It’s hard to picture a more idyllic environment for making music than Will Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios in Windham County, Vermont. The studio building, part of a rustic compound constructed over many years by Ackerman himself with lumber from the surrounding forest, overlooks a hillside thick with sugar maples. In contrast to the cave-like atmosphere of many studios, the recording rooms at Imaginary Road bask in natural light, with windows and sliding doors that open for fresh air.
“It’s a nice, healthy way to work,” says Ackerman, sitting in the studio’s upstairs lounge, where arched doors open to a deck and expansive view of the West River valley. “People who record here, pros like [bassist] Tony Levin, they all comment on how working in this studio is not tiring.”
Ackerman bought this land in southeastern Vermont circa 1976, around the time he released his first album, a set of alternate-tuning-driven gutitar instrumentals called The Search for the Turtle’s Navel, inaugurating his own Windham Hill label. Working at the time as a carpenter/builder in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ackerman unexpectedly found himself getting major radio play and concert bookings, and his side hustle as a label owner grew fast, especially in the realm of acoustic instrumental music.
While not solely a guitar label, Windham Hill ushered in a new era for the steel-string guitar, thanks especially to seminal albums by Ackerman, his cousin Alex de Grassi, and Michael Hedges. Building on the work of guitarists like John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and John Renbourn, Ackerman and Windham Hill opened up a creative and commercial space for sophisticated, eclectic guitar music, often powered by alternate tunings and unconventional technique, that countless players continue to explore today.
Ackerman sold Windham Hill in 1992, and the windfall from that deal helped furnish Imaginary Road with an extraordinary collection of vintage Neumann microphones, a Steinway B grand piano, and more. In this studio, Ackerman and engineer Tom Eaton have recorded scores of albums, specializing in the guitar- and piano-based instrumental music associated with Windham Hill. Ackerman’s own Grammy for Best New Age Album, for the 2004 guitar collection Returning, sits on the windowsill in the control room.
As a producer, Ackerman uses a unique system for assessing takes and making quick editing decisions. Basically, he maps out a song in very short sections/phrases that might be just five or ten seconds long and creates a table in which the rows list the sections (A1, A2, B1, C1, etc.) and each column is a numbered take. While the performance is happening, he marks plus signs in the grid to indicate the best sections. Meanwhile, Tom Eaton writes down time stamps on his own sheet, for easy access afterward.
From these notes, Ackerman creates a master map for Eaton indicating which sections of which takes to edit together. “This is a system for a guy who doesn’t read music, which is me, but it’s a hell of a system, because you can know in real time when you’re done,” says Ackerman. “It’s damned efficient, because you don’t record and then sit around and waste time and money listening to the tracks. You have the faith to make your decisions in real time.” —JPR
Though more prolific as a producer, with more than 25 gold and platinum albums in his credits, Ackerman has kept up his own creative output as well. In recent years he’s done a spate of collaborations, including the Grammy-nominated Brothers album with trumpet/flugelhorn player Jeff Oster and Tom Eaton on keyboards; the quartet Flow with Oster, pianist Fiona Joy, and guitarist Lawrence Blatt; and Four Guitars with Todd Mosby, Vin Downes, and Trevor Gordon Hall.
And after a long break from solo work, Ackerman last year released Positano Songs, featuring guitar pieces composed in his longtime favorite getaway on Italy’s Amalfi coast. Like all of Ackerman’s guitar music, Positano Songs is based on his unending exploration of alternate tunings, with gentle melodies over lush open string arpeggios. Ackerman is so devoted to discovering tunings, and not looking back, that he is unable to recreate the music even from his latest album without referring to video documentation.
During an extended conversation in the studio, flanked by vintage photos of Fahey and Basho, Ackerman reflects on creating Positano Songs, shows his favorite guitars, and shares insights into his process as a producer.
You obviously live in a beautiful place with plenty of peace and quiet. So why, when composing music for Positano Songs, did you feel the need to go elsewhere?
Well, I’m busy as hell here. I mean, I still bring in four cords of firewood every year and do all the felling and bucking and all that, and we have a huge garden below. And we are working in the studio. There’s a lot that competes for my attention. So just going away, without distraction and without competing needs, was a good idea.
