WANT A RECIPE for a record guaranteed to make an electric guitarist’s mouth water? Start with a healthy helping of Robben Ford, a master of sophisticated jazz/blues and tone idol to legions of gear hounds; add an equal portion of Michael Landau, a session ace with credits that include music’s modern legends (Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, etc.) and a Who’s Who of pop music since the ’80s; stir in a Grade A rhythm section—drummer Gary Novak and bassist Jimmy Haslip—and serve piping hot.
If you expect the resulting dish, Renegade Creation [Blues Bureau International], to be a non-stop head cutting session, you may be disappointed—these are, after all, two of the most tasteful guitarists on the planet. Most guitar fans will, however, find that there is plenty of quiet fire on display by each. It takes until the ninth tune, “Who Do You Think You Are,” for Ford and Landau to go head to head with a satisfying round of trading fours, but not only is it worth the wait, strong songwriting and stellar tones ensure that getting there is considerably more than half the fun.
The seeds for this dynamic guitar duo were sewn three decades ago when Ford tapped Landau to tour in support of his debut solo record, The Inside Story. “We met while on tour in Japan,” recalls Ford. “Mike was with Boz Scaggs and I was with Michael McDonald. Mike sounded great even then, at 21 or 22 years old. He just seemed very simpatico musically, and I wanted to try the two-guitar thing out.”
The musical relationship continued throughout years of sitting in with each other’s groups. “We have always wanted to do a band,” says Landau. “We were toying around with the idea of getting a singer and making more of a rock and roll situation.”
The idea might still be on simmer had Vinnie Colaiuta not been one of the most in-demand drummers in the world. “Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Haslip, and I had recorded with a group called Jing Chi for Mike Varney,” says Ford. “We were offered another record but Vinnie was unavailable, so I suggested Gary Novak, and Mike Landau to give it a little more breadth.”
The outside singer idea soon fell by the wayside. Though at first they had some singers in mind, recording began without one in place. “We just started recording demos and we liked it,” says Landau. “Originally, I didn’t want to sing that much and I don’t think Robben did either because we are both a little burnt out on it from doing our own things that way. But it worked out. I think it is better for this record that we just stuck with the four of us.”
As in any great recipe, the ingredients must meld while the individual flavors remain distinct and recognizable. For these two experienced instrumentalists, turning their first recorded collaboration into a gourmet entree was not a problem. No need to separate solos into right and left channels for identification purposes; both players step out right down the center of the stereo spectrum, while leaving little doubt as to who is whom. “Mike is more from a rock background and I’m from blues, R&B and jazz,” says Ford. “He can play it all, of course, and I play in a rock context pretty well, but the contrast is what makes it interesting and inspiring.”
The contrast comes from both style and sound. Ford’s sound explores the full range of tones extractable from an American-style amp driven by the bridge pickup of various guitars. “I used my regular setup, which is primarily the Dumble Overdrive Special— that’s my sound,” he states. The guitars included a 1955 Gibson Les Paul and a 1963 Epiphone Riviera, occasionally boosted with a Hermida Zendrive pedal. A 1966 Gibson ES-335 makes an appearance on Gary Novak’s tune, “Brothers.”
Although Ford’s 1960 Fender Telecaster graces the opener, “Who Do You Think You Are,” for the most part it is Landau who contributes the Fender vibe with his 1963 Fiesta Red Strat. If Ford’s tone is pure 6L6 US of A, Landau’s amp and pedal setup adds the contrasting British flavor of his twin EL84- driven, 18-watt Suhr Badger amp, through a 4x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion Heritage G12-65 speakers. His go-to pedals, the vintage plexi-based Lovepedal COT 50 and the treble booster-style Lovepedal Eternity Fuse, also favor the sound of swinging London. “I have the COT 50 on 90-percent of the time and manipulate the guitar volume to add or subtract gain,” he says. “There are so many different combinations of gain that you can get with the guitar volume if you have an overdrive pedal going into the amp. I also use a volume pedal after the overdrive pedals as a master volume.” A watery vibrato sound helps secure the session ace’s personal place in the mix. Though using a Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe on a few tunes, he remembers mostly relying on Roland’s RT- 20 Rotary Ensemble for extra color.
Landau claims that the pair had no difficulty figuring out who would play what. “It has always come easily to us,” he explains. “We don’t really talk about it. We just play the opposite of what the other guy is doing. I’ll always find something a little bit counter to what Robben is doing and vise-versa.”
“It was very natural, not really a decisionmaking process,” Ford concurs. “We recorded very quickly and just sort of nodded at each other from time to time.”
Landau seems impressed at just how quickly it went. “Jimmy and Robben just wanted to get in and go for it,” he remarks. “We only did maybe two takes of each tune— three at the most.” The band set up at Landau’s home studio, where Haslip produced and Landau engineered. “Most of the tunes were recorded together in the room including solos,” he explains. Ford adds, “Mike’s amp was well covered in the tracking room and mine was in a closet.”
One exception to the just “plug in and play” policy was “Peace,” a Ford instrumental whose parts were worked out. “Mike takes the only solo and I play the melody. It’s a hard song to play,” says Ford. “We sat down a little with that one,” admits Landau. “Robben calls it a modern Ventures tune. It’s almost like a chord melody. He has that covered; you really don’t need much more. Instead of blowing and doing a bunch of notes, I went for more of an atmospheric kind of thing, some whammy bar surf guitar.”
To keep his Strat’s non-locking whammy in tune, Landau sets it up with at an 1/8" tilt, using three springs. “The two outside bridge screws are the main ones holding the bridge on; I lift the other four screws up a little bit so there is no rub,” he explains. “That and a lot of graphite in the nut slots.”
Both guitarists often palm their picks and play with their fingers. Landau explains his rationale: “It is just to get a super pure sound because it helps with muting the other strings. You get only one string ringing through. Also, it helps me play patterns that I might not be able to do with a pick.”
One of those patterns is a part at the end of “What’s Up?” that sounds like harp-harmonics (holding down a chord and alternately fingerpicking regular notes while sounding artificial harmonics by lightly touching the string 12 frets above the fretted note with your right index finger as you pluck the string with your thumb)—but isn’t. “That was an open-string pattern that I was doing on the Bsus chord,” he says. “I do this pattern that moves down the neck using open strings. You can only do it in certain keys, obviously. It is one of those things that you mess around with at home and develop over time.”
Both artists have released numerous solo records, but recording with a peer has brought some new elements to the process, pushing each into new areas. “Robben definitely inspires me and influences me,” says Landau. “When I play with certain guitar players or other musicians, I become a chameleon: I take on some things from them. Robben has such a unique voice; it is hard for that not to affect you when you are playing. But I always try to stay true to what I am hearing in my head, and try to play what compliments Robben, the band, and the song.”
“Mike is a kick-ass guitar player, but also very different, so it’s inspiring and challenging as well,” says Ford. “This is a rock band and I’m still finding my way with it. What I like most so far is writing for the group. It’s a different way of writing than I do for myself, so it’s inspiring me to find new things in myself as a writer. I’m enjoying the journey.”