Singer-Songwriter and Fingerstyle Guitar Wizard Willy Porter Goes Deep on ‘The Ravine’

Porter sat down with AG to discuss his inventive playing, his latest record, his creative process, and his dedication to practice and preparation.
Willy-Porter-photo-Cory-Zimmerman-Z2
Willy Porter, Photo: Cory Zimmerman/Z2

The sun had just set on a perfect, gumdrop-colored leaf peeping day in late October when Willy Porter took the stage at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts. Porter silently nodded and smiled, greeting his eager audience, and began to play fast arpeggio harmonics up the neck on his custom Jason Kostal guitar set up with a low open tuning and partial capo. Perfectly rendered and hypnotic, drawing in and centering the audience, the harmonic pattern soon opened up like a clear stretch of road into an infectious groove with a thumping bass note felt deep in the belly as Porter sang, “Put down your weapons, let the music change your mind.”

For over 30 years, the Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter has made his mark on the acoustic music scene for his exceptional, inventive guitar playing, his heartfelt and soulful lyricism, his improvisational live shows, and his side-splitting humor. But above all else, Porter may be best known for his kindness as he searches for and celebrates the best of what humans are capable of. On his most recent album, The Ravine—his 13th full-length release—Porter once again invites listeners to embark on a musical journey that traverses a grand spectrum of emotions. From the sublime to the mundane, this new record is an unwavering quest for new musical, spiritual, and personal horizons.

Willy Porter standing with guitar in an empty concert hall. Photo by Cory Zimmerman/Z2
Photo: Cory Zimmerman/Z2

I first met Porter in 2005, when I opened for him at Sam Bond’s Garage in Eugene, Oregon. In the early days of my own touring career, I had made the rookie mistake of miscalculating how long it would take to get to the venue and had missed his soundcheck. Also, on the way to the gig, when I opened the jewel box to the album (Dog Eared Dream) that Porter’s agency had sent me, the CD was missing. So I hadn’t heard one note of his music, but after I quickly sound checked, we decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I was enchanted by Porter’s way with words (what I’ve come to describe as “diamonds falling out of his mouth”), and we were fast friends. Then I heard him play. Like everyone I’ve ever known experiencing Porter’s music for the first time, I was blown away. I ended up opening several tours for him, and he produced two of my albums on his Weasel Records label. 

I have been lucky enough to be the proud owner of Porter’s now-discontinued signature model Guild guitar and joined him onstage for a few tunes at the Fruitlands gig. We caught up after the show so I could ask him some questions about his newest record, his process, and his practice. 

Blending Technique and Groove

Porter’s approach to the guitar is a dance between skill and emotional expression. He uses complex combinations of alternate tunings (including lowered standard tuning) and partial capos, and a highly sophisticated approach to fingerstyle. (See sidebars for more on his tunings and technique.) But he aims to let the song, rather than his chops, guide his playing.

He admits, “In terms of right-hand techniques, I fall into a couple of patterns repeatedly and then ask, ‘How is this serving the function of what I want to say lyrically? Is the technique blocking the emotion somehow, or is it serving the emotional center of the song?’” It’s this desired emotional resonance that leads to new and uncharted territory, and as he likes to say of his method, “Trust first and question later.”

Porter’s ability to blend intricate fingerstyle techniques with a deep groove comes with a humble nod to a diverse set of influences from Stevie Wonder to Leo Kottke. Porter specifically cites Wonder’s approach as inspiration for the album’s opening track, “Change Your Mind.” “Stevie Wonder just speaks to me so much, everything from ‘Superstition’ forward,” he says. “The way he plays . . . and what he doesn’t play.”

It’s the spaciousness within the layers of his playing that keeps Porter’s music accessible and out of the realm of showy pyrotechnics. “I use my thumb, first finger, and second and third fingers as a pair to create this motion,” he explains. “It’s how I can get that swamp and have it be the guitar that’s making that statement while mimicking the Clavinet.” He cites his song “This Train” from his 2014 record, Human Kindness, as having that same right-hand groove, and adds, “We fall back into these places that are habits, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but then you have to recognize if it’s serving what you really want to say or not.”

Finding the Way

Porter expands the list of ingredients in what he calls his nutritional theory of music. “You are what you fall in love with,” he says, “and at some point, it becomes your thing.” 

