I recently had the pleasure of speaking to esteemed blues veteran, Robben Ford, in the midst of his current tour on the topics of songwriting, improvising, and the music business. Photos by Piper Ferguson. For more info, visit RobbenFord.com
In what way does your latest album, Into The Sun, demonstrate your growth as an artist?
Primarily, the way I’ve focused my creative energy towards songwriting. That’s been my favourite part of my musical journey. It feels really good and I feel like I am indeed, getting better and better at songwriting. In terms of the guitar, I’m not becoming a better guitar player over the years. I think I’ve become a better musician and it’s nice to have something that is still growing later in your career.
There are some interesting chord changes in Into The Sun. How do you approach writing new chord progressions?
Well, sometimes it’s regressive. You do things that are simple as opposed to complex, because the natural inclination is to do things that are more complex. That might show growth, but I’ve figured out, that isn’t necessarily the case. For the kind of music I play, which is founded in blues and R&B, avoiding complexity is part of the gig. You don’t want to lose this essentially beautiful thing, which is a relatively simple art form.
So how do you make that continue to be interesting? I always say that I feel my way through the writing of a song. For example, “Rose of Sharon”, began with just an opening guitar riff. I sat down and started playing it and thought, “This has got to be a song”, and moved from there. My understanding of harmony is something I use as spice. It’s that surprising flavour. It’s very akin to cooking. My approach is, don’t use too many ingredients, just make ‘em really good, you know?
How would you advise one to grow harmonically?
Every chord I know came from Mickey Baker’s Jazz Guitar Book 1. You can find things on the guitar that you’ve never played before just by fooling around, but fundamentally, they’re always going to be an Amin7 (laughs). You just displace notes to create different qualities. Learning all those chords is step one. Step two is learning the scales that run through those chords. That’s about the extent of my harmonic knowledge on a nuts and bolts level.
Beyond that, you need to listen to beautiful music, and that’s where I think a lot of people fall down. I think you have to reference the classical composers. I think you need to get that kind of breadth of melodic sense and see how far music can go. My favourite composer is Maurice Ravel. These guys have ways of moving harmony and melody that just goes beyond you. So I think listening to music that makes you listen a little bit harder is a big help. I don’t mean John Coltrane, although that’s great too. Classical music is far more spacious, generally. You can kind of swim in it and you’re not overwhelmed by it, necessarily.
How do vocal melodies come to you during the creative process?
It needs to start with a lyric. I don’t write a melody with some chords and put a lyric to it. It’s really a backwards way to go. Writing lyrics first is definitely the best way. Generally, some kind of a melody is sort of there when the words come, so I don’t seem to belabour melodies too much. It’s the lyrics that are the hard part.
Do you have any model lyricists?
I don’t have any. I say that I write songs, but I don’t even consider myself a songwriter. That’s OK with me, because I’m still working at it, and maybe one day, I’ll actually be a songwriter (laughs). I can talk about the guitar and say, “Yes, I’m a guitar player”, and talk about influences, and even compare myself to other guitar players. But for songwriting, I feel like a baby. I couldn’t possibly say I’m influenced by a particular songwriter, and again, I’m fine with that, because it’s good to be a beginner.
How do you practice as a guitarist while on tour, or are you constantly working on writing?
Well, neither. When you’re on tour, you’re traveling (laughs). So more often than not, you’re trying to get some rest.
So there aren’t any specific practice routines you do as a guitarist?
How do you challenge yourself as an improviser these days?
Well, there’s a lot of habit in “improvising”. You could almost say that no one is improvising, really. You’re playing things that you’ve played before and in some ways, the way it sounds fresh is that things are happening in a different order. If you listen to anybody, you’ll hear them playing the same things they play all the time, but they’re re-arranged. They’re also slightly slowed down or sped up, or louder or softer, to give them a different feeling. Beyond that, really spontaneous improvisational things happen kind of briefly.
I don’t have the kind of chops that a lot of my peers and my predecessors have. I’m kind of a melodist. I like the way one note sounds against a chord and I’m looking for pleasing harmonic things that I haven’t necessarily done before.
You’ve given a lot of masterclasses. What are some recurring issues that guitarists come to you for help on?
There is an issue that I’ve struggled with myself when I was younger, and I still have to pay attention to today. Which is, people get caught up in the pentatonic box. They’re married to the pentatonic scale and can’t get a divorce (laughs). I understand that problem.
What allowed me to break out of that was, first of all, learning chords out of Mickey Baker’s book and then learning the scales that run through them. There are seven scales to learn. I just treated them the same way I treated the pentatonic scale. I didn’t develop any particularly sophisticated practice regimen. I just played them.
If you just play the notes of that scale over that particular chord, you’re fine. Bingo! There you go! Just go for it the same way you go for the pentatonic scale. You can listen to B.B. King and understand what he’s saying and then you listen to more sophisticated things like jazz. Then you start hearing those chords and scales in jazz because your ear has acclimated to them in the same way it acclimated to the pentatonic scale.
What have you found are some of the challenges of being an artist in 2017?
So much of how we made our living as professional musicians in the past has been taken away over the years. Particularly, recording and publishing income. I always encourage people to be very smart and realize that it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to have a career in the music industry if you’re relying on others for it. So you need to be really smart and look for new ways to have a career in music.
Consider yourself alone. Once you take that step and see that reality, you find like minded people. Find people that are in other aspects of the industry, such as recording. For example, you use someone else’s recording studio, which costs you $800 a day less than going to a major recording studio. The whole thing has gone underground and all of that positive, creative energy will blossom sooner or later in a way we haven’t seen yet.
So I would say, don’t give up hope. In fact, there’s never any reason to give up hope. There’s always a way to do it, but the first thing you have to do, is realize that it’s entirely up to you. Just do not rely on anyone else, but find friends. You play guitar for them and they record you. You exchange favours. This energy is growing and a particularly wonderful scene is Nashville, where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately. There’s an incredibly supportive musical community there. Being in a musical community is essential, so you can find others to help you and you help them. It’s kind of beautiful, you know?
Hal Rodriguez is a published writer and musician based in Toronto, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.