A man continually in search of magic moments in the perfect quality of music. | Robert Fripp
He's played guitar with the best - David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Talking Heads, Brian Eno and, of course, King Crimson - and he's also worked away from the public eye, pursuing truths other than the rock and roll life. Mark Prendergast discovers that Robert Fripp's insights are of interest to more than just guitarists.
On December 24th, 1957, Robert Fripp sat down with an acoustic guitar and, using a plectrum, set out to evolve a structured system for playing it. He was only eleven at the time. Now, over thirty years later, he has developed an ordered system to such a degree that he is able to give residential guitar seminars both at Claymont Court in West Virginia, USA and at his home in Cranborne, Dorset. In between, Fripp has had as colourful and interesting a career as anybody in the rock music business. In fact, probably better than most since at each and every stage he has endeavoured to push forward the boundaries of the rock format he has worked within.
His auspicious beginnings were with King Crimson, of course, a band which no matter what was and is said of them today were, between 1969 and 1975 and again between 1981 and 1984, impossible to ignore. Outside that, Fripp never turned down an opportunity to play, experiment, produce or guest. His famous collaborations with Brian Eno probably rank next to his Crimson work in importance. He has also been a keen jazz producer, as evidenced by his early '70s work with Keith Tippett. As a contributor his name appears on over two dozen records, his own favourite being David Bowie's Heroes (1977).
In the late Seventies, exhausted by the constant touring and personnel difficulties within King Crimson, he settled in New York. It was the time of 'punk rock' and through "a remarkable flowering" Robert Fripp was brought back into an industry he had turned his back upon. He went on to produce LPs for Peter Gabriel, The Roches and Daryl Hall; embarked on a solo career and investigated at some length the machinations of the music business.
In 1979 he employed the Frippertronics twin Revox tape delay system, first shown him by Brian Eno during the recording of No Pussyfootin' back in 1972, to improvise with himself on electric guitar in such places as canteens, cinemas and record shops throughout Europe and America, bringing a musical innovation to street level. After this he wrote several observations on the workings of the music industry and formed a bopping rock and roll band called The League Of Gentlemen. Then in 1981 he teamed up with Tony Levin (bass), Bill Bruford (drums) and Adrian Belew (lyrics, vocals and guitar) to form Discipline. Fripp sensed that the character and spirit of King Crimson was again present and so rechristened the band with the old monicker.
I've met Robert Fripp on two occasions. The first was in EG Records' London offices in May 1986 where we discussed his career at length. With regard to King Crimson, he stressed that he was never the band leader but that he had the vision, and whenever a group of musicians were around him and it felt right, King Crimson could be alive again. This small piece of information is enough to tell us that Robert Fripp is not easily taken by flattery. He refused then, and still does today, to take responsibility for Crimson's success. A look at his own 1975 compilation of early Crimson tracks, The Young Person's Guide... tells us that such tracks as 'Peace - A Theme' or 'Starless' are memorable only for Fripp's thoroughly controlled guitar playing. Again, such a famous cut as 'Baby's On Fire' from Brian Eno's first solo LP is only good because of Fripp's powerful soloing force. In my estimation King Crimson only became the democratic band of Fripp's dreams on the 1981 Discipline album, and specifically on the track 'The Sheltering Sky' where Tony Levin's awesome bass sound, Adrian Belew's mesmerising guitar jangles and Bill Bruford's African-like hypnotic percussion are well up to Fripp's shifting, landscaping guitar parts. Both musically and aesthetically this instrumental is King Crimson at their very, very best.
But this is only one aspect of Fripp's output. We also spoke about his involvement with guitarist Andy Summers, technology, his attitude to modern recording studios and production, guitars, and the criteria of his approach. Since I wanted to discuss further some of the more theoretical and philosophical ideas he touched on then, as well as clarify the more fundamental technical details, I met him for a second time more recently in Cranborne. Fripp was very specific about wanting to do the interview on his own terms, in his own home, and in front of an audience of his pupils. Therefore, one must imagine the following discussions being punctuated by giggles, sniggers and laughter from that quarter. For me, it was an interesting if sometimes straining experience.
