As an axe for hire, Robben Ford has affected sessions with the likes of Larry Carlton, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and most infamously, KISS.
If Ford’s contributions to the six-string world stopped there, to be sure, there’d be ample reason for retrospective adoration. But no, in addition to a prolific solo career, Ford has lent a hand to numerous seminal recordings over a 50-year career.
As a member of the L.A. Express, the Yellowjackets, and a sideman to Charlie Musselwhite, Michael McDonald, and Tom Scott, Ford’s slinky yet soulful, blues-inspired licks have laid the groundwork for some of the most well-remembered recordings within the genres of blues, jazz, and rock music.
Gifted by nature and inspirational to a fault, Ford’s intrinsic ability to influence the direction of any given session – at any given time – has left him sought after. But it’s Ford’s solo work that has seen him shine the most, with records such as The Inside Story (1979), Mystic Mile (1993), Truth (2010), and his most recent offering, Pure (2021), showcasing Ford’s never-ending repository of technique and vision.
From his new home in Paris, Robben Ford dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount the inception and intention of 2021’s Pure, his evolution as a composer, tendency to genre hope, memories of working alongside Gene Simmons for Creatures of the Night, and what’s next for him in 2023.
I first wanted to hit on your latest record, Pure. How did it come together?
So, Pure was made during COVID, so no one was around, but I still wanted to do something. So, I thought, “Well, I’ll produce myself,” which is what I was trying to do in Nashville anyway – be a music producer. And it started to happen, but COVID came along and basically put all of that to the side. So, I decided to produce it myself, called my record company, and said, “Would you be interested in this?” Thankfully, they said, “Yes,” which made me very happy. From there, I decided to make it an instrumental album because, at the time, I was writing a bunch of instrumental music for the artists, so I was in that mode.
I started pursuing that, which had me writing and recording simultaneously, which was a significant change. In the past, what I’ve done is write a bunch of songs and then go into a studio with a band and record. But in this case, I wrote a couple of things and left it to myself. I realized that with this record, I didn’t want to give in to another musician’s sound or feel. I wanted the whole thing to be my in my sense of timing, so I decided to just do it with my co-producer and engineer, Casey Wasner. And then, we would send the tracks out to drummers and bass players as we needed them.
What there an overarching concept in mind, or were the sessions more freeform?
I’m a very intuitive musician, so I feel my way through things and listen my way through things. It’s not like there’s a concept per se; it’s more that I have a strong sense of confidence. I trust myself to make the right choices, but then again, it’s my record, so whatever I do, it has to be right. [Laughs]. Because I’m doing it for myself, primarily. I’m making this music primarily for myself, so it’s nonconceptual. But if there was a concept, relatively speaking, it was that we were going to do this ourselves, Casey and me. But it was a creative choice to do that, and once that was decided, I just went with my own musical inspirations, whatever they were. Aside from that, I was committed to sticking to the record being all instrumental.
I assume it’s that same intuition that keeps you blurring the lines between genres and styles as you have.
Yes, it is. I stopped competing with others – or even myself – a long time ago. On the one hand, competition can be healthy, but it can also hang you up. I can just turn on the faucet, and suddenly, I’m in a musical situation where things flow out of me easily. It could be while producing, playing, or writing; I take in the whole situation feeling confident that I can contribute to the situation. So, for me, confidence precedes all virtue. That’s a Buddhist axiom of some sort that I heard somewhere along the way. Having said that, I do feel that you’ve got to be bold, step up, and stand on your own two feet. And I don’t mean aggressively; I mean quite the opposite. It’s like, “Okay, I’m here. What can I do? Oh, somebody needs to move the chair over there. Okay, I’ll take it over there.” That’s simplifying it, but I’m saying that I go in confidently, but ultimately, I want to make myself useful.
How do you measure the progression of your compositional process?
If we look back to my earliest recordings, those were done for an entirely different purpose. The early stuff isn’t a good representation of me because I was taken advantage of. My record company essentially took a bunch of clips and compiled an album against my will. So, I was really upset when that came out, but it’s still the first indication or the first record of my writing. I was 21 and very unschooled, and I’ve learned a lot since then. So, the process has been basically just trying and waiting to see what sticks over the years. As I said, I have no schooling, so that left me in a position where I needed to search in the dark and try to write some decent music.
You alluded to your intuitive nature, but how did working with others instigate that process, if at all?
I will say that I learned a lot from Tom Scott, who was essentially the music director for the L.A. Express when I joined them. He also worked a lot with Joni Mitchell, which was a schooling in and of itself. So, I learned a lot from Tom and all the other guys by being around them because they were all very realized musicians who knew how to play with other people. So, that became more important to me, and I’ve always liked working within groups. This might surprise people, but I prefer to be in a group rather than leading one. But I always find myself being the guy who is bringing the music because not a lot of people write, or write well, anyway. I guess I’ve just always worked really hard at it, and that’s taken me a long way. Quite honestly, I work very hard, and I’ve learned to continually apply myself to something until I can’t make it better.
Having touched on so many genres in your career, which do you relate to most?
I think that I’m a blues guitar player who really loves jazz. I’ve listened to more jazz than any other kind of music throughout my life. I like composers, but in the blues, you don’t have much composition; it’s more of an in-the-moment sort of thing. But in jazz, you have some great writers and great improvisers. I love improvisation, but the blues has a limited vocabulary, and people tend to stick to it. And while I understand why they’re doing that, I like something a bit more interesting at times. But I love the blues; I love the emotional depth of blues guitar because I need to feel something when I play. I’m not overly engaged with incredible technique; it does nothing for me.
So then, what is it that does move you?
I like to listen to people who play like they’re talking to me. I get a lot of that from blues, but then again, all the great jazz players I’ve loved sound like they’re talking to me. I love the sort of communication that you get where the soul is speaking to somebody, thanking them for something. For me, the essence of blues is communication; with that in mind, I try to bring that same essence, along with a jazz sensibility. I guess I try to swim between the two schools at the same time, and what that’s done for me is that I’ve created a style you don’t hear in many other places.
You mentioned that you prefer to be a part of a group, but you’ve often found yourself as a session musician. What types of challenges has that presented?
I have been a part of many sessions, but my session career wasn’t as long as some might think. I was never really very good at it, and it took a long time for me to understand how to be supportive and inventive in that setting. I didn’t start feeling confident in that way until maybe my 40s; that’s when it all came together for me. I felt like I could play behind somebody or in front of somebody, but the session thing didn’t click. My reputation as a session musician was through my associations with many other Los Angeles-based studio musicians. I was friends with them, so I was lumped in with them. But to be honest, I was never really that guy and never really wanted to be.
Perhaps your most infamous session came with KISS while recording Creatures of the Night. How did you become involved?
The producer of that record, Michael James Jackson, and I had been working together. Michael was producing some demos for me for a short period, but it resulted in nothing. And even though those demos went nowhere, Michael and I became friends. Michael had a good sense of my vision and style, and I think he liked how I played. As we know, he was producing Creatures of the Night for KISS, and they brought in a lot of different guitar players; there are like nine guitar players on that record.
They were trying to make this record while simultaneously searching for their next guitar player because Ace Frehley was no longer in the band. So, Michael called me to meet Paul, Gene, and Eric, and we got along well. They asked me to play on the album, and I worked with them for nine days. We had a lot of long nights, but I had a lot of fun playing with them. In the end, as some may recall, I wound up on two tracks, “Rock and Roll Hell” and “I Still Love You.” But as I was saying before, there were like nine different guitar players, and people would come in for a while to do some things, and then they’d bring somebody else in.
Can you recount the in-studio band dynamic at the time?
Honestly, they spent forever making that record; they had the budget and were rock stars, so they would throw money around. So, it was really good for me in that way. [Laughs]. I enjoyed my time with Gene Simmons; we got on well. I spent more time with Gene Simmons than Paul Stanley, who was also around, but not as much. Gene was working with me, and Paul Stanley was handling the drums and other stuff. So, I had fun, and I made good money at a time when I needed it. Maybe things were a bit tense for them, but they were very professional. For my part, I’d say those two solos are pretty good. I’m happy with the way they turned out.
