Robben Ford is one of the leading blues guitarists in the world. A five-time Grammy nominee, he’s played with a multitude of artists, including; Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Witherspoon, Miles Davis, George Harrison, Michael McDonald, John Mayall, Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples.
Born in 1951 and raised in California, Robben was the third of four sons in a musical family. He began to teach himself guitar at age thirteen. Known for his prodigious self-taught technique Robben reached a reputation-defining height by playing with jazz icon Miles Davis in 1986 after Miles had called him personally to ask him to join his band.
Robben’s current release, Into The Sun, debuted at #2 on the Billboard Blues Chart. It features collaborations with Warren Haynes, Keb’ Mo, Robert Randolph, ZZ Ward, Sonny Landreth and Tyler Bryant.
Robben spoke to Chaz Brooks for Blues and Soul Magazine about his influences, favourite artists and songs, BB King, who he would like to collaborate with and other things blues on the eve of a guitar clinic in Guildford, Surrey, his only UK date on a European tour.
CB: Who is your favourite guitarist of all time?
RF: That’s really funny, I was thinking about that for some reason yesterday. Maybe because you were thinking about it. It’s kind of an impossible question to answer, but I can trace everything that I have ever done straight back to Michael Bloomfield. Everything. He was doing everything in the 60s that I feel that I am doing now. He was a great musician, the first virtuoso blues guitarist – the very first one. That’s where I started and feel like I am straight out of that!
CB: What’s your favourite track on your “Into The Sun” [latest] album?
RF: Well I can say that my favourite song on the record is Rose of Sharon. And my favourite track is High Heels and Throwing Things. I just love the way it sounds, I love the way it feels, it’s got humour and a wonderful trade between me and Warren Haynes?
CB: Which is your favourite album you’ve recorded?
RF: I would have to say now, I really love “Bringing it Back Home”.
CB: Do you have any stories about BB King? Did you play with him?
RF: I wish I did, I only met him very briefly once. I was on at a festival that he was headlining. Robert Cray was also on it. I played my show, went backstage, Robert Cray was on. I started to go out the door to leave, behind a false curtain, as Robert Cray was playing and I opened the door and BB King was standing there. He appeared to be 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide – not fat, just big, his presence was big. I just looked at him like Mt Rushmore, I just put up my hand and said “Hi BB I’m Robben Ford”. He took my hand with both his hands and goes “Hi Robben, they sure sounding good out there!” He started to do this little dance dirt ball you know, big smile on his face. It was great, it was a great moment. It was the only time I only had any exchange with him. Ever. That was in the early 90’s.
CB: What are your other favourite tracks from any other of your albums?
RF: I can say that I like my records, I’m happy to say that I like my records. The only record I kinda have mixed feelings about is Blue Moon, this was a strange transition time for me. I like my records, but I like this for this reason and that for this reason. I couldn’t really say.
CB: What’s your favourite all time tracks and albums – just something you love?
RF: I can tell you one that always comes to mind for me, talking about records that are really important to me and that I think are just beautiful and unknown or underexposed and that’s Laura Nyro – a record she did in the 60s called “New York Tendaberry” – are you familiar with it? I don’t know how it would translate today to others hearing it for the first time you know, for young people, but for me it’s an exquisite work of art by a brilliant artist.
CB: Do you have a favourite album?
RF: Umm, No. I have many!
CB: What are you listening to at the moment?
RF: I just recently got on a Miles Davis jag, which is not unusual for me. There is a documentary on Miles’ “Kind of Blue” – it’s on YouTube and well worth watching. When asked you can’t say what the greatest record was or was ever made but if I had to it would be “Kind of Blue”. It encompasses blues, classical music, Eastern influences. It’s all there.
CB: Do you any other favourite artists or bands, not necessarily guitarists?
RF: I like the music of the band Alabama Shakes. That’s been my favourite thing to hear for a long time in terms of newer artists that are coming on the scene and have something to say.
CB: Collaborations. You recently collaborated with Michael McDonald. Will there be more?
RF: I like to collaborate. I am spending more and more time in Nashville, Tennessee because of the musical community there – it’s a tremendous musical community – a lot happening underground that people don’t see coming out of Nashville. I’m hoping that will lead to a lot of collaborations.
CB: Is there a slight country influence to some of your music in your recent albums?
RF: Well I don’t know. Not exactly. I started using the acoustic guitar more and that is a product of becoming more and more engaged in song writing. My father played country and western music and he played guitar tunes and things like that, so I’m sure that got in to my system. Subconsciously. I also really kinda preferred what you’d call country blues to what you’d call Chicago blues. I liked Lightnin’ Hopkins, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Robert Johnson. I have never really exhibited any of that in my personal performances but I’m definitely affected by it.
CB: BB King has that as well?
RF: Sure, he WAS that
CB: Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t already?
RF: BB King. Too late for that! I’m not quite sure, I used to be able to answer that question – where I’m at today it’s hard to say. I just wrote an instrumental and recorded with Brad Paisley a song for his next record which was a lot of fun. And the two artists out there that in particular I have developed a bit of a relationship with Brad and Vince Gill. It makes sense ‘cos both those guys are super guitar players and also are big fans of mine for years – so it’s a nice easy hang, you know.
CB: Who’s the best you’ve ever played with?
RF: You know what, that actually makes thinks of Jeff Beck – that’s somebody I would love to do something with. I don’t think it’s every going to happen. Someone once asked of Eric Clapton “How does it feel to be the greatest guitar player in the world?” And he replied “you would have to ask Jeff Beck”. That’s the perfect answer to that question …. there is no best …. just things that you like.
CB: What drives you to carry on performing?
RF: Well, I love being creative. Music is the best way I have ever found to express my creative energy. I’m definitely don’t have the slightest idea what retirement would be and I’m not interested in it. I like songwriting and I would like to write for and produce for other artists. I will obviously continue to do some touring, but I’m trying to cut that back and what I would like to do is have a production facility in Nashville and write and produce for other artists.
CB: I read that you might be thinking of moving to Nashville?
RF: Hard to say exactly move to. I kinda feel like a person of the world. I’m happy wherever I am if I am able to do my thing. And for now, the way I am, is [I want] to have a production facility, and it would be a place where I could live if I wanted to. Just a bedroom, a kitchen and a shower, nothing fancy – and a guitar. It’s more about the production facility than the living part. That would be great for me.
CB: Any unfulfilled ambitions?
RF: Producing records!
CB: Any future projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?
RF: I’m producing an Icelandic guitar player his name is Björn Thoroddsen. We’re recording in Nashville in May.
CB: Will you be doing more gigs in the UK?
RF: Sure, I’ll be over there!
CB: That will be good. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure
RF: Thanks. See you in Guildford. Take care man.