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Robben Ford: Valuable Advice for Musicians on Careers, Songwriting, and Yes, Guitars!



Bob Bakert, editor of Jazz Guitar Today: We are very proud to present our interview with Robben Ford. Robben has always been at top of my list as far as players. So it was an honor to speak with him. Please enjoy…

Cover Photo credit: Mascha Thompson

JGT:  You moved to Nashville in September of 2017.  Is Nashville what you thought it would be now that you are there? 

The move to Nashville has been extremely – no scratch that – shockingly positive!   For musicians, there’s no place quite like Nashville.  I would almost say… any musician that’s struggling – wherever they are – and they really want to have a career in music or be in the quote ‘music business’, they should move to Nashville.  That is unless there is some really good reason not to.  I traveled the world for many years.  I lived in Los Angeles and New York.  Those are obviously the two classic music centers and in neither of those places was I able to stay off the road.  I really didn’t want to do what either of those places had to offer, which was television, film, jingles and maybe the occasional record date.  That was not my desire at that time. And still isn’t – (laugh)!   

I like being creative. I don’t want to get locked into anything just for the money.  That is what I saw as the sad truth in those cities.  Here in Nashville, it’s not like there are a zillion gigs or a zillion places to play.  On the other hand, there are enough and there is an incredible pool of musicians and creativity in Nashville.  So there is the potential of doing something unique, personal, and satisfying.  Musically and financially – there’s just no place in the world like Nashville.

JGT:  You have stated before that you want to do more production.  You recently produced Jeff McErlain’s new recording “Now”.  I love it… can you tell us about the process?

Jeff’s record was done over a period of time. He did quite a bit on his own in NY. Not living there, I did not want to rush things.  Nor did he. The recording with the band was done in two days in Nashville.  And it that doesn’t go down correctly, you are in trouble… Fortunately, there was time – no pressure.  As a result, it turned out well.

More on Jeff McErlain’s NOW project.

JGT:  This is a guitar magazine, so let’s talk guitars…  I have seen you with Tele’s, Les Paul’s, Epiphone thinlines, etc.  What are you currently using?

Right now, for me, a great Les Paul would be, or maybe could be ‘it’.  I have let a lot of Les Pauls slip through my hands.  I am not the kind of person that would buy a 59’ or 58’ or 57’ – so what I do is buy the gold tops with P90’s – from the early mid-fifties.  I have done a number of conversions and right now, I am the middle of a 59’ conversion. It’s actually a 54.  So there’s a top on it, a flame top.  Looks super vintage, like the real McCoy… when actually it’s a 54’ that’s been refinished – the pickups are for real – PAF’s, they sound incredible.  

Robben Ford in concert

I had a 53’ that I had converted – it also had PAF’s in it but it was just a little stiff for me. So this new one – I have great hopes for!  Beyond that, the Telecaster has been the best working guitar I’ve had – that 1960 white Tele. It’s been my best friend over the years. It’s light, easy to travel with and of course, a great guitar!  

Nashville luthier and guitar tech Joe Glaser discussed that white Tele.

Essentially, I started on Gibson’s – it’s what I used when I started to play.  It seems the way you start is the way you end up. That thinline Epiphone – I think it’s a 63’ – is also a great guitar.  I love that guitar and I am starting to play it more and more.  It’s really just the travel element.  A 335 type of instrument or an archtop – that can be a big deal for travel.  Those guitars have a honkin’ case that you try to get on the airlines, at $200 each time you travel.  They are just BIG – it’s easier to just put a Les Paul or Tele on your back.  And that’s been a consideration as to what instrument I take on the road.  It’s a drag… you want to take your guitar and play it.  Bottom line, the guitars for me are the Tele and hopefully the new Les Paul conversion.  And hopefully people will be seeing me play that Epiphone more too.

JGT:  Something about a great Tele and a great Les Paul…


Robben with his Les Paul during Purple House

JGT:  What amps are you using on the road these days?  

I use the special Dumble and I take it with me everywhere.  I used to take the cabinet with me – but these days, everything is so big and heavy to carry.  I usually pick up a Marshall 4 x 12 wherever I am going.  So I’ve got my Dumble head and my pedalboard – and of course, the guitar. That’s pretty much the way I work.

JGT:  Can you tell us about your current pedalboard?  

I have been using the TC Electronic Hall of Fame for my reverb.  I‘ve been using the same Zen Drive for many years.  I don’t have the original anymore… hmmm, I can’t remember why…  The board I have been using now, I have been using for 10 years.  Strymon time line delay, and the Electro Harmonix Dayzavide – they have a smaller one from the original one – which is what I use now.  And I use the Electro Harmonix POG  I really enjoy the POG – it an octave generator – it plays one up, one down and one in the middle, so it has a three octaves.  Somehow it allows you to play more of bebop way – so I will play a jazzier lines.  I used to do that with the overdrive – but I have moved away from the overdrive thing. I just use it less.  Overdrive is less important element to my style nowadays. Instead I will use the boost on the Dumble.  Also, the boost on the Dumble bypasses the tone controls  – it bumps you up and give me a very mid-range sound.  That’s what I really prefer to do because I like the clean sound of the guitar. 

