country music, because when I was really young, country music was on the radio. You know, “The Gambler” and Jim Croce, that sort of folky country stuff. I knew I liked those sounds, and I thought I probably liked country music because I liked Nashville Skyline and Neil Young. It didn’t seem that far to me.
But he said “I’m going to give you a tape of six songs. Come back next week and see if you can play these.” As it turned out, he was a huge Emmylou [Harris] fan. The first song on the tape was “In My Dreams,” by Paul Kennerly, who’s now a dear friend of mine. I learned those songs and eventually he gave me his whole repertoire and I joined this band. So at 17 or so, I started playing around Groton, Connecticut, down by the sub bases, all these little country bars around Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The band was acoustic guitar, me playing my Strat, bass, and drums. And I had to cover everything, the fiddle solos, the steel solos, and we played four hours a night. So it was a lot of lead guitar.
How did you end up at Berklee?
Rawlings I went to Berklee because it was a music school, and I didn’t really know what else to do. I didn’t know anybody who made a living at music. No one in my family knew anybody. We weren’t in entertainment, we were in Rhode Island. I always wonder what would have happened if I’d known enough at that point to move to Manhattan and try to find a band. Because in a certain style, I played well enough that I could have. I’m sure my life would have gone down a different path. Who knows? I would be playing electric guitar now.
But you knew that music was what you wanted to do?
Rawlings There was a big turning point when I got up to Berklee and I was in a better country band, a more professional Boston-based country band. We played the first night and they handed me $65, and I was like “Oh, I’ll never work a real job, ever.”
I really enjoyed my time at Berklee. After my first couple of semesters, I was squatting on people’s couches in Boston. I put all of my classes in the middle of the week, nothing before 11 am, and I would ’shed till four in the morning. I had gigs four or five nights a week with various bands, just playing all the time. Nothing could have been better for me.
I was very lucky to have been from Rhode Island and to have a car in Boston, and be able to leave. Between Berklee, the New England Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory, Boston University, nobody can get gigs. There are a million kids who want to play, so the fact that I could get in my little car and go play a country gig at some bar for four hours was a godsend.
When did you start playing acoustic guitar?
Rawlings I bought a Taylor 810 just as I moved to Nashville. Gillian had moved to Nashville and was trying to get a publishing deal. She hadn’t played out hardly at all, and I was like “You’ve gotta play as much as you can.” So she started going to as many writer’s nights as she could. I was playing with a lot of different people when I first moved to Nashville, but I was going with Gill most of the time when she would play.
I remember we had one sort of moment in my kitchen where we sang “Long Black Veil” together because we had both been listening to all this brother-team stuff. And we were like, “Oh, that’s cool, our blend doesn’t suck.” It wasn’t good, but we were aware that our voices weren’t incompatible. There were all these group jams we would go to, and Gill and I gradually realized that we sounded the best when we just played by ourselves. We were so into the Blue Sky Boys and when we would sit and play those songs, with the two guitars and the harmony, it actually sounded like something.
So I was playing that 810 through all those early Bluebird shows. All the parts of the first record, Revival, were written on the Taylor. We were all plugged in. I had this Baggs thing and I’d roll the top off, so it sort of sounded like a Les Paul.
It seems like your playing really changed when you got the Epiphone. I remember hearing you with the Taylor and it was like you went from two separate guitars—lead guitar, accompanist/singer—to this big, unique band sound. How much does what you play depend on how those guitars sound together?
Rawlings Everything I play on this guitar with Gillian is designed to make a sound with Gillian. It bears no relation to how I would play this guitar, or for that matter how I would sing, with someone else. It’s all designed towards that end. My little crosspicky things that I do, or the thing that happens where if I play a low fifth [Example 3] under what she’s playing and we get the note below it, so it sounds like there’s a low root. So much of it, if not all of it, is just trying to be an extension of Gill’s guitar. I don’t know what happens without her playing rhythm like that. It doesn’t start with what I’m doing.
I’m now aware that some of what I do can stand on its own, because I’ve assimilated some of her time and her feel. If I just start a song by myself, which we’re doing some with the [Dave Rawlings] Machine shows, I tend to feel most relaxed if I just start playing and then she falls in.
You did that with “I’ll Fly Away” last night.
Rawlings Yeah, “I’ll Fly Away” is a good example. [Example 4]
But in general, what you play is based on trying to get a bigger sound with what Gillian’s doing?
