Q&A with Robben Ford, one of the premier electric guitarists today, particularly known for his blues playing, as well as his ability to be comfortable in a variety of musical contexts.

"Expression, it’s just individual expression and what’s wonderful when you get a group of individuals who can actually do that together."

Robben Ford: Shambhala Blues Tantra

Robben Ford is one of the premier electric guitarists today, particularly known for his blues playing, as well as his ability to be comfortable in a variety of musical contexts. A five-time Grammy nominee, he has played with artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Witherspoon, Miles Davis, George Harrison, Phil Lesh, Bonnie Raitt, Michael McDonald, Bob Dylan, John Mayall, Greg Allman, John Scofield, Keb Mo, Larry Carlton, Mavis Staples, and many others. Born in 1951 in Woodlake, California, and raised in Ukiah, Robben was the third of four sons in a musical family. His father Charles was a country and western singer and guitarist before entering the army and marrying Kathryn, who played piano and had a lovely singing voice. Robben’s first chosen instrument was the saxophone, which he began to play at age ten and continued to play into his early twenties. He began to teach himself guitar at age thirteen upon hearing the two guitarists from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. In the late 1960’s, Ford frequented the Fillmore and Winterland auditoriums in San Francisco to see Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Albert King, B.B. King and all of the progenitors of blues.                (Robben Ford / Photo by Mascha Muenzesheimer)

After high school, Robben and his brothers Patrick (drums) and Mark (harmonica), formed The Charles Ford Band, named after their father and recorded for the Arhoolie label. Robben (on sax and guitar) and Patrick went on to tour the U.S. with Chicago harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Watching Robben Ford take the stage is equal parts gratifying, awe-inspiring, and challenging—a perfect storm of creativity and emotion that results in some seriously good music. As soon as he plays his first note, you realize that you’re in the presence of a bonafide guitar master. An important and essential component of Robben’s career is his commitment to teaching and passing on what he’s learned over the past 40 plus years to current and future musicians. His instructional videos and clinics over this time have culminated in a collaboration with TrueFire and the birth of the Robben Ford Guitar Dojo. The wealth of his expertise and creativity is generously presented in these state-of-the-art productions, and will be, for years to come.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription by Katerina Lefkidou 

What touched you from Europe? How did you choose to stay in Europe (France)?

Robben: I have of course been travelling in Europe for many years and I’ve also been fascinated with the French language, and I’ve wanted to live here for many years. And finally, the opportunity opened up and France just made the most sense to me. I speak a little bit of French, I have friends here, I’m well received here in France and it’s close to everything else in Europe, so this is mainly why. It’s nice to have a change too, just to leave the United States, I’m not really happy with the where our country is at. Leaving, I just kind of wanted to live a different way, a different lifestyle.

Too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?

Robben: I was fortunate early on in my career, to be invited to play with musicians who were on a much higher level than I was, that was with Joni Mitchel and Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. These musicians were so great and so spending time with them talking about music, listening to music, playing music that was probably the best period in my whole life. In terms of learning a lot really quickly as a musician, what it is to be a musician, to have a broad musical palette, you know? That I wasn’t locked in just one style of music, I started as a blues player and I always wanted to evolve, and jazz was a music that attracted me, to evolve as a musician and all these guys were great jazz musicians. Plus, they were able to play all kinds of music, different kinds of music. So that was the most important period for me, that, and then beyond that, having my solo career, also playing with a lot of different people during that period of time, Miles Davis and many others, I just came to really appreciate musicians, I like musicians; I like the way they think, I like the musician attitude, in life, you know? That’s kind of a broad answer. It’s so many things that I’ve learned, it’s been my life. You can ask the same question anybody, it’s really life lessons you know? And I think that life lessons are pretty much the same to everyone, but you learn them in a different way.

"The music that today, doesn’t in my opinion miss or lack a tremendous amount of humanity. There’s a lot of humanity in most of the music that I hear today, and this happens even in jazz, there’s just too much technique, there’s too much technology, there’s too much attention to success, over communication which is actually the real reason for music, it’s about communication, human to human communication." (L: Charles Ford Blues Band - R: Robben Ford / Photo by Mascha Thompson)

From Charles Ford Blues Band with your brothers Patrick and Mark to an album with Bill Evans, “Common Ground”, what characterizes your music philosophy what is the progress of Robben Ford?