He shares, “I think the first guitar player that really blew me away was Joni Mitchell because I realized right away that the guitar can have this big voice and these wide chords.” 

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He goes on to list Scottish singer-songwriter and guitarist John Martyn as a big influence. A bit later, he discovered Leo Kottke and says, “There’s a lot of Leo Kottke’s approach [in my music], a sort of post-Travis thing. Where would I be without the great one?” 

Willy Porter seated with his nine-string guitar on an empty stage. Photo by Cory Zimmerman/Z2
Photo: Cory Zimmerman/Z2

Porter also tells a story from his college days, in the mid-1980s, about picking up Michael Hedges from the airport. “I was the student delegate for my arts committee, and they said, ‘You’re a guitar player, you get to drive him around.’ So, I drove him around for a day. I took him to the sound check, and he started calling out frequencies and adjusting his monitors. He knew how to communicate to the engineer, and I was like, OK. That’s a secret language I am going to learn.” 

Onstage, Hedges started to play the tune “Follow Through,” Porter continues, “And it was like, OK, there go all the rules. It was like seeing Hendrix! So, my conception of what a guitar could be was altered in that moment. I didn’t try to figure out what he was doing as much as I just looked at it differently from then on and decided to follow it in a different way.”

Following and expanding upon this different way has led Porter to develop his own sacred language. “Music is the only religion that hasn’t hurt anybody as far as I can tell,” says Porter, “and I’m just trying to use it as my spiritual practice.” 

Getting inside the Song

Porter’s dedication to practice and preparation is a fundamental aspect of his musical journey. “I’m constantly looking at the stuff that’s coming up in a couple of weeks and trying to get that under my hands,” he says. “I want the access points to all be available to me. I don’t want to be reaching for something because I’m unprepared. I want to get into the interior of the song, and I can’t do that if I’m not prepared enough.” 

The question then is how to prepare fully yet leave space enough for improvisation and magic—to not practice so much that the songs become antiseptic, the performance phoned in. “I’m a big believer in playing it all the way through and leaving the mistakes in there,” Porter says. “I’ll work on the spots where there are issues, but I won’t obsess because A) carpal tunnel happens that way and B) it’s a piece of music, it’s not a section. By focusing on the section and giving too much attention to it, it just means you’re gonna mess up the other parts that you didn’t pay attention to later.”

He adds, “You’ve got to leave a little bit of mystery in there, because live, especially when you’re by yourself, you may want to try some different chord inversions or you might want to try adding a completely different section in the moment. So just having the facility to do that is something I’m trying to build into the equation.”

The Ravine captures that movement and spaciousness of a live performance. “Everything is cut live, vocal and guitar together, for better or for worse,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to have this connected feeling to the songs. Live, I’m used to playing that way, and then to get into the studio and do it differently seems kind of foolish.” 

Recording The Ravine

Porter started recording the songs for the album with Milwaukee musician and producer Mike Hoffmann. “Mike and I were going to really get these songs locked in as far as my guitar/vocal performance, see what we had, what it wanted to be,” Porter says. “Then we were going to discuss things like, are we going to bring the band in? Are we going to recut with them or overdub?” 

Tragically, Hoffmann passed away suddenly from a pulmonary embolism just a few months into the recording process. “I went for about six months trying to figure out what I was going to do,” says Porter. “I didn’t know the way forward. I was just devastated by losing him, quite honestly. And then friends said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this. Just go do it yourself.’ I didn’t want to produce my own record, but the band members said, ‘We can do this.’ The band was incredible. There’s just lots of good community on this record.”

The Ravine features 12 tunes penned by Porter as well as two co-writes with longtime collaborator and friend Tom Pirozzoli. “It’s a lot to get through,” says Porter, “especially in this day and age when people don’t quite have the attention span to listen to a record anymore.” But the record flows seamlessly through subjects and styles, from the pensive “A Dog and a Leash,” to the throwback loose country vibe of “Fishing Shack,” to the brilliantly poignant and timely “The Same Love,” about his travels in Israel and Palestine. 

“I forced myself to write some really simple forms on this record, like ‘Don’t Underestimate the Devil,’ and ‘Where Skies are Blue,’” says Porter. “These are kind of simple tunes structurally and in terms of what they say, but the band really makes them happen.” The record also features musical contributions from greats like Todd Sickafoose, Mai Bloomfield, and Darrell Scott. “I collaborated with these people because of their artistry,” says Porter. “They just added so much.”

