Robert Fripp on Technicality vs. Mastery | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. These interviews will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months.

For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Les Paul, Tom Petty, and Chet Atkins, as well as a deeper look into the recording of Sgt. Pepper's.

I interviewed Robert Fripp in 1991 at the London offices of his record company, EG. He'd been out of the limelight for seven years, since recording King Crimson's Three Of A Perfect Pair in 1984 and thereafter running seminars for Guitar Craft.

Now he was, as he put it, "returning to public life" with an album by Sunday All Over The World and another by The League Of Crafty Guitarists. We talked mostly about guitars, about his non-standard tuning, and about learning to play.

Are you a collector, Robert?

I'm not a guitar collector, and my view is if you don't use a guitar, you pass it on. In America, I have a Les Paul and a Roland synthesizer guitar, which are there in New York so I can fly in and play. And in England I have my very first Les Paul, plus a spare.

The original Les Paul is at the moment being re-fretted and being brought up to date by Ted Lee, in the north of England, a very, very good guitar repairer. I use a Tokai Les Paul, an exceptionally good instrument. Eric Dixon, who brought it into the country originally, imported a lot of their Fender copies, but he didn't like the Les Pauls, and this was the only one he found that he felt satisfied with selling. On that there's a Kahler tremolo arm and a Roland synthesizer pickup attached, because Ted Lee resolutely refuses to do that kind of work to a classic guitar.

So you have that limitation with the classic Les Pauls: You're not going to put a tremolo arm on there, you're not going to use a synth pickup. My personal feeling is that I'd do the work, because even a classic guitar, as I'm not a collector, is an instrument of work, and I would do the modification. But Ted refuses, so there you go.

Robert Fripp (1974). Photo by: Steve Morley. Getty Images.

When did you get the original, your '59 Gibson Les Paul Custom?

I think it was November 1968. I bought it on Shaftesbury Avenue [central London]. There it was in the window, 400 quid. I thought I was going to get a Fender Strat, but there it was. And the salesman was pretty loathsome. He said, "All I have to do is phone Eric Clapton and he'll buy it." And I thought, Then why haven't you phoned Eric Clapton and why hasn't he bought it?

1959 Gibson
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We'd gone shopping. We [King Crimson] had been given a loan in cash from Angus Hunking—the uncle of Ian McDonald, a lovely man, an industrialist—who made a loan to the band so that we could get going. I had a briefcase with cash in it, a very large sum of cash, so we could go and buy all our equipment. We went in, and there it was, and I said, "What discount would you give me for cash?" And he said no discount, and gave me the Eric Clapton line.

I think what I did was to open the briefcase and show him the money. Actually, I think it was the shop manager I showed it to. So I got it for £375 and walked out with it. It remains to this day the finest Les Paul I've ever played, and I've played a few.

Then we went down the road and bought some Marshall amps. I walked in, and we wanted two bass stacks—I used a bass stack as well—and the money on that was a bit more serious. I said to the manager of the shop, "What discount will you give for cash?" Opened the briefcase, said, "This is so that you know I'm talking seriously." And so we did the deal, the deal was agreed, and we had the guitar equipment we needed.

King Crimson - "Easy Money," live 6/25/1973

The briefcase-full-of-money is a good method, though not always available.

Very rarely. I also have my very first good guitar, a Gibson stereo 345, which I've had since 1963. Superb instrument, bought new at Eddie Moors Music in Bournemouth. I was teaching for the music shop, giving guitar lessons, and that helped me pay off for it. I have a Gibson tenor guitar with a damaged headstock, and my guitar teacher Don Strike put on a new peghead. I don't play it, but it's a small piece of beauty.

I have a Fender Stratocaster that was given to me by Robin Trower, a beautiful instrument and a very generous gift. Robin gave it to me at the Reading Festival in 1975, because I'd always been a Gibson player. He said, "Have you ever thought about playing a Strat?" I said, "Well, I've never found one that I really liked." So he said to try this one—I tried it, and said that's nice, and he said to the roadie, "Bring me the flightcase!" And he's right, it's a superb instrument.