MP: With Guitar Craft [the name Fripp attaches to his teaching activities] are you returning to learning and developing a specific way of playing the plectrum guitar?
RF: Well Guitar Craft, from one point of view, was a response to the question: How can I be a human being and a professional musician simultaneously? For a professional musician music plays a very small part, a very vital part - a part which is taken for granted. Most of the concerns of professional musicians are with earning a living and dealing with superfluities and unnecessary elements. One of the main time-consuming elements of a successful professional musician is doing interviews. Me, I don't do interviews now unless there's a specific point and some good reasons. If you want to be famous, you do interviews. I do not wish to be famous. But it was very useful for the course for you to come here today. So you've been set up. When you approached me I saw an opportunity there for what we're doing here - you get your interview, the team get a pointed stick!"
MP: I respond by saying that I wanted to represent Fripp better this time than had been done before in previous magazines.
RF: "You see, if one's public speaking voice is misrepresented constantly, and if you extend that over a period of years, then it's humiliating. The interviewer doesn't walk on-stage in front of thousands of people to accept, face-to-face, the repercussions from that. The performer has to face this within a professional context which is both private but also very public. People don't come up to Mark Prendergast on the streets of New York and say: 'Hey turkey face, you said such and such..."
MP: It is as humiliating for the writer as it is for the musician interviewed for the exchange to be misrepresented, rearranged or badly edited. Now Robert you don't like the music media here, as it worked in the late 70s and as it works today. What are your reasons?
RF: "Well, the writers lack credentials. They lack authority. If you looked at Melody Maker in the early 70s, there were a number of very good writers there. I mean Richard Williams was remarkably well informed. He knew more about music than any musician I knew at that time. They, of course, had their opinions but they also had expertise and some credentials. But then it moved into subjectivism and opinionation. I stopped reading the music press - I believe it was in Christmas 1980 - when I read the review of a Kate Bush single in a certain music weekly which said: 'Kate Bush sounds like she's being rutted from the rear by a reindeer.' This was a record review in the English music press!!"
"If one exercises discrimination in the number of interviews one does, that is one sets them up oneself, you come into considerable friction with your publicity department. You see there's a process involved in the life of a professional musician that unless you undertake to promote the album you're about to make, through any interviews the record company sets up, you are not going to make the record. I had a meeting at EG Records two years ago and it was quite explicitly stated that if I wished to make a record it was understood as part of the package that I would promote it. And I said: 'I'm not prepared to do so. As of now, I'm no longer a recording artist.' In practice it's still possible for me to make records but the budgets are curtailed in a major way."
Considering his enormous back-catalogue, I am astonished that record companies and music press do not respect Fripp more. Attired in a leather waistcoat, perched on a chair, bespectacled, slightly unshaven but acutely aware, I think back to two examples of his persistent intelligence: the guitar part on '21st Century Schizoid Man' and the fact that he always sat down on-stage. I turn the conversation back to Guitar Craft...
RF: "We have an approach to the plectrum guitar, in Guitar Craft, based on fundamentals. We don't tell people what to play. I mean music is available to everyone. We don't try and determine a person's personal voice but rather help them approach it. What we can do is provide the fundamentals for the acquisition of a sound technique. What people do with that is up to them. Once you change one part of what you do and who you are, everything else changes too. Once one begins to apply oneself to the acquisition of a craft, in this case playing the guitar, and developing an alert attitude to what one is doing, other things occur in your life as well. One finds, maybe, that standards which were acceptable to you before are no longer acceptable."
"Anyone can come to it, we are remarkably available, but it's not something we are setting up to thrust on people. It's a way of effortlessness. Yes, any craft is a way of effortlessness, nothing wasted - one of necessity. With the exception of classical guitar, which has its own traditions, you show me an acoustic guitarist that isn't wasteful. If you watch a lot of acoustic guitarists perform I would suggest that they are working unnecessarily hard."
