Interview: Fingerpicker Lawson Rollins Discusses His New Album, 'Elevation'

It’s not often that a Latin jazz/flamenco/samba guitarist generates millions of views on YouTube with short instrumental pieces, but Lawson Rollins is used to defying expectations.

As a teenager in the 1980s, he took a liking to the stylings of classical guitarist Andrés Segovia instead of the hair metal and synth-pop groups of the decade, and to this day, he still hasn’t mastered what many beginners learn to use at their first lesson: the pick.

“I don’t even know how to use a pick,” the fingerpicker admitted in a recent interview with Guitar World. “But I think I’ve made up for not being able to use a pick with some of the other techniques I’ve developed.”

Those techniques are on full display in the YouTube clips for songs like “The Fire Cadenza” and “Santa Ana Wind,” which have combined for over 5 million views on the popular video-sharing site. In the jaw-dropping clips, Rollins navigates between notes with breakneck speed, making his way across his acoustic guitar’s fretboard with virtuosic precision.

“I did notice when I was first starting out that I had quick hands from the get-go,” Rollins recalled during the conversation, in which he also provided insight into how he keeps his fingernails healthy and titles his instrumental works.

Rollins’ new album, Elevation, a 73-minute musical journey recorded in Nepal and Iran over the course of 18 months, came out Tuesday, October 18, on Infinita Records. His Guitar World interview follows.

GUITAR WORLD: What was your first guitar?

I was a drummer for many years, but when I was 15 I got a Yamaha CG 40A nylon string guitar, which cost $99. I still have it upstairs and it’s held up really well. It never made it onto a record, but it’s a fun little guitar.

Why did you choose the classical guitar and never go electric?

I was sort of getting my rock 'n' roll gene worked out on a daily basis with the drums. I was inspired when I heard Andres Segovia. My parents were very much classical music lovers and had actually seen Segovia in concert in the ‘80s. I was really inspired by his melodicism and romanticism.

I noticed you keep your fingernails long. Is that ever a struggle?

I have been blessed with pretty strong nails. If you lose a nail, you’re basically out of work — you have to go get a fake nail put on or wait for it to grow back and hope you don’t have any performances scheduled. There’s a whole science to looking after your nails, and the two main things for me are keeping the nails moisturized and filing them every day, so I don’t get jagged edges and nothing gets snagged up on my clothes. It’s a whole sort of lifestyle you develop.

Did you always fingerpick?

Yeah, I don’t even know how to use a pick. I wish I could use a pick, because you can make some things sound better on a nylon string and you get a really nice crisp and clear tone. But I think I’ve made up for not being able to use a pick with some of the other techniques I’ve developed.

Which guitars did you use on Elevation?

I just use one guitar on all of my solo albums — a Maldonado custom guitar made in 2006. I really like the cutaway — it gives me good access to the frets and has a really nice rounded heel. It’s a wonderful instrument.

How do you decide which instruments to add to your songs?

A lot of it is putting on your producer hat and figuring out what will sound best on which tune. It’s a creative process that I like to take my time with after I’ve composed the songs. Very often, I record the guitar first and let the tune settle for several weeks before I think about which instruments would enhance the songs.

This is something I’ve always wanted to ask a musician — how do you title your instrumental works?

That’s sort of difficult for me. I have pretty good writing skills and I was an English major in college, but for the life of me, titling songs is torturous. I have these ridiculous working titles, like “The Bossa Nova Tune,” “The Reggae Tune,” “The Rumba Tune.” I stick with those working titles until the bitter end, when I’m forced to title them. With Elevation, the album title came a little earlier because I had titled the title track early on, which is unusual. Elevation became a motif throughout the whole album, where the song rises up to an elevated point in the middle and then comes back down to Earth. Quite a few of the songs have that same structure, so that title sort of infused the whole rest of the project. Normally, it’s such a struggle to come up with titles that aren’t cheesy.

Lawson Rollins' new album, Elevation, was released October 18 via Infinita Records.

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