Interview with Robert Fripp in Guitar Player (1974)
Date Submitted: 11-Nov-1997
Submitted By: Matt George (bmgeorge at pacbell dot net)
GUITAR PLAYER 8
King Crimson's Robert Fripp
by Steve Rosen
Robert Fripp, lead guitarist with English rock group King Crimson, is a conspicuous personality by appearing inconspicuous. Rather than stand when performing, he perches himself on a stool, and by so doing has come to be tagged, "the guitarist who sits onstage." The 27-year-old musician has worked in groups since he was fourteen, but would have given up guitaring when he was eighteen to sell houses with his father had it not been for a phone call from a hotel near his home in Bournemouth offering him a gig for $25 a week. When he was nearing 21 he decided, "that becoming a professional musician would enable me to do all the things in my life that I wanted." Fripp then formed a band that, by his description, was so bad he had to cancel gigs lest people he knew would come. He also backed up singers and played beguines in Italian restaurants, and spent a month "auditioning" for a group, which to this day has yet to inform him whether or not he was accepted. In 1969 he formed King Crimson with Greg Lake (now bassist with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer).
Why do you sit down on stage?
Because you can't play guitar standing up. At least I can't. In the semi-pro bands I played in, I stood up uncomfortably. With King Crimson I did about three or four gigs standing up, and said, "This is hopeless, I just can't play this way." Greg Lake said, "You can't sit down; you'll look like a mushroom." I felt it wasn't my job to stand up and look moody. My job was to play, and I couldn't play standing up. I generally find it very difficult to play on stage, and I detest recording. I suppose playing live gigs is the thing I enjoy doing most. Let's put it another way: It's one of the things I dislike the least.
Do you think people see you as being moody by sitting down?
I couldn't care less. The perverse thing is, from the point of view of stage presentation, I suppose it's given me a kind of stage presence that I wouldn't otherwise have had because no one else does it. And that comes back to a certain thing I've always believed, which is: Just be yourself.
When did you first start playing guitar?
When I was eleven. The guitar was an acoustic Manguin Frere. It was virtually impossible to press down a note above the fifth fret. It crippled my guitar playing but developed a musculature which took me many years to finally control.
When did you get your first electric guitar?
When I was about fourteen, I bought a Hofner President which had two pick-ups on it and bought an amplifier which had an eight-inch speaker and six watts. That was my first experimenting with an electric guitar.
Did you ever have any guitar training or theory?
After playing on my own for about three months I went to guitar lessons and musical theory lessons with a piano teacher who couldn't, in fact, play guitar. But it gave me some background, particularly in music theory. After a year or so of that, I took lessons from Don Strike who was a very good player in the Thirties' style. At one time, I bought a good standard flamenco guitar and decided to take up finger style. A little while later I had ten lessons from a jazz guitarist. I don't, however, feel myself to be a jazz guitarist, a classical guitarist, or a rock guitarist. I don't feel capable of playing in any one of those idioms, which is why I felt it necessary to create, if you like, my own idiom.
What guitarists do you listen to?
I've never really listened to guitarists, because they've never really interested me. In fact, I think the guitar is a pretty feeble instrument. Virtually nothing interests me about the guitar. When I was about ten and eleven, I started listening to rock-and-roll. The first things that really got me off were the early Sun records with Scotty Moore. When I was thirteen I got into "trad" [traditional] jazz, and when I was fifteen I got into modern and classical music. Just before I turned professional I listened to some Hendrix and Clapton, and there were one or two Hendrix things I enjoyed. Not the rocky things so much, but the slower things. I haven't been influenced by Hendrix and Clapton in the way that most people would say it. I don't think Hendrix was a guitarist. I very much doubt if he was interested in guitar playing as such. He was just a person who had something to say and got on and said it. Clapton I think is mostly quite banal, although he did some exciting things earlier in his life with Mayall. The Mayall bluesbreakers album is superb. Clapton does quite amazingly. I saw Cream live once and I thought they were quite awful. Clapton's work since, I think, has been excessively tedious. Jeff Beck's guitar playing I can appreciate as good fun. It's where the guitarist and "poser-cum-ego tripper-cum-rock star-cum entertainer" becomes all involved in the package. I'm not putting it down -- it's good fun, it's quite enjoyable, very exciting, I wish him all the best of luck.
