Blues Update: Robben Ford Keeps It Fresh

Aug 1st, 2008 | By admin | Category: Feature Articles

by Adam St. James

Sophistication. The term describes Robben Ford’s music on a number of levels. The eclectic musician – he regularly touches on blues, jazz, R&B, rock – blends instrumental and lyrical ideas into a package so elegant, yet musically invigorating, it’s hard to say whether it’s more soulfully sweet or rippin’ jazz-bluesy.

Either way, Ford’s compositions often take standard blues riffs or rhythm & blues progressions, then twist them into a contemporary, Earthy affair that leaves guitarists in awe. His use of seemingly familiar, yet dazzling solo lines and his knack for seamlessly working jazzy chord substitutions and inversions into even the most traditional grooves is uncanny.

Ford’s most recent disc, Blue Moon, his first for new label Concord Jazz, successfully continues his main mission: to update and expand the boundaries of his first love, the blues. The disc stands up admirably to Robben’s classic work with his Blue Line trio on recordings such as Robben Ford & the Blue Line, Handful of Blues or Mystic Mile.

I recently spent time with Robben to dig into his guitar-playing and songwriting psyche. Read on to see what he has to say about contemporizing classic styles, writing without distraction, and “making it up in the studio.”

Adam St. James: Hello Robben. How are things in Ojai, California?

Robben Ford: Actually there’s a fire burning on the other side of the mountain, so it’s kind of a drag for the whole area. There’s no danger to us, but there’s a yellow cloud hanging over the whole area and ash falling all over everything. It’s pretty bad. It’s unfortunate, but at least nobody’s getting hurt.

St. James: Is the fire moving the other direction?

Ford: That I don’t know. It’s been going for three days so it’s hard to tell.

St. James: The new album, Blue Moon, is really good, there’s some great stuff on here.

Ford: Thank you.

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St. James: I notice that you recorded in a variety of studios. Were any of these tracks recorded – even partially – at home?

Ford: No.

St. James: It sounds like you might have brought some new equipment into the house and really experimented with different moods and attitudes, even more so than on a lot of your previous releases.

Ford: There are two songs on the record that were cut in a Pro Tools studio, a professional studio. I don’t have a home studio. I have a music room that I work in, but I don’t really record at home. It seems to me like a distraction from writing music. But those two songs were cut to a drum loop, there wasn’t a band playing in a room. And then overdubs were done later.

There’s a studio listed on the album called Bay 7 and that’s where I did all my vocal overdubs and loud guitar overdubs. And then the things that were like rhythm parts that were not loud – or there’s one song where I actually used the Pod – I used that for the riffing guitar on a song called “Sometime Love.” There’s a real fuzzy guitar that just plays riffs. That’s the only thing that I used the Pod for.

St. James: The tracks that you used Pro Tools on were “Don’t Deny Your Love” and “Good to Love”?

Ford: “Don’t Deny Your Love” and “Sometime Love.” “Good to Love” was cut at Sunset Sound with just bass, drums, and guitar. Jimmy Earl, who is credited with production on that song, he did all the programming and put that on later. He took the tracks home and did the programming at home.

St. James: That’s got a really cool feel to it.

Ford: Yeah, I really have to give Jimmy credit for that. He did a great job with coming up with something unusual.

St. James: It sounds like a movie soundtrack. Is that what you were aiming for?

Ford: That’s what he was aiming for, I guess. I was really surprised when I heard it, because I would not personally have gone that direction with it. But, that’s why I gave it to him and said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ And it’s just great. I was very pleased.

St. James: When you say that you have a music room at home, but that you find recording distracting from songwriting, how do you go about capturing the songwriting that you’re working on?

Ford: I sit with a guitar and paper and pen. Or I sit at the piano and do the same there.

St. James: And you write everything out in sheet music?

Ford: No, the paper and pen is for lyrics.

St. James: Then do you have at least a cassette recorder that you’re playing into?

Ford: Sometimes I’ll put ideas down on a little DAT machine, with just one stereo mic, just in case I need to remember it. It’s only to help me remember the idea and not let it slide. I used to write things on paper – I used to write charts. I’ll still sketch things on paper – a bass line, or some real basic things on paper. But I’ve just found that, particularly when going into the studio, if you just show the song to the guys rather than give them paper to read, they learn it much faster and they play it much more spontaneously – the real way. If you’re looking at paper while you’re recording, it’s just a little restrictive. You wind up doing things that maybe are correct, but are relatively uninspired.

St. James: When you start working on a song, when you’re writing something, do you carry ideas through right from the first spark of an idea to a finished song?

Ford: You mean without going on to something else? No. I’ll work on something until I feel bogged down, and then move on to something else and work on that. Not necessarily back to back. I like a lot of space when I write. I really give myself a lot of room.

