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Robben Ford’s Traveling Dojo Guitar Camp (Or: How I spent my summer vacation)

I’ve known of the existence of adult music camps for a while. None really caught my eye, despite many outstanding players, vocalists and songwriters that are featured. That was until I saw This camp listed on Sonny Landreth’s tour dates earlier this year.  Now you’ve got my attention.

This might fall into the “if I have to explain, you’ll never understand” category, but I’ll try. Why is Sonny Landreth the magnetic force that would pull me to drop a big wad of cash, take a week off from two jobs, pack the car and leave my wife and cats at home? First, I am primarily a bottleneck slide player. It goes much deeper than that, however. Sonny has developed a huge range of techniques (multiple open tunings, Ghost notes, synthetic harmonics, tremolo picking, fretting behind the slide, storing string energy behind the slide…) that allow him to paint with a huge palliate on his sonic canvas. While a week with Derek Trucks or Ry Cooder would certainly be of interest, this opportunity was too good to pass up.
An additional draw for me, came in a quote from Robben regarding the philosophy of the “Traveling Dojo”: “The important thing is to find the musician and the music in you. Once you learn the fundamentals, go your own way…”. I don’t want to sound like Sonny Landreth (not that I could), but his techniques can add to my ability to sound like me.

Ned with Sonny Landreth

Monday, I loaded the car and headed West out the pike and four hours (and a large iced coffee later), I arrived at The Full Moon Resort. It’s a classic old Catskill’s resort, not entirely dissimilar from the resort in the movie “Dirty dancing”. The campers were rolling in. The demographic trend became pretty clear: Male, and over 40. Geographically, there was more diversity. There were a fair number of us from the Northeast, but Florida, North Carolina, California, Missouri, Washington and Michigan were all represented. There were several from various parts of Canada, a couple from Brazil, Taiwan and even Australia. There were a couple of campers whose primary career was music, but largely, careers covered everything from construction trades to Physicians and Nurses. I was not the only firefighter, interestingly enough. There was a retired Jake from Orlando.

The meet and greet was held on the front lawn, which included the usual introductions, etc.. There also included mention of a family of local bears that had become a little too comfortable around humans and had been crashing the party as of late. Good to know.
After diner in the tent, we had a few minutes down time and up to “The Roadhouse” for the first evening concert. The venue would fit about 100 people legally, so the 55 campers, plus a few others made it comfortable. I put myself first row, on the stage left side, 10’ from Sonny. We heard Rick do a jazz number with Robben’s trio, then Sonny played a couple of tunes. Robben played a couple, then Sonny came back to join them. It was short and sweet, but a great start to the week.

There were two other practice venues, the barn and the billiard building. Various contingents of students opted to play late into the night (there, as well as by a couple of fire pits), but I was a little bit beat from the drive and crawled into the sack around midnight.
I was awake at 0600, and it was clear I wasn’t falling back asleep, so I got cleaned up and found the coffee urn in the café and took in the sights from the front porch. First order of entertainment was watching a bear get the bait our of the trailer mounted trap the State had set for him without tripping it. That not being enough, he scampered up an apple tree, shook his breakfast to the ground and jumped down for the second course. With his set finished, I figured I’d take a stroll and work on my coffee. I soon heard sounds drifting out of the billiard building and found Mark and Brent jamming away on guitar and mandolin. It didn’t long for me to wander back to my room and grab my tricone to join in. (And to think I was debating leaving it home?)

The general daily format was Breakfast, two master classes then Lunch. Two more master classes in the afternoon, then dinner, the concert and then various student jam sessions. The first master class was by Robben and the topic was rhythm playing. The general focus was on chord structure, and particularly, using triads to provide colorful voicings. The second class was on rhythm playing again, but with Wes and Brian, Robben’s rhythm section. Almost every student got to play and their feedback and critique was honest and positive. The only issue that cropped up was the backline equipment provided was “less than optimal.” It’s tough enough getting used to an unfamiliar rig, but both amps provided seemed to be giving every player a tough time. That aside, if there could have been more of any one thing available, it would be time with Brian and Wes. These two are outstanding.

After Lunch was Jazz Theory, with Rick Wheeler. While I had a lot of theory when I studied at Berklee, it was a long time ago. The review was very helpful, and Rick has a long resume as an educator and his teaching methods are very fresh and effective.

The last class of the day was with Sonny. Much of what he covered in this first session, chordal tunings, finger guarding, guitar setup for slide, etc., were topics I’m familiar with from his video course, it was great to see him run through much of this again, as well as hear him play several solo arrangements of tunes that truly highlight is right hand technique and ability to play multiple lines finger style.

