Image via WikipediaBy Clinton Carnegie
Jet-lagged and appearing a little surprised at the unusually vociferous welcome at his sold-out guitar clinic, Robben Ford strapped on his black Sakashta and plugged straight into a Fender Super Reverb amp.
And for the next hour and a half, he proved once and for all that tone comes from the head, heart and hands. The man exudes soul. Describing his style as 'freeform but with a method', Robben began by talking about his early years studying the saxophone. Growing up in the small town of Ukiah, CA, he listened to the local radio station, KUKI, "or kooky", as he says with a laugh.
His parents also joined a record club, where he was exposed to Ravel's Bolero and Dave Brubeck's Take 5. Listening to saxophonist Paul Desmond on Take 5 made him want to play the alto. Playing the saxophone for 11 years, Robben learned to read music, but admitted that his reading skills did not transfer readily to the guitar.
Teaching himself to play the guitar was a far more intuitive process, he states, and he learned by listening to the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album featuring Mike Bloomfield. Listening intently to Bloomfield's playing proved to be a major turning point, and for a while Ford reckons he sounded a lot like his hero.
Having become a household name himself, and a guitar hero to many, Ford non-chalantly described his style as a combination of folk-blues and jazz., a musical fusion that has served him well. Elaborating further, Ford emphasized the need to experiment and make mistakes in order to develop a personal style. Likening his approach to being very similar to fingerpainting on the guitar, he was emphatic that music should come from a place of feeling and not just from technique.
When asked about his practice schedule, Ford replied that he practiced intensely at first. He joked that he learned his very first 'hip' blues chord from looking at the picture on the cover of the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album where Mike Bloomfield was holding down a dominant 9th chord.
After that early epiphany, Ford decided to bone up on his chordal knowledge. Laughing, he recalled getting a hold of Mel Bay's Jazz Chords Vol. 1 book and started to use the jazzier chord voicings he learned when he began playing with Charlie Musselwhite. To demonstrate, Ford then launched into an elaborate jazz-blues progression throwing in a multitude of chord substitutions into mix.
Delving into his improvisational approach, Ford described how he learned a few scales and some standard bebop licks, and boiling everything down to ii-V progressions. Ford assured his audience that the language of music was actually very simple, and how, literally, it could all be learned in a few weeks.
Emphasizing the need for simplicity and the importance of finding one's own voice, Ford proferred that although musicians dilligently transcribed and learned Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane licks, it rarely evolved into finding their own voice. Doing it his own way, he says, has kept him unique.
Asked about his current amplification setup for tours, Robben expressed his preference for Fender Super Reverbs, explaining that his setup when he was with Jimmy Witherspoon's group consisted of a Gibson L5 archtop into a Super Reverb amp. With good speakers and matched tubes, the Super Reverb, he says, is his favorite.
When asked about pedals and effects, Ford was emphatic that they hindered one from finding one's own sound. Not having pedals when he started out, he states, enabled him to work on his tone and he encouraged every guitar player in the audience to do away with pedals, for at least a while.
Delving into his sophisticated soloing style, he spoke about his fondness for the diminished scale, which he learned from jazz guitarist Larry Coryell when Ford was19 years old. Coryell described it to him as the half-tone/whole-tone scale and Ford started practicing it immediately and making up a few of his own licks. He says he could instantly hear that the b9 on the dominant 7th chord reminded him of some ideas jazz trumpeter Miles Davis used in his own playing.
After a tasty demonstration of some lines that outlined the changes to a blues progression perfectly, Robben explained how the diminished scale acted as a transition to the IV chord in a blues. Elaborating further, he talked about finding the common tones in the diminished scale that moved seamlessly to the next chord and how they could be used in soloing when going to the IV and the V chord as well.
Concluding his guitar clinic, Ford shared his philosophy of music and playing the guitar, "Ultimately music comes from inside you, not from outside yourself. It's translated through you - it's intangible and I'd like to help people bridge that gap."
Clinton Carnegie is a music educator, jazz-rock guitarist and recording artist. He has two fusion guitar instrumental albums to his name, Say What You Mean and Santiago. His music blog can be found at http://www.theguitarcolumn.com
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