MP: So, therefore, Guitar Craft is a shorter way of achieving the same results?
RF: "Those are your words, Mark. It's a way of accelerated development. The exercises are intensive, one can do in two or three years what would normally take about seven years and still not be quite mastered. How one puts one's hands on the guitar is how one lives one's life. It's the quality of attention one brings to bear, and one doesn't need a guitar around your neck to practice attention. So it's a way of life. You could say Guitar Craft is a way of playing the plectrum guitar. You could say it's a way of practicing who we are. It's also a way of helping to put oneself in a place where music occurs on its own terms."
This juncture seems to be the appropriate point to bring up Fripp's involvement with David Sylvian, a musician who believes that his art is an act of faith. Fripp played on Sylvian's 1985 Alchemy mini LP, but more importantly contributed some riveting guitar playing to Sylvian's 1986 double album Gone To Earth [see Sylvian interview SOS March '87]. Two tracks in particular, the title one and the haunting instrumental 'Upon This Earth', are interesting in that they contain voice excerpts from J.G. Bennett and Joseph Beuys respectively. Fripp used extensive voice extracts from Bennett on his own 1979 Exposure LP. Bennett was a social and religious philosopher who had strong ties with the Armenian mystic, Gurdjieff. Bennett founded the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne in Gloucestershire. He died in December 1974 but Robert Fripp has long been associated with him. He has and continues to edit the lectures given by Bennett at Sherborne House between 1971 and 1974. Also Claymont Court in America, where Fripp teaches Guitar Craft, is part of the American Society for Continuous Education. Fripp has been directly involved during the 70s and '80s in its activities, was a president and is currently a vice-president. It's more than a coincidence that Fripp co-produced an album of piano music which originated directly from Gurdjieff in 1985. I put it to him that his interest in the philosophy of Bennett and Gurdjieff directly influenced the outcome of the aforementioned two tracks on David Sylvian's album.
RF: "David expressed an interest in those characters."
MP: He expressed more than an interest...
RF: "I enjoyed working with him immensely and I look forward to working with him again. I played guitar. I plugged in, turned on the Marshall and turned up very loud."
MP: It was more than that, it was much more than that.
RF: "I have no idea of the impact I had on David. I don't know. I like him enormously, I played the guitar on his record. How he put the materials together was his decision."
I push the point that obviously Fripp's presence influenced the outcome of the work. Robert is evasive but I keep pushing regardless of the giggling audience of guitar pupils.
RF: "We don't talk in those terms. I walk in and say: 'Hello, what have you been up to?' David doesn't then say: 'What a great honour to work with you!' Me, I love his voice and I was really excited that he asked me to play on his album... I had dinner with Tony Levin recently and he said: 'You know, I get lots of young men coming to me and saying - What's it like to work with Gabriel? What's it like to work with Fripp?' Well, I'll tell you what, if you're staying in nice hotels it's fine and if you're not it's pretty crummy. He said: 'Well, that's not the answer they want.' But that is the level on which professional musicians work. What a crummy hotel today, yeoh!"
In 1986 Robert Fripp and The League Of Crafty Guitarists released an album of their work. Most pieces were that of an ensemble, deftly playing in unison, with a very classical sound. 'Invocation' was a beautifully executed piece, flooding with emotion. But one cut, 'The New World', was extended Frippertronics which, according to Fripp, "was recorded live in Berkeley in 1979 and the solo was put on in 1983."
MP: The Frippertronics track on the brown sleeved album is the only electric track in an acoustic context. Are you still interested in the electric guitar?
RF: "Yes, I still look forward to playing loud chords. I practice on the acoustic at the moment but occasionally I'm called on to use electricity. At the moment electric guitar technology is going through an upheaval and it hasn't settled. I find MIDI very unsatisfactory."