I might work on something for 40 minutes, then I’ll go make myself a cup of coffee, maybe take a walk. And the idea will kind of go through my head, and I’ll come back, sit down, and concentrate on it again. Or I’ll write in different rooms in the house, or go somewhere and write. So I really try to give myself a lot of room. To just hammer it out is not my style. And to just hammer it out on one thing until it’s done is not my style.

St. James: I find that when I’m coming up with ideas, and if I pick one and start to work on it, sometimes I start to twist the original rhythmic idea that I had – and sometimes in a way that I don’t like. And if I haven’t recorded it right from the start, I may lose the cool original idea I had. You must have a better memory than me if you can just remember all your good ideas without recording them (laughs).

Ford: Things stick pretty well with me. A lot of my best ideas come to me when I’m driving. And, generally, even if I forget the idea, all I have to do is remember the space that I was in, think about it, and eventually the idea will turn back up. I never worry too much about forgetting any ideas that come up.

  

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St. James: So you probably have a real simple set up in your music room. What are some of the basic tools you have?

Ford: I’ve got a [Fender] Deluxe, and I’ve got some nice guitars, and just a stereo system for listening and occasionally recording something to ADAT. I used to actually record all my ideas to ADAT, just so that I could hear them back, more than anything else. But I really just moved away from it. I like to just get the idea going in a very organic way – me with the instrument. Certainly I always put lyric ideas on paper. I like to take them to the group and play them and see what they have to offer.

St. James: You recorded with different people on different tracks, and you had Roscoe Beck and Tom Brechtlein (Editor’s Note: Beck and Brechtlein are former bandmates in Robben’s Blue Line trio) on a few tracks.

Ford: I had some things on which I wanted to have the best blues rhythm section that I could get. I wanted to cut some songs as close to the traditional way as possible. In other words, play with people who really know how to play the blues. And Roscoe and Tom are just absolutely the best, at being versatile, and yet at the same time able to play things in a real authentic way. I don’t know anyone else who can do that. There probably are a couple, but they don’t live near me.

Tom can just give you what you need to play the blues in an authentic way. And Roscoe, just absolutely hands down, again, for a combination of authenticity and versatility. They just don’t play it simple and right, they can play it simple and add interesting, complicated things that don’t take away from the real flavor.

St. James: How did you come up with all of the other guests that you had on the record. You had Frank Zappa alumni Vinnie Colaiuta behind the kit on quite a few tracks.

Ford: Yeah, Vinnie and Jimmy Earl – the bassist – did my last album (Editor’s Note: Supernatural, 1999, Blue Thumb Records), the whole thing. He plays with my group, generally, when I go on the road. He’s always kind of my first choice for a bassist. He’s just a great musician and a great guy to play with.

And Vinnie, in the studio he’s just so reliable. You just know that you’re going to get something you’re going to like with him. And it’s a matter of if you want that, the way he feels. His feel to me is very particular, very precise. And then he always comes up with a nice idea. He’ll play something that really fits the song that you’re recording. And not a lot of guys can do that. Most people aren’t as broad as Vinnie is, in terms of being able to record and give you something that’s special. Simple, but special.

St. James: So when you’re out on the road this year, who goes with you?

Ford: There will be a little bit of a revolving door. I’m not happy about that, but all the guys that I work with, they all work with other people too, ’cause they’re in demand. It will change, but Tom Brechtlein will be there most of the time. He’s the one guy I can kind of count on here. And Roscoe Beck is going to do some dates with me. Bill Boublitz, a keyboard player that we worked with in the Blue Line for many years is going to come out and play. And Jimmy will play a little bit. And a bassist named Tim Scott from Jack Mack & the Heart Attack. He’s a real good blues and R&B player.

St. James: How did you pull together all the horn players and vocalists and keyboard players you had on the record?

Ford: Well, the horns, Lee Thornburg and David Woodford, played on my last record as well. Lee is somebody I really connected with a few years ago and I really enjoy him on all levels. So I always call him. Same thing with Dave Woodford. They’re guys that I just enjoy working with. They did my last record, and when I had some horn parts I called them again. And Russell Ferrante plays piano on, I think, only one song…

St. James: I think on a couple, “It Don’t Make Sense,” and….

Ford: Oh yeah, and on “My Everything.” He’s just the best at sitting in and giving you something harmonically interesting. His harmony is expansive and yet it doesn’t take away from the soul of the music. And Neil Larsen I reconnected with after playing with him a little bit in the ’80s on a tour we did in South America. We had a great time, so I invited Neil to come in and play B-3.

St. James: You played some electric piano on a couple of tracks…

Ford: Also acoustic piano. I actually played most of the piano. I play more piano than anybody else does on the record (laughs).

St. James: You mentioned that you write on piano sometimes. What kind of piano do you have at home: electric, synth, acoustic?

Ford: I’ve got a baby grand in the living room, and I work there.

