Interview with Robert Fripp in Guitar Player (sidebar article)

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Date Submitted: 20-Dec-1996
Submitted By: David Kirkdorffer (SayAaahh at aol dot com)

In January, 1986, Robert Fripp was featured in Guitar Player magazine. He was interviewed and at great length (reproduced on the Elephant Talk Web-Site). Guitar Player enclosed a floppy-vinyl disk (Soundpage) of some Frippertronics, called "Easter Sunday." Along with the interview and the Soundpage was a sidebar on the equipment Fripp was using at that time. This sidebar article is presented bellow.

David Kirkdorffer


An mini-interview with Robert Fripp
by Tom Mulhern
Guitar Player, January 1986

The accompanying Soundpage features Robert Fripp using Frippertronics, a system hat recirculates improvised guitar lines using a pair of tape recorders, and also employs electronic effects to manipulate the timbre. For "Easter Sunday, " which was recorded on Easter Sunday, 1983, in Toronto, Fripp improvised with a Roland GR-700 synthesizer, and soloed on top of that with a Takamine acoustic, followed by a Les Paul with a fuzz box played through a Fender Princeton amp. Here, Robert Fripp discusses the origins of Frippertronics, as well as his customized equipment and his guitar synthesizer.

Guitar Player Editor.

GP – When did Frippertronics originate?

RF – Originally, the system was introduced to me by Brian Eno. I worked with him on it for the piece of music that became No Pussyfooting, which was recorded in July 1972 and released I 1973. I began working on it on my own in June and July 1977, when I was living in New York. Frippertronics as such went public for the first time in February 1978 at The Kitchen [a New York arts and performance gallery], where I was giving a solo concert. I needed a name for it, so I came up with "Frippertronics" because it was silly. Then it went very, very public in 1979 with a four-month solo tour – two months in Europe and two in America. And it was there, actually in front of people – in record shops, pizza parlors, record offices, small cinemas, museums, all matter of places – that I began to learn to work with it pretty well. I would run the tape back and improvise on top of it. The original form was with two Revox tape recorders, but now I'm working with the Electro-Harmonix 16 second Digital Delay. It was advertised as a Fripp In The Box. It's far smaller, quicker, and easier to set up than two Revoxes. Although, the sounds one gets are quite different. The quality I nowhere near the same as the two Revoxes.

GP – Does this mean that the sound quality I better or worse?

RF – We would normally say it's worse, but I use its limitations quite deliberately to come up with different sounds and textures. It loses an awful lot of top and bottom. But what it can do is run at double-speed and half speed at the press of a switch. And then I can put it through a Harmonizer and a Roland Space Echo. On the Harmonizer I bring in the octave above, and on the Roland Space Echo I can add sound on sound. Therefore, one can be going forwards and backwards at different speeds all at once, harmonized or not.. Once one's put the basic signal into the Fripp In The Box, one can then play with it in various ways. I used this system with the Roland GR 700 about a year -and-a-half ago in a live, improvised performance in Wimborne Minster at a 1,000-year-old church which the BBC filmed. They were doing a 30-minute biography of my life. It was the first time I've used it live. And last summer I worked with it in England in three performances in record shops. The Electro-Harmonix unit is limited. It doesn't have the facilities of the large-scale Frippertronics system with two Revoxes, but it's very mobile and has its own characteristic quality.

GP – When you were using the Revoxes, did you find that the tape-loop created a limitation, in terms of the time it took for sounds to recirculate?

RF – Well, strictly speaking, there isn't a continuous loop on Frippertronics. It's simply one reel of tape going from one machine into the other. The playback system from the right machine becomes the second input for he left machine. So, its not actually a loop, although in a sense it is, because the output from the second machine loops back into the first. There are limitations to the system, but limitations don't worry me. I accept limitations fairly happily.

GP – Did you have a variable-speed oscillator to control the speed of the machines?

RF – Yes. You see, I've been working with this system in which I normally run at 7.5 ips (inches per second), but there's no such thing as two machines running at exactly 7.5 ips. So it's useful to have a VSO to bring the other one back up to the right speed, to maintain constant tension of the tape over the record and playback heads. But you find that if the tension is too great or too loose, you get a very quick build up of wow and flutter. It's a delicate system, and unless the machines are biased accurately to the particular tape you're using, and the heads are clean, all manner of things go wrong. Then someone bumps the table the machines are on, and an unexpected shake comes in. You have to be on your toes, and you can never guarantee it's going to work accurately. It's a very precarious way of working – which is part of its appeal. It has this advantage: you can play it back later, because it's an analog system.. But the Electro-Harmonx Fripp In The Box has no memory. So, once you unplug it, that's it. At Arny's Shack, the studio I sue in England, we put something into the Fripp In The Box and record two minutes of tape, so we can refer back to it, if we wish. This way, we build up the library of different short pieces and signatures generated by the Fripp In The Box.

