“I had more to say with music than as a lyricist”: Robben Ford returns to instrumental music after 24 years
The virtuoso guitarist on playing with Miles Davis, letting his freak flag fly, and why he’s finally learned how to turn down in the studio.
Image: Mascha Thompson
Since debuting with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite at the tender age of 18, Robben Ford’s career has seen him getting the call to play for everyone from KISS and Joni Mitchell to George Harrison and Bob Dylan, as well as becoming one of the most respected guitarists on earth.
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We caught up with the man himself ahead of the release of his latest album, Pure to learn about the joys of layering vintage instruments in the studio, the challenges of creating a modern guitar album, the nerve-wracking experience of playing with Miles Davis, and why he’s made an instrumental album for the first time in over two decades.
Pure is your first instrumental record since Tiger Walk (1997) what prompted this return to instrumental music?
“I never sat down to make another instrumental record. I am a singer/songwriter/guitarist and my aim has always been to improve and evolve – to do something fresh.
“The last couple of years I made a couple of instrumental records with the sax player Bill Evans; The Sun Room was released, [and] the other was done at the start of 2020 which hasn’t come out yet. I love instrumental music – I’ve written a ton of it over the years! Having made those records, and also feeling like at that moment I had more to say with music than as a lyricist – I guess I wanted to push this other chop while it was up!”
What were your feelings going into this album?
“An instrumental record is a challenge – the guys that do it regularly are some pretty ferocious guitar players! I’m a blues-based player who studied the Micky Baker book and learned my chords and the people that I’m aware of – and I’m sure that there are so many more out there that I haven’t heard of yet – but guys like Steve Vai or Kurt Rosenwinkel who is just an insane guitar player… that’s a high bar to aim for!
“So here I am about to make an instrumental record and at least on the outset I can’t help but feel that I’m about to make a statement, I don’t know what it is yet but I want it to stand up to those standards, to get as close as I can to the best I can do.
“As the process goes on, that initial uncertainty starts to fall away and I start trusting what I do again. I was actually kind of scared when I first started this record – but the feeling of being myself and accepting what I do is one of the great lessons for me over the course of my life. The answer is always to relax man, be yourself!
“I always think those are good things to share – people can assume that you’re on top of the world but they may not know what goes on behind the scenes. I’m still just a person, we all are!”
You are known for your expressive attack – a mix of bare fingers and a plectrum, tell us a bit about that.
“The use of fingers rather than a pick, or indeed hybrid picking – I guess that came from my love of Eric Gale [Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Diana Ross etc] he had such a fat sound, he played a big Gibson L5. To this day I don’t know exactly how he got that sound, but I found that if I used my fingers I could get close to it!
“There was no real technique in the early days, I would pluck the string with the finger nearest to it but that was about it! But I began to take more notice of the nuances – dynamics and hand position. I often play with my hand really close to the bridge, I love that sound! So it was never something I practiced, it was obvious, intuitive. So you start to make connections – if you want that sound do that! It’s a guitar, it’s a pick, put the two together and you’ll find it if you look! And then there’s the amp of course!”
You’ve often spoken of the importance of high volumes when it comes to creating a ‘horn-like’ lead guitar sound.
“Yes I have! And that would be almost 100 per cent true up until my last two albums, Purple House and this one. I had to learn how to record with smaller amps and still get a big sound. A slight digression but what normally happens when you track in the studio is the drummer goes into the live room and the guitar amp goes into an isolation booth, which means the guitarist experiences his own instrument through a pair of piddly little headphones. I just couldn’t stand that, so in the past I would insist on having my Dumble out in a big room cranked up almost like a live performance – that was my recorded sound!