You are invited to play this parlor game: Who among the legendary guitarists has evolved as a player over the decades? You’ll find the list is small. Jim Hall did, right up until his death in 2013, and Jeff Beck continues to explore his craft. Many other veteran guitarists are still playing, but are they growing artistically?
Robben Ford began as a blues prodigy, playing with legendary artists Jimmy Witherspoon and Charlie Musselwhite, and transitioned into a fusion master as a member of bands like the Yellowjackets and Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. The Inside Story, his 1979 release, reflected his jazz-rock abilities, and his brief tenure with Miles Davis in 1986 certified his credentials as a modern jazz player. Many of Ford’s fans would have been happy to see him continue playing distorted guitar over complex changes for the rest of his life. But for this guitarist, artistic evolution is a burning issue, and his approach to his musical growth explains many things, his move from Southern California to Nashville among them.
“Even before I got here, doors were opening for me,” he says of his relocation. “Every time I came to Nashville, it was better than the last. It’s easy for me to meet people here, and most of the musicians I’ve been working with for several years now live here.” As it turns out, since moving to Nashville, Ford has spent a great deal of time on the road, which initially impeded his progress in accomplishing the things that drew him to the city. Now, with his major tours in the rear-view mirror, he says he’s ready to settle into his new home. “I moved here to develop opportunities like producing, writing and being able to play music without having to travel if I don’t want to.”
Ford’s need for new horizons also speaks to the most recent revamping of his band, something he seems to do in regular three-to four-year cycles. “A lot of people make the same record again and again,” he says. “I’ve never been happy repeating myself. Looking at my records, there isn’t a single one of them that’s the same as the one before it. I like doing something new. I made two records with Nashville players Bryan Allen [bass] and Wes Little [drums], Into the Sun and A Day in Nashville, and we did a lot of live playing. I really liked what we were able to do. Everybody was a strong improviser, and the songs on Into the Sun opened up for stretching in a great way. But I wanted it to calm down. I wanted to be more song oriented, with the improvisation coming after that. I wanted to get the music more concise and focused.”
Ford says he’s found a way to realize that vision with the members of his new band: guitarist Casey Wasner, bassist Ryan Madora and drummer Derek Phillips. “Improvisation has been a smaller part of their musical lives,” he says. “They are all supportive players. It’s in their DNA. The whole approach to the new album was influenced by that.”
That record, Purple House (Ear Music), was made at co-producer Wasner’s studio. “It’s a home that has been transformed into a recording studio,” Ford explains. “Casey really has his thing dialed in with great gear. I wanted to do it that way and take my time. I wanted it to be informal.”
Though Ford has worked with another guitarist before, it’s with this band, live and on record, that the foundation of his music has become more guitar-based. “My writing in the past always involved piano or [Hammond] B3 organ,” Ford says. “But when I recorded with Renegade Creation [Ford’s band with Michael Landau] in 2010, it opened me up to a more rock approach. Some people might think writing rock music is dumbing it down. For me it’s the opposite. It takes courage to write in a new medium, and it puts your career on the line. To work with Renegade Creation, that was opening up, as opposed to receding. It wasn’t about learning a new way to play a ii-V-I.”
Ford’s path has led him to prefer songs over blowing, where lyrics become as important as cool chord changes. “Through years of learning to write songs, I’ve come to love words and appreciate the different ways people put them together,” he says. “I’m finding my own way to do it without copying.”
But Ford’s courageous changes on Purple House go beyond songwriting. His previous records have been recorded documentation style, grabbing live performances off the floor and representing them as they would sound in person. “I’ve always been a traditionalist,” he says. “I wanted the drums to sound like drums, the organ to sound like organ, and the guitar to sound like guitar. That’s why the Dumble amp has been so huge for me throughout my career. It’s my voice, and you don’t put a flanger on Frank Sinatra’s voice.”
On this record, however, he began to explore production as an emotive tool, resulting in an abundance of new sounds. This seismic sonic shift was heavily influenced by southern rock act the Alabama Shakes. “I find them to be the most inspiring recording group I’ve heard in a long time,” Ford says. “It’s almost astonishing, because it’s not like they’re a bunch of great players, and that’s not meant as a put-down. I particularly like the guitar player [Heath Fogg]’s sounds, and the way that his guitar fits in the mix with that band. And [guitarist] Brittany [Howard] is just amazing. They’re delivering something very personal to them, certainly to her, and it came across very well on that first album. Their second record, Sound & Color, is produced by Blake Mills, and I put that production on the level of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds. We weren’t trying to duplicate Sound & Color but rather the way Blake pushed the envelope and used old technology so musically.”
This exploration is evident on the Purple House track “Empty Handed,” where heavy reverb conjures a spooky feeling, and on “Cotton Candy,” where doubled vocals, slinky saxophones and evocative percussion combine in a modern, studio-created mood. This is new territory for a Robben Ford record, but it’s all about the emotion of sound, even if that means abandoning the amp that once provided his guitar’s voice.
