THOUGH HE’S A talented singer and songwriter, Robben Ford has nevertheless become a legend primarily for his prodigious guitar prowess. In addition to the fabulous fretwork on his own records, he is known for turning in stunning, lyrical solos on recordings featuring Jimmy Witherspoon, Michael McDonald, Miles Davis, the Yellowjackets, the L.A. Express, and even Bruce Willis and Kiss.
“From a very early age, I was drawn to beautiful melodies,” he says. “Eric Clapton is a melody player, as is Hendrix. They were not playing bebop. It was about feeling, sound and texture. Those were things I was attracted to: the sound of this note against that chord, as opposed to a lot of notes.”
Given the enthusiasm for Ford’s guitar playing, it’s remarkable that almost a quarter of a century has passed since he released an all-instrumental record under his own name. There have been vocal-less side projects with former Miles Davis group saxophonist Bill Evans, and a series of trio projects with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Jimmy Haslip under the Jing Chi moniker, but Ford’s last instrumental solo record was 1997’s Tiger Walk.
In the interim, the guitarist, known as a master of tone, taste and time, has been honing his skills as a singer and songwriter on two decade’s worth of releases. These have largely followed a tried-and-true process: Gather a fantastic rhythm section of bass, drums and keyboards, go into a world-class studio, and knock out the new batch of tunes as live as possible. Occasional variations might include adding a trombonist (as on 2013’s Bringing It Back Home), bringing in former Black Crowe Audley Freed to play rhythm guitar so he could cut an entire record in 24 hours (2014’s A Day in Nashville) or even forsaking his sacred Dumble (2018’s Purple House). Still, fans could be pretty sure that, while each release might feature a new band and maybe some new gear, it would essentially be a snapshot of the latest batch of songs.
But with his new album, Pure (Ear Music), Ford breaks from the recipe in a couple of ways. For starters, the return to his instrumental roots. “Writing songs with lyrics is really hard,” he says. “My strongest voice is my guitar playing. In my early 20s, I had written a lot of instrumentals in a jazz vein for the Yellow Jackets, as well as for my first solo album. I had also made two records recently with Bill Evans. My chops were up for the instrumental thing, and I was enjoying it, so I thought I should go where the energy was and let the music tell the story.”
Telling a story with his music is one of the things that separates Ford’s playing from other guitarists and many other instrumentalists as well. This is evident on Pure in the compositions as well as the solos. “I wanted to feel something,” he says, “to be moved by a voice, to be talked to.” To that end, he speaks to the listener in a number of tongues. Fans from his days with Jimmy Witherspoon, the Charles Ford Band and Charlie Musselwhite will be thrilled by the blues mastery of “White Rock Beer…8 Cents,” and “Blues for Lonnie Johnson.” The title track translates the soul of the blues into a Middle Eastern dialect through the addition of exotic percussion and a virtuoso oud player. “Balafon” speaks in what today might be called a neo-soul vernacular, though Ford comes to the style more through O.G. practitioners like Curtis Mayfield, Cornell Dupree, et al.
In another departure from his usual modus operandi, the guitarist largely eschewed live recording for a more layered, painterly approach. Like Purple House, the new album was recorded by Ford and engineer/ co-producer Casey Wasner at Wasner’s studio (also called Purple House) in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. They began rehearsals with a rhythm section, imagining they would record the record live, in typical Ford fashion. It soon became evident that the guitarist had a new vision, one that needed to be realized exactly as he imagined it. “When you bring guys into the studio, you have to let them sound the way they play, and it influences the music,” Ford says. “I felt that this time I wanted to have it my way.”
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
FAME – Live Forever
With a history that includes the Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin and Jason Isbell, FAME Studios makes plans for a bright and very long future.
Dawner Prince – Pulse
David Crosby – Wooden Ships
As he sets off on new acoustic adventures with For Free, David Crosby delivers insights into the guitars and tunings of his classic period.
Brother To Brother
From Duane’s earliest sessions to Gregg’s last, FAME remains hallowed ground for Allman Brothers history.
MY CAREER IN FIVE SONGS
Hammond B-3s and cowbells! Mark Farner reveals the genesis of classic tracks from Grand Funk Railroad.
How I Wrote…“Keith Don't Go”
Nils Lofgren reveals the roots of his 1975 ode to Keef.
In 1971, a band of unknown southern rockers found fame — and lost their leader. This is the story of the Allman Brothers Band’s landmark album, At Fillmore East, Duane Allman’s last and greatest musical statement.
THE ROBINSONS' AFFAIR
Rich and Chris Robinson put aside their ongoing feud for a Black Crowes tour, only to be sidelined by the pandemic. At long last, they’re shaking their money maker once again.
TEMPLE OF TONE
John Hiatt and the Jerry Douglas Band record Leftover Feelings at Nashville’s country music shrine.
Stageworthy Strategies, Pt. 5
Understanding acoustic amps.
Ford Foundation's Darren Walker: ‘We Have to Get Uncomfortable'
DARREN WALKER, 62, disrupted his Wall Street life more than 25 years ago when he left what is now UBS Group AG to volunteer at a school and eventually pursue a career in community development and philanthropy. Since 2013 he’s been at the pinnacle of the philanthropic world as president of the Ford Foundation, created by the family of automaker Henry Ford during the Great Depression to advance human welfare.
Ford to Add 10,800 Jobs Making Electric Vehicles, Batteries
Ford and a partner company say they plan to build three major electric-vehicle battery factories and an auto assembly plant by 2025 — a dramatic investment in the future of EV technology that will create an estimated 10,800 jobs and shift the automaker’s future manufacturing footprint toward the South.
A Lowered and Bagged Childhood Dream Come True
2022 Ford Maverick
Small truck, small price, big mpg.
THE REAL DEAL
FORD’S LONG-AWAITED BRONCO IS ABSOLUTELY LEGIT
TSM Mfg’s easy, affordable way to upgrade any Ford 9-inch from drum to disc brakes
2022 FORD F-150 LIGHTNING
Ford’s fully electric truck of the future arrives … and starts at under $40,000!
Ford F-250 Super Duty Limited
Final report: The end of the road (and trail) for our heavy hauler
How to replace the cylinder head gasket in a Willys Go Devil flathead engine
The Heartful Innovator
3 WAYS TO OVERCOME MENTAL OBSTACLES.