In my last couple of posts on Frippertronics I’ve shown how Robert Fripp started playing this form of wave-like looping soundscape, and I’ve demonstrated how I tried to copy it for my own enjoyment using various bits of equipment I’d accumulated over the years. That was very much derivative of Fripp’s music. In my own Waveforms I’ve added my own take on it, using a wider range of sounds on the synth. Each piece has a written structure although the notes and textures are different every time.
In this video I’m playing one of my own pieces, The End of the Road. The annotations on the video describe what I’m doing at each stage.
I hope you enjoy it and if you’d like me to post more like this, let me know.
In my last post I described how I approach Frippertronics and ambient looping in general. I also talked about the equipment I use. But how do you approach it in a performance? Even if the performance is just for your own enjoyment? Over and over I’ve seen friends try the equipment and very quickly create the sonic equivalent of mud – a thick and unappealing mess. How do you avoid that?
In this video I build a short Frippertronics loop, using only one guitar sound. That means I’m emulating the original Frippertronics from the late 70s and early 80s. In the next video I’ll show my own development of it, Waveforms, but for now I’m firmly in ‘copy and try to get it right’ mode.
There’s not a lot to look at. If you’re lucky there may be paint drying somewhere – go watch that! But the beauty of this music is when less is more, and when you’re listening to what’s playing before you feed in the next note. So you’ll see me sitting doing nothing a lot.
A few points about what how I do this:
As I described before, I have two pedals looping independently of each other. One decays and fades, the other doesn’t. I start by feeding two notes into both of them. Because they’re independent, they go out of sync quite quickly, creating a feeling of waves and floating right from the beginning.
I then listen for a bit before adding more. When Fripp plays he tends to set a lot more going at the beginning, but he has a better ear for what’s working and strategies to deal with unintended stuff. Plus he loves the ‘pointed stick’ created by something unintentional that keeps coming back at you. I’m less skilled, so more cautious.
I leave only a few notes looping on the Jam Man (the non-decaying loop) to allow space to focus on the more transient stuff.
I feed in a maximum of two consecutive notes at a time. I never play chords.
I give attention to the whole range, from the bottom of the fretboard to the top. Too many notes in the same octave tend to sound muddy.
A figure of two notes, maybe a tone, or a third apart, give a nice movement to the piece when they loop.
Back to being cautious. The only aspect of this where I think I’ve improved over the years is in stopping to listen before I play. Often I’ll kick the decaying loop off ‘record’ to try out a note or figure before kicking it back on to commit it. Call me chicken. At around 4:17 you’ll see where I was glad of that.
After building a loop Fripp would solo over that. I do sometimes but not for public consumption!
I’ve never really articulated my approach to this, it’s just something that’s developed as a result of hearing this type of music in the 80s and really REALLY wanting to play it. If you love it as much as I do, then I hope this article will inspire you to give it a try.
In the next post I’ll demonstrate my Waveforms approach, using the same equipment but not trying to sound like Fripp.
Robert Fripp’s typically mock-academic definition of Frippertronics is
the musical experience resulting at the interstice of Robert Fripp and a small, mobile and appropriate level of technology….
The origin of Frippertronics
The origin of Frippertronics is well documented. Brian Eno introduced Fripp to the recycling delay effect of playing into a set of two tape recorders with the tape running from one to another. The note played returns again and again, slightly decayed each time, as you layer more notes on top, each one returning. The results of their first afternoon’s experimentation became the first Fripp and Eno album No Pussyfooting (1973). Fripp subsequently took the system on the road, playing non-concert venues such as building lobbies and pizzerias where the audience, having not paid money, were free to listen or ignore and Fripp was free to improvise without the audience expectation of hearing the hits of King Crimson. (The origins of the system before Fripp and Eno are recounted here )
Apart from these ‘pure’ Frippertronics performances he used the sound to beautiful effect behind songs like Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood .
… and with a sense of humour in Under Heavy Manners with David Byrne. (“I asked David to sing ‘I am resplendent in divergence’ as he would imagine a country singer would sing those words.”)
Later Fripp developed the system into Soundscapes, using digital loops rather than tapes, and guitar synths to create lush orchestral sounds.