GP – What kinds of electronic devices did you use besides two Revoxes?

RF – I generally use a small pedalboard with a volume, wah-wah and fuzz. It never really mattered what types they were, except the volume pedal I used was the cheapest one, the first one I ever bought, in 1967. And until Roland out volume pedals in 1981, which are now the best I've found, I had to use the original one, which had a good on/off sweep. The Roland volume pedals let you adjust the on and off range. All of my electronic equipment is built into rack mounted modules by Tony Arnold of Arny's Shack. It's all custom equipment. He takes a small effect, builds it into a rack-mounting module, and slots it in. Besides the Roland Space Echo, I also have am Ibanez digital delay. The specific kinds of fuzz boxes I've used ate Electro-Harmonix] Big Muffs and Foxey Ladys, which were good – the old ones. You can't get fuzz boxes like that anymore; I've tried. All you can come up with, if you're lucky, are the old ones. Tony Arnold is planning to take a number of old buzz box circuits and put them all in one module with a switching rank, so you can switch around to any one of five or six traditional, old circuits. You can then go to Big Muff to Foxey Lady to Burns Buzzaround to Color-Sound and so on.

GP – What kind of amp do you use?

RF – A Roland JC-120, but I'm looking for a good valve [tube] amp; ironically, JC-120s are appalling for fuzz-sustain, in the way that I work with it. So I use a Fender or a Marshall – virtually any valve amp will do when I'm working fizz sustain. I generally run in mono, although with the JC-120, one takes the left and the right channels for the spread.

GP – Do you have any other electrics?

RF – Yes, I have a very fine '57 sunburst Fender Strat given to me by Robin Trower in 1975 – a very kind, very generous gift.

GP – When you switch from, say, your Les Paul or Tokai to the Strat, is there a period of readjustment?

RF – Well, I'm primarily a Gibson Les Paul player, so yes. A Strat is an entirely different instrument. And again, an acoustic guitar is entirely different from an electric guitar; it requires a different vocabulary, a different approach – a different way of living, actually. And the technique of playing is somewhat different. Obviously, one is working for tone production. There are a lot less good acoustic guitar players that there are electric. Almost anyone can get a good sound out of an electric guitar. I mean, it's not that easy, but almost anyone can. Not almost anyone can get a good sound out of an acoustic. If you slice across the strings, you get scrape, so to counter that you use a nasty plastic plectrum. But then, you don't produce any tone. Most players require a different pick for an acoustic and an electric guitar. I don't, but that has to do with the particular picking technique that I use. Also, with an acoustic guitar, one needs a far better right hand technique than one does for the electric guitar. With electric you can coast a lot with the left hand. With acoustic guitar, it doesn't work. And the technique of playing is somewhat different.

GP – Your synthesizer solo n "Elephant Talk" [Discipline] goes beyond the normal guitar's range. It has a quality similar to that of a balloon releasing its air while the opening is pinched.

RF – Yes, something like that. I'm not exactly interested in sounding like a saxophone or anything identifiable, but I am interested in extending the range of the guitar. On the backing loop to "Easter Sunda," the synthesizer gives me an octave higher than the normal guitar.

GP – By and large, the guitar synth is in much the same novelty role as the early keyboard synthesizers.

RF – The guitar controller of the synthesizer at the moment has not yet become a unique instrument. A new music to go along with a new instrument hasn't yet appeared. When King Crimson were in Japan, Roland told Adrian Belew that they hadn't expected the synthesizer guitar to be used as we were playing it – which is essentially as a musical instrument. I think they had in mind that fairly poor players would be strumming open E-chords with these wonderful sounds coming out. When we took it seriously and really worked, played with things, they were quite taken aback. This is my understanding of it.

GP – Wen did you begin working with a guitar synthesizer?

RF – In the spring of 1981. I still use the Roland guitar synthesizer. The hexaphonic pickup in on a Tokai Les Paul copy, which has been modified for me by a man in England called Red Lees. He put in a coil-tap and phase-reverse switch for each pickup and a Kahler tremelo arm. So I have a one-and-only unique guitar. The synthesizer side of it is useful but it's very poor for racking. I've heard the Synclavier, and it is very impressive. But it doesn't sound like guitar, which of course is presumably why people use it. So I ask myself why is it that a guitar player bothers to sound like a trumpet and come up with lines that are a bit feeble for a trumpet player, or a sax, and so on. I don't think the guitar synthesizer has reached the point yet where it's become a new instrument. For example, the electric guitar was originally an acoustic guitar that became louder. But because it became louder, it became another instrument. So, Charlie Christian, in a sense, became Les Paul, in a sense, became Jimi Hendrix. At that point, the electric guitar was a different instrument. It has absolutely no relationship with an acoustic metal-strung guitar. It's a different instrument with a different vocabulary, different bodies of technique, different music, a different lifestyle of the person playing it. The synthesizer has not yet reached that level of individuality, though it's on its way.