After dropping out of Stanford University five credits short of graduation, Will Ackerman collected $300 from friends and recorded an album of solo-acoustic guitar music called In Search of the Turtle’s Navel. He still hadn’t played a paying gig, but he’d begun to gather fans, passersby who’d heard him perform under an archway at the university’s Old Union building.
Forty years later, it’s hard to overestimate the impact Ackerman’s first album of reflective music had on the acoustic-guitar world, though it can heard in a new generation of guitarists who have sought out Ackerman as a producer. “My wildest dream in 1976 was to sell the 300 records—that was the minimum order Monarch Record Pressing would take,” says Ackerman, talking on the phone from his farm in Windham County, Vermont. “I fully expected to have 173 of those in my closet for the rest of my life, and I had no ambitions of starting a record company. Although I’m given tremendous credit for my brilliant demographical analysis of the record marketplace in the 1970s, nothing could be farther from the case. In an age when disco ruled the airwaves, you’d have to be completely out of your mind to think the market was ready for solo-acoustic guitar. But its sincerity made it work. It was sincere, people appreciated it, and that’s what made the label grow.”
Says Ackerman-produced guitarist Todd Boston: “He’s a great businessman, but there’s a personal side that wants to connect with the people he works with, because he’s happiest when he’s working with friends.”
At first, Ackerman split his time between music and carpentry. And Windham Hill grew slowly, releasing two albums in 1976 and one in 1977. By 1980, while roofing a friend’s house and recording George Winston’s solo folk-piano album Autumn—following releases by guitarists Robbie Basho (Ackerman’s guitar teacher) and Alex De Grassi (Ackerman’s cousin)—Ackerman decided to focus on music full time. That first Winston album made all the difference. Despite an absence of airplay, Winston helped Windham Hill find its natural audience, reaching surprising numbers of people who were looking for intimate, solo-acoustic parlor music so restful, so meditative it could simply become part of the atmosphere. That sound, which started with Ackerman’s own mix of Erik Satie and folk fingerpicking, soon became a musical movement.
‘In an age when disco ruled the airwaves, you’d have to be completely out of your mind to think the market was ready for solo-acoustic guitar.’ —Will Ackerman
But Winston’s piano work is where Ackerman begins when he talks about the highest peaks of Windham Hill. It all started the night after a concert with DeGrassi. Ackerman was rolling out his sleeping bag when Winston asked, “Do you mind if I play the piano a little bit while you’re going to sleep?”
“That was pretty significant,” says Ackerman, who had primarily known Winston as a guitarist. “That was probably 30 million records right there.”
Then there was the time a friend physically grabbed Ackerman as he walked down University Avenue in Palo Alto and brought him to hear Michael Hedges for the first time. Ackerman famously offered Hedges a recording contract on a paper napkin.
Other highlights followed, such as when Ackerman played Carnegie Hall for the first time and when he performed in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace for the wedding of Prince and Princess Takamado. These were the early years when Windham Hill made its name by releasing a string of quietly epochal, carefully branded solo-guitar and solo-piano albums by Ackerman, DeGrassi, Hedges, Winston, Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, Shadowfax, and Liz Story. This was before marketers began selling the music as “New Age.”
Windham Hill made Ackerman a fortune. It grew so large that in 1982 he cut a distribution deal with A&M and began the long process of walking away from his company. “It had become a corporation, and by 1984 I started feeling horrible, went to pretty much every hospital in America,” Ackerman says. “Finally, I met this doctor who said, ‘You’re depressed.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m depressed? We’re selling millions of records. I’m driving a Mercedes. You should see the girl I’m dating.’ But he said, ‘You’re depressed.’ That’s when I packed up my old contracting truck, drove across the country, bought some land in Vermont, and started building again.”
‘When I hear a sound that sounds right, then I start exploring. I literally wait until a tuning resonates with what I’m feeling, until there’s something that says, ‘This is the landscape in which I’m supposed to operate now.’ —Will Ackerman
Thirty years after walking away from Windham Hill, Ackerman is still in Dummerston, Vermont, still building, still playing guitar, and still recording. New England Roads, released in 2010, is his most recent album of new compositions. Freed from the constraints of running a record company, he’s created an entirely new business model producing second-generation, independent acoustic musicians, backed by a rotating group of Windham Hill alums and state-of-the-art technology at Ackerman’s rural Imaginary Road Studios.
Working closely with engineer Tom Eaton, Ackerman produced 15 albums in 2015 and 19 more this year. The best of this wave of solo guitarists—Lawrence Blatt, Todd Boston, Vin Downes, Raphael Groten, Trevor Gordon Hall, David Lindsay, Darin Mahoney, Todd Mosby, Matteo Palmer, Jeffrey Seeman, and Neil Tatar—owes a clear debt to the classic Windham Hill sound, creating music that would be unthinkable without the trailblazing recordings of Ackerman, De Grassi, and Hedges. But each is taking the acoustic guitar into new directions, too, exploring deeply felt, richly individualistic paths that are striking for their warmth, clarity, and vision.
At 66, Ackerman thinks he’s a better producer than he was at Windham Hill. He attributes that to his partnership with Eaton: “The best engineer I’ve ever known.” Eaton has given him “a new lease on life as a producer,” Ackerman says. Producing other people’s albums has always been more important to Ackerman than producing his own. Even today, his website reads, “producer, guitarist, founder of Windham Hill Records.”
For Ackerman, working in the studio is like being a therapist, pushing musicians as far as they can go, holding them as they cry, and helping create a balance of vulnerability and productivity that drives the best studio performances.
