by John Stix
We’d all like to learn at the hands of the master and these days that is less a dream and more of a possibility. Robben Ford has “The Guitar Dojo” as his instructional website on Robbenford.com. He’s partnered with TrueFire.com to present video lessons for purchase and download. But nothing can top face to face lessons, so the Dojo is traveling to the Full Moon Resort in the Catskill Forest Preserve about 30 miles west of Woodstock, NY for a live session from August 31
to September 4. “We only do one a year,” Robben explained at the start of our conversation.
“It’s too big of a deal to do it more than once a year.”
Tell me about camp and what people can expect when they go there?
The camp is pretty broad in what people will be exposed too. I teach a class on improvisation, I teach a class on chord work, and I teach a class on songwriting. Those are my three master classes. Each is a different day. We have Rick Wheeler teaching the jazz class. He is going to be the main person to really get into music theory. He is going to offer music theory from a jazz player’s point of view. Which is the same as any other point of view frankly but that’s where you find people using this kind of extended harmony and different ways of working with chords. Rick can talk about ways of viewing the fret board and ways of viewing harmony which puts it into a nice little picture for people. His skill is to present these ideas in different ways for them to look at it, to help them reach that aha moment.
And this works even if you don’t have a lot of background in music theory and harmony going in?
Definitely, I would say absolutely. You have to start at some point if you’re interested in really understanding it. Rick has been an instructor for many years and I learn things (from him) just because of the way he would present them. It’s like oh, I see. I have a lot of respect for him as a teacher. Plus he’s a really good jazz guitar player.
How did you decide this was a good thing for you to do?
The third instructor is Jeff Mcerlain. Jeff is one of the spotlight people on TrueFire.com which is instructional materials on line. That’s where I met him and became very impressed with him. Not only as an instructor but he is a really good guitar player. He is going to focus on blues rock theory. So there is going to be some theory there as well, but completely within a blues and rock context. There’s that for those who find altered chords and scales may be a little over their head. They can still learn some harmony, some theory, within the context of blues and rock. So those are the three principles, myself, Jeff and Rick. Beyond that we have a rhythm section and we’re really going to make it possible for absolutely everyone in the camp to have an opportunity to jam with us, to get direct feedback from us. All three of the instructors are going to be in the room when the rhythm class goes down. People can get up with their guitar and plug into an amplifier and play with a really good rhythm section and play standing next to me and get my feedback or Rick Wheeler or Jeff McErlain. That’s the main reason why I feel confident about this camp being really good for everyone. We’ve learned that people really want to interact. They don’t want to sit and be told and talked to about the guitar. They want to play it. So we’re really making that a priority at this particular camp.
I can imagine you would be a good teacher because you are self taught and learned about the rocks in the road by tripping over them. That would make you a particularly good guide to have on the trail. How did you come to start teaching?
I didn’t teach, I used to go into MI and quite frankly that’s where I got my first taste of doing some kind of instruction. They asked me if I would come in, sit in an office, and just council people and I said yes. ‘Cause it was a way to make a little extra money and it was also at a time when I was kind of struggling financially. So I came to like it. And quite honestly I have been doing it to some degree every since, releasing DVD’s, books, and doing clinics. I’ve been doing this now for 30 years. For most people it starts as sort of an alternative form of income but then you start to realize that there is something very gratifying and enjoyable about passing along the information that you have, and finding that you have that to give. It’s rewarding in that way. I think everybody likes to teach. Everyone likes to be of service to somebody else. Turn somebody onto something. It’s a real opportunity that way.
The latest manifestation of all this experience and inspiration finds its way into your new album Into the Sun. For me the two cuts that stand out are “Rose of Sharon” and “Breath of Me” (vocals by ZZ Ward). You must be proud of “Rose” because you start the album off with it.
Yeah, my feeling was that it was the best song on the record and so why not lead with that. I also liked the idea that the first thing you would hear was an acoustic guitar. Because it’s not something that anyone really hears from me. The only place I’ve really used acoustic guitar as much as I did on this record has been with Renegade Creation and very few people heard those records (laughs). It’s a real songwriter approach. The focus is on the song.
Why do you think it’s the best song on the record?
I write a song so that it can stand on its own, just me sitting there playing and singing. So after that you have to trust the musicians that you’ve hired to interpret it in some way that it’s fitting. And fortunately I couldn’t have had better musicians and I’m kind of stunned myself by what these guys did. I did not tell them what to play. Not a one of them and the only thing that we really discussed was that’s not the right snare drum or maybe we need to switch out some of the drum kit because it doesn’t seem to be getting where we want to go. We don’t know where we’re going but that’s not it you know. It’s that kind of view. Then again for me it was just sonic.
Was there much rehearsal?