I generated 26 viable ideas and then just left them alone because I was busy doing Flow and the Four Guitars and all these other things. But finally I had to get around to my own stuff, too. So most of the ideas on this album were generated right in Positano. The inspiration of going up to the Nocelle chapel [where he and his wife, Susan, were married], being very conscious of friendships in Positano, getting in the kayak and going down the coast… I immersed myself in the town in such a way as to really try to channel it.
When I ask for his thoughts on how to capture a great acoustic guitar sound in the studio, Ackerman offers a strategy not exactly practical for most of us. “Sell a record company for millions and millions of dollars, and have your collection of financial advisers telling you that you need to spend a lot of money right now,” he says. “And you go and find incredibly expensive matched pairs of Neumann microphones and then take them to Klaus Heyne at German Masterworks and have him buff them up even further.”
The Neumanns in question are large-diaphragm U67 condensers and small-diaphragm KM256s. In a typical setup, the U67s are about 18 inches away from the guitar pointing at the 12 fret and at the lower bout, and two KM256s are positioned a bit further out—one near the fretboard U67 and the other above the player’s right shoulder. At the time of the interview, one of the U67s was out for repair, so the photo shows a Shure KSM44 in its place. In addition, two AKG C414s capture the room sound, forming a triangle with the player about ten feet away.
“Basically the bulk of the sound is the large-diaphragm mics,” says engineer Tom Eaton, “and then the 256s add that shiny detail.” The miking technique, he adds, is based on “how the guitar needs to function in the song more than any kind of fixed approach. Especially with Positano Songs, where there are multiple guitar parts going on, using the mics as an EQ is helpful, because if you need it a little less bright you can take the two 256s down, and if you need a little more body you can lean on the large-diaphragm mics.” —JPR
You’ve said the music on this album is particularly meaningful to you. What do you feel you captured that’s different than what you’ve done in the past?
My life isn’t as crazy as it always was. I mean, when you run a corporation doing tens of millions of dollars, with touring and everything else, there are a lot of distractions. With this record, there were almost no interruptions. I just felt more connected to this thing than anything I’ve done in a long time. Whether it’s better or not, I don’t know, but I’m grateful for that experience of having been so laser focused. That was fun for me. I feel very good about it. I’m proud of it, which I haven’t said a lot. Not that I [usually] denigrate what I’ve done, but being really present for all of the writing does have value to me.
Your composing process centers on finding new tunings. When you sit down with the guitar and start retuning, what are you looking for? Based on what I know of your tunings, it doesn’t seem that you’re necessarily looking for a chord on the open strings.
Oh, God, no. In a way it’s me tuning myself. I’m fooling around and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s inviting.” The whole idea of this is not to have an idea. By doing what I do, I completely remove the frontal lobes from the process. I don’t know where anything is; it’s a matter of discovery. And that has been my stock-in-trade from the beginning.
I want nothing but emotion guiding me. I’m just slacking strings, I’m moving stuff around, and then there’s something like, “Ah, alright, this is resonating with me. This is the space. I love this place.” And I just start exploring.
You are often capoed up as well.
I’ve got these kind of shitty little fingers, you know, and that’s part of why I’ve had to capo to the second or fifth [fret] for pretty much everything in my career. I mean, there is also more of a bell-like quality when you capo. It just has a different ring. I’ve been attracted to that, but that’s been a byproduct of having shitty little hands.
So, while you were in Positano, you captured video of what you played so that you could recreate it later?
Yeah, I actually had three tripods and three cameras going. Sometimes I’d run out of tape on one, but the other one would cover for it. So I spent the better part of a week just sitting in the apartment with these cameras going. I did take a few notes, but generally speaking, I was just relying on those tapes being there for me when I got home. I have one drawer in my office which is all the cassettes of my recordings in the living room there.
There were, if I’m not mistaken, three pieces that happened post-Positano. But I documented all of the tunings, and in order to be at least consistent with this overall story, I went back and revisited [unused tunings from the Positano tapes] and started fooling around on those again. Those three tunings generated songs too.
In Italy you had a set of borrowed Taylor guitars, which I would think would send you in different directions than your usual instruments.
Bob [Taylor] brought me, I think, 12 instruments, all set up to light gauge. It was incredibly kind. Within that, I ended up with two guitars that particularly worked for me. But without having 12, I might not have found those two. One was a bigger-bodied thing, and one was almost a parlor guitar.
Many of the pieces on the album have an arpeggio pattern plus a melody played on guitar, violin, or another instrument. Did you compose those melodies as part of the original ideas?
No, I always improvise. Over the years, I have begun to play leads on albums that I’m producing for other musicians. I feel like I’ve gotten pretty facile at it, and I love it. So this was the first album where I thought, “Well, I can handle a huge part of this melody.” And that’s one of the things I do love about the album and made it particularly fun for me.
Across the board, the most amazing thing about this record was that I got to experience what I do for other people in terms of being a producer, where all you have to do is express the music. At 70-odd years of age, I had never had that joy or freedom. And, God, it was great to be able to trust Tom [Eaton, engineer and coproducer] as people have to trust me. Literally I’m like, “I don’t know—you tell me when it’s done.” All I have to do is be a guitarist. It was absolutely revelatory.
When you’re playing lead, you are still in an alternate tuning. That’s really unusual, because especially for lead, most people want to know where the notes are on the fingerboard. How does that process work?
It just does. My mind has been working in tunings for so long that my analysis is very quick. I scope it out in 45 seconds.
Since the 1990s, Will Ackerman has played Froggy Bottom guitars, built in central Vermont, not too far from his home base. In 2014, Froggy Bottom founder Michael Millard celebrated their longstanding friendship, and Ackerman’s contributions to the acoustic guitar world, with the Will Ackerman Model K—the company’s only signature model. The Ackerman guitar, available only as a custom build by Millard himself, is made with Adirondack spruce and Madagascar rosewood. Ackerman has written and recorded more on his Model Ks than on any other instrument.
For lead, on the Positano Songs album and on sessions with other artists, Ackerman typically plays his Klein guitar, a 1998 Model M-43 with Indian rosewood back and sides and a Sitka spruce top. “That guitar was one of the first M-43 models made,” recalls Steve Klein. “The design was an attempt to make a simpler and slightly smaller-bodied version of the guitars that Steve Kauffman and I were building. At the time, people asked, ‘What kind of music was it designed for?’ And all I could say was, ‘The first three orders were for Bill Frisell, Martin Simpson, and Will Ackerman… You tell me!’”
For an entirely different sound, Ackerman plays a 1949 Martin 5-18 passed down from Michael Hedges. “I was in his studio in Mendocino [California] and saw this thing in the corner,” Ackerman recalls. “I picked it up and started playing it, and he noticed that. The next time he came here, he brought it. But typical of Michael, he didn’t say anything. He just left it on the front doorstep.” Hedges had set up the 5-18, a terz model designed to be tuned a minor third higher than a standard guitar, with an unwound third string the same gauge as the first string, and Ackerman keeps it that way. When I checked out the instrument, the third and first strings were tuned in unison.
Are you matching the tuning of the first guitar part?
Generally [on Positano Songs] the leads came much later. I’m listening to the song and doing what I always do—finding something that feels like it sits in that chord. It’s really quite fun.
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I think I take the cake for being the most extreme open tuning player. I don’t think anybody has done more of it than I have. It’s just my world. That’s what I’m used to doing.
I was thinking back on the early days of Windham Hill, and especially the guitar records by you, Michael Hedges, and Alex de Grassi. The three of you had such radically different approaches the instrument.
Yet we could be on the stage together and have it work. You know, the three of us there at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, it was a broad range of what a guitar could do. It was pretty cool.
That time was such a turning point for instrumental acoustic guitar music, which has continued to expand in many directions ever since. Did you feel at the time there was something really new happening?
Yeah, I think so. You know, I looked to [John] Fahey. John Renbourn was borrowing a lot from traditional English music and so on. Robbie [Basho] had some influence on me. This notion of a classical discipline for steel-string guitar; he chose to use the raga as a way to make that happen.
Not that we ever intended to do it, but I think Windham Hill did sort of wave a flag saying, “There are a lot of directions we can go with this deal.” Certainly when Hedges came along, it blew the doors off. But you know, the complexity of what Alex was doing, and the melody that I was generating in “Bricklayer” [“The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter”] or “Impending” [“The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit”], I think it was a pretty strong force. I mean, it was incredible that it happened as it did, but looking back, I can see why it did.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.