Rawlings That’s what’s interesting to me, how to get that texture and that mood, especially throughout solos, to keep enough ringing so that it never thins out to, “Oh, there’s a guitar playing lead on top of another guitar.” I just try to keep that sound happening, which is all I’m ever really thinking about. When we’re working on a tune and figuring out how to play it, the capos get moved around and a lot of things get tried until we hit something that sounds like it has space and atmosphere instantly.
One thing that seems cool about your guitar is that when you capo way up it becomes an entirely different instrument.
Rawlings Right. Down here [in open position] is not my favorite place to be on this guitar. It does seem to come alive above the fifth fret.
And there’s some stuff where you capo up to the seventh fret, or higher.
Rawlings I was playing last night up here, at the tenth fret [Example 5]. Some of my favorite stuff is up at the ninth fret [Example 6]. It’s so nice. There’s some stuff on the second record where Gill’s playing banjo, and I choke up—a tune called “One Morning.” I love how this guitar sounds up there. [Example 7] It just holds together in a crazy way.
I want to talk about the “dissonant” stuff you play, the “other notes,” or whatever you want to call it. I just wondered where that comes from?
Rawlings It’s hard to know. I’ve always liked, even when I’m listening to old bluegrass records, when they’d sing an open interval and there’d be like a nine in there. I always liked those sounds. I found it really funny that the first couple times I was messing around on an organ, my fingers just went to the same notes; I ended up playing the same notes I’d play on guitar. Those sounds are just in there. I think “dissonance” is a bad word for them, because to my ear, they’re where I want to be. I like 11s on a minor chord, or nines, or that minor second thing [Example 8].
On organ they’re almost too much. I’ll sit there and play a B3 along with some record just for fun, and end up with a little cluster going and the Leslie turning, and with the overtones you have on the B3, it’s intoxicating, the sound of those things beating against each other.
One of my favorite things I ever saw on the Internet was a comment about the title track of Time: The Revelator. The comment was like, “Was the engineer even listening to this? The guitars are so out of tune.” And I’m like “What do you mean the guitars are out of tune? We tune all the time. Those guitars aren’t out of tune!” And then I realized that they just think that’s [plays Example 8 again] out of tune. And I’m like “Oh, my god. I just thought that was pretty.”
You hear that stuff in country music, ninths in steel parts, and 11ths in Stanley Brothers’ vocal harmonies, but maybe because it’s the way you’re playing it? It’s so concentrated, there’s nothing else sometimes.
Rawlings I think I do play them a little differently because they don’t sound weird to me. I lay on them, because I want to hear them. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything other than that I’m playing and here’s a note that sounds good, so I’m going to play it for awhile. The notes aren’t equal to me. There’s ones I want to hear so bad, and when I get to a certain point, I’m not really making a choice, I’m just compelled to go to that next place.
I remember hearing “Caleb Meyer” the first time and thinking it was this whole new sound I’d never heard before. You’d been doing some of that stuff, but that was so focused.
Rawlings Yeah, that? [Example 9] It’s funny, because Gill wrote that song on banjo. I think she was in sawmill tuning, that modal banjo tuning. And then she started playing it on guitar with her B string tuned down to A. She was doing this [Example 10]. And I was just aware that I wanted to take that fifth-y thing and go further out with it. The third pulls it back in, and I thought [plays first two beats of Example 9]. That’s an 11, and I’m crazy about nines [plays rest of Example 9], so I was just trying to expand that chord outward.
It’s similar to “Revelator.” I wanted “Revelator” to start with a lick where you would know what song it was. But I didn’t want it to be anything. I wanted it to be very simple and bell-like. So then I thought [Example 11], which was relentless and annoying, but also very wide and it created atmosphere instantly. Because when you get [Example 12], when you get from here to there [Example 13], that makes me very happy. You’ve got your space, and once you have that space established you have a fair amount of flexibility with what you can do before it goes away. I like that it lingers awhile, it gives you some time to mess around with some other stuff and maybe make a few mistakes and some wrong moves as long as you come back.
The sound of “Caleb Meyer” reminds me of these traditional songs that never have the third in the melody. Tthey always go from the 4 to the 2 to the 1. There’s no third, ever.
Rawlings Right, I know the sound you’re talking about.
Yeah, and it’s a sound. Those songs sound that way because they never . . .
Rawlings They never let you know where you are. I like in that song the fact that Gill’s little D chord turns into a D7, but with no third on the seventh chord, so you’ve got the third of the key, but it sounds like that [Example 14]. Which bears some relation to this sound I love in those slide blues songs, like Muddy Waters, where he goes to the IV chord, but he’ll just slide up to the I. You know it’s the IV, because of where it is, but there’s just one note being played, the I.
