Being an accomplished guitarist doesn’t mean much if you can’t write terrific tunes, especially when you’re blazing a troubadour trail and incorporating instrumentals. Tyler Ramsey is that rare breed of player who is brilliant on guitar and vocals, a wise wordsmith, clever with arrangements and creative in the studio.
“I’ve always aimed to have my songs sound complete with just a guitar and a vocal,” Ramsey says, “even if I ultimately wind up adding a rhythm section and other layers to the recording.”
After 10 years as lead guitarist for Band of Horses, Ramsey departed the group in 2017 to focus on his solo career, which dates back to his 2005 eponymous debut album. The guitarist makes his country home outside the roots-music sanctuary of Asheville, North Carolina, and his music has a distinctly natural and never-in-a-hurry quality. “Long walks in the woods with my dog feed my songwriting,” Ramsey says of his method, which is depicted on the cover of his latest solo album, For the Morning (Fantasy Records). On it, he encapsulates serenity via fleet fingerstylings and inventive, textured arrangements, creating what is simply one of the most gorgeous folk recordings you’ll hear this year. The track “White Coat” has a fingerpicked “Dear Prudence”-like descending pattern, with lush sonics and Ramsey’s lovely tenor vocal in a cinematic setting, and features a bridge that sounds as if a string band from the Civil War era happened into the studio. The evocative instrumental “Darkest Clouds” sets the scene for “Firewood,” which starts off with a Harvest-era Neil Young vibe before blossoming into an expansive affair that sounds like members of Wilco and Radiohead gathered around Ramsey’s campfire.
Anyone wondering why a player might walk away from a big-time gig as Ramsey did when he split from Band of Horses will find an answer on For the Morning. The album doesn’t simply sound pleasing — it feels like peace itself.
What are your acoustic guitar roots?
I started playing a Sigma acoustic guitar just before my freshmen year of high school, when my family moved to Nashville. My uncle gave me a cassette tape of Leo Kottke with A Shout Toward Noon on one side, and 6- and 12-String Guitar on the other. I loved hearing the guitar covering all the bases: melody lines, bass lines and crazy rhythmic stuff. It wasn’t at all cool to be into Michael Hedges at that point, but I was way into Michael Hedges. His music inspired me to start toying around with open tunings on the acoustic guitar. Those two players opened my eyes to the fact that a song could be completely played solely on the acoustic guitar. It’s an incredible instrument with limitless potential.
Can you connect the dots between being a solo acoustic enthusiast and joining Band of Horses?
We crossed paths while working in the same studio in 2007, when I was finishing up A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea. Bill Reynolds played bass with me and with them, and he was the connection. The first album I made with them was Infinite Arms, which was pretty heavily produced, aside from a song I had on there called “Evening Kitchen”; it was just my fingerstyle acoustic guitar and lead vocals with harmonies, so it stood out. I used a lot of alternate tunings trying to find space that wasn’t represented in Band of Horses, but that song is actually in standard tuning with a capo at the fifth fret. There’s a new version on the new album, called “Evening Country.”
Your 2011 solo album, The Valley Wind, is full of fantastic fingerstyle acoustic tunes. Can you talk about a couple of them?
“1,000 Blackbirds” is a good example, and the opening instrumental track, “Raven Shadow,” was essentially an introduction. I played it on a 12-string tuned C G D G C D from the sixth string to the first. I used that same tuning with a capo at the second fret for “1000 Blackbirds,” which is rooted in country-blues fingerstyle. It’s essentially a basic folk form, but it takes some interesting twists and turns. I like to incorporate instrumental movements within the framework of a lyrical folk arrangement to make it more multifaceted.
What’s your overriding M.O. regarding acoustic guitars, and how does that play into the arsenal you used on For the Morning?
