Gibson JUNE 3, 2011 - by Ted Drozdowski


Robert Fripp's name may not be a household word - unless your household rocks to the sound of prog, ambient and psychedelic music. In those arenas, the trailblazing guitarist from the English village of Dorset, who just turned sixty-five on May 16, is an icon.

Fripp has been an innovator since 1966 when he co-formed the group Giles, Giles And Fripp with drummer Michael Giles and his bassist brother Peter. The band's sole released album, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp, has a sense of overt whimsy often missing from the music of King Crimson and other Fripp ensembles, yet evident in the guitarist's writings and conversation.

While Fripp sometimes denies that he is the leader of King Crimson and has labeled himself their rhythm guitarist, he is the band's sole constant since its inception in 1968 and the release a year later of the group's debut In The Court Of The Crimson King, a foundational work in the prog-rock world. Taking cues from classic music and jazz, and exploring his own ideas about textural sonics, the album craftily unreels: from the grind of 21st Century Schizoid Man, with Fripp shaking ferocious leads from his Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty, to the balladry of I Talk To The Wind, a showcase for the vocals of pre-ELP Greg Lake, to the three-part title track suite, which embraces pastoral melodies and maniacal improvisations.

The band, with its carousel of personnel save for Fripp, went on hiatus from 1974 to 1981, returning in its most popular incarnation with fellow creative six-string firebrand Adrian Below also on guitar, the estimable Tony Levin on bass and drummer Bill Bruford rejoining Fripp's fold. That lineup's first three studio albums are essential listening for those interested in hearing rock arrangements for a basic four-piece ensemble writ large, and to get a grip on the rhythmic and harmonic verities of Fripp's self-proclaimed "new standard tuning": C-G-D-A-E-G. Fripp has used this tuning exclusively since 1984.

Although King Crimson continue to conjure up inspiring music, Fripp has kept a variety of side projects alive along the way and has played on sessions for other daring musicians including David Sylvian and, most notably, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. Fripp's playing on Bowie's classic "Heroes" helped take textural guitar to the mainstream in 1977.

Recording that influential album, which moved John Lennon to proclaim that his ambition was to "do something as good as "Heroes"," was also part of Fripp's ongoing partnership with the producer and sonic experimenter Brian Eno.

With Eno, Fripp was on the ground floor of ambient music right on the heels of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Using a system involving two tape recorders that he dubbed "Frippertronics," Fripp was able to create primitive loops for his effected guitar on 1973's No Pussyfooting and 1975's Evening Star collaborations with Eno. Rarely has a duo created such soaring, majestic and creative music. Their discs and Eno's many other ambient recording offer much with close listening, but smooth out the crannies of environmental and personal stress with passive airing, giving them curative power.

Fripp has appeared on more than seven hundred recordings, including his solo albums, which range from 1979's song-oriented Exposure (with guest turns from Peter Gabriel, Darryl Hall and others) to his latest live solo soundscapes, guest turns and collaborative recordings.

Early on, Fripp was a staunch proponent of the Gibson Les Paul Custom. His original King Crimson guitars were a pair of Black Beauties from 1957 and '59, with the '57 specially wired with a pot for the middle pickup's volume. After going through a variety of guitars in the past decades - in search for the ideal six-string synth controller - he's come back to a custom model with a Les Paul body shape, albeit built entirely as one piece, not with a set-in Gibson style neck.

Early on Fripp became a wizard at cross picking, a rolling syncopated method of striking the strings that he has elevated to a blazing level of virtuosity. It is no exaggeration to call his guitar playing consistently stunning, which is why he has been part of several of Joe Satriani's "G-3" tours. Every canny guitarist has an admiration for Fripp at some level, even if they find his music too challenging, experimental or abstract.

To get a nearly complete grip on Fripp, listen to these ten albums:

10 KING CRIMSON In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)

The debut recording of one of prog rock's most entrancing and inventive ensembles. With his playing on 21st Century Schizoid Man and the sweeping Epitaph, Fripp established himself as a player's player, with great range, power and subtlety.

9 FRIPP & ENO No Pussyfooting (1973)

This disc took ambient music out of the classical realm and into the pop-music lexicon. Fripp's loops, obsessive riffing and exploratory tones remain entrancing.

8 DAVID BOWIE "Heroes" (1977)

Fripp's playing on this album helped widen the doors of rock, paving the way for the eventual rise of groups like U2 and Radiohead.

7 ROBERT FRIPP Exposure (1979)

Punk, ambient and soul music all find a home on Fripp's solo debut, a snapshot of his post-Crimson move to New York at a time when the sounds of Manhattan were changing the musical world.

6 THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN The League Of Gentlemen (1981)

Fripp's excursion into the world of dance music was as quirky and inventive as any of his more elaborate work - and a precursor to his return to King Crimson.

5 KING CRIMSON Discipline (1981)

A fantastic recording, blending the sonic imaginings of Fripp and Belew, the superior rhythm section of Levin and Bruford, and Belew's marvelous pop sensibility. This album is considered by many to be the apex of King Crimson's recording history.

4 ANDY SUMMERS & ROBERT FRIPP I Advance Masked (1982)

An instrumental meeting of textural titans that proves there's more than one way to skin a rock song.

3 KING CRIMSON Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984)

The final installment of the returned Crimson's debut trilogy. Lush, lovely and tinged with a sense of longing, this may be Crimson and Fripp's most overtly emotional recording.

2 DAVID SYLVIAN Gone To Earth (1986)

Fripp turns in brilliant performances as a studio sideman on Sylvian's most expansive solo recording. Fripp also teamed with Be-Bop Deluxe guitar hero Bill Nelson on two tracks.

1 KING CRIMSON Thrak (1995)

Crimson continues today, but this is the band's most recent commercial success - an eye opener to a more hard-edged approach that echoes back to the 1974 album Red, which closed the chapter on Crimson's early years.