St. James: But you just wanted the electric piano sound on a couple of tracks?

Ford: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the Wurlitzer piano. I really like that sound. It’s very funky, funkier than the Rhodes is to me. So yeah, I played Wurli on two songs and acoustic piano on two, something like that.

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St. James: Were you tempted to pick up the horn at all?

Ford: No, that’s old news, man, way in the past.

St. James: I’ve been listening a lot to a reissued album of yours in the past couple years, with some horn tracks, Sunrise.

Ford: (laughs)

St. James: Actually the first track on that album just kills me, I just listen to it over and over and over again.

Ford: What song?

St. James: It’s a real up-tempo jump blues kind of thing.

Ford: Oh, is it like a be-bop instrumental kind of thing?

St. James: Yeah.

Ford: “Oh Gee.”

St. James: There’s some good horn playing of yours on there too, but that was awhile back…

Ford: A very long time ago. Thirty years ago! (laughs).

St. James: Are you aware of re-releases like that when they come out?

Ford: Yeah. I’m not happy about it. But, in the long run, I think it’s a nice thing. I would have dug it, to hear old things from the guys that I dug. I wouldn’t care what it was. I’d want to hear anything on Mike Bloomfield, especially when he was a kid. So I can appreciate the value of it.

St. James: When you’re bringing David or Lee into the studio to do some tracks, do you chart out horn lines for them, or do you leave it up to them?

Ford: I would if I had the time. But generally it’s just something that I never wind up having the time for. And so they come in and we just start making it up on the spot. It’s pretty easy to do. We just sort of put our heads together and work it out. It’s not the ideal way to work, but it’s OK. That’s what everybody else does. They show up at the studio, and I show them the song, and we make it up.

St. James: This song “Indianola,” it says in your bio that it’s your instrumental tribute to B.B. King. It’s a little more rock than B.B. plays in general.

Ford: A tribute, to me, doesn’t have to sound the way the artist plays. A tribute to me shouldn’t imitate. I actually wrote the song, and at first I was writing something off of a B.B. thing, but then it just became an imitation, and it sounded un-contemporary. So I just morphed it and I just turned it into something that I would like to play and that would fit on my record. I know what it means to me in relationship to B.B. King, and that was enough.

St. James: You make a comment in the current bio where you say “There’s a tremendous opportunity, if you like blues music, to keep it fresh and alive.” That is one of the things that I get most from your music and your songwriting, because I’m a blues-rock guitarist and do some songwriting. But if you’re into the blues at all you’re aware, as a songwriter, that the cliché chord progressions and grooves are pretty worn at this time…

Ford: Lyrics too.

St. James: Yes, true. You do a great job of adding fresh new elements to it, especially the way you mix things. One of my favorite tracks on Blue Moon is “Hard To Please,” where you start with a very traditional kind of groove, and then bust it out into something completely different. It’s really a cool move, and it’s really inspiring.

Ford: Well thank you, and I appreciate you picking up on that, because that certainly is the idea.

 

St. James: Do you ever consciously say, “I want to start out with this kind of traditional groove, but then I’m going to go somewhere else with it”?

Ford: Oh yeah. Sure. I listen to traditional blues for inspiration. I listened to quite a bit of B.B. King when I was writing this record. Generally in the past I would listen to Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and a little bit of Howlin’ Wolf, because they had songs that were cool, and weren’t just straight up. They would always have some little riff in them, or chord, or time change.

So I’ll listen to some traditional blues, and then I take that original idea and expand on it. If I have a basic 12-bar blues, then I’ll write a bridge to it, just to open it up. I’m always thinking, ‘How far can I take this, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?’ And it is deliberate. It’s an exercise in expanding the blues. I do it deliberately. But I always try to start from something basic, something that is right in the pocket of the real blues, and then open it up.

St. James: You mentioned B.B. King. What exactly were you listening to?

Ford: His entire history. There’s a four-CD box set. I listened to that. It’s got a taste of everything on it. I really did listen to a bunch of that.

St. James: A lot of what you do also seems R&B influenced. Where are those elements coming from?

Ford: Well, I grew up in the ’60s. That’s when rhythm & blues was really rhythm & blues. It was in its heyday. The things that have happened since have become, obviously, rap. Eventually that’s where everything went: straight into just rhythm, no blues (laughs). And political. But in the ’60s it was obviously the heyday of Motown and the Stax/Volt recordings: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Booker T. & the MGs. And of course Aretha Franklin and the Muscle Shoals sound – that whole school.

So songwriting was developing then. It was the Golden Years of rhythm & blues, as far as I’m concerned. Everything since has been either watered down or taken way to the extremes. And all the soul – and I kind of equate soul, at the risk of sounding corny, with love and joy – those elements, I don’t hear them in rhythm & blues today. All I hear is trite pop or a lot of aggression. There are a few of course who are doing good things with R&B, but very few.