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Do you endorse any instruments? The Ovations you use now with the League Of Crafties, for example.

No, I use them. I don't endorse, but I use. Kaman [then owner of Ovation] did an advert for Adamas strings and said they'd like a few words, and what I said was I don't endorse Kaman strings, I use them.

Which is in itself an endorsement.

Yes, that's right. Here's a character who doesn't get paid for doing it, he uses it. I've just done an official endorsement for Trace Elliot, and my endorsement is the same: I don't endorse Trace Elliot, I use them.

People are suspicious of endorsements.

Yes, and quite rightly. I've just been approached by a firm in America—not to name them. Would I like to use, endorse, and so on, and I don't currently use their equipment. So the answer is, "Do you have anything I might be able to use?" I'm discovering the new range of technology with an open mind, so maybe they have something.

So no, I do not endorse, but if I use something, that's a sufficient endorsement for me. And Trace Elliot is such a superb amplifier I am proud to be associated with it. They're very helpful to the player; they've been very good to me. For the musician to have that kind of backup from the factory is invaluable. Ovation have also been very good in terms of backup.

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If you were starting out now, would you still go for a Les Paul?

I would probably begin now on a Strat. Actually, if I were beginning now [speaking in 1991] I'd probably begin on a Chapman Stick. If I were starting on a Fender, it would probably be with speed metal.

How about speed metal on a Stick?

Well, no. Speed metal—I would probably go to the seven-string guitar.

The Steve Vai thing?

Yes. Although my own solution to that problem was this new tuning. [Fripp's New Standard Tuning, which he still uses.] On the bottom string it's C, two tones below E. On the fifth string it's G, a tone below A. The fourth string is D, the same. The third string is A, up a tone. The second string is E, up a fourth. And the top string is a G, up a minor third. So it's C–G–D–A–E–G, a C pentatonic major tuning.

Do you use that all the time?


How long have you been using that?

Since one week before the first Guitar Craft course, when I figured, hey, I best figure out what's going on with this tuning. That would be March 1985.

Learn to play Robert Fripp's New Standard Tuning

Was that for its own sake, almost to put people attending the course on their guard? It seems an odd thing to do.

It's difficult when examining any creative leap or insight to approach it rationally. You say, "Well, why did you do that?" The answer is I didn't do it. It presented itself, it occurred, and any flash of that, suddenly you know that's what it is. Books have been written on the creative process, and any kind of creative insight, whether it be a piece of music or a solo, or the solution to a problem, scientific, technical, artistic, whatever, there's always this element of [claps hands].

It's always in a flash. It's a recognition that goes with it that one knows this is right, that that's what it is. And that it comes from outside oneself. But to begin with is generally a sense of questioning or dissatisfaction with the current situation. If you can identify a problem, and define it, you're half way to finding the solution.

How did this one present itself?

For me, there was a dissatisfaction with E–A–D–G–B–E. Without making a big fuss about it, I was considering—lightly and gently—alternatives. For example, there's a book I was given about tuning the guitar in fourths, so it went E–A–D–G–C–F. But that didn't convince me. You see, that was a cerebral approach to a problem. It didn't have that kind of strength of Yes! this is a solution.

So I was lying sweating in the sauna at the Apple health spa in New York. One morning in September 1983, about half past ten in the morning, this tuning flew by from right to left over my head. At the time I thought, What is this for? A few days later, I went to Illinois, to see Adrian Belew, where we were writing and working on the next King Crimson album [Three Of A Perfect Pair], and I used the tuning, but without persevering. This wasn't what it was for.

Then a little later, when King Crimson had retired from active duty, having honored its three-year commitment, I was in retreat. And while in retreat at this educational facility in West Virginia [the American Society for Continuous Education], the seminar committee asked me to give a guitar seminar. I said, "No!" I said that I'd been giving guitar lessons since I was 13, and I had no wish to give any more. And then a little while later, I was asked by the same committee once again to give a guitar seminar. And this time, the tuning came to mind, and there was this click of Yes, that's what the tuning is for, it's connected with this guitar seminar.

