This is not true even over $\mathbb C$. Take $\mathbb C[x,y]$ and $x^2, y^2$. You need general combination of a regular sequence of length at least $3$. Search for "local Bertini theorem" and "Flenner".
ADDED: the relevant reference is Satz 4.9 and 4.10 (Die Sätze von Bertini für lokale Ringe by H. Flenner, Mathematische Annalen, (299), 1977). This works for $n$ elements such that the ideal generated by them has height at least $3$ (over a infinite field of char. $0$). There is no hope in char. $p>0$ no matters how many elements you pick, since one can expand Karl's example.
The height at least $3$ condition can't be weakened (think about $x^2, xy, y^2$ over $\mathbb C$). However, in the case of $2$ elements, if you assume $a,b$ are irreducible to begin with, then I would guess what you want has a much better chance.