photo by Pieta Brown

THE YEAR IS 1973; THE PLACEis 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.