Why did you think that?

Artistic reasoning, if you want to use that expression, is not rational, and probably only in our culture would we try to apply rationality to an artistic process. So although I'm capable of rational thought, when it comes to musical insight, I'm very happy to be utterly irrational. And if there is this recognition—yes, that's right—I go with it. The rational equipment will come behind and will perhaps explain to me why this was the right decision. So when you say, "Was this to do this or that," I would say, "Yes, and yes, and that too"—but that isn't why.

So you could say that if you have guitarists coming to a guitar seminar for the first time—and one person has been playing for 20 years and is a professional guitar teacher and one has never played a guitar ever before—they will both be at the same point. There will be an equality. I could also say that this tuning makes it impossible to play any established riffs or licks—unless you set yourself to play them, and then you'd have to say, I am playing this riff because I wish to play this riff, not because it's my hand acting with a direction. It's not automatic.

Isn't it rather unfair on the new player coming to you? You're giving them a system of tuning that maybe only you use. If they learned to play somewhere else, they would use a system that's used very widely.

Well, three to five days later, they can do that. If someone comes to me and says I wish to come on this Guitar Craft course, then I assume they are coming to me for the best advice I can give them, based on 33 and a quarter years of experience. And the best advice I can give them in terms of tuning is to adopt this, at least for the duration of the course.

You don't give them any instruction in regular tuning?

That's right. The question then comes up, for example, "I play bop, and I find it very hard to play bop with this tuning, what should I do?" And I say that if you wish to play old music, you have an old tuning to play it on; if you wish to play new music, you have an opportunity. There's also something within the formal structure of the tuning which is organic and vital, but I only discovered that later. Being a rational character after the event, I could figure it out for myself.

I can give you technical information on the tuning and formal properties, which your readers may or may not like, but it's this: If you look at form, you have natural or unnatural form. If you look at natural form, you can have form which is generated arithmetically or geometrically. Arithmetic form is even: two, four, eight, 16—the mathematics of it are natural, you'll find the mathematics reflected in crystalline structures, inert natural forms. The geometric progression—one to one, one to two, two to three, three to five, five to eight, eight to 13, and so no, the Fibonacci series—is the characteristic formal property of organic or living form. So within natural form you have organic and inorganic form.

In the pentatonic scale, the mathematics are derived from the Fibonacci series, and if you were looking at it in that sense, this tuning is organic—that is, it is vital. Another application would be rhythmically. You can apply it vertically in terms of harmony, and horizontally in terms of rhythm and melody. From a musical point of view, if you wish to create the impression of stability, you'd use an even meter: twos, fours, and so on. If, however, you wanted something to be vital, to keep you on the edge of your seat, you might use a five.

The Robert Fripp String Quintet, Live in Japan

Isn't that because it's a contrast to what you're used to hearing?

No, it's intrinsic. If you lived in Bulgaria, it'd be surprising to hear something in four. So for the working musician you would inevitably work with dealing with the expectations of the audience. The experienced musicians would do that, but nevertheless the sense of vitality and being on the edge is an intrinsic property of that form.

So, formally, you have "natural"—and it can be inorganic or stable, organic or vital—and the mathematics of this tuning are organic and vital. If you looked at unnatural form, you would have any form which you thought was a good idea to use at the time, and you come up with a whole series of rules for creating music.

Like serialism [he says this with some distaste] where you say that the properties of consonance—pleasing to the ear—and dissonance—the opposite—for the purposes of this music we will say are equal, and press on. But consonance and dissonance are utterly different, and the fact that you decide to make it a rule for your music that they are going to be considered the same doesn't mean they are the same.

