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Guitar Heroes: Robben Ford

Updated: May 14

One of the most influential teachers I had when studying at university was Pete Roth, lovingly referred to by my peers and I as the ‘friendly neighborhood German’. I consider him a good friend and mentor to this day, but I will never forget one of the most profound lessons he taught me. In one of the first lectures of his that I attended, he introduced the music of Robben Ford and the assignment was simple - learn the solo from Ford’s version of ‘Help the Poor’ on the 1988 album ‘Talk to Your Daughter’. Talk about pressure! 

(pic credit: Mascha Muenzesheimer)

Learning this solo, which can be heard at 2:07 in the link below, really put me on the spot, learning a solo by ear that was so far removed from others I had learned in the past. 

Robben Ford - Help the Poor

It was from this point I started to get interested in outside sounds and more sophisticated harmony. I have recently put together a short solo inspired by Robben Ford, using some tasteful blues licks and ‘out there’ sounding scales such as the altered scale and lydian dominant - there should be a short video and longer explanation video published on the subject as well as a separate blog post discussing the theory behind what I played. 

Unlike many guitarists, this player has had a number of signature guitars, but looks equally at home with any of them. BB King has Lucille, Slash has his Les Paul models and Eric Clapton is the strat man - Ford looks at home playing his old signature Fender Esprit models as he does with his custom guitars, Telecaster, SGs and more recently a signature PRS model. 

Playing with Legends

Ford cut his teeth playing with legends such as Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis, and had a strong reputation as a jazz guitarist before that. Today his sound is what I would describe as ‘sophisticated blues’ - he is a master of mixing consonant and dissonant sounds in an extremely musical way. This is compounded by his skill as a band leader, skills gained from witnessing the greats mentioned before. 

In addition to this, being able to hold his own against other musical giants such as Larry Carlton, Bill Evans and Tommy Emmanuel is a hallmark of someone who definitely has all of their ducks in a row. Also, how many jazz/blues guitarists do you know of that played guest solos on not one, but two KISS records? Check out this one:

Kiss - Rock and Roll Hell

Geographically Diverse

They say that the best way to improve is to surround yourself with people that are further along their journey than you are. Whilst this might not be strictly true for Robben, he has toured in many countries and lived in Los Angeles and various other locations in California as well as Nashville, Tennessee, Paris and most recently London - one can only assume it is to further his passion for guitar and production simultaneously. 

Favorite Tunes

There have been some classic songs from this man, and I would like to share some of my preferred choices with you. 

Robben Ford - Magic Sam

I only heard this song very recently, and did not immediately recognise the playing until there was some lead guitar - his style makes it very clear who is playing. The intro to this song is immensely funky, and shows that for all of the harmonic knowledge in the world, sometimes you just can’t beat a good funk guitar part. 


Another thing I like about this tune is that the melody is very straightforward, almost like it could be a vocal melody. It is not uncommon to hear instrumental songs that feature a melody that is just too busy - too many notes and not enough story. 

Robben Ford and Kevin Moore - Riley B. King

If you have read any of my previous posts, you will understand how much I owe my career to BB King, and this song was written in tribute to that inimitable artist. This is one of my favorite songs of all time. There is some simply excellent rhythm guitar work that compliments the vocals perfectly whilst still remaining interesting all on its own, beautiful and subtle vocal harmonies and just the right amount of solo that serves the song in the best possible way. The phrasing is also excellent and the chords chosen just elevate the song further. 

Robben Ford - Freedom (Live) 

This song proves how it is possible to put many different styles into one song without it sounding too jumbled - that is the main reason I like this song. There are chilled out sections, jazzy moments and sections that could stand tall amongst some hard rock songs. Although this is an instrumental piece, the guitar speaks for itself.

The drummer on live performance of this tune is the great Gary Novak, and alumnus of the late Allan Holdsworth. You may think that playing with Robben after that would be a walk in the park, but I’m sure it was challenging in its own unique way. 

Unique Sound

It seems to be commonplace in this day and age for guitarists to base their identity on the equipment they use. I personally find this quite annoying, as the instrument and any other gear you have should be a tool you use to express yourself. I’ve already mentioned the guitars he uses, but his unique tone comes from a number of places, in my opinion at least. He really knows how to dial in an amp - although being famous for using a Dumble Overdrive Special, one of the most expensive and sought after amplifiers in the world, he can wrangle the same sound out of any Fender amp he wishes (these seem to be his preference when touring overseas). 

Recently he has been using a sizable pedalboard, but only adding effects for specific reasons, much the same as I do - perhaps I gleaned this habit from him. Use of effects is subtle and not the focus of his sound, and although he might add and swap different drive pedals, the famous Zendrive pedal always seems to be a mainstay on his board. 

One of my favorite guitarists, Guthrie Govan (look out for a blog post on him soon!) was quoted as saying the following:

“ - so the Zendrive which is kind of meant to make you sound like Robben Ford - oh how I wish it did!” - Guthrie Govan (2011)

I couldn’t agree with you more, Guthrie! The video in which he said this can be viewed here

Final Thoughts

Some people are not a fan of Robben’s singing voice, and whilst he is definitely not my favorite singer, what he does is unequivocally ‘Robben Ford’ - he has his own style. I liken it almost to Dave Mustaine of Megadeth in the sense that it is not conventionally what would be referred to as an amazing singing voice, but it is true and real - there is something to be said for a singer that doesn’t rely on overproduction to get great results.

Whilst I credit BB King for inspiring me to take up playing properly, I owe Robben for igniting a passion in me for advanced harmony, comping (rhythm guitar) skills and always seeking more control over my sound. Due to his penchant for production and a tone that is more on the cleaner side of the spectrum, his has a unique approach for songwriting and tone shaping - something I have learned a lot from by just listening, I recommend that you do the same. 

For some extra guidance on playing in this style, I recommend that you check out my aforementioned blog post on playing ‘outside’, the shorter and longer videos demonstrating my solo that was inspired by his playing and also discussing the entire concept with your guitar teacher. Some teachers are not well-versed in this style, but the team at The American Guitar Academy have the skills that you need, so get in touch if you haven’t already!


Here's Robben Ford style solo playing. Try working on this!


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