By Al Rudis
When it came to creating Renegade Creation, you could say it was made in to Japan.
The year was 1976, and three American rock stars were touring Japan together, each with his own band: Joe Walsh (who had already joined the Eagles), Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.
“All three bands played four big stadiums,” said Robben Ford, who was in McDonald’s band. “Mike Landau was playing with Boz. That’s the first time I heard him, and I really liked the way he played. I remember talking to him backstage at a certain point. I invited him to play some shows with me.”
The two guitarists went their separate ways after that, but those ways continued to bring them together, and they began talking about someday playing in a band together. Nothing happened until a couple of years ago. “The situation presented itself,” said Ford in a telephone interview from New York.
Ford and bassist Jimmy Haslip had been part of a trio that recorded three albums for Shrapnel Records. “It was just a studio band,” said Ford. When it came time to record a fourth album, the drummer had to drop out. “So I said to Jim, let’s get Gary Novak on drums and put Mike Landau in the mix and do a record with the four of us. Mike Varney (the president of Shrapnel) said, ‘Sounds great.’ So we got together to rehearse the band and work out the music.
“It just immediately felt like a band, and all of us agreed, wouldn’t it be great to do this for a while? It’s not easy to break a new band. We’ve all been doing this for a very long time, and none of us is willing to start from scratch. We don’t have to. We have careers.
“The name Renegade Creation is known by very few, so it’s difficult to book without using all our individual names. We worked very little after the first album. We went to Japan and a few dates in the U.S., and that was that.
“We all had to do other things with our own groups and whatever. But with this new record, we’ve all gotten more serious about the band. We all really like it, and we’re very proud of this new record, so we’re trying to find a way of getting the band into the public eye.” Accepting the invitation to play at the 2012 Los Angeles Guitar Festival is part of the strategy.
There have been many rock bands with two lead guitarists, and usually the songs are arranged to highlight them playing in harmony, in unison or dueling. But not Ford and Landau.
“Yeah, we don’t do that,” said Ford. Instead of trying to blend, they celebrate their differences. “I would say that Mike comes out of a rock background, and I come out of a blues and rhythm and blues background. And we both found our way to broaden our musical knowledge. He’s played with fusion bands, and it’s the same with me. I’ve played with a lot of different people, and fusion was the place where we were able to explore a broader harmonic palette.
“I really went more toward a traditional blues and jazz approach, and he went more to the rock style, but sophisticated, like Jeff Beck. Beck plays beyond rock, much more sophisticated than the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“And it’s the same with me. What I do is more sophisticated than a Muddy Waters record, at least harmonically. I don’t mean musically. I’m not talking about depth here, just harmonics.”
For Ford, fusion music was a major detour in his career, which started as a teenager backing bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. But the detour also brought him back to the main road with the tools to expand and enhance his blues and r&b performances.
It started after he worked with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon. At 22, he was invited to join the LA Express, a legendary group of Los Angeles studio musicians that appeared on many of the landmark rock albums recorded in the 1970s. “I actually was not crazy about their music, because it was this fusion thing,” he said, “but I did it because it was an opportunity to play with some really fantastic musicians.”
The group backed Joni Mitchell on some of her biggest albums and after Ford joined, he began touring with Mitchell. “That period that I spent with the LA Express and Joni Mitchell – I was with them for about two years – just opened so many doors for me musically,” said Ford. “Suddenly I was listening to classical music and Indian music.
“Playing with Joni Mitchell on her music was so fantastic. There was so much in her music. My musical world expanded tremendously.” During one of the tours, he met George Harrison and was invited to play on one of Harrison’s albums.
“Over the course of that stint, I learned to like a lot of things that I hadn’t so much before,” said Ford. “It kind of set the pace for me to put a band together and do a fusion record. Elektra Records asked me if I wanted to do a record for them, and I said yes.
“So I did my first solo album, which was called ‘The Inside Story,’ and that band became the Yellowjackets.” But almost as soon as he began playing with the Yellowjackets, Ford realized that’s not where he belonged.
“I wanted to go back to blues and r&b, and I really didn’t want to do fusion anymore,” he said. “Elektra dropped me from the label, so I was kind of without a band and without a label. For a while there, I just kind of floated, waiting for something to click. During that period, I worked with a lot of different people. I worked with Mike McDonald, Randy Crawford and a famous jazz saxophonist in Japan. It took a little while before I finally got on track. It was a strange period there, between about 1983 and 1988.” The period ended with the Warner Bros. Records release of “Talk to Your Daughter.”
Ford says that from his earliest days, he had a vision of what he would do. “Of course, you have to make a living,” he said. “I worked with others when I needed to work with others, and I often enjoyed it. It wasn’t a bad thing. Playing with Michael McDonald was great.
“But I didn’t keep working for people like Joni Mitchell and others. I could have done that. I could have been a session player and toured with the occasional pop star. But I just had to play my own music. That was always there from the beginning. That was always the plan.”
In addition to playing with Renegade Creation and his own trio, which is more blues and r&b, as opposed to Renegade’s straight-ahead rock, Ford has also been spending a lot of time teaching guitarists in seminars at his home in Ojai and on a teaching website, www.robbenfordguitardojo.com. Students can take micro lessons, watch classes in which Ford breaks down some of his compositions and even play along with his band, except Ford plays rhythm guitar and the students play lead.
Ford’s own career is the basis for his advice to aspiring guitarists. “The most important thing is that whatever it is you really want, stay true to it,” he said. “Like for me, the lesson was just follow the music, and the career will come.
“It’s tempting to think maybe you could write that hit song and become a rock star. Somebody can do that. But people who are real musicians, who love playing music, should concentrate on playing their instruments and playing music.
“Keep your eye on the goal and don’t be distracted by what appear to be the possibilities. Fame and fortune are not all they’re cut out to be, and if you really love music and concentrate on music, then it will reward you accordingly.
“If you want to be rich and famous, go for that, but you’re not going to be the guitar player you might otherwise be. That’s my career advice.”