Zen & the Art of Fripp's Guitar


This article originally appeared in the June 1987 issue of Electronic Musician.

One doesn't talk with Robert Fripp; one engages in a philosophical treatise—a Zen foray into life, music, and the marketplace. Robert Fripp is an artist who has followed a distinctly personal path. This is a musician who dropped out of music in the mid-'70s, after several tumultuous years as the leader of King Crimson. When he emerged, instead of playing 20,000-seat auditoriums, he was playing in record stores, pizza parlors, and offices for audiences of one to 200.

He espoused a new philosophy and way of life born of his studies at the International Academy for Continuous Education, a descendant group of philosopher/mystic G.I. Gurdjieff and J.G. Bennett. He spoke of himself in the third person and put forth two 3-year plans, the "Drive To 1981" and "Incline To 1984."

Robert Fripp has always been an enigma, a musician who lent an unusual intelligence to rock and roll. The first King Crimson album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, stands as the high-water mark of the progressive rock movement, and "21st Century Schizoid Man" alone would assure Fripp and Crimson a place in rock's iconography. The version of King Crimson in the early '70s that put out Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Red, and USA was marked by its freewheeling sense of adventure by playing against complex time signatures and arrangements. The most recent edition of King Crimson featured charged ethnic rhythms and the interlocking guitar cycles of Adrian Belew and Fripp.

Interestingly, more people know of Fripp through his work as player or producer with other artists—among them David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, The Roches, Blondie, and Talking Heads. But through it all is Fripp's guitar, sometimes a violin-like wail of grace and sustain, at other times a jagged knife.

In 1972, Fripp began working with a tape-loop system he learned from Brian Eno, but which had also been used earlier by composers such as Terry Riley. His albums with Eno, No Pussyfooting and Evening Star are inner meditations, soul-searing inroads into the musical psyche of Fripp. The sound-generating system was dubbed "Frippertronics" and he took it on the road in the late '70s. He currently uses an Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay for a similar effect, played in conjunction with a Roland Space Echo, fuzz boxes, wah-wah and volume pedal, and occasionally an Ibanez digital delay.

Now Fripp is in semi-retirement again. He emerged to many British pop singer Toyah Willcox, record an album with her called The Lady Or The Tiger, as well as Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists-Live! He also contributed some beautiful, ethereal guitar to David Sylvian's Alchemy cassette and the Gone To Earth album.

When we talked, he was in the midst of a guitar-craft seminar at Claymont Court, an elegantly decaying mansion in West Virginia. Here he teaches guitar classes that are as philosophical as they are technical. The students come to Fripp as if he were the Dali Lama of the guitar. And while they may learn something of the philosophy of Frippertronics, they learn it exclusively on acoustic guitars. The interview was conducted in front of about 30 students to whom Fripp directed many asides.

For an artist who has been embroiled with electronic music, be it the electric guitar, the guitar synthesizer, the Mellotron, or Frippertronics and the Electro-Harmonix delay, Robert Fripp opened our interview with comments about the limits of electronics. Perhaps in clandestine support of his views, my tape recorder mangled those opening moments.

So you're not satisfied with the guitar synthesizer work with King Crimson?
If you ask me if I'm satisfied with any of the work I've done I have reservations, but my reservations would be towards the music rather than any of the instrumentation used. The Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer was among the first synthesizers for the working guitar player—very limited in terms of sound but you could use it. We used it mainly to extend the timbre and range of the electric guitar. But with the penetration and development in guitar technology, none of it very much to my satisfaction, my approach—rather than plunge into the morass of nothing quite settled-was to go to the acoustic. That was my solution.

How do you view those first collaborations with Brian Eno, especially No Pussyfooting?
It's wonderful. It's wonderful. Side one particularly is just... it's true. Simply that.

And have you done anything since then that has equaled that feeling?
Yes. Yes. But you see in terms of feeling, when one does it in the moment. . . I have a little aphorism: "Distrust the musician." All they can say at the end of a performance is if they've liked it or not. They can't say if it's good or not. They can say "I had a great time thrashing around." They can say "I think it was a wonderful feel tonight." It's often irrelevant (to equate) whether the music's been good with what you feel about the evening. So sometimes it's very difficult to put your feelings on the side and simply play regardless of how you feel.

