Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s headliner, had a tone-deaf ear when he started playing at age 11, which has served him well, for he is famous for his cross-picking, with roots in avant-garde jazz and classical veins. He has amassed over 700 releases over 40 years, including contributions on classic progressive rock albums such as David Bowie’s Heroes and Scary Monsters, as well as being on Rolling Stones Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Guitarists of all times. He was a Gibson Les Paul man, especially the ‘57 which had 3 humbucker pickups, built with a ‘deep set neck tenon’ rather than the standard issue. He has collaborated with the cream of the crop: Peter Gabriel, Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Roches, Daryl Hall, Brian Eno, and John Wetton, and we’re just getting started...He was and is a giant among progressive rock artists.
Today at Guitars Exchange we’d like to take a closer look at some of his finest performances and solos.
From Brian Eno’s debut album Here Come the Warm Jets (1973), Fripp lights up Baby’s On Fire with a solo that sizzles to the point of white-hot madness, seemingly going everywhere and nowhere at once. This is a brilliant introduction to Fripp for the unanointed; a glimpse into the mind of this fretboard wizard that will blow your mind as well. Progressive rock wouldn’t have existed without Robert Fripp.
Another wonderful Eno song St. Elmo’s Fire from his album Another Green World, showcases Fripp’s deft touch in a solo that, again will have you shaking your head. He dazzles with top-to-bottom rapid hammer-ons and pull-offs, swooping and holding that epic sustain. Fripp plays a Wimshurst guitar on this track, following Eno’s desire to have the sound even more electric, robot-like static, similar to the Wimshurst machine which throws electrical charges between two poles very quickly and unpredictably. The result is unmistakable Fripp, the slide squawks and peaks over Eno’s lush piano flourishes and acoustic guitar backdrop.
Robert Fripp also made use of a style coined by him, Frippertronics, using ‘tape loops’, where loops of magnetic tape are used to get that ‘soundscape’ feel that are rhythmic, repetitive patterns, often layered sounds to render a dense atmospheric plateau. The perfect example of this can be heard on Frippertronics, The New World, (1979) where he ‘jams’ with a tape recorder, admittedly saying he had no idea what he wanted until he started playing it. It is a masterful class of creative interpretation and delivery “on the proposition of hazard”, he says before the performance. Sounds like these were never heard coming from a guitar before.
King Crimson (KC) was a band before its time. They went places musically that few bands ever dared to venture. A mixture of bizarre and brilliance, ever compelling and mysterious. Check out Fripp’s needlework on guitar and mellotron on KC’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (1973) for a psychedelic carpet ride of sounds and moods. He is joined here with the amazing John Wetton on bass/vocals, Bill Bruford drums & percussion, David Cross on violin/mellotron/electric piano, and Jamie Muir on percussion and what is called “junkyard”, all sorts (of sounds). KC’s debut album In The Court of The Crimson King (1969) contains perhaps one of their most remembered tracks 21st Century Schizoid Man, sung with distorted vocals by Greg Lake, and Fripp describes his solo like this, “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”. Simple right? The atonal solo was charted at #82 on the Top 100 Greatest Guitar Solos by Guitar Magazine in 2008. It has been re-edited several times over the years, but the latest remake features Maynard James Keenan of Tool singing lead vocals.
Experimentation is always on the menu with Fripp and his mad players as heard on the epic ride in Vroom, from their 11th album Thrak (1995), a composition built on a sextet with two rhythm sections, eventually splitting into two trios, one going to the left channel and the other to the right. The result is genius, described in Trouser Press as “an absolute monster, a cerebral sextet adventure stunning in its precisely controlled rock power”.
Out of all the collaborations he was involved with probably his most famous was with David Bowie and Brian Eno on Heroes in 1977. After not having played for a while, he got a phone call from Bowie asking, “Would you be interested in playing some really hairy rock ‘n roll guitar?”, he hesitated and offered, “Well I haven’t really played for three years, but if you’re prepared to take the risk, so will I”. And the rest is legendary; it charted #3 in the U.K. and stayed there for 26 weeks.
We must mention his opus Starless, a live performance from their 2016 release Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind, which is perhaps KC’s most beautiful composition. It clocks in at over 10 minutes of joy with distinct complex time signatures and for being a live recording the sound and video quality is absolutely gorgeous. It begins like a slow ballad then picks up the pace to a tidal build up, into a speedy frantic bridge and back to the initial melody. This is definitive King Crimson at their height.
As a teacher at West Virginia’s American Society for Continuous Education he designed a course called Guitar Craft, where he teaches students new tuning systems and more ergonomically pleasant ways to hold and pick the guitar as well as technique. He recommends his students to get an Ovation 1867 Legend steel-string guitar, because it fit nicely against his body enabling him a better position to use the right arm picking he developed over the years. Now that model is out of circulation, but it influenced the design for the Guitar Craft Pro Model which has been endorsed by Fripp. He also enjoys playing the Fernandes Goldtop Custom that was built for him in Japan in 1995, and the Roland G-808 Guitar Synthesizer for that distorted blend of complexity and ‘Frippian’ sustain.
As mentioned at the top of this article, Robert Fripp is a giant among progressive rock guitarists who has had a profound influence on other outstanding players like Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Trey Anastasio of Phish, Adam Jones of Tool, Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan, Dream Theatre and Mastodon to mention a few. His otherworldly talent has taken him through hard rock, jazz fusion, art rock, new wave and heavy metal...about the only thing he hasn’t touched is country music. But maybe that could be next from this truly amazing artist.