IN NOVEMBER OF 2010, THE BLUE Note in New York offered the rare opportunity to see Robben Ford and John Scofield playing together, in a quartet with drummer Toss Panos and bassist Andy Hess. Though both guitarists can play anything from bebop to blues, for this one-week mashup they chose to concentrate on the latter.
“I knew how much John loved the blues,” says Ford. “In the mid-’90s, he sat in with us at a festival in Europe. At the end of the evening we did a Miles Davis piece, ‘You’re Under Arrest.’ Afterward he said, ‘I would have rather done what you guys do—play the blues.’ That stuck in my mind. We rehearsed some other types of things for this gig that we ended up not playing because they didn’t seem to fit. The blues fit.”
Scofield jumped whole-heartedly into the concept, to the extent that he abandoned his trademark Ibanez semi-hollow through a Vox AC-30 for a Fender Custom Shop ’62 Relic Stratocaster through a Two-Rock. “Robben’s Dumble is fantastic but too expensive for me,” says Scofield. “Robben said, ‘Two- Rock makes a similar thing—not as good as a Dumble, but good.’ I tried it and really liked it.
“It was all part of this plan that I had to not be exactly me,” he laughs. “There is stuff that I can’t do on the Stratocaster that I can do when I am playing ‘jazz.’ It was fun to limit myself to playing blues—in a good way. I really want to do it well; having that guitar helped me to focus on just doing that. I find it’s easier to do extreme bends—like from the minor 3rd up to the 5th—on the B string which is not as taut as the E string. I still hurt my fingers doing it.”
Sco’s switch to a Fender led Ford to limit the use of his 1960 Fender Telecaster to a few songs per set, occasionally opting for a 1963 Epiphone Riviera, but leaning heavily on a 1964 Gibson SG with ’70s pickups. “I played it a lot to get used to it, but I was also enjoying it in contrast to John’s Stratocaster,” Ford explains. “That made me less interested in playing the Tele, which was a little too akin.” Ford’s concept of contrast is not limited to tone. “I have the tendency to go the other way from whatever someone else is doing,” he says. “John plays a lot of notes; when that happens nobody wants to hear somebody else do that too, so I will go a different direction.”
Though their schedules may limit opportunities for them to do it again, it is not for a lack of mutual admiration. “John doesn’t sound like anyone else,” says Ford. “I don’t care how much or how little you can play, an individual voice is the most powerful and important ingredient. That he loves the blues like he does is a rarity—particularly in jazz players. John gets the depth and importance of the blues. The guy can just play his ass off. He can play for a long time; that shows a deep well of creativity.”
“Hearing Robben play a blues years ago, I knew he was coming from a real blues background rather than blues licks,” says Scofi eld. “He is a jazz musician. I liked his take on fusion, and I realized it was because of the blues. Hearing somebody play the guitar that well every night rubs off on you in a way that just listening to records never can.”