Now, you'll also find, even within serialism, that the natural innate tendencies and properties of gifted musicians are such that music will out, despite the rules you use. Hooray! Nevertheless, we're now back to the fact that as a system of music, serialism generally can be said to have failed, even though many superb and outstanding musicians, Schoenberg among them, have used it. Why? Because by and large people don't listen to it, because they don't like it. So something's wrong.

My answer to it would be that in the formal properties of the music, there's something which is unnatural, it's alien to our nature. But that's a digression. The formal properties of this tuning are that it is natural and organic. That's only a rationalization after the event.

Do your students generally react favorably to the new tuning?

The accurate answer would have to be that you'll have to ask them. But generally, the players who stay within Guitar Craft adopt the tuning completely. Some of them, working musicians, have two guitars, one for playing the repertoire of Chuck Berry licks and so on, if they're working in a cover band or whatever the job may be, and one in the Guitar Craft tuning, for new music and evolving music.

I can't myself play in the two systems—I've gone to the new tuning. The last time I did a session where I turned up and I couldn't use this tuning was very much in the early days. It was in 1985, right at the beginning, in the spring. I'd only been working with the tuning for a month or two, and I was asked to play on a Scott Walker album that Eno was producing [the album was not completed]. I went to Phil Manzanera's studio to do this, and I was given these written chords, very complex chords. It was too soon for me to be able to figure out these chords with this tuning on their time. So for that one I had to acknowledge I couldn't play that in the new tuning, and I went back to the old one.

However, not long afterwards, David Sylvian called me for Gone To Earth [released in 1986]. I was a little more familiar with it, but I had no parts to read as such, no really dense extended chords that would make the eyes boggle, let alone the hands. So, nevertheless, I opted to brave it out, and there's nothing like exposure to public ridicule to galvanize the attention. So I'm afraid David had to duck a little in the studio as one or two bold notes flew by. But that was really the no-turning-back point. Though I'm not what I would understand as fluent in the tuning—I'm still learning the tuning.

I'd been playing the guitar 27 years before this, and I said to one of the students "I'm too old to play in this new tuning." They didn't quite understand what I was saying, that after 27 years there was a familiarity with this tuning that I will never reach. If I had begun with this at 11, I would have known more about it at 15 than I know at 45, now. It may be that in 25 years' time I have the kind of familiarity that I would have had at 18.

Don't you find there are times when your mind wanders back to the old tuning and shapes?

It's not in the mind, it's in the hands. But not really. I still have to work with it, though—I can't coast with it. And that's an advantage: I may be thinking musically, but my hand has to follow the promptings of the musical thought rather than letting my fingers go. Professional working musicians generally can't allow themselves that luxury.

For example, a good orator will be able to stand and speak for any subject for one minute without pause or hesitation, as we know well: That's because most of the language is automatic. And a musician has to be able to play without thinking about what they're playing. It must be done. So you have the musical thought, and it's immediately translated into action. I don't have that. I'm still having to put more attention than I would like into expressing the musical idea. As we've said, there is an advantage to that, but it's also a limitation.

Certainly I've seen people performing with a quite extraordinary disregard for what they're playing, but whether that's an advantage or not I don't know.

Well, one has to be able to act as a perfectly trained mechanical instrument, but not on that level. In other words, this perfectly trained musical instrument, which we might call a musician, has to be available to the direction of the music. If all it is is a machine whirring, ticking over, it hasn't got a value. We have to reach that point but not be stuck within it.

Who were you listening to when you started to learn to play?

On my 11th birthday, my sister and I went out and we bought two records. Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" backed with "Don't Be Cruel" and Tommy Steele's "Singing The Blues" backed with "Rebel Rock." Presley had Scotty Moore. I discovered much later who the guitarist was on the Tommy Steele track, but I'm not going to put his name on it. I knew even at 11 that the whole Presley thing and Scotty Moore was real, it was alive, it had it, but the guitarist on the Tommy Steele didn't.