So again, the songwriting, really – that’s where for me, my songwriting comes straight out of the traditional blues and then R&B. You had melodies. You had chord progressions. You had a group of people playing together and creating something homogenous and joyful.

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St. James: I’ve studied a little with some of your books and videos, and was especially into a lot of the chord voicings that you put forth. When I listen to a lot of your R&B influenced tracks, without sitting down and trying to learn them off the CD, I feel like I’m hearing a lot of really cool little chord moves, and they’re different from chorus to chorus. Is that something you also consciously pursue, to keep it changing each time around?

Ford: Yeah. For me it’s a very subtle way of keeping things interesting, because I like to keep the music moving, not stagnant. It shouldn’t just stay on one level. And this is really where the element of the jazz influence comes in, and this is how I try to use it, without making jazz records. You have a basic chord progression running through a song, but then I’ll use chord voicings that will be changing often. Even though we’re using the same chords, my voicings will change. And occasionally I’ll let the bass line move just a little differently, along with the harmony. And that’s how I keep myself interested and alert.

St. James: Does the guitar part you’ve written ever interfere with your ability to sing and play at the same time.

Ford: It’s a little tough. And quite frankly, something I’ve realized, is that it tends to hold me back a little bit as a vocalist. I’ve watched videos of myself, and I know what the experience is of being up there and playing this music, but I’m working! I don’t mean to the point of breathing heavy and sweating, but there’s a lot going on. And it’s a bit of a tightrope act. And I really would like to move away from that somehow.

What would help me would be to be able to introduce another instrument into my band. I’d like to have a rhythm guitar player. That would be great. And it would free me up so that I could really address the vocals more. I find that I have to sing the vocals a certain way, because of what I have to do on the guitar. And then it becomes a little boxed in. And that’s one of the things I try to avoid in my music, getting too boxed in.

St. James: I’m sure that live, you probably simplify some of the guitar parts.

Ford: Yeah, I think so, because generally, there are two and three guitar parts on a recorded track anyway. So really what I do is just try to find something natural that seems to serve the part.

St. James: Does it change for you from night to night, or do you stick with that arrangement once you find it?

Ford: Not too much. The whole thing gets a little bit locked in.

St. James: More so than you like.

Ford: Yeah, and I need to work around that.

St. James: Any ideas on who might fill those rhythm guitar shoes for you?

Ford: Well, I certainly know some guys, but I can’t really afford to add another guy to the group.

St. James: Are there any other instructional videos coming out any time soon?

Ford: Not really. I probably will do something sometime. But it’s been deliberate, not doing another because I put so much into those others. Basically I’ve talked about everything under the sun that I know and do. It’s all there. I feel like I have nothing new to say.

St. James: Aw come on, you’ve learned all kinds of new stuff in those years that have gone by.

Ford: Not that you could really put into a video. I’m planning on doing a book/CD, and that is something I’m looking forward to because it’s going to be more about concepts and basic fundamental music theory for guitar players who are self-taught and really don’t understand what they’re doing.

St. James: Any idea when that will be out?

Ford: We’re basically just talking about it now. It will probably be out by early 2003.

St. James: We’ll look forward to it. Thanks for your time Robben.

Ford: Thanks.
 

More Cool Stuff Related to Robben Ford and jazz blues:

Robben Ford in Concert DVD — Features songs from Robben Ford’s best selling album Robben Ford & The Blue Line.

Robben Ford – Blues – Book and CD package.

Robben Ford – Rhythm Blues – Book and CD package — Learn blues comping patterns from the master!

Blues Guitar Rules – Book and CD package explores the styles of Robben Ford, Jimi Hendrix, and more.

Guitar Heroes In Concert DVD – This DVD features Robben Ford, Duke Robillard, Edgar Winter / Rick Derringer, Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, Albert Lee, Popa Chubby, Curtis Mayfield, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and more!

Logical Lead Guitar – You’ve got to master the basic scale patterns before you can learn the advanced stuff Robben Ford plays. Logical Lead Guitar is the most user friendly learn-to-use-your-scales course you’ve ever seen, and gets rave reviews from customers around the world. Get your copy today!

Related Links

RobbenFord.com

RockChops.comBluesLessons.com
 
JazzGurus.com
LogicalLeadGuitar.com

Click Here to Slow Down The Music You’re Trying to Learn without changing the pitch, with Song Surgeon!

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Parts of this interview may have previously appeared on or in the following publications: Guitar.com, Musician.com, Guitar World, Guitar Edge, Guitar, Guitar Shop, Guitar World Acoustic, Frets, Bass Player, Maximum Guitar, Los Angeles Daily News, Fender Frontline Magazine, MusiciansFriend.com or any of the other 50 or 60 publications I’ve written for since the mid-’80s. But hey, I wrote it, and this is my archive — Adam 

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