There were four performances by King Crimson, the "Discipline" King Crimson in 1981—it was at the Savoy in New York—which were true. The music was different. It wasn't as innocent as No Pussyfooting, but it had the same quality. It was true for those four performances. And there've been other occasions. It's very, very rare that you can actually, in some way, capture a moment like that.

Some of the work I did with Bowie was in the same kind of category of immediacy and honesty for me as a player. Eno, again, the solo on "Baby's On Fire" was there. I'd just gotten off a plane from America. I had the flu. I was exhausted. I was wretched, and yet the solo was burning. It doesn't matter how you feel.

The solo on Bowie's "Fashion" happened at 10:30 in the morning after a long drive back from Leeds gigging with The League of Gentlemen. There's nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo—fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning—just out of a truck. But it doesn't matter how you feel, you just get on with it.

You were on David Sylvian's record, Gone To Earth.
He asked me to play on his record. The actual message I got was—this was from EG, my office in London—"David Sylvian phoned. He has this piece of music and he says you're the only guitarist in the world who can play on it." Well I said "Yes!" I mean how could you say no to a line like that? So I went along and played. It's called "Wave" on the Gone to Earth album, The very long track, yeah. Sensational. Oh! Yes, that's true.

That music has something about it. That particular piece. The song was originally called "The Holy Blood of Saints and Sheep." Now I don't know why he changed the lyrics, but I loved the original vocal which I heard and worked through. The current one is fabulous too. He said "Go. Here you are. This is what we've got. Come up with something. Go." And I work well like that.

With the Frippertronics, were you familiar with the previous tape-loop work that had been done in a similar vein?
No. I knew nothing of Terry Riley, I knew nothing of Steve Reich. I knew nothing of LaMonte Young. Yeah, I think Eno had. My understanding as Eno told me was that he came up with the idea for the tape loops system himself, although there is some thought that someone else came up with it in the '50s or something. But Eno told me he discovered it for himself. I had no prior knowledge or experience of any of the so-called minimalist or repetitive music schools. When we did No Pussyfooting, to me it was fairly obvious, I used my ears. There it was, a way for one person to make an awful lot of noise. Wonderful!

And now you you've replaced the tape-loop system with the Electro-Harmonix box.
No! With 208 guitarists. Regarding the Electro-Harmonix, we read this advert for the Electro-Harmonix 16-second digital delay with this phrase in it, and the quote is "A Fripp in the box." So we got in the touch with them and said, you know, Fripp would like one for nothing. And they said no. So I bought one. You can't get them anymore.

Yeah I have a lot of fun with it. What I would do at the David Sylvian sessions, for example, is I'd set the equipment up and just for fun punch something in to the "Fripp in the box," and leave it playing in the studio. I did it on some Crimson sessions too, walk out and come back some three or four hours later and there it was still going except the sound had changed in the three or four hours in between. And with Sylvian, he really liked what was coming out so he recorded lots and lots and lots of these little soundscape pieces and they're all over his Gone to Earth album.

It seems like the Frippertronic format lends itself to long, droning patterns. Is that something that's inherent in the system or is that how you chose to use the system?
You don't have to use sustained notes but if you use impact notes without much sustain it gets very, very choppy. Very choppy! Sometimes to good effect, but I prefer the sustained approach. You can cut in and out in different ways but there's a number of ways of using the system. The way that I've used it is the way which I prefer. There are a number of other ways though.

What do you think of that music process as Eno uses it, because he uses it in a much more passive way than you?
Yes, yes. Brian doesn't really have a very strong musical background in terms of the craft of music. But what he does have is good taste. He has good taste and a perception of what's right that very, very few musicians have. So working with Eno, it's refreshing to hear the few notes but right, rather than the many, many, many that are wrong from most musicians of my acquaintance. So working with Eno was a cleaner experience and he's a very entertaining, captivating man. Lots of fun to be around.

You say that working with Eno was a "cleaner experience" and you talk about the spontaneity and how rewarding it was to do something like "The Heavenly Music Corporation." It seems like this music, Let the Power Fall, your later Frippertronics works, is a purer music and it comes through fewer filters before we hear it. What I'm wondering is, why would you go do this other music?
Which other music? With thrashing, crashing musicians? If you've ever been in the best performing live rock band in the world, it's an experience which is very difficult to put into words. But for reasons which are beyond knowing, at one particular point music bent over and took this band into its confidence. And it's very difficult not to have another shot at that.

