Though Tyler plays his Martin exclusively on Goes West, he has also forged a reputation as an electric guitarist with an original voice. In a recent concert at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley music venue, Tyler alternated all evening between his battered flattop and this Bigsby-equipped Tele. Photo by Andy Ellis
Elaborate a bit on the influence you’ve taken from Kaki King.
When I was starting to teach myself stuff in this acoustic instrumental world, she kept coming up. I was trying to figure out who was doing that thing now, that was young and not stuck in this post-Takoma [Records, the late John Fahey’s label] indie underground thing, and I kept coming back to Kaki King and James Blackshaw—I discovered their music at the same time. Kaki’s stuff in particular just didn’t sound like any other guitar music I had ever heard. I think Kaki is an incredible guitar player, but she has a really wide range of reference points. You can tell she’s influenced by the post-rock stuff that was important to a lot of the people in our age group that grew up with indie rock, but also had the Hedges thing and the Windham Hill thing. It all spoke to me deeply. Also, she’s a woman, and the music industry in general—especially the guitar club—is way too much of a dude world, and it’s really boring to me and wrong that there’s not more women represented in it. Thankfully that’s started to change, and I think Kaki was a big part of that shift. A lot of the time, women are the most interesting players. Marisa Anderson is another favorite of mine and Mary Halvorson as well—who comes from the jazz world. Obviously, she’s a giant pop star now, but if St. Vincent wanted to just be a guitar player and do instrumental guitar records, there’s no doubt that she would be at the top of that game because she’s that good. She’s so close to someone like Prince.
What made Meg Duffy the right electric guitarist for these songs?
We jammed a few times when I first moved to L.A. and we had this vibe together as players that was very much like harmony singing. I knew I wanted to revisit that vibe in a longer-form collaboration at some point. Meg reminds me of Bill Frisell in the way she immediately elevates any record that she’s on. She has a way of applying her sound and being true to it, while expanding other people’s visions by being present. They’re both Pisces and that’s not a coincidence!
Did you use many acoustic guitars on the album?
No. I have a 1955 Martin D-18 that’s my main guitar and was the only guitar I played on the record besides a Nashville high-strung Yamaha that belongs to Tucker [Martine, producer/engineer] that I used to double some parts here and there.
The Martin was my uncle’s guitar. He passed away recently, but he gave me that guitar out of nowhere. I had gone to visit him and he used to collect instruments and had all of this random stuff in his attic, and he was like, “Oh yeah, I have this guitar for you.” It was in terrible shape. The neck was coming off and it’s one that was built before Martin started putting truss rods in their guitars, so it required quite a bit of work when I got it back to Nashville. The neck had to be reset twice at a shop called Cotten Music, and the first job got it playable—but the action was really high. They got it right the second time and it had a refret about eight years ago. That guitar has been through a lot since. It has traveled a ton with me, so at this point it feels like a material extension of myself.
You live in open tunings. Which ones did you use on the record?
I use open C major a lot [C–G–C–G–C–E, low to high], which has a major third on top. I believe that’s a Fahey tuning, and I write a lot in that. I also use one that starts as open C major, but you tune the 5th string down from G to F, so you have a fourth in there, and you can also play in F with that tuning. “Fail Safe” is in that tuning. I use one on a couple of tunes on the record that start with that same open C major, but the high E string is tuned up to F. I also use one that’s D–A–D–A–A–E, so you can write in D and A in that tuning in a really interesting way.
Led Zeppelin was probably the window into open tunings for me before anything, though. Led Zeppelin III and Physical Graffiti and all of their mid-period stuff was very influential to me, and I feel like I owe as much to Jimmy Page as I do to John Fahey. I have a problem with the aesthetic they embodied in a lot of ways, and I acknowledge that they pilfered a lot of their stuff, but as a player, Jimmy Page was a window for so many people into more obscure music and folk music. I found out about Fairport Convention through Led Zeppelin, and that was a huge thing for a lot of people, even back then.
With all of the open tunings, do you change string gauge often?
No, I use light gauge and sometimes tuning the B string down in a light gauge is a little tricky, but I don’t want to start using hybrid sets. When I tune the G back up to A, it really helps to have lighter gauge strings for stability.
Your fingerstyle technique is really advanced. How did you go about making the transition as someone that came up as a pick player?
I still consider myself a pick player, to a degree. I started out with Travis-style picking and then started learning different patterns. I wasn’t exactly trained in any particular way, but I put in the most work learning different triplet patterns and different thumb patterns. It’s still a developing thing—I’m just now starting to incorporate the ring and the pinky finger on my right hand.
In my experience, the best vintage Martins are those that have been through a lot and been pieced back together a few times.
Oh, totally! There’s something about those guitars that the more lived-in they are, the better they get. It’s like how designer denim or good cowboy boots become this thing now where you buy a pair and wear it for life and it’s supposed to mold to your body in this quasi-parasitical, hive-mind way, and those guitars are part of that and become a part of you.
You grew up in Nashville with some seriously heavy-hitting professional songwriters for parents. How did that upbringing shape your songcraft?
My dad, Dan Tyler, started working with Eddie Rabbitt in the ’70s, and my mom Adele is a songwriter also. [Editor’s note: Adele and Dan Tyler penned hits individually and together for such artists as LeAnn Rimes and the Oak Ridge Boys.] Growing up in Nashville, there’s an innate respect for approaching music in a very craftsman-like way. There are wildly talented people where I live in L.A., but there’s a thing where people there talk a lot about what they’re doing and their process, and Nashville has a thing where people just do stuff without the conversation or fanfare. As much as celebrity culture is a part of Nashville, there’s this side of the music business there with people like my parents who stay behind the scenes and make it happen—songwriters, session players, producers—and they’re often kind of anonymous. I think of Reggie Young, who just passed away, and he’s one of my guitar heroes and he played on songs like “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Suspicious Minds”—some of the most memorable songs of all time—and he could walk into any coffee house in Nashville and people wouldn’t have known who he was.
There’s an aspect of Nashville that’s very humbling, and that is that no matter how good you are, there’s always someone better than you there. They might be 20 years old or they might be 80, and these guys all play together and things like age don’t separate people there—it’s about your skill. Even the major country stars like Vince Gill and Keith Urban are way, way better guitarists than many who do it full time. Keith Urban is as good a player as someone like Slash—but guitar is like the third thing on his agenda as a musician.
The thing that Nashville and my parents’ work instilled in me is a sense of being humble. In the indie and alt-rock underground world, there’s all of this self-importance. I think people in that world love to lean on words like virtuoso because we’re all wildly insecure since our music isn’t necessarily all that commercial. It doesn’t mean such music isn’t just as valid as anything else, but most of us aren’t virtuosos. If you’re confident about your voice, you’re good. It’s like being a singer: You look at someone like Sinatra who isn’t about technicality—his timbre and timing and personality supersedes pitch and range and such. I try to look at guitar playing like that.
William Tyler performs “Call Me When I’m Breathing Again”—a track from Goes West—with electric guitar accompaniment by Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy.