How to play like Robben Ford

In this series, Christian Miller presents some techniques and licks from iconic Jazz guitarists.

Introduction

Robben Ford is revered throughout the guitar world for his impeccably tasteful playing and tones. He belongs to a West Coast US tradition of players such as Larry Carlton who fused blues and jazz effortlessly, and this can be heard complementing his songwriting on his many solo releases.

Perhaps he the least traditional ‘jazz guitarist’ of the five I have chosen, but he earns his place in my opinion not only for his sophisticated changes playing, but his fiery jazz infused early fusion playing. It’s that area which was less familiar to me that I’m choosing to explore on the website. Furthermore, Robben was my own personal window into the world of jazz playing from blues and rock, as I am certain he is for many players, so it’s a real treat to revisit his playing after all these years.

Biography

Robben Ford

Born in 1951 in Woodlake, California, Robben started playing saxophone at age 10, before moving to guitar at age 14. His development on the instrument was fast – at age 18 he was hired by Charles Musselwhite and went on to record twice with Jimmy Witherspoon after which he joined fusion band, LA Express with Tom Scott, that would eventually tour in support of George Harrison in 1974 and form the band for two Joni Mitchell albums, the Hissing of Summer Lawns and the live Miles of Aisles.

After leaving that band, he went on to work with the nascent Yellowjackets recording his debut solo album Inside Story in 1976. Further session work eventually led to a brief spell with Miles Davis, after which his solo release Talk to Your Daughter really cemented his reputation as one the world’s top guitarists.

Since then, he has continued a steady of run of solo releases, refining his song-writing, and collaborating with younger artists such as ‘Scary Pockets.’

Improvisation approach

While Robben’s blues playing especially on ‘Talk to Your Daughter’ has served as inspiration for many clinics and tutorials, I’m principally interested here in the electric jazz aspect Robben’s playing, specifically his fiery, virtuosic playing with Miles Davis in the mid 80s.

On first hearing his playing with Miles I was taken aback by just how full on his playing can be, edging into Mike Stern and even Eric Johnson territory, and on transcription his lines are often as technically challenging to play as any bop guitar player.

For his part, Miles Davis’s main interest in the guitar seems to have been sparked by Jimi Hendrix. Given his move into funk and rock oriented electric jazz in the late 60s until the end of his life in 1991, it makes sense that all his guitarists from John McLaughlin to Pete Cosey to Mike Stern and of course Robben have had a strong connection to rock and blues and have used a distorted sound steeped in the blues. Miles himself said ‘the guitar can take you deep into the blues.’

Robben’s playing is firmly rooted in the sound and style of his two biggest guitar idols, Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield, and he has spoken about the seismic influence these two virtuosic blues/rock players had on his style. On the other hand, Robben has also talked about the influence of tenor sax players, saying that he wanted to sound like a sax on guitar (he also started on sax).

I think you can certainly hear this in his playing, and the jazz influence in his playing seems to come more from horn players such John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Paul Desmond than it has from straight up jazz guitarists.

In transcribing his lines with Miles Davis, it was fun to hear how much he traded on a contrast between real blues/rock guitar vocabulary and very horn like jazz ideas. His focussed, singing driven tone adds to the blurring of the boundaries.

A really big thing about Robben’s playing is his knack for playing everything, be it a Claptonesque blues lick, with the same commitment to tone and feel. Some players can go from ‘blues mode’ to ‘clever stuff mode’; I never get this with Robben.

Everything is played with the same grease as a BB King lick, and I think this is one of his secrets. Blues vocabulary

In terms of his blues vocabulary, I notice a lot of what I think of as Clapton licks - things like this:

Robben Ford Blues

The ‘twiddles’ as I call them for want of a better word are very Claptonesque to my ears as is the 8th note flow of the licks. Robben often uses these as an embellishment in other contexts.

Robben also enjoys a slow semitone bend. I find in general that his licks are easiest to play using Clapton’s preferred bending finger – the second – which allows a lot of control and strength at the expense of slightly more awkward fingering.

Intervallic pentatonics

A favourite subject of mine as you may have noticed is how much mileage one can get out of pentatonics. This lick shows a guitaristic way to break up a pentatonic scale that still gets away from the usual straight up and down sound favoured by many rock players.

Robben Ford pentatonics

Another way to get more mileage from pentatonics is to use them in different harmonic contexts. One way of doing this that you can hear a lot in Wayne Shorters music is to play a minor pentatonic a fourth lower than the root of a minor7th, 7th or 7sus4 chord:

Robben Ford scale

The diminished scale

Robben Ford is well known for using the diminished or octatonic (eight-note) scale in his playing, often to add brief moments of tension, intrigue and colour into his lines. This scale has been popular with musicians ranging from Stravinsky and Messiaen to John Coltrane.

In terms of theory, the scale is constructed out of alternating whole steps and half steps. This means it is ‘symmetrical’ which is to say a C diminished scale has the same notes as an Eb, A or F# diminished scale. This means the same pattern repeats on guitar every three frets. Handy!

Robben Ford diminished

The scale actually maps rather snugly into the familiar minor pentatonic shape.

Robben Ford diminished

Notice how much it has in common with commonly used versions of the blues scale – in fact it contains four of the notes of the pentatonic scale, 1 b3 5 and b7. Two of the other notes are commonly added to the minor pentatonic, b3, b5 and 6.

The only ‘non blues’ note in it is the dark b9. In this sense we can use it the same way as a blues scale with a 3 – on major key blues progressions and dominant chords, as a sort of ‘exotic blues’ scale. This might be one of the reasons why Robben has got so much mileage from this scale.

Here’s a cheeky little Robben lick, a Frankenstein beast born from a union between a Clapton-style blues lick and a diminished scale. A high-powered mutant never considered for mass production? Maybe, but it shows how straightforward and fun the use of this scale can be.

Robben Ford diminished

Other devices

I thought I’d just quickly summarise a some other ‘jazz’ devices I’ve noticed Robben using. The first is triads. You can find, as with Metheny, many examples of his lines constructed from (usually second inversion) triads through a diatonic scale or mode.

Robben Ford triads

Another way of using triads is so-called triad pairs, something that the Coltrane quartet popularised in the early 60s with their famous recording of My Favourite Things. Triad pairs are two triads that don’t have any notes in common and thus specify 6 out of the 7 of any given scale or mode.

So, for mixolydian – perhaps the most useful mode on blues progressions – the two chords would be the triad built on the root, and on the b7. Here’s an example over an F7 using F and Eb triads. The only note of the mode that isn’t included here is the 6th/13th – D in the key of F7.

Robben Ford mixolydian

For all that he’s a sax head, Robben has a very ‘jazz guitar’ penchant for playing notes ‘right out of the chord’ as he puts. Here’s some examples of some of the ways you can break chord shapes up into lines. Make sure you don’t allow the notes to over-ring especially when playing with drive.

For those tricky shapes involving lots of notes on the same frets on consecutive strings, using different fingers rather than a barre and a spot of subtle right hand palm muting can help them ‘pop.’

Robben Ford chord tones

Gear and Tone

Robben’s tone is the stuff of legend among guitarists. It can actually vary quite a bit sonically, but always has a beautiful singing quality, and a midrange focus that punches effortlessly through the mix; it’s a perfect synergy between the ears, fingers and gear.

Robben seems to have played every desirable classic guitar there is, from Telecasters to 335s, via some classic Les Pauls. However, he started off with some real ‘jazz boxes’ including a Gibson Super 400 (!) in his early days. By the time of his stint with Miles he was principally using a Strat. Fender briefly produced a double humbucker signature model that he used on Talk to Your Daughter.

One aspect of Robben’s gear that has remained consistent since the 70s is the use of his amp, a revered Dumble Overdrive Special (the second ever made). These amps now fetch astronomical prices used and are for many the amp equivalent of the Holy Grail; just as Clapton on the ‘Beano’ album made a 50’s Les Paul the guitar of choice to a generation of electric guitarists; the Talk to Your Daughter tone has probably done more to inflate the price of Dumble amplifiers than anything else, not to mention all the pedals built to try and get that tone in a bottle.

Added to this is a small element of slap-back echo using a delay pedal.

I used my trusty Fender Telecaster into a JRockett Audio Devices ‘the Dude’ their ‘Dumble in a box’ unit, and it seemed to get me in the ball-park. I used the bridge pickup of the Tele rolled off on the tone about halfway, and through ‘the Dude’ that seemed to get that creamy, sax-like tone.

Time/Feel

I feel that quite a lot of what contributes to the jazziness of players like Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon and Robben come down to rhythm. A lot of this is in the use of bebop styles syncopations.

One example of this is in how he starts phrases. In 16th note feels he will often start a phrase off the beat. This does a lot to generate ‘grease’ in a solo. However, the same goes for the ends of phrases – he will often play the last note a 16th anticipation of the beat before bending slowly. Furthermore by using groupings of 3 in 16th note lines, Robben can add extra syncopation in the middle of the line. For instance, a grouping of 3 followed by two fours adds interest to a diatonic triad lines.

This lick gives an idea of these rhythmic techniques in action.

Robben Ford rhythm

No doubt this all seems very technical, but bear in mind a lot of this is really intuitive. It’s about keeping the rhythm fresh and surprising and not to predictable and keep your ear out for the interesting rhythms he uses in his lines.

Robben’s feel is very centred on the beat, not pushing or dragging. Since guitarists have a bit of a tendency to rush or to play on top, that certainly makes him stand out even among some professional players. Recording his lines it was often very difficult not to rush, as these phrases can be challenging to play!