Robben: Indeed, the greatest lesson one can learn is to be musical and whatever the musical situation is, you act accordingly, you don’t do it for yourself and you do it for the music, whatever the music is, whatever the music is trying to say, so that’s a big lesson that lots of people never learn. The other side of it is that I like to write music, it’s the way that I chose to grow as a musician, through writing. And I never felt like I was a natural writer, but I applied myself to it, so I eventually developed my own method my own way of writing and this has been important to me, because I want to play, music that I like. (laughing) So, I decided, I guess I have to write that music. I bring music to a situation and then we all get together and make something of that, it’s a composition, what are we going to do with it, you know? Especially the record with Phill, it’s one of those situations where you can trust the other guy to do the right thing. And it’s a group effort. 

Before we talked just a bit about music, tell me a few things about your meeting with Chögyam Trunga Rinpoche, what touched you from Rinpoche and the Buddhism teaching of Shambhala?

Robben: Wow, I didn’t expect that. Well, Chögyam Trungpa has pretty recently come to the United States. When I met him and started going to his preaching, he was an amazing teacher, I started practicing the meditation that he taught, it was a sitting practice you know and I spent a lot of time practicing that in the early days, in Boulder, Colorado, where I met him. Shambhala was something that surprised all of us, when he introduced the Shambhala teaching, which really had to do with a community, a society, a bigger vision than individual meditation practice, so he really broadened us the picture, for everyone, once again surprisingly, the Shambhala thing, you know him introducing Shambhala culture, was wow, we were all kind of taken aback, but at the same time, you know it became an essential aspect of life, from the Buddhist point of view. Chögyam said that Shambhala culture was cradled in Buddhism and then he said eventually Buddhism will be cradled in Shambhala culture. Cause it’s bigger here, you're living a life, all of his students were encouraged to go out into the world and live their lives in the world. You know, Buddhism has a tendency to, at least in the beginning, to focus more on a monk culture. And individual practice, this allowed everyone to continue, I could continue being a musician, buying a house, making money, but with a proper vision, a proper view how to be in the world, from a Buddhist point of view. And that’s how I see it. I live my life in the world, but my perspective is very Buddhist. And I think that’s what he was initially going for there.

"My girlfriend, for sure, Kelly Roberts who helps me with the Dojo, big time, it’s our business together and you know I like nature, I do a kind of yoga called Qigong yoga and meditation. So, the things that make me happy, are not so much out in the world, but a little bit more personal and grounding. Grounding is good for me, because I travel so much, that it’s really important for me to settle down. Practice meditation, practice yoga, Qigong and have a happy relationship. That’s been really key for me, having a happy relationship, so I think that’s it." (Robben Ford / Photo by Mascha Thompson)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music and the feeling of the past? What are your hopes and what are your fears for the future of music?

Robben: The music that today, doesn’t in my opinion miss or lack a tremendous amount of humanity. There’s a lot of humanity in most of the music that I hear today, and this happens even in jazz, there’s just too much technique, there’s too much technology, there’s too much attention to success, over communication which is actually the real reason for music, it’s about communication, human to human communication. It’s just a big show now, it’s a spectacle, for background noise. The quality in music, in being the thing that brings people together, I don’t know. In a healthy way, I don’t know that there’s a lot of that. I grew up on jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and it’s all about direct communication with a person. And this is what I miss most in music today. There’s some out there, there’s still some out there, of course. I like to think that that’s what I do, with music, write music, perform music, it’s about communication. So, I do worry that there’s less and less room for that genuine, real, deep music, but there’s always somebody who comes along and brings it.

What does the blues mean to you?