It's very strange because it has nothing to do with you. On the other hand you must have some involvement in the process and it is an intensity of experience which leaves you never quite the same. When the power turns on, and not from you. This is the point. It's coming towards you from music in such an incredible way that the possibility of a musician living a life without that experience again is just too, too awful to contemplate. So I thought "Hey, let's have another shot at this." There you go. Easy as that.

But for having a second shot at that in 1981, for having maybe six months of something quite, quite remarkable for a second time in my life in a band like that, the next three years were utterly wretched. There you are.

On Discipline, you were getting involved in these very intricate double guitar pieces and that seemed to go away as the band became more involved in the process.
You noticed? Yes, I noticed that too.

Discipline was a very tightly arranged record. There were spontaneous improvisational moments, but the pieces were very tightly arranged, whereas Three of a Perfect Pair, the whole second side sounded like a fairly free improvisation. Were those reflecting changes in the band? Why did you go towards that improvisational. . .
It wasn't a group anymore. It had ceased to be a group. It was a number of individuals. It began as a group. It began at the top and worked downwards. Yes. Very clear, very clear. It was a band of very, very fine players. The best. The best.

Bill Bruford said that when you formed that group that you wanted to do something very new and part of that newness was that you all had new instruments. He had Simmons drums. You and Adrian Belew had guitar synthesizers. Tony Levin played the Stick.
Yes, yes. There was new technology involved. My interest in new technology is new music, but people will rarely thank you for interrupting their playing habits. They will maybe allow you to interrupt their playing habits for six to 12 months, and then there will be a change. And they might thank you years later but at the time they won't thank you.

When King Crimson started out it was involved with a general movement towards infusing rock music with classical elements.
Most of the so-called art rock music I heard, or progressive rock music, was a badly cobbled pastiche of a number of badly digested and ill-understood music forms. Yes.

And to a certain degree, King Crimson did a little bit of that. I don't mean that in a negative way but your music was infused with sort of early 20th century music. "Devil's Triangle" is from Holst's The Planets, obviously, but there was the Bartok sensibility that came in which was early 20th century. It seems like the late edition of King Crimson was much more contemporary classical, minimalist, and had a greater affinity with that whole movement.
All right. Go back to that night in early in 1967 when Sgt. Pepper was on the radio and I didn't know what it was, and my listening involved Bartok and Clapton and Hendrix and the Beatles and Stravinsky. To me they were all speaking with the same voice but with a different accent. Now for me it was if only the feel of Hendrix, if only the vocabulary was a little more sophisticated and if only Bartok was on guitar with a Marshall stack and the power turned up on 11, you know. There was a viscerality, about standing in front of a wall of Marshalls and Les Pauls and thrashing Fender basses that didn't speak directly to the intellect. Why not? And yet in a chamber ensemble—quite wonderful, of course—but it hasn't got me by my nuts. Why not? I want that visceral [approach]. So for me it was a question of how could you bring the two together. And Crimson in '69 was one approach, if you like to draw on the vocabulary of the Western tonal harmonic tradition with the power of the Afro-American musical tradition known as rock and roll. Well that was '69.

In '81 we could draw on what would now be called ethnic music. In other words, the formal properties of different music systems were more readily available in 1981 than 1969 with better technology for playing them but may I say, if you're going to have a [melody] line [playing] in 14, one in 15, and a rhythm section in 17 all playing together, you've got to be pretty good. So its no good pratting about ethnic music forms unless you've got the chops to deliver on them. If you want to know how long it takes to learn to tap your left foot in four, beat five on top and have a conversation at the same time, it's 12 to 14 years. I think everyone in the room knows that one.

When I think of Robert Fripp I think of Larks Tongues in Aspic, I think of Starless and Bible Black, and I think of you as an instrumental musician, not as a rock musician. It seems like when you are involved with rock songs very often they tend to be satiric and kind of a parody of rock form. I was thinking particularly of "The League Of Gentlemen" and 'You Burn Me Up, I'm a Cigarette" from Exposure.
I love "You Bum Me Up, I'm a Cigarette." Life with you is a loser's bet. You make me anxious. Strategic interaction, terminal inaction. Bitter hostile faction. Wonderful! Hall was phenomenal, you know.

Daryl Hall, you know. I said there's the words, go sing. He went out and sang, you know, one take. Fabulous. Oh, yes. Lovely, visceral. Yah-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh. Very, very hard to play with that intensity because it requires an awful lot of effort for down strokes at that speed, Yah-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh, on those chords.

