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• Explore the nuances of Robben Ford’s style.
• Create rootless voicings inspired by T-Bone Walker and Freddie King.
• Combine blues and pentatonic scales over standard turnarounds.
Robben Ford is one of the most sophisticated blues guitarists around—we briefly touched on his style in the first part of this lesson. In this installment, I’m going to focus on his use of jazz-inspired chord voicings and take a look at how he handles a few turnarounds.
We are going to take a step pass the triad-based approach we covered in the last lesson by looking at the voicings Ford borrows from jazz pianists. He likes to keep the notes from moving too far when shifting from chord to chord, only changing notes when it’s absolutely necessary. This is a very musical way of approaching harmony.
In Fig. 1, we can see how Ford would play over a funky blues in the key of D with some added tensions. We begin with the basic target tones (3 and 7) of each chord and then add a note on top. In blues music, we almost always focus on dominant chords. The 3 and b7 of a dominant chord create an interval called a tritone, which is the quintessential sound of the blues.
We start with a D7#9 chord as the I chord. The lower two notes form our tritone, and then we add an F (or E#) on the 2nd string for the #9. Now the trick here is to understand that the tritone is this little sonic nugget that moves around in a very subtle way. For the IV chord, G13, we simply move the entire shape down one fret. How easy is that? Now, instead of a #9 on top we have a natural 13.
While we are on the topic of rootless chords, let’s take a look at a simple blues in A in Fig. 2. In this example, we are playing an A9 chord with the 3 (C#) in the bass. Many players such as T-Bone Walker and Freddie King used this type of voicing in order to make the chords move smoothly from one change to another. Again, we cut out the root, but over the IV chord (D9) we add it back in and keep the E on the 2nd string as a common tone. Keeping this E common through all three voicings gives the chords a connectedness that is pleasing to the listener.
We stay on the inner four strings, but move up a bit for Fig. 3. Here, we will use a new dominant 13 voicing with the b7 (G) in the bass and the root (A) in the highest voice on the 2nd string. The IV chord shape is the same voicing we used on our A9 chord in Fig. 2. In measure nine, we use one of Robben’s favorite voicings for a dominant 11 chord. Many chords can be analyzed in different ways and this is no exception. Even though you don’t have the 3 in the chord, another name for this chord could be either E9sus or D/E if you like to think in slash chords. These dominant 11 chords are a little spacey for most blues players, but not Ford—he uses them quite a bit.
Turnarounds are a key part of any blues guitarist’s style and Ford keeps things somewhat simple in Fig. 4. It isn’t as fancy or complex as his diminished licks, but it does the job. We start on the V chord (A7) in the key of D with a triplet-based arpeggio that leads smoothly into the IV chord, or G7. I played this at a slow tempo but to really get the effect that attracted me to this one in the first place, I suggest you work it up to as fast a tempo as you can manage while keeping a good feel and solid time.
Fig. 5 sticks with the simple approach as well. We are still in the same key and we are starting on the V chord. The phrase starts off in the fifth position by playing notes straight out of the A7 arpeggio with an added C natural used as a passing tone. Make sure to milk the bend in the second measure as much as possible before hitting the D at the 15th fret. We then move to the D minor pentatonic (D–F–G–A–C) before resolving to the root at the 12th fret.
It’s been a lot of fun dissecting the playing of one of my favorite blues players. I hope you’ve enjoyed my example of what sticks out to me about Robben Ford’s playing, and I also hope you’ll be able to add these concepts to your trick bag and bring ’em to the next jam.
Dennis McCumber has been a guitar instructor and performer for more than 20 years. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in music education from The College of Saint Rose. Dennis performs regularly in the New York City area with various rock, blues, and funk bands, and occasionally as a classical soloist. In addition to performing, Dennis has been a middle school music teacher in the Bronx for the past 12 years. While teaching in the Bronx, he was given a guitar lab by VH1 Save the Music and a keyboard lab from the radio station Hot97 Hip Hop Symphony. Dennis has been an instructor at the National Guitar Workshop since 1996, where he teaches Blues, Funk, and Rock. Find out more at dennismccumber.com.