The Fripp Philosophy of Guitar Craft


the following is a sidebar to the article "Zen & the
Art of Fripp's Guitar"

Over the last year or so, Robert Fripp has been conducting his guitar craft seminars at Claymont Court in West Virginia. He takes in students with no experience to 20-year classical guitar pros. They all come to Fripp to learn his plectrum style of playing, but perhaps more importantly, to tap into the spirit that has powered music as diverse as "Evening Star" and "Baby's On Fire."

The students play Ovation acoustic guitars almost exclusively. Fripp puts them through his new compositions, with intricate rhythms and torturous unison lines played by 12 to 30 guitarists seated in a circle. Sometimes they give concerts or record albums like Robert Fripp & the League of Crafty Guitarists and The Lady or the Tiger.

The mood at Claymont Court is somewhere between a summer camp and a monastery. The Claymont Mansion is austere and in disrepair. The only furniture I saw was folding chairs and pillows, except for the dining room which has picnic benches. Fripp's approach could be called Zen and the Art of Guitar Craft. His approach is as philosophical as it is practical. He describes it as coming into a relationship with the guitar, with music, and with the person.

I was wondering If you could talk about your teaching methods, because from what I've heard, they sound very non-Western.
If you said what is it closest to, probably in terms of my cultural background which is England primarily—it's what might happen if a carpenter in 13th century England took 208 apprentices into his home. And in England, we had a dozen or so come to live and work and that's the closest to a craft apprenticeship. You know a craft is a mystery. You reach a point with your craft where the craft speaks directly to you, and at that point you enter into a kind of relationship with the craft where the craft is at least as alive and real as you are. That's the point at which you realize it's better to be anonymous than to be a star—because to be a star gets in the way of craft, and you begin to value the anonymity of the craftsmen. Like who are the guys who built all those great cathedrals and so on? They didn't carve their names in the stones and leave testimonials to who they were because it would have gotten in the way. You can figure out who some of them were.

If you said what is guitar craft, I'd say one, it's a way of coming into a relationship with the guitar. Obviously. We're playing guitars.

Two, it's a way of coming into a relationship with music. So that implies that music is something of itself that you can come into a relationship with. And I'd say that's quite true. As we would express it here, music is a benevolent presence which is constantly available to us. It never goes away. Never. We do, but the music never. So when we sit in there and we thrash our way through these different tunes, sometimes the music is there despite what we're doing. That's remarkable when you know it's there despite all these clanging sounds, these bum notes.

And three, it's a way of practicing the person because to come into a relationship with one's instrument and music implies also that you're someone to come into relationship with. Guitar craft is a discipline; the discipline is the way of craft. There are other approaches. This is just one of them,

You've talked about music as being a state of mind and body of the whole being. You talked about working on four levels: automatic, sensitive, conscious, and creative.
Yes. Yes.

Please discuss this.
Yes, but in an adequate context. Otherwise they're just words. If you came in on a guitar craft course, for example, we'd have three or four days common experience working together before we introduced these clever words so that we'd have some information to draw on. What is habit? Does habit have a use? What does it mean to be creative? What is creativity? These are very difficult concepts.

With habit, with functioning automatically, as soon as the little finger flies up and down off the fingerboard, well, why are you doing it? It's a waste of effort. Why not instead just keep the little finger low? This is the power of habit. Within two or three days everyone can see for themselves that their habits are more powerful than their relationship with their left hand. If they had a relationship with their left hand, the hand would behave perfectly.

So is habit a bad thing? Well, obviously not. My playing is habitual. I don't have any time when I'm playing, or very, very little time to concern myself with how I'm playing and concerning myself with what I'm playing. So I've given habit over to playing the guitar. I call it a skill. It's a very, very efficient habit based on 26 years of developing a good habit. But if it's only habit well, there's going to be a load of dumb exercises. So I have to have a relationship with my habit so that 1 can direct it. Well, what part of me directs my hands? My thinking or what I feel? Very good question. Very good question. What on earth does it mean to be conscious? Well, it presumes we know what it means to be conscious. Have I been conscious? Yeah, now and again. Yeah! So I can say I know what it means to be conscious. Does it happen every day? No. Once a month? Oh,! doubt it. But I know what it means to be conscious.

Being creative? I can say whenever I've been creative it had nothing to do with me, and yet it must have had something to do with me or I wouldn't have known that the moment was a creative one. So this is when, for example, music turns over and breathes into the notes you play. One cannot fail to recognize it. It's not coming from you-the-player or me-the-player. It's something close but intangible because I can't walk into a room and say "Hey, I'm going to be creative." But what can I do to walk into the room so that I might stand a better chance of being in a creative moment? Well, using those four clever but mysterious words, if I walk into a room with my hands functioning automatically, superbly well, efficiently with no energy wasted, with me in a relaxed and alert condition with my attention engaged, something becomes possible. So. That's what we can do. But until we actually experiment with that and work with it and build up information and experience, they're only bright words.

It seems like the music here and the atmosphere here is not meant to disturb; the music is very pretty. It certainly isn't "red."
No. No. The music is, there's a subtlety in there which probably wouldn't be very easy to capture with electric instruments. It's difficult to say that but there's an immediacy with the acoustic instrument. You see as soon as you plug in you have a state of "schizophonia." You are removed from the source of the sound. There is this distance. Now if you're a professional player it's something you must learn to work with. The sound that people will be listening to will be removed from you playing it and it can be at the very least, an exercise in attention. But it is schizophonic.

Working in an ensemble like this acoustically, one must be present. One must be listening all the time and be here. There's an immediacy and contact and it's quite different. The music is very carefully constructed without any solemnity and at best, it can be a construct that draws together a number of diverse people who could never otherwise work or be together in an intimate way. Now if one becomes a little skilled with musical form you can construct situations which will necessarily almost inevitably pull together the people playing them. At that point, you're beginning to be on to something. These bright ideas about the ideal society . . . if you wish to draw people together, get some of them playing in five and some of them playing in seven in a certain kind of way and it will inevitably draw them together while they're playing it. If when they leave that room they have been together in a certain kind of way, if only for a moment on the outside meshing together, perhaps they go back in and perform it again, and maybe something can come together on the inside. Well that begins to be very interesting stuff. Now imagine, just as a possibility, an idea of a repertoire of music which will guarantee, by its performance, to unify the people playing it. Even as an idea that's worth shooting for. I've seen it happen here.

After being a guitar player for 26 years, working in a group context, in a studio in England I've found myself behind the hands of another member of that group looking out from behind his eyes, seeing things as he saw them, for just a fraction of a moment. We could probably accept the idea that a number of people together working as a real group would be able to experience the other members of that group in a close way. So let's say for 26 years I waited until I could know for myself that that was possible. Here I was behind the eyes, behind the hands of another member of the group, seeing things as they saw them.

Well, Bob Gerber here had this experience in a guitar craft ensemble after three days, four days? It doesn't take forever. It's always here, it's always available. And there in that moment Bob found himself behind the hands of another member of that small guitar craft group. So what would seem to be only a bright idea for us is quite real. Except Bob had it in three days and I waited for 26 years. Now there's the information: you can construct music in such a way on a purely structural and technical level that it pulls musicians together.