On his projects, what's your relationship with Eno? Do you come in as a sideman and he presents you with tracks that are already done, or are you there—he seems to compose a lot in the studio—are you there during that composition process? I generally turn up and he says "Go" and puts it up and I respond and he gives me all the space and support to do that. Simply that.

I believe he was the one who created Sky Saw Guitar.
Yeah, Sky Saw was a name for a particular sound which had to do with feeding the guitar through a VCS Synthi synthesizer and digital feedback. Its a specific technical approach for getting the sound. You can get the sound or a very close approximation in a number of different ways, but that was the name he came up with. He came up with that particular sound. Wonderful rrrrr. So gripping. Great. Yeah. My response to that is visceral. Now you don't need lots of clever notes and theories about musical organization. You just hit the G and go rrrrr. And that's it. It's all over.

You know, that used to really frustrate me. There I would be practicing and working hard and all the different things one could play, and yet you turn up the amplifier and hit the one note and it would go hhhhhhmmmmmzzzm and it would be all you needed. Wonderful appeal. Wonderful appeal.

Can you get that out of an Ovation Acoustic?
In a different kind of way, actually. Its possible to have the same kind of visceral effect playing certain bass lines in a certain kind of way.

I think your electric guitar style is identified with a sustained sort of sound, but with acoustic guitar you can't really get that. Have you adjusted, or are you doing something on acoustic guitar completely and utterly different from what you do on electric?
Yes is the correct answer. I began as an acoustic player, and I was a good acoustic player. And it is a different instrument with only similarities to the electric guitar—the frets and the strings, basically, and two hands and a pick. But it's a different instrument with a different way of life involved in it. Different music. Different vocabulary. Quite different. I had to learn to be an electric guitar player, and it was only really after 12 years of being a player—about the time of the first Crimson Les Paul and Marshall stack—that I could find my own voice with an electric instrument. Until then, amplification hadn't quite been right. Electric guitar wasn't an instrument of itself somehow, whereas Marshall stack and Les Paul, that was an electric guitar. You knew. Then you put a fuzz box in line and yynnnggg. You were away. Yes. So I became an electric player about 1969.

Now coming back to acoustic guitar about 1985, I suppose it's an irony that the one thing at which I excel as a guitar player, my specialty, is right-hand picking technique. Would Americans call it flat picking? I call it something different but it's a very, very specialized style which few players can play well—and I'm one of them. The irony is almost nowhere in my professional life will you find any reference to it. Now that's one of the ironies which I accept with a good grace as I accept most of the ironies in my life. But nevertheless it's true. Now the work we do here on some of the things we play, my guitar playing is exceptional and almost unique but very few people will ever have heard it. It is another of the ironies of my life that my very finest playing very rarely gets heard, even the electric playing somehow mysteriously disappears from records. Yes it's interesting, isn't it.

Now much of your music has what I would call an almost demonic quality, and I don't mean that in a satanic sense, but I mean a very dark quality. "Schizoid Man" is an obvious example. "Indiscipline" would be another one, "Requiem," and most of Red.
Oh, Red is something quite, quite different. Red has a viscerality but intelligence, which combined is quite terrifying, or can be. The last Crimson played it well but it was never really played well. See, "Lark's Tongues" was very, very primal. But young guys of 23 to 25 trying to play that music in 1972, they weren't good enough to play the music for a number of reasons. One, chops. Two, egotism. You can't play music if you're imposing your bright ideas of how it should be played on it. You have to give the music more respect. And in '81 for a period, a few Crimson gigs got into the spirit of "Lark's Tongues." But it still has never been played right, which is very frustrating for me.

Was it a matter of chops, or was it a matter of understanding the spirit of the music?
The difficulty is that both are involved. Now you have good players, good chops people. How can you be a good player with chops but drop all your chops and just play one note? It means you have to be fully what a human being can be and at the same time plugging into this very, very primal situation where we are all animals and yet we're all animals. This is the creature we inhabit. Well, that may be part of what we are, but there's something more which is possible for us, and the demand is made in this music that that element must also be involved. So what you're asking for is four musicians in a rock and roll band that are enlightened. Well, let's face it: It's asking a bit much, especially if you want to earn a living, too. So maybe one could realistically say that the demand is a little high. Well, fair enough. So from my vantage point its excruciatingly suffering, excruciatingly painful, but there you are. I'm a hero. What more can I say?

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