What type of guitar did you start using with King Crimson?
The Les Paul which I bought in 1968. Until that time I used a Gibson Stereo which is still one of the finest guitars I ever played, though I don't use it very much because it's not sufficiently strong. I started using the Les Paul because I'd been told it was a good guitar by virtually everybody. It was the trendy thing to do then, and I thought, "Alright, I'll give it a try." Its serial number is 53, one of the early ones from the Fifties. The Stereo is about a 1963. I've got two Stratocasters, about 1963 and 1966. I have a J-45 acoustic, and one of the more expensive Yamaha acoustics. I also have a Milner pre-war acoustic guitar and a Gibson tenor guitar, also pre-war. I disliked Fender for a long time, but I bought a couple two or three years ago in order to get into them, and partly as an investment. I started working with the Stratocaster this year. I liked it. It's a far better chordal guitar than the Les Paul, although I think the Les Paul is probably better for single-string work.
What types of picks and strings do you use?
I use triangular tortoise-shell picks that are not very hard. Because my plectrum work is particularly important, it's impossible to use those very heavy plastic things. The strings I use are John Alvie Turner light gauge with a medium gauge second for the third. They're not what most players would consider light, but since most very light strings are not tempered to operate at the pitches at which they're pitched, and since I'm interested in playing chords which involve thirds or tenths, I find such tempering very difficult to accept. The action is in what the old days they'd call pretty low, what in present days would be termed medium-high. I usually change strings after two gigs. I used to leave them on for a week, but I found that takes the edge off things. For work with King Crimson or studio work where that extra zing certainly helps things, I change them every two days.
Is there a big difference in acoustic and electric guitar playing?
Yes, it's a completely different instrument, because one is dealing with a completely different time relationship. The electric guitar is the instrument of today and by developing electrically may be taken into the future. I don't see that happening to the acoustic guitar in any way. The actual technique of playing is completely different. If one is playing an acoustic guitar, the primary thing is tone production. The tone of most rock guitarists playing acoustic guitar is excruciatingly poor. It's an art to play acoustic guitar. There's something so delightful about hearing on acoustic a simple nut-position C7 played with lovely tone. Whereas, on an electric guitar, it probably would not work. The acoustic guitar has one or two interesting sides to it, but it is an anachronism. It is in no way a form of contemporary expression. As a form of contemporary expression, the electric guitar is the only hope for the guitar at the moment as a creative instrument.
Where do you usually place your tone switch?
It depends on what the music demands. I work with a foot pedal for volume because there's a certain impedance you strike with the guitar volume full-up, so I leave the guitar volume full, generally on 10, with the exception that if I have an acoustic guitar sound on electric guitar which operates on a different impedance. The best for that is to have the pick-up between 6 and 8. Over 8 1/2 the impedance somehow changes, and there's a considerable leap in vitality, so I'll operate the volume from the pedal and not from the guitar.
What type of volume pedal is it?
It's the cheapest one I found, and the only one I could afford at the time that seemed any good. I think it's a Farfisa [by C.M.I.] pedal. It's still the finest volume pedal I've found anywhere. It's the only one that goes off and still has a wide movement. It's quite incredible. On stage I use three pedals on a pedal board: A volume pedal, fuzz-tone, and wah-wah. The fuzz-tone and wah-wah are pretty rubbishy. I'm not sure what type of wah-wah it is. The best fuzz-box to use is a Burn's Buzz-around which they discontinued making in England about six years ago. I have two of them, but they're not at the moment attached to my pedal board. The more pedals you go through, the longer leads you need, and in turn the less volume you get. You lose gain along the way. To lessen that, the wah-wah and the fuzz are on the knock-off circuit. In other words, when I'm playing, all the time I'm going through the volume, but when I'm using either fuzz or wah-wah, I knock a different pedal which brings in a different circuit for the fuzz and the wah-wah. When I'm not using them I press a button and knock them out of the circuit so that the circuit shortens, and I keep up my gain. I also use a Watkins Kopy Kat echo unit. It's all right, but it's not particularly good. It suffices for what I want, which is not really a lot of echo effects but just a slight edge, because the sound on stage is very dead in a lot of halls I play in. It really doesn't matter what kind of fuzz box you use. It has more to do with the state of mind.