Then came Jerry Lee Lewis, "Great Balls Of Fire," that pounding piano, Little Richard, this power, eruption, in Afro-American music. I was too young to know what was going on, too young to know that rock 'n' roll was a euphemism for an act of which I had no knowledge whatsoever. But there was a vitality and power in this that brought me to life. There was definitely something that the American guitarists had that the English guitarists did not. The whole musical scene.

Then there was a remarkable record that was idiosyncratically English, by The Shadows, "Apache," a phenomenal record. Hank Marvin had a tremendous influence on British guitarists. I wasn't quite among them. I didn't want to sound like Hank, any more than in 1967 or 1968 I wanted to sound like Eric Clapton.

While recognizing the power of these players and being influenced by it, the influence it had on me was different to those young guitarists around me. Some players listened to Chet Atkins and were influenced by him—he wasn't an influence on me. American country playing, although I am not one to denigrate country-and-western music—[for me] it was the power of Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun Records.

There's country in those, of course. It's the melting pot of early American styles that makes them so interesting.

Yes, and what came out of that melting pot was not what went into it, and something in that music spoke to me. When I was 13, there was something in traditional jazz that began to speak to me, and then at 15 there was something in modern jazz, in Parker, that had the energy, but the vocabulary was different. But there was something very similar in Parker and Presley, although it was utterly different. And there was something going on in the Firebird Suite.

But the next really big thing that happened was The Beatles. Each generation discovers itself and its music in the players of the period. Playing in a cover band in 1966, I knew that what Hank and The Shadows were now doing did not have the conviction of "Apache." You knew with "Apache" that that was what and who they were. You knew when they got to "Kon-Tiki" that someone had said, "Here's a tune, lads, why don't you learn it?" Then, when The Beatles appeared, the conviction had returned. And once again I didn't want to sound like George Harrison, but there was a power in the group that went beyond the players.

Driving home from my job at the Majestic Hotel [in Bournemouth] in the Majestic Dance Orchestra, I got in and put on my radio, and this music coming out was unbelievable. It was The Beatles' Sgt Pepper, it came on somewhere in the second side, no announcements, and it kept going. It finished with this incredible wind-up and a long piano chord. I had no idea what was going on, other than that it terrified me. There was a power in this music which—I wouldn't use the words then, but I'd use them now—there was a power in this music which made me challenge and question all my assumptions. My life was not the same again.

Influential albums to Fripp in the '60s.

1967 was a good year for music.

There was suddenly this whole eruption of music. The opening bars of "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady"—for me it wasn't "Hey Joe"—what on earth was happening? And then Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring, where exactly the same thing was happening, exactly that crashing E over E-flat. What are they doing here? Here was Hendrix and The Beatles by another word, the same music, the same power that had to come out of these young people.

Then my listening extended, and for this period it was as if music were speaking in the same voice through different people. That was my experience of it. I'd been playing the guitar for 10 years, then, and I had been a dutiful son. I'd been brought up to take over my father's small estate-agency [real estate] firm in Wimborne, and I was at college studying to go on to the college of estate management in south Kensington, London, and take a degree in estate management, and then returning home at age 24 I'd take over my father's firm.

I had my digs set up in Acton [in west London], I'd done the interview, been accepted, got my grades, and in between going to college I was paying my way and saving up by playing at the Majestic. Until Sgt Pepper and "Purple Haze" and The Rite Of Spring and the Bartók string quartets. I had this choice, and it was no choice. I had to give my life to music. I had to go that way. So I said to my father, "I'm going to go into music until I go to college," and I formed this terrible little band with a couple of local musicians, called Cremation. Terrible band, only did Hendrix and Cream covers and so on, three-piece, awful.

The Mayall Blues Breakers album was another record, "All My Love," ahhh, the power of Clapton at that point. So you have Hendrix Are You Experienced, Clapton–Mayall Blues Breakers, the Bartók string quartets, and The Rite Of Spring. That's your package. My father, when I told him, he knew I'd never go back. And in my six months "getting ready for college," the decision was made roughly around my 21st birthday to become a professional musician, because I had no alternative at that point but to give my life to this.