The other thing that I was aware of, sometime through this time period, and that I was crazy about, is Chet Baker. I listened to that stuff incessantly. I always loved one very graceful thing he does, where he doesn’t ever let anything resolve or get too far outside. There are these really long passages in his solos, where he just works in this one palette. Jerry Garcia does it in a very different way. Jerry will almost never loudly play the one on the downbeat. He’ll go on for like three minutes, until finally he gets to the point in the solo where he bends up to it on the downbeat, and everyone goes crazy. He does it more with syncopated rhythmic stuff where he keeps things bubbling. But Chet Baker is different, and that would have been in my head [when we were arranging] “Caleb Meyer”—how to keep it from ever settling back down.
When you’re playing solos are you thinking in terms of chords, or dynamics, or the way the melody is going?
Rawlings When I play well, I generally don’t think about anything, which is normal. I don’t think about scales, though I know some people do. What I’m generally aware of is what the notes I’m playing are relative to the chord I’m playing over. Like if we’re playing an A chord and I’m doing that [plays first bar of Example 15], I’m generally aware that I’m playing the ninth and the third. And then I’d be aware if we were going up to an Em chord, that I could get to the seventh there and get to the fifth [plays second bar of Example 15], and then maybe throw the nine underneath [third bar of Example 15]. There’s also the thing of not wanting the song to fall apart. That’s what I’m generally thinking. I’m thinking, if we’re playing live, how do I keep the energy or the mood of the song going through this acoustic guitar solo over another acoustic guitar, which is why I end up playing stuff where there’s other notes ringing, just to fill it out [Example 16].
The interesting thing to me about improvising is that you have to have a certain amount of power for it to work. One of my pet peeves when I watch bands is when the guitar player takes a solo, and you can’t hear them, and I’m like “What are you doing?” The first thing you do is go back and turn your amp up four clicks.You want to take a good solo? Number one: be loud!” Don’t be loud all the time, but have the ability to be loud if you need to be. You have to be loud enough to where you can actually create or push or move the whole thing, so you can grab it and go “No, we’re gonna do this.” Then it becomes interesting to me. Because otherwise you’re just filling space.
We’ve been playing some gigs with M. Ward recently, where Gill and Matt were playing rhythm and we both took solos, and there were a couple moments where we had some real interaction, some nice moments where everything built to a point where you didn’t think it was going to go, and the crowd responded really well. Bill Murray, who was there, said something about the guitar playing. He said, “It’s just effortless power.” And I thought, “Yes, you’re steering the big boat.” There was the moment where we wanted it to get big and intense and have everybody go, “Yeah.” And they did. And there was the moment where we wanted it to get crazy introspective, and it did. And that’s the rewarding part of it to me. I guess that’s part of why Gillian and I have always liked playing as a two-piece, because we always feel pretty in sync about where it should go.
Dave Rawlings’ Epiphone Olympic
Dave Rawlings’ signature 1935 Epiphone Olympic has helped define his sound, and that of Gillian Welch’s recordings and stage show, ever since he found the small-body archtop in 1995. Here he tells the story of that fortuitous meeting:
In the winter of ’95, we went up to Boston to see our friend Earl, who played steel; we knew him from Berklee. He was a good friend and a good mechanic. We were in Concord, at Earl’s dad’s house, and we were helping Earl paint Bob Stanton’s 1977 Olds 88. The house is one of these weird houses where it’s built up and the driveway goes under the house, which is the basement, but also the garage. It’s really cold, and I’m wandering around the basement, and over in the back on the workbench is all this crap, and I see a guitar shape. But the guitar is completely covered with sawdust. There’s a saw right there, and the sawdust has blown over the guitar. On the headstock it’s about a half-inch thick and down on the body it’s a quarter-inch thick. It has to have been lying there for four or five years. Somebody had got it at a yard sale and sold it to Earl.
The back was stripped, it didn’t have strings, didn’t have a bridge on it, and it was covered with sawdust. Gill brushed the sawdust off the peghead and said “Oh, it’s an Epiphone,” I picked it up, turned it over, and tapped the back, which is something I always do, and I thought it had one of the nicest knocks I’d ever heard on a guitar. I like the sound of boxes, and it sounded clear as a bell. I really liked it. I walked out holding the guitar up and said, “Earl, what do you need for this?” Because I had it in my head for some reason that I don’t understand that a little archtop might be a cool thing to play. I just had some thought about midrange and some thought about the way Gill played, and I thought it would be cool. But it wasn’t a very focused thought.