I fell in love with Frippertronics when I first heard it. I was a new guitarist and folkie when I heard No Pussyfooting, so although I loved it, it was a bewildering other world that I couldn’t conceived of playing. In 1979, however when Fripp put out the first ‘pure’ Frippertronics tracks I could hear it being built up from single notes to the enrapturing fadeouts and I began to imagine that given the right technology I might one day be able to play it.
Once I had assembled the equipment, I found my own way to play this style of music but not without months of just trying to sound like the man himself.
This involves playing only single long notes, on one instrument – either the distorted guitar tone, approximating the sound of the original Frippertronics, or a synth tone. A typical improv would involve feeding into the delay or the looper:
Note 1: this becomes the root note of the key of the piece, so for example if the first note is A, the natural tendency is to follow it with other notes in the key of either A or A minor. Of course this doesn’t have to be the case, you could go into any key depending on ..
Note 2: often either the fifth, or the third. A lot of early Frippertronics improvs began with the root followed by a minor third.
Note 3: I usually try to make this something less obvious – a higher octave, a second or a major seventh for example. Or a slide from one note to anotherAt this point I will usually hit the delay off so I leave the three notes looping but can then play other notes, often quite rapidly, layering on top but not recording. Sometimes I just don’t play – I sit and listen to the three looping notes until I have an idea what I feel like adding. It’s this moment that tends to set the emotional feeling of the improv. Adding too much to the loop at this point creates the sonic equivalent of mud, and it’s all going round all the time, so there’s not much to get a purchase on as a listener.
This is just one strategy; of course there are many things you can do while remaining within the spirit of pure Frippertronics. Short notes rather than long give a more playful effect. (The ‘beeping’ in Fripp’s original description of ‘beeping and droning’). Sometimes I pick out a note or couple of notes I like and hit the delay to On, doubling them in a higher or lower octave to emphasise them. It’s a bit like a sculptor trying to feel his way into what shape is hidden in his block.
The operation is much as above except that I’ll use a synth or strings patch at the beginning, only bringing in the distorted guitar tone to emphasise something I’ve heard in the shifting waves of sound. It can be nice to use it to lend a bit of menace to a swirl of strings. I’ve learned in doing this for years to leave as much space as possible, so keeping string notes well apart from each other in time and in pitch, using all the octaves on the guitar and the higher octave the guitar synth gives you by changing the pitch with the pedal. Too many close sounds gives you sonic mud, particularly as the sounds in the GR20 aren’t as good as those Fripp uses. Once I have a pleasing set of waves going, I’ll sometimes improvise over them in a subtle undistorted guitar voice.
This is where I’m using the techniques but not trying to emulate Fripp. I’ve created quite a few structured sequences using many more of the guitar synth voices – marimba, koto, tabla – in a set sequence and key.
So for each I have a written plan that goes, for example:
Set up organ drone in D
Sprinkle some high glockenspiel notes randomly in the loop
Guitar improv in Dm
When organ drone has faded change chord to A or Em, let it cycle
Return organ drone to D
Guitar improv in D major but fed into looper so very few notes
So each time I play it, it follows the sequence but sounds different – the notes, speed of playing, character are all different. It removes the need for decisionmaking about voices and loops and allows me to focus on the musicality of it. I have about eight of these sequences, each one tending to last around 7-8 minutes. Some use the Jamman, with its non-decaying loop, to set up a rhythmic base on something like marimba or tabla. The tracks Jodrell and The Necklace Smile on my Waveforms album are based on two of these structured improvs.
No! Fripp was playing infinite sustain on ordinary guitars for years before Sustainers were invented. He achieved it with a couple of standard pedals, classical vibrato, controlling his proximity to the amp, and – yes – hours and hours of dedicated practice. The Boss Giga Delay, or any single looper that gives you a long, decaying delay, will suffice. So I’d say the minimum kit is:
any electric guitar
long, decaying delay.
And if you don’t want to play it on guitar – play it on my site with my Waveforms Soundtoy!
Following my post about John Martyn I was thinking about where I’d used his guitar style most, and it was probably this Robert Burns song.
I’m using the thumb-slap technique that was the mainstay of Martyn’s acoustic work, the most celebrated example being May You Never. In this song I’ve dropped the E string down to D, and I’m playing with a capo on the second fret so I sing it in E.