For me, the spirit inside the music is always the same. If that gets you going, then you learn the language in which it is being spoken. So if you really wish to play rock 'n' roll, then you have to go and live in America. You can't learn rock 'n' roll in Europe. You can get closer in Britain than you can in [mainland] Europe; European drummers play it differently. It's not saying that it's invalid, it's saying that it's a different dialect. If you want to go to the source, you have to go to America. Like Tex-Mex. If you want to find out about Buddy Holly, you've got to go to Texas, you've got to go down there. Listening to Doug Sahm in a bar in Houston while drinking a Mexican beer, you know Tex-Mex. Seeing Doug Sahm playing in the Lone Star Cafe in New York while drinking a Heineken is different.

There's a feeling among some British players that American guitarists over the last 10 years or so have amassed great technical powers on the instrument but have not developed so much in what they're saying. Do you think that's true?

Of some. I've been out of public life for seven years, Tony. I left public life in the middle of 1984, and I'm returning to it now, seven years later. My concerns have been, other really than my own playing for the past seven years, within Guitar Craft. So I can now take a fresh view on what's really happened in seven years. Very interesting technological changes, and also in the technical attitudes of the players, and GIT [the Guitar Institute of Technology], I think, has a lot to do with this.

In 1967, if you had said, "I'm playing in the Dorian mode," the response would have been, "You're a pseud" or "Who do you think you are? Dorian mode?" There is an anti-intellectualism in Britain. There is also still the cult of the amateur. There is also a prejudice against professionalism. And there is also the value placed on individualism. That's not without making any value judgements. In my life as a working musician in Britain, I never knew a British guitarist with a good technique—and some were great musicians and some weren't.

In terms of the developed technical capacity of American guitar players—and we could all put a few names on that—some of them are great musicians and some aren't. Do I consider the advance in overall technical standards to be worthwhile? Well, it hasn't affected the musicianship or the musicality, but there is a greater capacity. I would say that the potential in that is exciting, but unless the musicality is developed, then it's still going to be as useless, whether you can play or not.

The interesting thing is to address the "why" in music. For instance, you now have books telling you all these modes. It was an exciting thing to have three or four modes in a guitar magazine in 1970. Here's a mode. Wow! Well, I would say, OK, here's the 120 modes I can use. Why should I use this mode as opposed to that one, for what reason? I know why I might play in a blues scale. Why should I play in a Mixolydian? Why should I play in this symmetric scale? Why should I play in this second mode of the modified Hungarian Gypsy mode? Why should I do this?

It's not enough to give people this dictionary of all these things you can do in your capacity. Something else is required as well. Look at athletes who build up their muscles using steroids. The capacity is extended, but for what reason? Throughout the culture overall, there seems to be this concentration on the development of capacity, without addressing to a balanced degree the "why" of it.

The pumping up of the physique may have an intrinsic aesthetic. I can accept that argument. I would also say, quite apart from the aesthetics of the rippling muscles, that muscles have a functional aspect. To what use are they put? If you had a heavyweight boxer with developed musculature, he'd never land one on a t'ai chi master, who wouldn't have developed musculature, nor anything like. But the t'ai chi master would be there, and you would know that the t'ai chi master was there.

Now that's, if you like, the two extremes. Both have capacity in their field. One is externally directed more, the other is internally directed more. The advantage, I think, of having extended capacity is that if you are able to play 10,000 notes and you just play one, there is an authority in the 9,999 notes you're not using, because this is the right note.

"They're still looking for their note. I have found mine.

There's an old joke about the Turkish musician who's playing one note all the time on his oud, and all these other characters are ripping off the equivalent of Al Hotlicks. So a few members of the audience come up to the master who's playing his one note slowly on the oud, and say, "Well why are you only playing this one note, look at all these other great players." And he says, "They're still looking for their note. I have found mine."

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Les Paul Guitar Book, London Live, and Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at

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