The young musicians working at Imaginary Road bear witness to Ackerman’s work ethic.
After months of telephone and email correspondence with Ackerman, Todd Boston dropped by the studio to go over a few remaining details before recording Touched by the Sun. “I thought we would just go over logistics, but instead, we had this incredible conversation about our lives and histories,” says Boston, who plays the guitar, dotar, bass, and flute. “I learned a tremendous amount about Will that afternoon. Recording with Will was beyond any expectation I had in my mind,” Boston adds. “I felt like I was in an incubator, using that metaphor of this young lifeform who needs nurturing and protection. Will really provided this environment to make something better than I was capable of making before I walked through his door.”
What Will Ackerman Plays
In 40 years of building acoustic guitars, the acclaimed Froggy Bottom Guitars, of Chelsea, Vermont, has created only one signature model. That model was designed with Will Ackerman, who luthier Michael Millard calls a master. “As a player, a producer, and an engineer of acoustic music, there is simply no other individual who has ever had the impact on the listening public [that] Will has,” Millard says.
Ackerman’s principle writing instruments are a pair of Froggy Bottom guitars he calls FB3 and FB9, and which he strings with D’Addario lights. “I’m utterly enthralled with the sound of my K-model Froggies,” Ackerman says. “It’s a matter of immersion, and those two instruments do that better than anything I’ve ever heard. The sound is absolutely encompassing. When I pick it up, there’s no daydreaming, no anything else—just that sound, which is so all-encompassing that I don’t want to experience it until I’m writing.”
In the summer of 2014, Trevor Gordon Hall went into Imaginary Road to record Mind Heart Fingers with Ackerman and Eaton. “I was super well-rehearsed,” says Hall, who plays a six-string guitar with a two-octave kalimba built into the lower bout. “I was going to be playing with Will, so I made sure my fingers were at the top of their game. And when I got in there, I realized I was entirely unprepared, because I really wasn’t present. Will and Tom have this very deep sensitivity to the intention of the player, making sure that every moment has a specific feel to it. That’s how they run the sessions, that’s how they mix, that’s how they master, that’s what the music is communicating. That changed the way I play forever, forcing me to get back to whether this music is something I believe in or just something I’ve rehearsed a lot.
“It was a very sandpaper experience to be in the studio. I felt like I was being roughed up—in a good way—and Will kept going, ‘Try it again, try it again, let’s get as much feeling out of this as possible.’ By the end of the week, I just felt . . . refined.”
‘It was a very sandpaper experience to be in the studio [with Ackerman]. I felt like I was being roughed up—in a good way. By the end of the week, I just felt . . . refined.’ —Trevor Gordon Hall
How does Ackerman describe his studio aesthetic? “My criteria have remained the same—namely, ‘Does the music move me?’” he says. “I certainly appreciate skill on the guitar, but more to the point for me is, ‘What do you have to say? Is it honest? Is it connected to something that will resonate with other people on an emotional level?’ Those are subjective judgments, obviously, but they’ve guided me well for over 40 years, so I think I’m pretty in tune when I hear somebody who is really telling me the truth. That’s still my primary criteria.
“Luckily, the beacon that Windham Hill put up years ago is still shining to a lot of folks, whether they’re my age or younger,” Ackerman continues. “The people I’m working with today are here for the same reasons as the people I worked with earlier. I think they’re brilliant, and I think they’re telling the truth. That is exactly how I approach things.”
In the middle of all the recording, there’s little time for composing, so when Ackerman is ready to write, he flies to Italy to spend a few weeks in solitude, doing nothing but improvising. It’s hard to imagine, given the beauty of Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970-2004. The album, featuring re-recordings of some of his best-known works, is a showcase for the dozens of ethereal open tunings he has employed over the years. Yet, Ackerman can go for months without picking up a guitar and years without writing a note. He doesn’t hear an evolution in his playing or in his approach, and in the decades since he began finding his style, he’s continued to create a new tuning for each composition, with only one exception—”Hawk Circle” (1980), which reuses the set-up from 1977’s “Anne’s Song.” He doesn’t understand why it works so well, but once he starts writing, Ackerman finds the feeling is still there: He grabs one of his main writing guitars, starts tuning and detuning the strings at random, and listens for the right note.
“It’s completely arbitrary,” Ackerman says. “When I hear a sound that sounds right, then I start exploring. I literally wait until a tuning resonates with what I’m feeling, until there’s something that says, ‘This is the landscape in which I’m supposed to operate now.’ I’m utterly untrained. I don’t read a note of music. I’ve wrestled with the reasoning for all these open tunings, because it’s very extreme. Clearly it is something that’s important to me, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it’s about utterly removing the frontal lobes from the process of writing. I have no idea where the hell I am, so there’s no going from G to A minor to F. I steadfastly take myself out of any thought until all I have are the sounds to guide me.”
If Ackerman follows those sounds on his upcoming trip to Naples, he might have an album of new material. But even though it’s been six years since New England Roads and 12 since Returning, he doesn’t seem concerned. “I have never seen guitar playing as my job,” he says. “Maybe it’s a game I play with myself, but I tend to see guitar playing as my avocation. My work has always been as a producer. I’m a better producer now than I’ve ever been; I know that for a fact. There’s not a regret that I have. I can walk across my front lawn, go into the studio, and work with all these people who keep coming back year after year after year. There are some indignities of age, God knows, but generally speaking, I’ve never appreciated life more. I’ve never appreciated people more. I’ve never appreciated the fact that I get to do this job more.
“I’m very lucky to have what I think is the best marriage in the world, and I have a couple of really lovely dogs. So how bad could life be?”
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.