I get a certain feeling in my chest when I pick up a guitar that hits me in the right place, and it can happen with any kind of acoustic. I love how a vintage guitar has its own story, and I’m just a part of that storyline. I do have some newer ones though. One of my go-to guitars is a Martin D-18 that my grandma gave me when it was pretty new, around the year 2000. Her maiden name was Martin, and she remembered me saying that I wanted one when I was a kid. I still cherish it, and it really sings in lowered open tunings. I’ve got a Guild Orpheum OM from their custom shop that was made about seven years ago. I used it a lot on Band of Horses’ Acoustic at the Ryman. It’s great for fingerstyle stuff, and it carries open G tuning really well.
I had a late-’60s Martin 12-string with me for these sessions, and a Gibson Folksinger from the same era that I found in a pawnshop. I keep that in standard tuning, so a lot of my standard songs are written on that. And I’ve got a fretless banjo from the Civil War era that I used on the new record as well. I played it in my clumsy attempt at clawhammer style on the bridge section of “White Coat.” I also played it with an EBow on the instrumental “Darkest Clouds” to get that flute-like sound in the background.
“Darkest Clouds” is a great example of your unique fingerpicking technique.
Most guitar teachers would probably advise against my kind of technique, because it’s probably not ergonomically correct for most people to hang their fingers as straight up-and-down as I do. But I’m very tall, and I’ve got big hands with long fingers. Somehow I wound up bracing my ring and pinkie fingers on the guitar top while I use my thumb and first two fingers to pluck.
Did you plan the way “Darkest Clouds” flows seamlessly into “Firewood”?
I like to write companion pieces. I was working on the instrumental and thinking of how “Firewood” might go, and how they might help tie the album together in a way. Those were born of the same tuning. From strings six to one, it’s D A D F A D. Nathan Salsburg is an amazing fingerstyle guitar player. I was thrilled to have him add the second guitar that comes in briefly during the middle of “Darkest Clouds.” He walked in, killed it and walked out. He blows my mind, so it was like a dream to play with him. I played “Firewood” on the same Guild acoustic that I used for “Darkest Clouds.” It starts off sounding very similar, and then builds. I like to double an acoustic part precisely with a clean electric guitar in the background, so the listener almost loses track of what’s what. I used a late-’60s Guild Starfire strung with flatwounds to do that on “Firewood.” Gareth Liddiard from the Drones dropped in and added some guitar as well. He’s one of my electric guitar heroes, because his playing is so raw.
Can you share some insights on the song “White Coat”?
That was originally in open-G tuning, but I took it down a step to accommodate the instrumental section that I wrote separately on banjo, so from low to high it’s C F C F A C. In addition to the banjo on the middle section, I played a 12-string Martin and Scott Moore played fiddle. And then there’s another section where the acoustic and electric guitar double each other. It’s same trick as on “Firewood,” but with a Strymon BigSky reverb on the electric guitar that winds up sounding somewhat like a cello.
How do you tackle your tunes on tour?
Mostly I’ve been using the Guild Orpheum OM with an L.R. Baggs M80 soundhole pickup. I’ll run that through a direct box and use the house monitors. I like to have a microphone on the acoustic as well that only goes to the front of house, so I don’t get feedback in my monitor but the audience hears the natural acoustic sound. I use the Guild Starfire electric strung with D’Addario flatwounds running through a Matchless Spitfire amp a lot, as well. I fell in love with how it responds to fingerstyle playing in open tunings. The sound is very expressive, with lots of overtones and other interesting nuances.
I’m actually just about to head out for a run of solo dates, and I’m excited to stop at Baxendale Guitar in Athens, Georgia, where Scott Baxendale rebuilds old guitars. I did a tour with Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket, and I was knocked out by how good his Baxendale sounded, so I ordered an H162 remanufactured Harmony Sovereign. I can’t wait to pick it up and go play. The audience has become a blend of my longtime followers, Band of Horses fans and brand-new faces. I’m looking forward to playing the new tunes for everybody. In a way, it feels like I’m just getting started.