“There is no Dumble on the entire album,” Ford reveals. “All of the solos on the record, save one, were done with a ’64 [Gibson] SG and a Fender Vibrolux Reverb reissue with the white knobs. That is a big-time first for me. I brought my Dumble and, naturally, expected it to work, but for some reason it just didn’t sound right no matter what we did. I stopped using it for tracking and used an early ’60s Fender Pro Reverb that I borrowed from a guitar store in Nashville. I tried using the Dumble again for overdubs and guitar solos, but it didn’t fit, so we cut the record on small amps. It was a big lesson. It was a little scary, but we saw it through, and I’m absolutely delighted with how it turned out.”
Ford tried many different overdrive pedals, but recorded most of the album’s solos with just the cranked Vibrolux, save for a few tunes, like “Bound for Glory,” where he added a Mad Professor Twimble overdrive. “It explodes the sound,” he says of the pedal. “I used that for things where I wanted that almost too-overdriven sound.” The solo at the end of ‘Break in the Chain’ has a sound of its own because it was cut clean on the rhythm track through a Fulltone Deja ’Vibe pedal. For the acoustic work, Ford employed a 1959 Gibson J-45.
In the process of putting on his producer hat and serving the song, this revered guitarist/vocalist was not afraid to call in others to play guitar and sing. On “Willing to Wait,” the guitar solo is performed by Drew Smithers, while the vocal on “Somebody’s Fool” is all Travis McCready, both members of the young Nashville band Bishop Gunn.
“Casey had worked with them as an engineer and producer,” Ford says. “I needed some small amps on a previous project, and they loaned them to me. I had already met the guitar player, because he works at Carter’s Vintage Guitar shop. If I meet somebody that I dig as a musician, I like to give them exposure. A record like this, where I wasn’t focused on me as a guitar player, was a perfect opportunity to spotlight Drew. I love the way he sounds and plays. Travis is an incredible rock singer. ‘Somebody’s Fool’ is heavy duty, and I am not really a rock singer. I wanted the song to be delivered as it should be. I treated it as a duet. His vocal and my guitar are basically equal, and we used the same delays and reverb on both.”
Blues singer Shemekia Copeland guests on “Break in the Chain,” sharing vocals with Ford. “I didn’t really know her, but I had been wondering if there was a way that we could work together,” he says. “I had contacted her office a few years ago to see if she’d be open to my producing her next record. They had just finished a record and she was getting ready to go out and do dates. She said she was a big fan of mine. With ‘Breaking the Chain,’ I felt like it needed something in the vocal department to bump it up a little from how I sing. I asked Shemekia, and she agreed to do it. We sent her the tracks. She was in the studio and I was on the phone for the whole session. She’d sing it and ask, ‘What do you think?’ I would make comments and she’d sing it again. I thought if I made it a duet with someone else, it might serve the song, and indeed it did.”
Remote overdubs notwithstanding, the majority of the record was produced at Wasner’s place in Leiper’s Fork, just outside of Nashville. The crew also took a one-day road trip to the legendary Fame Studios in the Muscle Shoals area, where they cut “What I Haven’t Done” and “Cotton Candy.” “Casey said, ‘It’s a great place and there’s a lot of history down there,’” Ford relates. “You really feel like you’re walking into a ’70s studio, with its small control room, iso booths and one main room. At one point, we were working on ‘What I Haven’t Done,’ and I wasn’t digging what we were doing, so I went over to the piano and started playing it. I suddenly felt inspiration, like it was coming out of the ground. I got goose bumps. I said, ‘That’s the feel right there.’ That was a cool Fame Studios moment.”
The evolution of Robben Ford continues beyond his new band, his new approach to songwriting and his new attitude in the studio. Though not in evidence on Purple House, in a live performance you’re likely to hear the guitarist pumping a vintage Les Paul through an Electro-Harmonix POG and into his trusty Dumble. Tone purists may drop like flies to learn that, but fusion fans will perk up as they divine the difference in approach the pedal inspires in him. “It allows me to play bebop,” Ford explains. “A lot of the jazz influence has worked its way out of my playing, but to me the POG sounds almost like Eddie Harris on saxophone. I’m very influenced by Harris, and when I play through the POG, I’m channeling him a little.”
Ford was introduced to the effect by guitarist Jeff McErlain, who figures in the next stage of his expansion, which includes heading his own label, 13J Records. “I recently produced a record for Jeff , called Now,” Ford says. “Jeff is always checking out pedals, and he turned me on to the POG. His career has largely been as an instructor. We met through TrueFire, which is an online instruction company that lets you download or stream lessons. I’ve also done guitar camps in the Catskills for the last five years, and he’s been one of three teachers. He’s also a really good guitar player. He did a West Coast tour with me recently on second guitar, and we became friends.”
In addition to McErlain, 13J Records’ roster includes Icelandic guitarist Björn Thoroddsen. While some future string-oriented production projects might end up on the label, Ford is open to producing different kinds of artists for other imprints as well. Having logged miles on the road since he was a teenager, he says working behind the board and the executive desk offers him a chance to spend more time in his new home. “I want to stay in town a lot,” he says. “I want to be here to take advantage of all the wonderful things Nashville has to offer.”
Told he seems more relaxed onstage these days, Ford nods. “Being more relaxed requires being braver,” he says. “I’ve got a band that is completely supportive in spirit, but I have to take the step to ‘This is my net. Use it.’ So I do. It’s a spiritual journey.”