After another great meal (the food at the Full Moon is spectacular, and always accommodating to those with dietary restrictions), it was time for another concert. It followed a similar format as the first evening. The additional feature tonight was having students sit in. This was done two at a time. These were chosen by drawing. Where I had already won a private lesson with Sonny, I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, there were still some issues with some of the provided backline gear, which certainly led to some frustration. Even Sonny was not immune from gear trouble. At the end of his solo, his volume suddenly dropped about 30dB. It happened right on the downbeat of the first beat of the chorus and the Rhythm section instantly dropped in dynamics. They, and all of us thought it was on purpose, just that Sonny hadn’t cued them. No. It wasn’t. In short order, Jimmy had it isolated to the pedal board and Sonny went on with just a back up Zen Drive and delay unit. He sounded just as good. True professionals all the way.

Another issue, that’s more problematic in a small venue, is that Robben likes a lot of stage volume. His 100 watt Dumble Overdrive Special seems to be perpetually turned up to eleven, and with his bright, percussive playing, it cuts through everything. With a relatively modest house system, it’s difficult to get the rest of the mix up to his level before you run out of headroom. I was sitting directly in from of Sonny and often had a hard time hearing his solo over Robben’s rhythm.

After the concert, again there were multiple chances to jam. With my ears ringing from Robben’s playing, my tricone came out and I found myself up a lot later than I expected, hanging out, playing and talking all things guitar, music and stuff in general.
Wednesday followed a similar course. Jamming over coffee, breakfast and then settling in to the master classes. First up was Robben’s master class on improvisation. He provided a lot of insight into many of the concepts that describe his unique style. A particularly interesting moment came when a student asked a question something like: “If you’re soloing over such and such changes, do think ‘Okay. I’m going to play in blah blah blah mode’? How do you think of what you’re going to play?” Robben’s response was classic: “If I have to think, it’s all over. I learned to play first and maybe that’s backwards. I learned this stuff later.” It was a bit of an epiphany for be, because I was reminded of something a Professor had told me at Berklee years ago, but had kind of gone over my head. I chatted with Robben about this later. I only wish I could remember who to attribute the quote to. “Theory will only describe your music. It will never define your music.”

Next on the schedule was the rhythm section clinic with Brian and Wes. While I truly enjoyed their clinics, next on my schedule was a private lesson with Sonny. I don’t think I’ve ever been so prepared for a lesson. I knew a half hour could be gone in a flash or last an eternity if I didn’t go in knowing what I needed to ask. Where I’ve seen a number of his instruction videos, including most of the “Slide supernatural” course, I was ready to try and squeeze out whatever I could in 30 minutes of face to face. What I got: exercises for dealing with tendonitis, exercises to build right hand independence, tips on right hand positioning for cleaner technique, positional playing for the left hand to maintain intonation while fretting behind the slide, as well as chord shapes when comping in open tunings. He also commented that my choice of slides (a piece of 12 ga shotgun barrel) was probably better than my usual thicker walled ceramic slide, where I’m dealing with some mobility issues in my ring finger (which I nearly lost in a work accident 17 years ago). He also commented on the oversized control knobs on my Tele (made by Armadillo guitar). He wrapped his pinky around the volume knob. “Yeah. I gotta try something like that.”
We covered a lot of ground in half an hour. He’s not only a great player and teacher, but also a very gracious guy. I headed outside to put my gear away, thinking I’ll have enough to work on for a lifetime.

I was talking with another student who had a lesson with Sonny the day before and agreed it was an exceptional experience. I was putting my guitar way and I hear over my shoulder: “Hey! If you don’t mind, don’t put that away just yet.” It was Jimmy, Sonny’s tech. We started talking about guitars, gear, Sonny’s amps and the pedal board Jimmy had put together for him. He’s truly a wealth of knowledge and a pleasure to talk with.

I had enough time to catch the tail end of Brian and Wes’ clinic before lunch. They are truly the groovemeisters and complement each other like few rhythm sections I’ve heard. The more I heard them play, the more I was impressed with their versatility.
The first afternoon class as with Sonny and he picked up where he had left off the day before. More on finger guarding, fretting behind the slide, right hand technique and his muting techniques while keeping the back side of the strings vibrating. He also touched on techniques for players (the majority of attendees) that use slide for only a portion of their playing and ways to work with a guitar set up with low action. He also touched on standard tuning and a favorite trick I used to use: “Half open G” tuning (dropping the 1st string a whole step). Naturally, we were treated to several solo tunes featuring a wide variety of his unique techniques. When you hear him play solo, it’s easier to understand how his trio can sound like a six-piece band.

The last class of the day was with Rick, a.k.a. “Mistah Wee!” on recording techniques for guitar. It was an enormous amount of information. Mic selection and placement were the core topics, both for electric and acoustic guitar. Conversation frequently moved into other aspects of recording, including tracking, mixing, and mastering. Often times Rick would illustrate important concepts with war stories from Robben’s recent release: “A day in Nashville”. (The project is true to its title. It was recorded tracked in once day. Due to record company pressure, it was mixed and mastered in two more.) The depth and breadth of Rick knowledge is amazing and only exceeded by his willing ness and ability to share it.

