Premier Guitar

Bo Ramsey: Bo Knows Tone

November 18, 2009

photo by Pieta Brown

THE YEAR IS 1973; THE PLACE is Williamsburg, Iowa. He steps out onto the stage, straps on his guitar and is greeted by a screaming crowd of … aunts, uncles, moms, dads, cousins, friends and, of course, the bride and groom. It’s a wedding dance. But at the end of it all, he leaves with more money in his pocket than he came with. This is Robert Franklin “Bo” Ramsey’s first gig, and he isn’t looking back.

Bo’s illustrious career has taken him around the world and back again, sharing the stage with such musical luminaries as Elvis Costello and Bo Diddley, and producing records for and touring with Greg Brown and Lucinda Williams, among others. Over the years, Bo has cultivated a sound like no other. A photo on the back cover of his most recent CD, Fragile, says it all. It’s a cleverly cropped photo of the sign on the local Firestone tire store that reads simply, “tone.”

Born in 1951 in Burlington, Iowa, Bo grew up listening to a wide variety of music. From the Chess Records blues masters to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Bo took the sounds he heard, blended them and re-tooled them until he had a sound that no other local player possessed. He worked with several bands during the ’70s and ’80s, but took a hiatus from music for a time during the ’80s to work a day job to pay the bills and support his family. The hiatus would be temporary. The ever-restless and always active Bo Ramsey was continually looking for a way to make his mark, and his living, doing what he loved best; making music. Always the visionary, Bo was driving one day and heard a song on the radio by Greg Brown, another native Iowan who’d made his mark in the music scene. After listening to the song, Bo realized that he could help take Greg’s music to the next level. He contacted Greg, a meeting took place, and a musical partnership was conceived that continues to this day.

We met at the legendary Mill Restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa, to talk guitars and amps, effects and tone, and life on road.

Do you remember much about that first gig all those years ago?
I do, yeah. I remember it was for a wedding, I think in Williamsburg, Iowa. I was playing with Patrick Hazel and Phil Ajioka. But, we got paid, and that was my first actual job.

Who were your guitar heroes growing up? Somebody you heard on a record that made you think, “I want to do that.”
Yeah, I remember the first thing I actually attempted to play on the guitar and that was “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, and Luther Perkins was the guitar player for Johnny at that time, so it was that Luther Perkins thing that caught my ear. And George Harrison … the Beatles were a big deal back then and I experienced that whole thing.

George was a great slide player; there are bits of that in your slide playing. Yeah, absolutely. He was just a great guitar player and a great slide guitar player. And then I remember first hearing Albert King, you know, his guitar, and he had such a clear and strong voice.

What does your rig consist of these days?
Well, it depends on the gig, and if I’m playing with another songwriter. Right now I’m touring with Greg Brown and Pieta Brown, so if I’m doing a driving tour, I’ll look at the dates and take an appropriate amp for the dates on the tour. That’s usually a Fender Deluxe, one 12" speaker. And then if I’m flying, I’ll get backline provided by the venue. I usually request a Fender Deluxe or something similar, but backline is kind of a crapshoot.

What do you do differently in the studio versus live? Do you have a stable of amps that you pull out for different types of songs or sounds you’re trying to achieve?
I do. I have a couple amps that I use in the studio. One is a Tweed Fender Deluxe, a TV front, early ’50s. It’s probably my main recording amp. It’s on a lot of records, that one. And then my wife, Pieta, has a silverfaced Fender Deluxe Reverb that’s been blackfaced, you know, modified back to blackface specs, and I’ve used that amp a lot in the studio, it’s a great amp. I have a really old National amp that you see a lot of lap steel players use, they used to come in the set with the lap steel with the 6V6 tubes. I also have an old TV front Fender Pro with one 15" speaker and 6L6 tubes that I’ll use sometimes, too.

You like the old Fenders.
I think Leo Fender nailed it right out of the gate. I remember seeing the Rolling Stones get inducted to the Hall of Fame and Keith Richards saying thanks to Leo Fender, I mean, that speaks volumes right there. It’s unbelievable how good that stuff is right out of the gate. I’ve been shopping for a new amp to take out on the road. I mean the old stuff, you really have to baby them, that’s what I’m taking out now and you can’t beat the sound of them. Like I said, I have a string of old amps. I’m also the proud owner of a 1960 Fender Bassman with four ten-inch speakers, so I have a nice collection of Fender amplifiers.