Can you discuss your songwriting?

I would say songwriting is the number one thing I put the most effort into. Songwriting is on the front burner.   That’s kind of what it takes if you want to develop as a songwriter.  You have to commit – and I did that.  I spent less time ‘practicing guitar’ which I really never did much of that (laugh). Although I played guitar a lot.  I was able to work on songwriting– on my own. And develop on my own.   There are songwriting teachers – or you could go to a seminar once in a while. But I never did that. I was too busy playing, traveling and recording.  And writing songs – writing some bad songs, and writing some pretty good songs.  It’s like many things – you get better with time. I am happy – or at least I feel like my songwriting gets better and better with time.  And that’s gratifying.  Because I seriously invest my myself in it – and if I wasn’t getting better – I would probably shoot myself…so it became a passion.  

I paid a lot of attention to songwriters that, for me, were the most brilliant at their craft.  They are found in the great American songbooks, and on Broadway.  My wife was an actress and worked on Broadway – and that kind of music was her thing.  So she exposed me to a lot of brilliance  You talk about very heavy people  Brilliance became the standard – not that you achieve it yourself, but that’s the goal.   So for me, I have taken it (songwriting) very seriously – and studied hard.

I think the craft of songwriting is missing.  In many cases, people think they have to reinvent the wheel and secondly, they don’t ask enough of themselves.  They are satisfied too soon.  You have to work at the craft.  When you find a weakness in your song – focus on the weakness.  Look at how you can make it stronger.

Joni Mitchell is someone I worked with over a two year period of time, in the 70’s – that was a long time ago, but anyway, if we are not certainly friends, we are certainly well acquainted.  She was so much more experienced – as well as more intelligent, and I was a youngster.  But at a certain point I had the nerve to call her up…  I said, “Hey Joni, I was struggling with this song” – not sure exactly what I said but to the effect of – “would you help me?”  And she said, “Well… no Robben, but I can give you some advice.”  I thought, good enough – I will take it!  So she said, take your lyrics, and everything in your lyrics that you find to be a cliché – circle it – and find a different way to say it.  So that became an incredible ‘little’ piece of advice.  The whole point was to move away from the cliché. It doesn’t take a lot – when someone like Joni says something like that.  It’s so important.  You can also take that bit of advice and apply to other crafts you are working on. The key word is craft.  Someone can build a table that is very functional – and someone can build a table that rises to level of art.  There’s your open field.  Basically, you have your work cut out for you.

JGT:  That’s great advice on songwriting!

JGT:  Let’s move to Robben the teacher – the educator.  We have some of your VHS tapes… you have been teaching a long time. Half step – whole step.

Yeah, 35 years…

Teaching began for me as a way to make some extra income – if I wasn’t on the road.  However, I was not sure how to approach it.  It was not natural for me, it was hard work.  I started feeling like I had to have everything on paper.  And to do that, I had to read (music) which I am not the best at…  So I would be in a situation where I was doing a clinic – and I had things written out – and I would pass things out.  Then someone would ask, “How do you play that?”  And I couldn’t read it myself (laugh).   I could sort of read it…  So after a while, I stopped doing that – I stopped writing it down.  I started just opening my mouth and talking about music.  And I could do that all day – without impediment.   So I developed a teaching style out of that.  

I would find the thing that was thematic and then write it down in some simple way. For example – the use of chords in particular.  I would say, chords are a very important part of my teaching style.  It’s something I have to pass along because in general, guitarists do not know a lot of chords.  I am not a traditional jazz player – people know that… that’s what they like about my playing.  But I have integrated those chords into my playing.  I learned those chords from Mickey Baker  The use of the chords and the half-whole diminished scales are somewhat unique to my playing.  I use it a lot more than certainly most blues and rock players. So I try to do it in a way that is musical – it just perks up your ears.  So that has been one of my strengths, in terms of teaching.  And again, I just started talking about it. Fortunately the good people at TrueFire are very good at helping you in terms of communicating those themes.  The more confidence I developed in my teaching by talking – the easier to pass along.  Why wouldn’t you do it that way?   I teach the way I learned. 

JGT:  Can you tell a little bit about your performing schedule and what you have been doing recently? 

I will be on the road a week to ten days per month. But of course, that’s international travel.  Just back from the NE, and a guitar camp at Sweetwater.  After that, Jeff McErlain and I were out for about a week.   Had a couple of dates on the West Coast. In June, I will be going to Europe.  I will be in Europe for six weeks – but only half of that will be playing.  I wanted to have some time, in particular, to look around France.  I have always been fascinated with France and even learning the language.  I have studied a bit… but you have to be there and speaking daily to really learn it.  In July, I will be in Italy.  I will be playing the Montreux Festival July 4 and then a week’s worth of dates in Italy.  Come back – and then, once again,  I will be performing live somewhere about one week of every month

JGT:  Thanks for taking the time with us – and good luck in Europe!

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