But if somebody wanted to obtain the same sound you got, wouldn't it be important to know what type of fuzz you were using?
No. I can get that same sound with every kind of fuzz box I've ever used. It's not a question of equipment.
Why haven't you used the wah-wah pedal more besides on the live album Earthbound?
Because the wah-wah pedal used in it's normal way bores me intensely.
Do you feel your music has ever become a victim of all the devices?
Possibly. I mean, you tell me. Sometimes, I suppose, if one is playing something which is particularly banal musically, then to make it a little more exciting one might switch on one's wah-wah. Is that a form of escape? If it is, then yes, I do use devices to cover up bad playing from time to time.
Why did you happen to stick with a Hi-Watt amplifier?
Because it's a fairly versatile amplifier, since I needed a change in sound, and I don't like valve amplifiers for guitar. I've had new cabinets built for me with Electro-Voice speakers in them, and I'm most impressed. I used to use a Marshall. It was good for me at the time, but I felt the Hi-Watt was a little more versatile. I think Marshall is probably better for, or at least as good for, live raucous music, but I haven't found anyone using Marshall for some time. Everyone seems to have gone to Hi-Watt.
How do you hook up the guitar and amplifier?
I plug into the brilliant channel with a jump lead from the brilliant to the normal. In other words, I feed the brilliant signals into the normal, and then turn that up [the normal channel] to equal the brilliant. It adds bottom. Hi-Watt has a volume control for normal and brilliant channels, and a master volume to do the overall level. If you want to have a pure sound you turn your master up and your individual volumes down. Now you find certain changes in tone, the ratio between the two. I use the master volume down and the individual volumes both up to get a rather hairy sound even at a very low level. It also depends on the guitar working with its pick-up volume on full.
I noticed on your guitar that you've taken off all three pickup covers.
Greg Lake suggested that I would get a better sound. I still don't know whether it makes any difference, but I left them off anyway. Probably because I don't want to hassle putting them back on again.
Could you describe your picking technique?
I work on the assumption that you have two hands, so why not use each of them. I think the plectrum hand is more important than the left. I'm left-handed, incidentally, playing the guitar right-handed. It seemed to me that most people learned to play the instrument this way, so I learned to play it that way. I put the guitar on many years ago the other way just to try and find out how a beginner felt. When I was fifteen I started developing this technique with the plectrum whereby the ball of the thumb was pivoted on the bridge so that one picked across the strings with the ball of the thumb as a pivot. But since my Fender doesn't really have a bridge, that makes it very difficult. So in 1971, I started a different approach to the right hand where I lifted the hand off the bridge and just operated in a kind of free suspension where the hand hovers above the strings which makes cross-picking a lot easier. However, it made my playing very difficult, and still does because it takes three years to adopt and fully integrate a change into your playing. In five years' time it'll be a far more fluid style of playing, since I'm more interested in a technique which has a solid base for expanding. At the same time, although I realized I played with my thumb behind the neck of the guitar, it wasn't as far behind as would enable me to create a far more solid base for playing. So my left hand is very similar, if you like, to a classical guitar position, and my right hand is operating in free suspension which demands a great deal of control.
Are there any scales which you usually work from?
As a basic scale I use a diatonic major scale based on the second or the Dorian mode which enables me to play in either a major scale, by taking the root note of the scale down one, or also as a basis for minor. I also enjoy whole-tone scales. But it really doesn't matter, it all depends on what you're trying to create. Sometimes the best way of evoking a certain feeling is to use a melody, and certainly there are few things as satisfying as a superb tune or a very nice chord change. I find them completely overwhelming -- practicing all different keys and scales and becoming familiar with them, and then when you walk on stage completely forgetting all you've ever practiced and just being. I don't allow a form of practicing to get in the way of the music.
Because a great part of Crimson's material is structured, do you have much chance for soloing or improvising?
It varies from piece to piece. Some tunes, like "Schizoid Man", are written to be played. The first thing I wrote to be played was a thing called "Erudite Eyes" on the Giles, Giles and Fripp album [a pre-King Crimson LP released in England]. "Schizoid Man" was a logical development from that. What we do live is maybe just say, "Bill [Bruford, former Yes drummer now with King Crimson] you just start playing, and we'll follow you." But since this band isn't very sensitive or interested in listening to everyone playing, the improvisation in the band at the moment is extremely limited and more concerned with individuals showing off than in developing any kind of community improvisation.