Robben: Blues for me, initially, when I started hearing it, resonating with it, it became a way for me to express myself through the guitar, primarily. It gave me a language to express myself through the guitar and clearly it fell into that category that we were just talking about. It’s about telling stories, communicating, talking about life. So, I'm very grateful that I made that connection in an early age. And I was able to continue that connection through the music that I’ve ever played. So, everything kind of comes back to that for me, it’s the ground zero and everything that has occurred since. I’ve never lost that connection to that energy, that feeling and that is the language that I use.

I saw your motto in Facebook page “Not afraid to be a fool”. So, it just came to my mind John Coltrane’s expression “My music is a spiritual expression of what I am”. How do you understand the spirit, music and the meaning of life?

Robben: I think that once again he’s talking about communication. Expression, it’s just individual expression and what’s wonderful when you get a group of individuals who can actually do that together.

"Blues for me, initially, when I started hearing it, resonating with it, it became a way for me to express myself through the guitar, primarily. It gave me a language to express myself through the guitar and clearly it fell into that category that we were just talking about. It’s about telling stories, communicating, talking about life." (Photo: Jimmy Witherspoon & Robben Ford)

You have met so many great musicians and personalities. Jimmy Witherspoon, Charlie Musselwhite, Brownie McGhee, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, Herbie Mann, and many many others. Which meetings have been the most important experience for you and what was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Robben: Jimmy Witherspoon was the first, you know I would say major, but he was the tradition, he was the real deal and I spent two years with him and really what I got from Spoon was the sense of swing, he really had a sense of swing, that was just wonderful, so the musical lesson, that was very important. Working with Joni Mitchell, was where I got my musical education really, where I broadened my musical world. I started listening to classical music, Indian music and I started appreciating popular music as well, which I had kind of disparaged for a while, prior to that. When I got into blues and jazz, I was a snob with blues and jazz. But, this really opened things up for me, it was a great experience for me. And then of course Miles Davis. That was sort of like, if this guy likes the way I play, I’m good and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. So, it gave me a confidence that I haven’t had before, so, not so much advice, but experiences.  Those were the take-aways from those three artists in particular. And they were great band leaders you know? And they were able to command the stage, command the band. You just wanted to follow them, you wanted to make them sound good, you were there for them, not for yourself. Again, for me it’s not about you, it’s about music, about the musical expression that you’re doing right now, so that’s how I would answer your question.

You have your own productions, label Records 13J. How and why did the idea start to make your label?

Robben: Well, I left California and moved to Nashville 2017, and I wanted to get off the road, I wanted to be in an environment that was really supportive so that I wouldn’t have to tour, so I could play, record, lots of musicians around and I wanted to produce records. And I had given me a piece of advice about that, I said you know Robben, before anybody starts coming to you, you just gotta get a couple of home runs before, that ever happens. That’s how they’ll notice you, is ‘cause you have some success on your own. So that’s why I started the label. I wanted to make a different kind of music, I wanted to make great records and that’s why I started the label. The label still exists, but running a record company is I learned much too big a deal, so really I kind of re-invented that to production company, 13J Productions. So that somebody else makes money, somebody else is going to sell it, but I’m gonna make the record you know? So, it’s really about making records that I like. I had started going well and I was producing to a brilliant artist, but Covid hit and shut those projects down. So that was as setback and by the time that Covid lifted I had decided that I wanted to move to France. (laughing) Something that you mentioned earlier, the motto, not afraid to be a fool, that’s kind of our motto for my Robben Ford Guitar Dojo.

That’s the motto there, because I’m trying to get people, I teach on the dojo, I’m trying to get people to loosen up and start to actually just play. I give them means to just play and from there, you can’t be afraid to make mistakes, to put yourself on the line, in front of people. So that’s where that motto, I actually got it from my Buddhist teacher, but not afraid to be a fool, I thought was perfect encouragement for people trying to learn, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, don’t be afraid to be foolish, don’t be afraid to be playful. So yeah, the Robben Ford Guitar Dojo, that’s the motto for the Dojo.