Being that you’re not necessarily a heavy metal guitar player, what was your approach?
I just played loud, long notes and bent the strings. And you’re right, I don’t play in that style, but the songs were open enough for me to still play the way I wanted to play. For whatever reason, it just worked. And a lot of people don’t know this, but I played on a lot of other things that are not on the record; they used me for some other songs but ended up going to other people, like Steve Farris and Vinnie Vincent. But with “Rock and Roll Hell” and “I Still Love You,” they found something they liked, and I felt good about it. You’ll probably want to know what other tracks I initially played on, and honestly, it was so long ago that I really can’t remember. It was one the weirdest gigs I ever did, as it was music that I had no interest in and never listened to.
You mentioned that KISS was searching for its next guitarist. Seeing as you got on well with the guys, was there talks of you coming on permanently?
So, here’s something that a lot of people don’t know.; Michael James Jackson came to me after one of the sessions and said, “Robben, Gene is wondering if you’d give him a lift back to the hotel.” Now, you have to remember that I’d been working very closely with Gene, so we’d developed a relationship to an extent. So, I thought about it, and before I could answer, Michael continued, “I think he probably wants to talk to you about being in the band.” And after thinking again for a moment, I just said, “Oh, no, I can’t do that. I am going in the other direction and have a long drive home.” I just kind of made up a story, as I didn’t want to be confronted with that situation. KISS’s music wasn’t my type of music, and it was better that we left it in the studio.
I wanted to highlight your work with Tommy Emmanuel in the ’90s. How did you end up working with him?
If my memory serves, I believe that Tommy got in touch with my manager at the time and asked if I’d be interested in coming in. To be honest, I was not aware of Tommy then, and I didn’t know anything about him. Back then, Tommy didn’t have much of a presence in the United States, but he did overseas. But apparently, he was a fan of mine, so he brought me in to play a few different things, which was the beginning of a friendship. Tommy even opened some shows for me because he and I hit it off. And then I didn’t see him for a while, but I reconnected with him for a session in L.A. and then again in Australia when we did some more shows together.
Have you remained close since?
Yes, Tommy and I are still friends. Of course, Tommy became an international guitar superstar and deserved it all. I don’t think he ever comes off the road, which is astounding. But what’s great is that we recently got together in Nashville when he moved there, which allowed us to see each other and record together more often. He’s just a beautiful cat and one of the greats of guitar. I don’t know anyone like him, and I don’t think I’m the only person who would say that. Tommy is a really unique and special person, a phenomenal guitarist, and a good friend.
What’s next for you in all lanes, Robben?
Well, I’ve recently moved to Paris. I can tell you that my body and mind are not going back west. If anything, I might go even further east. As for new music, I am only working on things if I really like them and if I get paid a bunch of money. But what matters most is that I enjoy it because I’m just enjoying my life at this point. I’m not sure when I’ll record again, and to be honest, I’m not in any hurry.
I’m working off and on here in Europe, but not too much. I’ll be in the US for some shows on the west coast and have some other things planned, maybe some collaborations, but nothing too crazy. I’m at a point where I want to take my time and enjoy what I’m doing. I’m done running around, and I won’t be doing anything from here on out that doesn’t feed my soul. You’ve only got so much time, and I’m not wasting any more of mine.
Robben Ford’s new album is available at Amazon. Just click on the pic. Can also be purchased at Roibben Ford’s website.
A sampling of some Robben Ford recordings…..
Listen To Robben Ford’s solo at about the 2:50 mark.
A killer version of Spoonful by Robben Ford
Robben Ford on guitar and vocals, Neal Evans on organ, Travis Carlton on bass guitar and Toss Panos on drums.
With the Yellowjackets
Rus Hour written by Robben Ford and Russell Ferrante. The recording featured Jimmy Haslip on bass, Russell Ferrante on keyboards, Robben Ford on guitars, and Ricky Lawson on drums.
One of our favorite Robben Ford recordings…
You can find more Robben Ford recordings at his official website.
Robben Ford: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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