What do you think of Fender’s custom shop recreations of the old amps?
I was talking with Sid McGuiness, he’s the guitar player for David Letterman, and I’ve done that show a couple of times. He and I have become good friends. Sid and I have done some hanging out, and right when Fender reissued that Tweed Twin, he called me up and told me to just take it out of the box and plug it in. It’s all there. I haven’t played through one, but Sid gave me a high recommendation.


Photo by Scott Klarkowski
A lot of those boutique amp companies claim to be as good as or better than the old amps they try to emulate. How do you feel about that?
I’ve been looking at Victoria; they do some nice work. I’m intrigued by this new amp they’re working on called a Regal, and I want to try and get my hands on one of those. I’ve also been looking at Savage amps out of the Twin Cities, and I had a Carr amplifier. Those guys are doing good work, and there’s another one called Swart, it’s the guy’s name, Michael Swart … pretty interesting-looking stuff, I just discovered them. Matchless amps are pretty good. I mean, they aren’t Fenders, and they don’t pretend to be, but they’ve established themselves in their own right, they just make a good amp, but I’m not sure which way I’m going to go. I’d like to get something new that you can take out and be reliable and not worry about breaking down in the middle of a set, or getting stolen.

[Author’s note: Since this interview was conducted, Bo has aquired an Xits X10 (1x12", 15W, powered by EL84s) a Matchless Lightning (1x12", 15W, also powered by EL84s) and a Carr Hammerhead (1x12", 28W and EL84 power tubes). The Xits is his gig rig right now with Greg Brown, and the Matchless and Carr are studio amps.]

Are your guitars and amps stock, or have you done much modifying?
My main road guitar is a sunburst 1980s ’62 reissue Strat. I put DiMarzio Virtual Series pickups in because they’re quiet. They won’t buzz and they sound great. When I was on tour with Lucinda Williams I got hooked up with DiMarzio and they’ve been fantastic. I talked with them about the sound that I was looking for and they sent me a set of pickups. I put them in my Strat and they’re still in there.



Bo Ramsey performing with Greg Brown. Photo by Sandra L. Dyas

What do you bring to a typical gig?
It depends. If I’m flying I’ll take two guitars. I have a case that’ll hold two solidbody guitars and it fits in the overhead on the plane. Recently, if I drive to a gig, I have a Strat for standard tuning and I have a Reverend Flatroc that I have for open tuning and a Jerry Jones 12-string … so I’ll take three of four guitars.

What does your pedalboard consist of?
It’s really pretty simple. I have the power supply, a Voodoo Lab, I have a Fulltone Fulldrive overdrive for distortion and a Fulltone Supa- Trem tremolo pedal that I like a lot. Then I also have a [Hermida] Zendrive; I have two of those. That’s a great pedal. I was reading an interview with Sonny Landreth and he was talking about these Zendrives and how great they were, so I tracked one down. And I have a Maxon AD900 analog delay pedal and a Boss TU2 tuner and that’s it.

So you rely on the reverb in the amp?
You know, lately I’ve been digging no reverb. When I was out with Lucinda, I played a lot without reverb. We’d show up and have backline and some of the amps I got didn’t have reverb. And I’d think, “Oh man, no reverb.” But then I just went with it and really kind of dug it. Recently I did a show and I used my Deluxe. I just left the reverb off. Lately I’ve been using my delay in a way to kind of put some air around a note, you know, how reverb does, only I’m using the delay. I don’t use it all the time, but if I’m wanting a little air around the note, then I’ll put the delay on rather than reverb.

How many guitars do you have? What’s in your collection these days? Do you collect?
No, I don’t really collect. I try and keep things moving, you know. There are certain pieces that I have no intention of selling. I have like 20, somewhere around there. I have two Strats, the 1980s ’62 reissue and a ’69. I have a 1980s ’62 reissue Telecaster and a 1962 Gibson ES-335, which is a really great guitar that I’ll probably hand down to my kids. I have a late-’40s Gibson J-45 that I’m very attached to, and an early-’50s Gibson LG2. I also have a Jerry Jones 12-string electric guitar, and I have a Taylor 12-string acoustic guitar that was given to me. That’s a great guitar. I have three or four Silvertones—a couple of them are really outstanding guitars, probably my best slide guitars. I have a ’58 Silvertone with one pickup, and it’s probably the best slide guitar that I own, and one that’s from the early 1960s with the pickup near the neck—that’s another outstanding slide guitar. I have a ’60s Supro Dualtone that’s a real great guitar, a real beast. It’s got two Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers in it. Those are kind of my main tools. I do have a Reverend Flatroc that I got that’s just a good solid tool, a good solid guitar. I’ve been taking that out quite a bit. It’s a great slide guitar; it stays in tune real well. I have an early-1990s first generation National Reso-Electric that I use in the studio, and a ’20s Weissenborn wooden lap guitar that I use in the studio as well.