But Earl said, “I don’t want to sell that. I love that thing.” But I’m desperate to get it, and I don’t really know why. I just really loved the shape of it and the way it felt, even though it didn’t have strings. I hadn’t heard it, obviously. So Earl said, “Dave, listen, if you can get me a Bandmaster Reverb head, I’ll trade you.” [Laughs] Now, I’ve never seen a Bandmaster Reverb head, I’ve never even heard of one. This is some silver-faced Fender amp they made in the late ’60s or early ’70s, I think. I go into Boston the next day and go to Allston Music and there amongst the amps is a silver Bandmaster Reverb head! I don’t have any money at this point, because I never had any money, and it’s like $200 and I maybe have $120. I plug it in and it works, but the reverb doesn’t work. So I said to the guy, “Look, it’s a Bandmaster Reverb, but the reverb doesn’t work. Sell it to me for $120.” Or whatever I had. And he did. I take it back to Earl, who never thought I’d find one, because he’d been looking for one forever—apparently he thought it was a great steel amp. And he was like “What? You found it?” And he felt bad that I had to spend $120, so he gave me $60 back. I ended up with $60 and he gave me this guitar.
I take it back to Nashville. It has no bridge, and again, for reasons I would love to know why I thought this, I had decided that because the body was so small and there was no space between the f-holes that what I needed was a one-piece ebony bridge that wasn’t adjustable, no little wheels. I took it to Joe Glaser and I said, “I want a one-piece ebony bridge,” and he said, “Oh, that’s interesting, OK.” And then months roll around, I don’t think of it, time passes.
We’re getting ready to go out to California to make the first record. We’d met with all the producers, and we’re going to work with T Bone out in California. I remember this guitar, and I’m like, “Shit, I should get this thing done.” So truly, the day we’re shipping guitars to Los Angeles, Joe finally gives me this thing back and I string it up. I strum a G chord, and it sounded clear and I liked the way it rang, so I thought, “OK, I’ll take it.” Because I had an extra box. And then it was the last guitar we tried when we were in the studio with T Bone that first couple days, and as soon as I heard it on mic, I thought, “OK, I’m done.”
It was a huge change from my Taylor 810, and I said, “This thing survived 60 years, or whatever, without a pickup. I’m not going to be the one to put a pickup in this thing. I’m going to try to do it with a mic.” And Gill started miking her Guild. It changed everything. To have this guitar and to be playing with mics is when it started to have a sound that I understood and liked. The thing that is the worst about guitar pickups on acoustic guitar is that no matter how quiet you play, the attack is always the same volume, which ruins everything. I have no idea how you play when the attack is as loud as the note when you play quiet. You can’t play quiet! So it takes all of the dynamics out of your playing and then you’re done. I mean I hear people do it and do a good job, but I don’t know how to do it.
From a technical guitar geek standpoint, as far as I know, nobody except for Epiphone ever made a small-body guitar like this with a scale this long. And that’s where that weird pianistic, almost OM-like sound comes. I got an old OM and it’s just so interesting the way that works with a small body, but this is even smaller. The scale is longer than a J-50, slightly shorter than a D-18, but all those other L-50s, L-35, Harmony, every other small archtop have that spongy scale. I realized that’s why none of those guitars will do anything close to what these little guys will do. Now I realize that the only ones that will do this are the ones that were made right in the middle of 1935, by this one guy [at Epiphone], this one batch. And this is by no means the best-sounding one. I’ve got a few others that sound way better. I found a couple that are a few serial numbers off, one in each direction, and it was interesting to see, because the specs changed so much on these guitars, from one to the other. “Oh, the fingerboard’s rounded.” “Oh, it’s not”. “Oh, the arch in the top is like this.” It was interesting to find the batch that was made by this guy, where you can sort of see it in everything. They’re handmade guitars. And I like that Joe Glaser is part of the equation now, because every time I get one I take it in and he takes this bridge off and makes a duplicate of this one.
It’s interesting because this guitar has changed a lot. It sounded best about four or five years ago. It was tight when I got it, and it had a lot of sustain. Somebody recorded some really early shows, like 1996 or something, and it was so great to hear them the other day and go, “Oh, yeah, that guitar used to sound completely different. I was playing this really slow stuff on “Only One and Only” and I could really hear how the notes went. But it’s gotten warmer and darker over the years, which I’m not that happy with, because it sort of limits what it can do. We’re trying to find some really good hard ebony to make a duplicate of this bridge to see if I can brighten it up. Some even nicer, older, 70-year-old superdense stuff. It still sounds good, but it’s interesting to know that it did change and it got played in in the way that you would normally think, “Oh that’s great.”