I went out to Nashville, to record, and the guys had not heard the music. I don’t think I sent them anything. But at the same time I gave myself ten days. So we had a ton of time and that’s how I wanted to approach it. I just played the song on the guitar for the guys and did that for every single song. I just went here’s the song. And people just started taking notes and we would start playing the song. “Rose of Sharon” was no exception. I wanted the record to evolve in that way. “Rose of Sharon” wasn’t the first thing we cut. But what you hear there is a completely live take other than the lead guitar and vocal. It’s just beautiful the way Jim Cox plays the B-3 on that song. To me that’s just whew!
It’s a mood, the song is not just lyric and chords, it creates a whole building.
Yep, and again, that for me is why it’s a great song. It’s very simple. And the way we structured a solo, I just wrote a series of chords to play over. And I don’t write so often thinking in terms of a solo anymore. I write a song. But it seemed to me to write a bridge with a lyric would just become a bunch of blah blah. Because the mood was already there. Mood is the perfect word. It’s a mood. I did not want to do anything to detract from that simple space. It’s the same kind of space you’ll get in a John Lee Hooker slow blues with just him on the acoustic guitar. You don’t want to leave that space and you don’t want anybody to try to teach you anything or sell you anything. So the song was written and it was very short. And so to expand it, I wrote that series of chords and just played the simplest most tasteful guitar solo I could possibly play over it. So that I didn’t break that mood and make it about the guitar. Everything just came together so beautifully. So I guess it’s not only the best song on the record, the recording came together so well and the guys played so beautifully. It’s just my favorite thing on the record. Actually, a tune I dig just as much in terms of the overall performance and the way everybody played is “High Heels and Throwing Things” I get a kick out of that.
Both you and Warren played really well on that and the groove was really good. But I wanted you to spar and not just fill in the holes. Warren played tight and fierce and I wanted more of the call and response.
Well you know, leave ‘em wanting more.
I thought that Sonny Landreth was smoking hot.
Yeah he just played his ass off on that song, “So Long for You.” It was written by my nephew Gabriel Ford.
So you gave him the tape and this is how it came back?
Yeah, I sent it out to him and he just played his ass off. It’s edited. I just said play, play play and we’ll take care of it on this end, anything that doesn’t quite work with the overall recording. And so he did just that. I’m playing the piano on that song. We started recording it with just guitar and it wasn’t working. I kind of dropped the whole tune but it kept haunting me so I came in the next day with the band and said I’m going to play piano. Let’s just go for it. And that performance came out of it. I was comfortable with that and I loved what Sonny played but then I thought I really should play some guitar on here. People are going to be disappointed if there isn’t some kind of interchange between Sonny and me. So did the riffing on the last verse. And then let him take it out.
Tell me about “Breath of Me” because that song grabbed me from the first note and didn’t let go. I thought she sang really well and you played really focused and fine.
That song and the whole notion of doing something with ZZ Ward came after I had already cut the record in Nashville. All the guests on the record, we sent them the tracks. It was impossible to get all those people together in Nashville. We sent the record out and it came back with their parts and I edited it to make it all work. ZZ was the one person that happened live in the studio. I wrote the song for us. It was actually a little more complex of a song originally. But I started weeding out all those chords. And once again the mood that is established right off the bat was enough. She wrote her first verse. She did write that part of the lyric. The song turned out to be in a key that was a little too low for her. So she found her own way to sing the lyric that I had written as well. It’s the one pure collaboration on the record where we are actually interacting together live and in person.
Were your guitar solos overdubs?
Yeah, we cut the song with the basic rhythm section. There actually was B-3 organ on the record at first and eventually I just took it out because I didn’t like what was happening there. I was soloing when we cut the track but I redid all of that. It’s an overdub. The lead guitar is that’ 60 Telecaster on the front of the album. That was an overdub listening to the track with headphones on.
Did you punch in phrases or do whole takes?
It was not one live take. The way that I work generally, I found it’s comfortable for me to start playing and then if I’m unhappy with something, I stop and we pick it up right there. So there is some continuity for me. It’s not like I come in tomorrow or I just redo that phrase or anything like that. I just sit and I start playing and if I’m not happy then we stop and pick it up right where we stop and continue. So we just roll back a little bit, keep what I like so far, and start from that point.
You are playing a solo that tells a story. You are playing a line that makes sense following what came before. There is a certainty in what you play that makes it so inviting to listen too.
Thank you. I don’t know that I have consciously worked on that per say. But to a certain degree I have in that I’m not a super chopster. To be a super chopster you have to practice all that stuff and play it over and over again. So then when you go to record or play a show you kind of already know what’s going to happen. I don’t like that, I don’t like knowing what’s going to happen. I don’t like thinking I’m going to play this when I get there. I’ve never felt comfortable with that approach. My kind of fierce desire to make pure music kind of keeps me honed in that way. So there for on a chops level I can’t compete with many of my peers. But my sound, my phrasing, the melodic quality of it that’s where I’ve really focused my attention.
And that is why you are a son of Miles Davis.
Well he’s the king.
- John Stix
ROBBEN FORD - INTO THE SUN
Review by James H.