The free time between the last class and dinner is set up for photo ops as well as cocktails. There was typically a lot of conversations in the area around the front porch of the Valley View House (the main building at the resort). I was chatting with a couple of participants and the topic turned to the music business. The technological changes of the last few years have been very hard on artists. The internet has essentially destroyed the concept of intellectual property rights. With artists getting almost no income from sales and royalties, touring has become the source of revenue, and the recordings promote the live appearances, where it used to be the other way around. It seems that many artists are looking at camps such as this one as a new revenue source. John chimed in that he recently received a royalty check from Spotify for hitting 100,000 plays. It was for 17 bucks. No wonder there’s a class action suit against Spotify. (“John”, I realized a few moments later, is the former senator from New York, John Hall, better known to me as co-founder of Orleans.)

The evening’s concert was the last with Sonny, as he had to fly out to Albuquerque to play a gig at the zoo, of all places. The format was the same, Rick, Sonny, Robben, Robben and Sonny, Robben and Sonny and students. Again, great playing by everyone. Again, some backline problems for the guests and Robben stage volume dominating the mix. For the minor hiccoughs, still an outstanding show.

The music continued well into the early morning hours. The sound pressure levels coming out to the practice venues were certainly high enough to keep the bears from visiting. I once again pulled out my National and found a few like-minded players outside. Sometime around when a sensible establishment would be calling last call, I realized that shorts, a tee shirt and sandles were no match for the cool air of the Catskill evening and headed in.
The final day I was up a little later and the late night had me savoring my coffee a little longer. The morning master class was with Robben and the topic was Songwriting. While I would have love to have taken it in, the material from the private lesson with Sonny was racing around my head. I took the extra time to run through some of the exercises and enjoy some more coffee and fresh air. Everyone I talked to that attended it said it was very worth while. For me, I needed a little time to digest “the going’s on”, as Sonny would say.

The second morning session was to be the final rhythm section clinic with Brian and Wes. A minor change was made to help enhance the camp experience, which I think was a good call on the part of the organizers. There were a limited number of opportunities for private lessons which were awarded by lottery. They also had drawn for opportunities for students to sit in with the band during the evening concerts. (I certainly would have enjoyed that, but would not have traded my private lesson for it.) Because the attendance was well below capacity (about 55 out of a possible 100 slots), nearly everyone had either a lesson or a chance to sit in. Seeing only a handful of campers had not had either opportunity, they opened the first section of this clinic to the remaining campers to get to play with Robben and his trio. Needless to say, that made for some happy campers.

The remainder of the clinic featured a Q & A with Brian and Wes. These guys can really cover some ground. They covered the issues relating to back beat, laying back vs. staying on it, pushing ahead in swing, thickening the groove, all with countless examples of “how to’s” and hilarious example of “How not to”. I’ll admit, I would have loved more time with these two, but I was very happy for those how gain the chance to play with Robben and these two monsters of rhythm.

First up after lunch: Rick Wheeler’s “Care and feeding of your instrument”. Rick’s knowledge as a tech need’s little explanation. You don’t work as a tech for both Robben Ford and Larry Carlton if you don’t a: know your stuff and b: know how to listen to the musician and understand what they’re looking for (especially when they might not be the best at describing it to you). He described the basic set up process, explain how different variables effect different aspects of the playability and sound, and ran through how to get your guitar set up to best accommodate your playing (or at least describe to your tech what you’re looking for). Again, Rick’s knowledge is only exceeded by his ability to communicate it.

The final master class was in the roadhouse with Robben and his trio on rhythm section playing. The initial format didn’t really work for me. (In fairness, other campers commented that they found it helpful.) The general form was “Here’s how I rehearse a new tune. I guess I was looking for something more interactive. I found myself out on the back porch taking it in with a lower SPL until the final Q & A.

The final concert, despite not having Sonny, had great energy. Robben seem a little looser and the mix was the best of all the nights. He was very aware of the backline issues that had plagued the guest musicians and always check to be certain they were going to be heard. He was often seen cranking the master volume on a guest’s amp. Going into one tune, has asked the guitarist on the far side of the stage; “You loud enough?” When his guest struck a chord and nodded, he spanked his Tele and replied: “Are you sure?” and gave the upward thumb, not meaning “It’s good”, rather “Give me more!” (My colleagues who are pump operators would have known just what he meant.)

The final set included John Hall as a guest and they kicked through an amazing variety of tunes. My personal favorite was a spirited rendition of Bob Marley’s “I shot the Sheriff”. The groove coming out of Wes and Brian made me happy the roadhouse was built with old style construction. They could have easily knocked the gusset plates out and rattled the glue out of engineered timbers. The party continued well into the night. Eventually, it had to come to an end, but not without enough memories to last a lifetime.

The next morning I met up with Mark and Brent for coffee and a few tunes in the billiard house. It gave us a chance to discuss the experience and process an incredible opportunity to learn from some amazing players. There were a lot of sunglasses and slow walks in the tent at breakfast time, many were a little the worse for wear from the previous evening, yet everyone agreed, it was a great experience.

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About meanoldfireman

Independent musician/producer/firefighter

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