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Jet-lagged and appearing just a little surprised at the unusually vociferous welcome at his sold-out guitar clinic, Robben Ford strapped on his black Sakashta and plugged straight into a Fender Super Reverb amp.
And for the next hour and a half, he proved forever that tone comes from the top, heart and hands. The man exudes soul. Describing his style as ‘freeform but with a method’, Robben began by talking about his early years studying the saxophone. Growing up in the tiny town of Ukiah, CA, he listened to the local radio station, KUKI, “or kooky”, as he says with fun.
His parents also joined a record club, where he was subjected to Ravel’s Bolero and Dave Brubeck’s Take 5. Hearing saxophonist Paul Desmond on Take 5 made him desire to play the alto. Playing the saxophone for 11 years, Robben learned to learn music, but admitted that his reading skills didn’t transfer readily to the guitar. Teaching himself to play your guitar was an even more intuitive process, he All On 4 Brisbane states, and he learned by hearing the initial Paul Butterfield Blues Band album featuring Mike Bloomfield. Listening intently to Bloomfield’s playing became a major turning point, and for a while Ford reckons he sounded a lot like his hero.
Having turn into a household name himself, and a guitar hero to many, Ford non-chalantly described his style as a combination of folk-blues and jazz., a musical fusion which has served him well. Elaborating further, Ford emphasized the necessity to experiment and make mistakes so that you can create a personal style. Likening his approach to being very similar to fingerpainting on your guitar, he was emphatic that music should result from a place of feeling and not just from technique.
When asked about his practice schedule, Ford replied that he practiced intensely at first. He joked he learned his initial ‘hip’ blues chord from considering the picture on the cover of the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album where Mike Bloomfield was holding down a dominant 9th chord. After that early epiphany, Ford decided to bone up on his chordal knowledge. Laughing, he recalled getting a hold of Mel Bay’s Jazz Chords Vol. 1 book and started to use the jazzier chord voicings he learned when he began playing with Charlie Musselwhite. To show, Ford then launched into an elaborate jazz-blues progression throwing in a variety of chord substitutions into mix.
Delving into his improvisational approach, Ford described how he learned a few scales and some standard bebop licks, and boiling everything right down to ii-V progressions. . Ford assured his audience that the language of music was actually very easy, and how, literally, it might all be learned in a few weeks. Emphasizing the necessity for simplicity and the importance of finding one’s own voice, Ford proferred that although musicians dilligently transcribed and learned Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane licks, it rarely evolved into finding their very own voice. Doing it their own way, he says, has kept him unique.
Asked about his current amplification setup for tours, Robben expressed his preference for Fender Super Reverbs, explaining that his setup when he was with Jimmy Witherspoon’s group contains a Gibson L5 archtop right into a Super Reverb amp. With good speakers and matched tubes, the Super Reverb, he says, is his favorite. When asked about pedals and effects, Ford was emphatic they hindered one from finding one’s own sound. Not having pedals when he started out, he states, enabled him to focus on his tone and he encouraged every guitar player in the audience to do away with pedals, for at least a while.
Delving into his sophisticated soloing style, he spoke about his fondness for the diminished scale, which he learned from jazz guitarist Larry Coryell when Ford was19 yrs . old. Coryell described it to him as the half-tone/whole-tone scale and Ford started practicing it immediately and making up a few of their own licks. He says he could instantly hear that the b9 on the dominant 7th chord reminded him of some ideas jazz trumpeter Miles Davis found in his own playing.
After a tasty demonstration of some lines that outlined the changes to a blues progression perfectly, Robben explained the way the diminished scale acted as a transition to the IV chord in a blues. Elaborating further, he talked about locating the common tones in the diminished scale that moved seamlessly to the next chord and how they may be used in soloing when likely to the IV and the V chord as well.