IF YOU BELIEVE THE OLD ADAGE THAT THERE’S
no better teacher than experience, then fusionfueled
blues guitar virtuoso Robben Ford has
undoubtedly absorbed some seriously deep
improvisational wisdom. While still a teenager
in the 1960s, the native Californian (who originally
played jazz saxophone) found himself
backing Chicago blues harp monarch Charlie
Musselwhite, and then hitting the road behind
R&B legend Jimmy Witherspoon. Soon Ford
was drafted into the legendary L.A. Express,
spending what he refers to as two of the most
formative years of his musical life backing Joni
Mitchell on the road and in the studio, before
joining George Harrison on his Dark Horse tour.
An offer by Elektra records led to Ford’s
involvement with jazz-fusion quintet the
Yellowjackets, followed by a gig with Miles
After leaving Davis’ band with an open
invitation to return any time, Ford’s solo career
found its focus when he brought his refined
jazz schooling in line with his blues roots.
His 1988 solo outing Talk to Your Daughter
was the breakthrough, receiving a Grammy
nomination for Best Contemporary Blues
Recording, allowing him to tour the world
under his own name, and establishing him
as one of the precious few guitarists whose
combination of sophisticated harmonic invention
and unbridled soul spoke equally to
jazzbos, blues purists, and rockers.
In the ’90s, Ford spent eight fruitful years
leading the Blue Line with drummer Tom
Brechtlein and bassist Roscoe Beck. After
several more solo albums in various group
contexts, Ford has returned with a new trio
on his latest release, the live-in-concert
recording Soul on Ten [Concord]. As with classic
rhythm section/leader relationships such
as the Jimi Hendrix Experience or John
Coltrane’s early-’60s quartet, muscular bassist
Travis Carlton (son of jazz guitarist Larry
Carlton) and musicology minded drummer
Toss Panos don’t merely offer support—they
ratchet up the synergy factor to maximum
and push the improvisation on songs such
as “Supernatural” and “Nothin’ to Nobody”
to unexpected and exotic heights.
You seem to keep your rig fairly consistent. Did
you roll out anything new for the recording of Soul
Not really. I’m still using my Dumble
Overdrive Special amps. For effects, I have
a bottom-of-the-line Vox wah and a TC Electronic
2290 delay. Since the Dumbles don’t
have reverb, I run a direct line with a dry
signal out of the 2290 and into the second
channel of a Fender Super Reverb to fill out
the sound a little bit. Also, if I’m in a situation
where I have to plug into an amp other
than the Dumble, I’ll use a Hermida Audio
Technology Zendrive boost. For guitars, I’m
still using my ’60 Fender Tele for about half
the night, my Sakashta Noupaul, and a ’57
Gibson Les Paul that’s on long-term loan
from Larry Carlton.
Are your guitars essentially stock?
Yes. The rhythm pickup on the Tele died,
so I had it rewound by Lindy Fralin. On the
Sakashta, I use J. M. Rolph 1959-style Robben
Ford Model PAF pickups with coil splitters.
I actually rely on single-coils quite a bit
because they have a more controllable sound
for rhythm. If we bring the volume and
dynamics down when I’m soloing, it’s a good
bet I’m in single-coil mode. “Earthquake” is
played on the Sakashta almost entirely in
the single-coil position.
How did you mic your guitar?
Whenever I record, whether in the studio
or live, I use a Royer R-121 ribbon mic.
My sound is very midrangy. Most of the clarity
is in the middle, kind of like a singing
voice. The Royer is very true when reproducing
that sound without adding or subtracting
anything from it. It’s up to the engineers to
capture my sound, not to create it.
Although organist Neal Evans appears on some
cuts, your primary musical setting is a trio. What
is it you prefer about the trio format?
I’d worked in a trio setting in the past
with my group the Blue Line, went to a quartet
for a while, and then very recently came
back to a trio. It’s the best setting for me
musically right now, as I’m really into play-
ing and I have a lot to say on my guitar. If
there’s a keyboard player—and I don’t mean
to disrespect keyboard players—it’s really
going to get in the way because they’re going
to want to have their say, too. I also think
it’s important to leave some spaces unfilled
in your music because the listener—whether
they understand it on an artistic or intuitive
level—needs that. Space allows them to have
their own experience with the music instead
of having it shoved down their throats. That
said, how many people you have in your band
isn’t as important as having the right people
in your band.
So what is it about Travis and Toss that make
them the right guys?
Travis is very young—only 26—but he’s
schooled and plays with real sophistication.
When he solos over changes, he plays harmonically
adventurous lines without
sounding stiff or falling out of the pocket.
Toss is a creative improviser who can explore
a lot of ideas without messing up the groove.
I do believe it’s possible to play a lot without
overplaying. It’s when a musician
becomes too self-centered that it becomes
problematic. You need to be aware of how
what you’re doing is affecting everyone else,
and that’s something that young musicians
sometimes forget. Playing in a band is a
shared experience. It’s about what everyone
is doing together.
The song “There Will Never Be Another You”
is in 7/4 yet still grooves pretty ferociously.
That was originally written in six but I
thought there needed to be a little more
space in the lyric. It seemed like the verses
were falling on top of each other. At first I
was afraid that doing a song in seven might
be too strange for some listeners, but it just
felt better in seven. When we get to the
improvisation, however, it goes back into six
because I want that steady backbeat. I’m not
sure if people listening will know about
changing meters, but I think they’ll know if
the feel is right, which is what matters. It’s
also a big factor that Toss comes out of the
Greek musical tradition and really knows
how to make odd time signatures swing.
How do you manage to incorporate sophisticated
jazz harmonies into your melodic lines
without it sounding too odd or too much like an
It’s really important to think of every note
that you play as part of a melody. I hesitate
to use the word think—maybe “feel” or
“intend” would be a better choice. Whatever
you play should be a song. Even if the
notes are going by very fast they still should
say something. Retaining the freedom to
play melodically is the main reason I’ve
remained primarily a “blues” player. The big
picture is about making music at all times.
It isn’t about licks, or about modes—it’s
about melodies. It’s a cliché but it’s true:
your instrument is your voice.