"Indeed, the greatest lesson one can learn is to be musical and whatever the musical situation is, you act accordingly, you don’t do it for yourself and you do it for the music, whatever the music is, whatever the music is trying to say, so that’s a big lesson that lots of people never learn. The other side of it is that I like to write music, it’s the way that I chose to grow as a musician, through writing." (Photo: Miles Davis & Robben Ford)

What is happiness for Robben? What do you think is key to a life well-lived?

Robben: My girlfriend, for sure, Kelly Roberts who helps me with the Dojo, big time, it’s our business together and you know I like nature, I do a kind of yoga called Qigong yoga and meditation. So, the things that make me happy, are not so much out in the world, but a little bit more personal and grounding. Grounding is good for me, because I travel so much, that it’s really important for me to settle down. Practice meditation, practice yoga, Qigong and have a happy relationship. That’s been really key for me, having a happy relationship, so I think that’s it.

What is the impact of your generation, what is the impact of your generation’s music and especially of blues and jazz on the sociocultural implications?

Robben: Hard for me to say, I grew up in the ‘60s, which as a very revolutionary period in America on every level and the music really expanded. During that period, beginning in San Francisco, it certainly was rock and blues music and in New York jazz. For me, maybe everyone feels this way, but I see it as just such an incredibly wonderful period in music and evolution of music, you know? And I hate to think that being for that, because it’s represented all of these things that we talked about earlier. Communication, people doing things in groups and playing for the people, playing for the people, not at the people. And I think that was the greatest gift. I mean, all of music prior to that was the same. I mean it was different, but it also, there was a lot of, an incredible amount of quick change occurred in classical music, big time. But not that that was particularly new but it does seem to me that it slowed down my generation. There seems to be less of that era and more of pop you know? But it still comes along. And I have to say this, because it always comes to mind, have you ever heard of the band Alabama Shakes? So that band to me, that was a really refreshing band and their second record, Sound and Color, that’s produced by guitarist/song-writer named Blake Mills. For me that album sounded like, was incredible offering of all what we’ve been talking about, what’s important in music and innovation. It’s just amazing. An amazing album Sound and Color. I thought it was gonna change everything. I really did, I said boy, people are going to hear this and it’s going to bring something back. But nope. But it’s nice to know that people are still doing it.

"Well honestly for me, I would say the greatest trial of my life, has been travel. I didn’t like it, I really didn’t like it. I had to do it and so keeping that from making things bad, I don’t know quite how to quit that, travel is really hard now. And as much as I like some of it, it’s amazing that I’m still alive, that’s how I feel. So, I worked with that, through meditation and through Qigong, those were the things that really took me through all of it. And it’s important to take care of yourself." (Photo: Robben Ford)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. So, where and why would really want to go with a time machine?

Robben: There’s a lot of places that I could go. I would have liked to be a little bit than I am, a few years, and catch the evolution of jazz in New York, through the late 50s and into the early 60s. I was living in California, and I was very young. So, I would have liked to kinda been a part of that. People like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis learning, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, these were the people, Wayne Shorter, wow. These were people that I admired the most you know? I would have liked to have been a little closer to that. I think that’s it.

Do you feel more like a jazz musician, blues musician or rock musician?

Robben: I’m a blues guitar player who loves jazz and a lot of other kinds of music. And you know, I know jazz harmony, so I understand it.

So many albums under your belt, as a session musician and of course as a solo artist. How do you want your music to affect people?

Robben: Well, I’ve always said for me, music is joy. So, that’s one word that always comes to mind about what music is. And that’s what I hope to bring, to my concerts, to my records, I want to be uplifting. I want to be lifting and stimulating.

My last question, what has been the greatest obstacle for you, to overcome as a person and as an artist and has it helped you to become a better musician?

Robben: Well honestly for me, I would say the greatest trial of my life, has been travel. I didn’t like it, I really didn’t like it. I had to do it and so keeping that from making things bad, I don’t know quite how to quit that, travel is really hard now. And as much as I like some of it, it’s amazing that I’m still alive, that’s how I feel. So, I worked with that, through meditation and through Qigong, those were the things that really took me through all of it. And it’s important to take care of yourself.

Robben Ford - Home

(Robben Ford / Photo by Mascha Thompson)

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