Do the other instruments usually focus on the guitar as the main instrument?
If you listen to King Crimson's records you realize that the guitar playing has always been one of the smallest things that the band does. One of the reasons for that is I've always been more happy in developing the other musicians; developing them as players. So I guess my function has been more of a general organizer of the situation. However, at the moment I'm more interested in playing guitar, and I find it most frustrating that I can't make the other players in the band take as much interest in my playing as I do in theirs.
Do you use any type of powder or oil on your hands?
I use talcum powder on my hands on a gig, but very little -- my hands don't sweat a lot. It's partly to do with relaxing. In order to play, one must learn to relax. Until one has worked out a relationship between one's head and one's hands, one might as well leave the guitar at home. Another thing that I think most players would benefit from is just playing one string for an hour or two and just listening to it before they actually bother with playing a second note.
How do you create those very fast runs in the middle of "21st Century Schizoid Man"?
It's all picked down-up. The basis of the picking technique is to strike down on the on-beat and up on the off-beat. Then one must learn to reverse that. I'll generally use a downstroke on the down-beat except where I wish to accent a phrase in a particular way or create a certain kind of tension by confusing accents, in which case I might begin a run on the upstroke. I also use the old mandolin follow-through technique: Whenever one changes strings, one uses a downstroke. For example, if one had four notes, if one was working in semi-quavers, the technique which I've just recommended would be down/up down/up where you change strings or remain on the same one. In other words, one would change from one string to another, but on the change one might use an upstroke even though it might be off the beat. For certain phrasing one doesn't use one's pick. One takes advantage of the fact that on acoustic guitar one can do a lot with just the left hand. A lot of the phrasing and a lot of the dynamics and percussiveness that I like cannot be obtained without a pick. It's a question of developing technical facility so that at any moment one can do what one wishes. Whatever is demanded by the music one must follow, and not allow one's technical skill to hang one up. Use the technical skill to develop a musical facility of expression. Therefore, how do I do very fast runs? I practice like hell.
How often and how long do you practice?
When I first turned professional and was unemployed, the most I did was twelve hours a day for three days running. When I came to America in 1969, I used to practice six or eight hours a day. Daily practice, and not just going through one's licks, but going through proper exercises is most important, if anything is important. If your readers want to play their instrument, then they need to follow a system of training over a period of time, and practice every day. Nothing worthwhile is acheived suddenly, although it seems that way. One practices and goes through situations and there seems to be no improvement. But one day, a certain situation will arise in which one will have to do something as a player or as a person. And one will then find that one is able to meet that situation. Then you know that all the years' hard work and training has not, in fact, been useless. Nothing is, in fact, ever wasted. It all depends on what one wants. I suggest that guitar playing, in one sense, can be a way of uniting the body with the personality, with the soul and the spirit. Working in a band is a good way of making magic. You see, I don't think of myself as a musician. Again, as I said, I think the guitar is a pretty feeble instrument. One uses the tools one has at hand and does what one can. What affects my playing more than anything is my state of mind. I mean, obviously, there are physical things involved, like if one hasn't practiced for a week, one's muscles won't work. I've been more interested in being a musician than a guitarist. Being a musician one creates music; being a guitarist one plays the guitar, which doesn't mean music is involved in it. But I've learned the trade of being a guitarist to a certain standard. The best guitar playing I've ever played is on an album I've recorded for Atlantic with Brian Eno who was with Roxy Music in England. It's called No Pussyfooting, and it's the most expressive thing I've done. It's all guitar, but "The Heavenly Music Corporation" is recorded so there's a build-up of guitars, so that though there's only two guitars playing, because of the manner in which it is recorded, in one place it sounds like fifty guitars.
Don't you ever think you're a musician?
Occasionally, when the force vitalizes the form. When I was 21 I realized that I'd never really listened to music or been interested in it particularly. I began to take an interest in it, as opposed to being a guitar player who worked in certain situations. I've gotten to the point now where I see music as being something other than what most people see. I would say that the crux of my life is the creation of harmony, and music you take to be one of the components of that harmony.