Is there an instrument that you would call ‘the one that got away’? One you wished you could get back?
Oh God, probably a long list of those. I try not to think about that. (laughs) I had one of those SG body Les Pauls, two humbuckers … had those pearl inlays on the neck, the split diamond thing on the headstock. I had a Gibson ES-330. I really liked those guitars, and they were completely hollow. They really had a certain sound. I had an early-1960s Fender Jazzmaster that I wish I had back. Again, kind of really its own thing, it had really unique pickups.

You mentioned being on the David Letterman show. Back when you toured with Lucinda Williams, you got the chance to perform on all those late night shows, Letterman, Leno and Conan O’Brien. The TV audience only gets to see the little snippet of your performance. What goes into the set up for performance like that?
We already had a stage volume established, so we just approached it like any other gig. I mean, she had a crew and I rarely touched any gear, which was one of the nice things about that gig. I’d come in and everything’s set. Besides, we really didn’t play that loud, and that translated to the television shows so that really never was an issue, you know, the volume. But doing those shows is really an all-day sort of thing. I remember the first time we did Letterman; we had to be there at like nine in the morning. We’d just go in and set the amps where we wanted them, and then we’d leave. Later, we’d come back and run through the song a bunch of times for them to get camera angles and the sound. But Letterman was great, the crew was great. It was really a joy, and everybody was really on top of their game. Paul Schaffer was really nice and really accommodating … It’s just a really well run operation and a real pleasure.

Conan O’Brien was great. It’s funny, we were hanging out in the green room waiting to tape our segment and all of a sudden, we heard a guitar; an electric guitar through an amp through the wall of the green room. It was some Muddy Waters riff, “Rolling Stone,” I think it was. But it kept going over and over again for a really long time. We were all getting a kick out of it, so we sent someone out in to the hall to see where it was coming from. Turns out it was Conan’s office, and it was Conan, sitting at his desk, just playing this riff over and over. We all had a good laugh over that.

You also got to appear on CMT Networks program Crossroads with Elvis Costello. What was that experience like?
It was great. I remember we were on tour, and about a week before, the road manager gave us all these CDs and told us we had to learn all these songs. Apparently, Elvis was going to use Lucinda’s band, so we had to learn seven or eight Elvis Costello songs, which was a bit of a tall order. He’s a completely different songwriter than Lucinda, his chord structures were challenging. But we went to New York and had rehearsals with Elvis at S.I.R. Studios down in the City somewhere, and he was great. A consummate professional, and also a real relaxed and friendly guy, he said, “yeah, let’s just play, man,” and we did and he said, “sounds great,”—very easy to work with, a real pleasure. Working with him really affected me.

If you could go back and relive one experience, one thing that you’ve done where you can look back 20 years from now and think, wow that was a great show … what would be that magic show be?
That’s a good question. One thing that comes to mind is the day I spent with Bob Dylan, playing music with him and his band. I carry that very close to my heart, and think about it a lot. The impact of that was large. It was very educational. And, lately I’ve been thinking about a night I played with Bo Diddley and his band, and that was a full dose. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.

What advice do you have for Premier Guitar readers?
Well, I think I’d have to say, serve the song. That’s one of my big deals I try and live by. I think we’re all blessed to have music in this life. It’s really a magnificent thing, a very powerful and healing thing, so if it’s one thing I have to say is serve the song. If you give yourself up to it, then good things will come.

BO RAMSEY’S GEARBOX

GUITARS: 1980s ’62 Reissue Fender Stratocaster with DiMarzio Virtual Series pickups, 1969 Fender Stratocaster, 1980s ’62 Reissue Fender Telecaster

SLIDE GUITARS: Reverend Flatroc, Jerry Jones Electric 12-String, 1958 Silvertone-Danelectro U1, Early 1960s Silvertone-Danelectro U1, 1960s Supro Dualtone with Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers LIVE AMPS: Mid-1960s Fender Deluxe Reverb, XITS X10

STUDIO AMPS: Early-1950s TV Front Fender Deluxe, Modified silverfaced Fender Deluxe Reverb (re-blackfaced), National Lap Steel Amp, 1950s TV Front Fender Pro Amp with 15" speaker, 1960 Fender Bassman 4x10" Matchless Lightning, Carr Hammerhead

EFFECTS: Fulltone Fulldrive Overdrive, Fulltone Supa- Trem Tremolo, Hermida Audio Zendrive Overdrive, Maxon AD900 Analog Delay, Guytron GT-100 Digital Reverb (sometimes)