MP: You mean the MIDI triggering system on guitar synthesizers?
RF: "Yeah, it doesn't work. The guitar is not yet an instrument that can trigger a synthesizer. A keyboard is far better at triggering a synthesizer. So, in a situation where you have all the technology in upheaval, what I do is return to the acoustic guitar and substantially ignore it until it's settled or return to the trusty analogue."
MP: You told me before that you were one of the first people to use guitar synthesizer when it came out in 1981.
RF: "Yes, King Crimson immediately had two Roland units, one for Adrian (Belew) and myself. I'm still interested in extending the range and timbre of the electric guitar but the Roland controller then used an analogue synthesizer, and although it was very limited it was the first practical working guitarist's easily available and operable synthesizer."
It would be a fallacy to think that Fripp was, or is, enamoured by the guitar synthesizer. He uses it more like another instrument than as a guitar. His attitude to it is crystallised by the following quote:
RF: "I find it interesting - and this is a generalisation - that a first-class guitarist is happy to sound like a third-class saxophone player. Why not sound like a first-class guitar player? It's not a question with the guitar synthesizer of extending the range of the instrument, the timbre, dynamics and all the rest. It's a question of mimicking other instruments... mimicking!"
The conversation moves on to New Age music and how Fripp's music is sometimes wrongly labelled under this confusing title. In January of last year, Robert and The League Of Crafty Guitarists played a concert at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London as part of the 'Ambient' evenings that were held then. I put it to Fripp that his work with Brian Eno on No Pussyfootin' (1973) and Evening Star (1975) prefaced the current vogue in instrumental music and that, in an important way, he is partly responsible for it.
RF: "Well, you see, what I always wanted to be was a member of a superb band. That was the aim. I had no interest in solo albums, I wanted to be a member of a band. So after the first King Crimson broke up it was very difficult. I very much enjoyed working with Eno, of course, but it wasn't a question of deliberately making an instrumental record. It was: 'Come home for dinner.' 'Alright Brian, what time?' 'I don't know, some time.' Then turning up and, for no reason I know, taking my guitar and pedalboard and so forth. Eno saying: 'Would you like to plug in and see what you think?' Three days later I heard it and said: 'didn't think much of that!' That became Side One of No Pussyfootin'.
Then Richard Williams came around to Eno's place to listen to it, and I went along too, and then it was: 'Wow I like that, great. Let's do another side.' That happened a year later. Then EG and Island Records prevented it being released for a year and a half and then made sure that the distribution in America was so restrictive that it was a well-kept secret."
"Eno did Side One of Discreet Music when we were having tea in his kitchen. I turned up and he said: 'Want some tea?' 'Yeah!' 'Oh, I've got a record going in the front room.' So I popped my head in and there were two tape machines going and this little synthy thing. I did a bit of sequencing and we said: 'Nice music, oh let's go have some tea.' So we went into the kitchen, had some more tea, came back a bit later and it was still going. You see, this is a different slant on it. Eno's aim, as I understood it, was specific and that was we were about to do a Fripp and Eno tour (mid-'70s). We wanted a backing track or something interesting for me to play guitar over. So I ended up actually playing over Discreet Music somewhere on tour in Spain and France. In France, we got booed off at one gig. For the very first concert in Madrid, we decided what we were going to do five minutes before we went on. And that was the beginning of the Fripp and Eno tour. It was a lot of fun. Two lads having fun, both with a good sense of humour."
MP: Yet in many books and in many people's minds, you two are considered instigators and innovators of something very rare in rock?
RF: "Look, if I was sitting around here saying 'Hey guys, do you know what I started?', you would say this man's a prat. You would! If any work I've ever done is useful then fabulous, good, wonderful... next! There it is, it's in the moment. If it works - that's your payment. The payment for a musician is the opportunity to come near music. So am I happy that you're saying all these nice things? Well, if it helps me earn a living, good, fine. If it means that I'll have an opportunity to play some more music, fine. Anyone who has come near to music knows it has nothing to do with them. If you begin to believe the nonsense that in some way you're responsible for music coming into the world, then it's all over. Music is responsible for the musician coming into this world, not the other way around."