The Horizon Line

Porter’s passion for music is unwavering, and he expresses a deep desire to continue evolving while honing his craft on guitar. “I love rehearsing,” he says. “I used to hate it but now I love it. I love metronomes! I just absolutely enjoy trying to groove with the metronome. It feels like there’s some sort of seance in that little clicking box.” 

When asked what’s next, Porter shares, “I’m just starting to really conceptualize what it is to write again. I don’t know how some people do this, but for me, it’s like I get so into a project that I don’t see past the completion of that project. And then as things start to clear again, it’s like the horizon line opens up again, and you realize there’s still more to say, there’s more to do, and you feel like the guitar is as limitless as it was when you picked it up last time. That’s starting to happen again, and I’m really happy about that.” 

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In thinking once more about the marriage of technique and emotion, Porter leaves us with a directive. 

“I think we’ve got to write about peace,” he offers. “As I like to say, it’s always an option. And so I think we need to write to celebrate that. We need a certain amount of celebrating what is good about humans. I’m just a fan of that. I’m drawn to that. I want to get behind that. 

“I’m grateful that there’s so much music and so much human creation to really marvel at and be inspired by. It’s just astounding, and I think we are still in the renaissance of the acoustic guitar. I don’t think it’s over yet—thank goodness.”


Willy-Porter standing with guitar in hand in an empty concert hall Photo by Cory Zimmerman/Z2
Photo: Cory Zimmerman/Z2

What He Plays

Willy Porter tours with a Muiderman jumbo, a Jason Kostal OMC, and a Gordon Bischoff custom nine-string baritone guitar—essentially a 12-string baritone without octave strings on the three bass strings. The Bischoff is usually tuned to Bb on the lowest string. 

The Muiderman and Kostal are both strung with medium-gauge D’Addario phosphor bronze EJ17s (.013–.056), while the Bischoff incorporates a hybrid set: D’Addario half-wound bass for the lower three strings and light-gauge EJ38s from a 12-string set for the upper six. All of Porter’s acoustic guitars are fitted with Fishman transducer pickups. He uses a Grace ALiX preamp, an Eventide H9 harmonizer, and a Strymon BigSky reverb for live effects.


Tuning Sampler 

Here are the guitar setups for all the songs on The Ravine:

Change Your Mind – A G C F A D, Kyser ShortCut partial capo fret 2, strings 3–5

The Ravine – C F A# F A# C, Planet Waves tenor guitar capo fret 2, strings 1–5

A Dog and a Leash – D# A# A# D# A# D#

Don’t Underestimate the Devil – D standard (D G C F A D)

Scars of Independence – D standard, capo 1

Where Skies Are Blue – D standard

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Larry Bought a Tractor – C G C F A C

All That Matters Now – D standard, partial capo fret 2, strings 3–5

Fishing Shack – D standard, partial capo fret 2, strings 3–5

Your Honor – D standard, capo 4

Baseball on the Radio – A# F A# F A# C, capo 2

The Same Love – C G C F G D

An Unorthodox Approach

Though much of Willy Porter’s music requires prodigious technique to play, one of his latest songs, “A Dog and a Leash,” from The Ravine, offers a relatively straightforward way to get into his sound world on your guitar, and a good glimpse at his unorthodox approach to tuning and harmony.

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“A Dog and a Leash” is in an open D5 tuning—lowest note to highest, D A A D A D, with strings 1, 2, and 6 lowered a major second from standard, the fourth string dropped to match the open fifth, and the third string down a perfect fourth. (Note that on the album track, he played a Kostal hybrid nylon-string tuned a half step higher.)

Example 1 shows a figure that Porter plays in the intro and first verse, shifting a three-note shape on the bottom three strings against the ringing open top strings for a colorful chord progression of Bbmaj13–F6–G6/9–D5. In a later verse, he plays a more melodically active part (Example 2) that also makes smart use of the ringing open strings, especially from bar 19 through the end. Note how the riff toggles between the major and the minor modes through the D/F# and Dm/F chords, lending an ambiguous mood and tonality. 

While you’re in this unusual tuning, be sure to explore it on your own, whether for composing, songwriting, or improvising. —Adam Perlmutter


Willy Porter musical notation, examples 1 & 2
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Natalia Zukerman
Natalia Zukerman

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