Robben Ford. Brief interview and transcript of a Ford Guitar Clinic


In advance of his European tour of guitar clinics Robben Ford spoke exclusively to Chaz Brooks  about his clinics. This is followed by a report on his latest guitar clinic in the UK which includes Robben talking about playing with Miles Davis and why jazz players don’t look like they are having fun.

Robben is known as the “guitarist’s guitarist” and has had a stellar career spanning six decades, playing with artists such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Miles Davis, Michael McDonald, John Mayall, Greg Allman, John Scofield, Larry Carlton and many others.

A five-time Grammy nominee, Ford is renowned for his phenomenal technique, is self-taught and is a “guitarist’s guitarist”. Born and raised in California, he still lives there, although he is spending an increasing amount of time in Nashville and is looking to set up a production facility there.

CB: Why do you do your guitar Clinics?

RF: I started doing clinics because it was a way of making some money. I still do them largely because it’s an alternate source of income. People need alternate sources of income – not just one! Essentially everyone wants that.

So I had the smarts to go ahead and develop myself in this way. And happily I can say I came to really enjoy it. To me, I love passing along anything that I can about what I do. I love doing that so it’s a win-win you know.

CB: What do you get of the clinics?

RF: There’s a lot of joy in passing along information. I remember reading an article with a particular band and the one particular individual in the band, who very famous and very successful, said “I don’t want to give anything away here” so he gave a vague response to the question about song writing and I just thought – well why not? Yes, why not? Why wouldn’t you want to give it away man? It was like some fear that that person was going to take something from you. That was my impression, I guess if you have the secret and someone is going to give it away someone’s going to surpass your secret – but that’s just not the way things work.

CB: What do you think the attendees get out of the clinics?

RF: Well I hope a lot! I do pretty much give away the story. I talk about anything and everything freely but the particular element I hope to pass along is one of basically an attitude towards what it is to make music – for me music is joy. That’s the word. I can’t come up with a better word.

So I try to get people to understand they are a hair’s breadth away from making music. If they think they are not able to play, not able to do what they want to do, they’re just a hair’s breadth away from making it, you know. It’s just a shift of consciousness.

Robben’s only UK guitar clinic on a 20 date European tour was held recently in Guildford, Surrey. Organised by the renowned Andertons Music, with attendees from as far away as Manchester, this was a masterclass by a guitar great and there was an air of expectation and reverence in the room.

One for the purists and fans alike, Robben began by asking how many guitarists were in the audience. Unsurprisingly about 80% of the 230-strong audience put their hands up. He then took questions from the audience and went on to detail his guitar technique, demonstrating his incredible self-taught technical knowledge and ability. He summed up “Practice, don’t try and be too technical, enjoy yourself, express yourself. Go for it and say something.”

Backed by Pete Stroud on bass and Darby Todd on drums he played three numbers, the first an improvisation to demonstrate some of the techniques he had been describing, the second a driving blues number called Cannonball Shuffle and finally Fool’s Paradise from his 2013 Bringing It Back Home LP which showcased his soloing and vocal talents.

Below is a transcript of selected parts of the clinic, in Robben’s words: 

“Where I started, my influences, is where I’ve come back around to. I began with the blues and the playing of Michael Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And then came the British invasion, The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals. Man – Eric Burden sang his ass off!

“I stumbled across the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (I liked the cover of one of the albums!) and this set the tone for the whole of my musical life.  Obviously I was influenced by Hendrix amongst others. My music is eclectic, it can be sophisticated but I try to keep it simple now.

“I express myself, and immerse myself in music. I have a blues background and tried to teach myself jazz. I taught myself from books.

“Playing with Joni Mitchell was a great learning experience, Joni was a goddess. From about ‘74 I went on a ten year ride, lots of fusion, and then I didn’t want to do that anymore.

“I came back to the blues. I figured it out. I want to keep it simple, be creative with the blues and have a good feel. I’m not trying to prove anything anymore. I like being in a band, it should not all be about the front guy, but in my band I’m the leader so I can play whatever I want.

“It was a tremendous experience to be on the bandstand with Miles Davis. It was like being on a rocketship and pointed in a solid direction. It was beautiful. I just loved that thing. I feel like I had an understanding of Miles’ mind. These things are important you know. You can learn chords and scales from books but it’s what you do that’s important.

“Learn, do anything with it. Do something with it. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s easy when you’re young. When I was young I didn’t give a damn. Stick your neck out and go for it.

“The guitar is my voice. There’s no disconnect between my voice and guitar. I’ve worked very hard at singing, I always had good intonation. I had singing lessons and took a long time to get there. I’m doing the best I can.  Aretha is the best singer of all time.

“I know how not to play a wrong note, and if you aren’t playing a bad note you are playing a good note. I’ve never been a chord player so I’ve learned how to trust the space. That space where things happen, the creative space, how music happens. You need chords and scales but the creative space makes the difference.

“I don’t play as much jazz as I used to. It’s been done by so many others so well. I’m looking to see if there’s something I can add. The way I use jazz is in bursts. Blues – jazz – blues. I use jazz chords in the blues. I’m a blues and jazz player.

“I have a sense of melody and continuity. I keep the blues as my home base and throw in jazz 2-5-1s. It’s more about the song now, not the notes. Jazz players don’t look like they are having fun. There’s a reason for that — it’s hard to play that shit.

“My attitude is about making music, enjoyment.”

Chaz Brooks