Here are the chords in D for the first two sections, which are repeated for the rest:
Ye Banks and braes
O' bonny Doon
How can you bloom
Sae fresh and fair?
How can you chaunt
Ye little birds
And I sae weary
Fu' o' care
Ye'll break my heart
Ye warblin birds
That wanton through
The flowery thorn
Ye mind me o'
Robert Burns and me
I have my parents to thank for my love of Burns, as well as being brought up in the heart of the Burns legend. This song finds the poet, let’s face it, feeling sorry for himself and complaining about why the birds and trees can be happy when he’s been dumped by his girlfriend.
I experienced the same thing as a fourth-year schoolboy on the very same banks of the Doon, pining for a fifth-year girl. So yes, I’ve suffered for my art. (Now it’s your turn, as the saying goes.)
This recording of Ye Banks And Braes
This recording was made in 2013 by Daniel Davis, who added some lovely trumpet.
Here’s a Soundcloud audio link where you can download the free mp3. If you like it, please share it on Facebook, Twitter and whatever means of production you currently occupy.
The video was shot on my phone in 2012, before I learned that you shoot video in landscape not portrait. It’s not the river Doon, but the river Ayr, pretty close by most standards. I grew up very close to the river and it’s a place of childhood wonder for me.
Thumb slap guitar technique
If you’re new to the thumb slap technique here’s the first of a series of tutorials by Gareth Evans. The rest are here.
The guitar had always been part of my fantasy life. I’d first seen it on the One O’Clock Gang, as a suave gentleman with a pencil moustache and a knowing half-smile stroked jazz standards from a large semi-acoustic with f-holes and gleaming dials and pickups, still glamorous through the murky black and white of Scottish Television circa 1958. On my endless daily shopping afternoons with mum and gran, however, I’d linger outside the music shop, in awe at the carefully-lit beauties in the window, polished to perfection, in dizzying colour. What did those dials and switches do?
When I was 9, the Beatles swept into the media followed by their train of ‘beat group’ agitators. Again, guitars were everywhere. I would draw them, play imaginary ones and drool over guitars in catalogues. I don’t recall what level of nagging or pleading persuaded my parents to buy me a guitar, but one day when I was about 14 we went to Thomsons Music Shop and came home with a vinyl case containing what was no more than a shaped plywood box with unforgiving metal wires stretched to the tuning heads from a metal brace at the bottom. I have no photos of it but found its cousin, described on the Guitar Noise website as ‘cheap as chips’. That said, I was in love with it from the first moment, and it was my constant companion for four or five years.
Pretending to play electric
A family friend taught me my first few chords, but his abilities went no further than thumb-strumming Michael Row The Boat Ashore, and I was quickly on the hunt for more demanding fare. I had bought a grey plastic plectrum and discovered that if I plucked or strummed down near the bridge, it had a harsher, more metallic sound and I could imagine it was an electric. (I was, I think, 14. Unbelievably I would be 21 before I first played an electric and 24 before I owned one.)
The scent of my guitar
This cheap guitar was truly a thing of wonder to me. I would gaze at it from all angles, in all lighting conditions. I would pose with it, of course. I would mime guitar solos I hadn’t a hope of even understanding. I even loved the aroma of wood and resin, eyes shut and nose pressed up against the strings by the sound hole. I’d tune and detune the strings, relishing the strange buzzes and moans they made. I’d rub glasses, cups and knives along the strings foreshadowing my later love of bottleneck (I’d no idea there was such a thing).
Hold Down a Chord
But two events powered my learning to actually play it. One was the John Pearse TV series of lessons Hold Down A Chord, which taught me fingerpicking and enabled me to approach Simon and Garfunkel songs like Kathy’s Song and April Come She Will. (Martin Carthy learned guitar from the same series.)
The other was when my three closest friends all acquired guitars and we set to learning together, in ferocious competition and loving co-operation, in a twelve-month burst that drove us from Michael Row The Boat to Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, T. Rex’s Ride A White Swan and Cat Stevens’ Father and Son. We’d spent hours in one’s bedroom then the other’s, sharing chords, inversions, fingerpicking styles and songs. At the end of that year I could call myself a guitarist.
Soon I would attempt to be a singer, then a singer-songwriter.