The conversation then moved on to the more technical aspects of Fripp's work - his production approach and guitar technology.
In the early 1970s he was involved with Ronnie Scott and did a lot of jazz production, some of it released some of it not. He has always been a fan of Keith Tippett - the English piano improvisor whose great playing pushed 1970 King Crimson in the avant-garde jazz direction, particularly on the captivating single 'Cat Food'. Fripp produced numerous albums of his music from 1970 to 1972 and has recently worked with Keith and his wife, Julie Tippett (formerly Driscoll), on a new album. There's no doubt that Fripp's presence in a studio affects the outcome of a project. A song called 'Here Comes The Flood' came out okay on Peter Gabriel's first solo album in 1977, but two year's later Robert brought Gabriel in on his own Exposure LP and the song was improved by leagues, possibly one of the most perfect Gabriel ever produced of his early period. Fripp does not like EQ, has a certain distaste for digital technology, likes the various qualities of tape as it passes through the recording process and can work quite fluently on basic 4-track. He also likes recording artists with the warts on!
RF: "Yes, you record the sound people make. If they make a bad sound, you record it. If they make a good sound, you record that too. The point is it's the artist's record not the producer's. If they sound bad, well then you've got a bad record; however, if they play well I'll record it."
Fripp purports to be able to walk into any studio, anywhere, and work. Notwithstanding that claim, Robert has over the year's formed a close bond with studio engineer Tony Arnold, and has recorded a lot of material at his studio - Arny's Shack in Parkstone, Dorset. The working relationship goes much further than musician/studio technician as Arny has always been actively involved in Fripp's complex equipment, both effects and actual guitars. Arny's Shack is now called The Noise Box and Tony has set-up a new private studio in Cranborne, based around two 16-track recorders. Fripp comments on the studio where he recorded the 1984 collaboration with Andy Summers, Bewitched.
RF: "It was never very hi-tech. Now it's a good demo studio, but before it was always a mess of a place - though Arny and myself, when we worked together, could be true to what was happening. So it was audio-verite, we recorded the truth. If it was bad, then there you go, and if it was good, well... It's not an approach which works for everybody. It works well for people who can play and know what they want to play."
As far as personal equipment goes, Robert Fripp's tools are very interesting. If he is working with Tony Arnold he will request him to bring in certain equipment - valve microphones and valve guitar amps. Fripp likes to use a Roland JC120 combo for amplification along with any valve amp but, preferably, an old Dean Markley which has no speaker. According to Arny: "A lot of Robert's solos are done through a Fender Twin Reverb amp with Partridge transformers. You see, back in the 1960s, Orange and Hi-Watt were very popular amps and Partridge made the transformers for them, so I got their transformers and installed them in the Fender. The reason being, as it was, the amp sounded too tinny, too 'country'."
Fripp still uses the electric guitar through a variety of effects pedals. He likes the old makes - the Big Muffs, Foxy Ladies, Burns Buzzarounds, Coloursounds, etc. His choice of electric guitar depends very much on his needs.
RF: "I'd rather use my own electric guitar system but I'll use another one if someone wants. It depends on what the brief is. If I've been asked to go into a session - for example, David Sylvian - and work in a very broad way, then I'll take a Tokai Les Paul copy which has been modified for me. The electrics have been customised by a man named Ted Lees, and it has a Roland synthesizer pickup fitted and a Kahler tremolo arm. It's the best guitar I have for being able to tackle anything, but it's not the best guitar for a specific task."
