Rawlings developed a hybrid-picking style where he grips a flatpick between his thumb and index finger and also plucks with the nails on his middle and ring fingers. “I can’t wear a thumbpick, so I learned to fingerpick like that,” he shares. Photo by Lindsey Best
Describe your flatpicking approach.
It would all be crosspicking, at least on this record. It’s hard on songs like “Bodysnatchers” to differentiate what I’m doing with what Gill’s doing, because we’re both arpeggiating. So you’re hearing a composite. There are times when I play with a flatpick between my thumb and index finger and then will play with my second and third fingernails. I do that on “Elvis Presley Blues” [from Welch’s Time (The Revelator)]. I can’t wear a thumbpick, so I learned to fingerpick like that.
How do you decide to hybrid pick on a song?
It’s compositional, really. When I decide to fingerpick, I’m going for a particular feel I can’t get any other way. “Elvis Presley Blues,” for example, started as a minor-chord cycle and the whole thing was strummed and slower. We didn’t end up loving that. I rewrote the song to amuse myself, in a John Hurt style. Because I was playing like John Hurt, it was fingerstyle. With Gillian and me both fingerpicking, it gave the song a really natural sound. If either of us were flatpicking, that part would have sounded more like a lead guitar, and we really like the idea of the composite sound of both our guitars as the main instrumental voice for what we do.
I hear crosspicking, Travis picking, and some of Mother Maybelle Carter’s low-note-melody-with-brushed rhythm style on the albums you and Gillian do. What made you focus on those fundamentally rural techniques when you were developing as a guitarist?
My goal was to develop a style of picking that would fill in the sound for our duo and complement the way Gillian plays, which is alternating a bass line and a top string in a backbeat kind of way, and there’s space in between.
I play using crosspicking on the middle strings to fill in that space. I was never particularly good at stealing stuff from people. I had to come up with things I like that I can play. One of the only guitar players that I can point to whose licks I still might play is Norman Blake. Norman fingerpicks beautifully and flat-picks incredibly well. There are certain passages of crosspicking I learned from him that fueled my ideas when Gillian and I were arranging our first songs together.
How do you hold your pick and attack the strings?
I tend to grip the pick primarily with my second finger and thumb. The first finger is a support. I kind of hold it like a pen. I play with the back of the pick, not the tip—the fat edges. I anchor with my palm behind the bridge a little bit and my pinky is resting on the top of the guitar. John McGann in Boston is a really good flatpicker who I took a few lessons with when I was young, and he’s the one who encouraged me to experiment by playing with the back of the pick. I tried it and it gave me a really fat tone, so I immediately took to it.
You have an affinity for dissonant intervals and passages. What drew your ear to these sounds?
I don’t really think of it as dissonance. Those notes sound pretty to me. Some people think I do this to put a fly in the ointment, but I don’t. I’ve liked that kind of sound for as long as I can remember hearing music. When I was at Berklee learning about harmony and the language of music, I was happy to learn the names for it. Like, if I’m in a minor chord, I like the sound of that 9 playing against the minor third and making that minor second. I also learned I liked the sound of an 11 on a minor chord really well—a wider interval than might commonly be used, or to use the fourths and fifths more than the thirds and sixths if you’re singing with somebody, and letting that stretch things out. I often think of those things visually, envisioning an arrangement as a panorama. I think about making sounds “wide” and me and Gillian stacking up notes.
Do you use open or alternate tunings?
I don’t usually. I like to find fingerings in standard tuning that make people think I’m using alternate tunings. Other than dropping an E string to a D, I haven’t often gone far down that tunnel. To me, getting into an alternate tuning was playing mandolin.
So let’s talk about your mandolin, which plays a prominent role in several songs on Nashville Obsolete.
I always wanted one and enjoyed playing them, and finally got a mandolin I like, which is an early ’50s Gibson F-12. It took some time with the tuning [four courses of doubled unison strings, G–D–A–E], but I do like that my ear is what’s always pulling me. I was switching back and forth on “Pilgrim,” between the guitar and the mandolin, trying to figure out which instrument worked, up until the moment we cut it. I liked the way the mandolin made the song move, so I went with that. But the solo at the end just sounds like me making the same choices I would make on the guitar. My attempts to play differently by playing other instruments don’t often work. When I play organ, I usually find I play the same notes I would play on the guitar.