Tony Arnold on Fripp's effects set-up: "Robert found it difficult to keep bending down all the time to rearrange his switches. He has 17 different effects pedals and the biggest problem comes when he wants to put them in a different order - they have to be unplugged and juggled about. So I've rack-mounted them for him. I took all the stuff out of the boxes and put them in Rebis or Scamp racks. These are usually used for compressors, limiters, noise gates and expanders, but not for effects pedals. At the moment, myself and Alex Miller are building a computer system for Robert's pedals whereby he can select the effects via soft-touch control buttons and then press one floor button so that the effects appear in that order. With the rack-mounted system I've also put in a patchbay for him. I use silent FET switching like you get on the Boss effects. With his fuzz boxes, I've replaced the usual silicon transistors with germanium ones to get a better sound."
Tony Arnold on Fripp's guitars: "I got him the Tokai. It has a pitch-to-voltage box added with a MIDI output which can trigger a Yamaha DX7 or anything MIDI-compatible. Robert's favourite guitar synthesizer is the second one that Roland made - it was the 'blue box' model, an extremely versatile fuzz unit but it was only able to get a trumpet or violin sound. He also uses a Shadow system in an Ovation acoustic. At the moment he is working with the Ibanez guitar synth and is getting very good results."
Tony Arnold on Frippertronics: "Robert still uses the twin Revox delay system. This is pretty difficult to explain verbally. It's a tape-loop system which has to be specially biased. It also has to have a varispeed regulator because, if it doesn't, you either get a lot of tape flutter at high speed or tape actually falling to the floor if too slow. Basically, the tension and speed of the two Revox tape machines has to be precisely the same."
[Fripp prefers this analogue delay system to a 1985 gadget marketed by Electro Harmonix titled 'Fripp-In-The-Box'. This effects unit was supposed to be a digital refinement of the Revox system but Fripp found it had a very different and in some ways inferior quality to his old units. For one it didn't record and thus Fripp had Arny build a small recording unit into it.] "Every 16 seconds it ran on and looped in on itself. It was very poorly made but it had its own quality. Sometimes cheap things can be very good. One of the most interesting things in music-making is naivety, which is something myself and Robert agree on."
Back to the interview: I ask Fripp about his interest in the acoustic guitar. Is Guitar Craft a reaction to techno-flash electric playing?
RF: "No, certainly not. I don't define myself negatively. It's a response to being asked to give a guitar seminar in America. My initial response was no. Then I was asked again a few months later and I said yes, because it was the right time. We could have gone for 45 people in a circle, playing electric guitars, but instead we went the acoustic route. I use an Ovation, an 1867, that's the recommended model. But the Ovation isn't just acoustic [it has a built-in internal pickup], it's an extremely powerful electric guitar. The power of the pickups is 2½ times the power of a conventional humbucker. It's an exceptionally strong electric instrument. Some people doing sessions in studios prefer it as a power guitar - a heavy-metal power chording guitar. Seriously, it's that powerful, but it's an acoustic guitar. So with this particular model we can be an exceptionally powerful electric unit or we can be a delicate chamber ensemble."
MP: Having spoken to a lot of musicians, the general consensus is that technology is doing a lot to stifle music today. Some people would see your work here in Dorset as a return to a more purist attitude...
RF: "No, never react. Never work from reaction because I'm afraid it will always lead you into trouble. This is not a reaction, it's a response. If people want to come and take a Guitar Craft course, then generally the answer is yes. It's not right for everyone. This isn't a campaign for purity in guitar playing at all. This isn't a reaction against anything, this is simply a way of craft. That's all."
Robert Fripp ends this most unusual interview by stating that he has very little talent as a musician but a lot of experience. Many would disagree and I'd be one of them. Fripp has a great quantity of talent and insight, and the reason for his survival through three decades of intensive music-making is his self-deprecating modesty, good humour and critical eye to the situations he has found himself in.
For me, I hope he continues along in his unique and individual way.
Anyone interested in attending Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft course can contact the addresses below:
- Guitar Craft, (Contact Details).
- Guitar Craft, (Contact Details).
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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