Notes On A Guitarist’s Tone

This week, Spotify’s algorithm sent some unusual music my way. The track was Robert Fripp’s “Music for Quiet Moments 28—Time Stands Still” from a recorded concert in 2006. Fripp is the founder of King Crimson, and also a legendary guitarist. Since the early 1970s he has developed various looping systems—from reel to to reel tape machines to digital set ups—that multiply and mutate his guitar into vast soundscapes. 

Years ago I saw Fripp perform a solo concert at the Winter Garden Atrium in New York City, where his soundscapes filled the cavernous space with unresolved tones. At one point in the concert, Fripp left the stage, while the loops kept cycling around on their own. I don’t know if he was making a point about music or the spectacle of performing, but the concert was just as enjoyable looking at an empty stage. After the show, Fripp walked out into the audience and handed out Fig Newtons. “Fig Newton? Fig Newton? he kept saying, as he walked around handing out treats and the crowd parted, puzzled and not quite sure what was going on.

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Fripp’s solo performances, with their digital looping of long guitar tones, don’t quite sound like guitar: they sound synthetic. But it’s the soloing on top that sounds human, which brings me to the subject of this blog post: tone. A minute into “Music for Quiet Moments 28”—at exactly 1:09—you hear, above the looping long guitar tones, a simple and compact melody. A semi tone up, then two more tones, then a slide back down, a dip below, and back up…The phrase takes just a few seconds, and then Fripp explores a few more lines, and is done in 52 seconds. Less is more. For me, the playing articulates a glorious tone: it’s a plain electric guitar, yet the sound is pristine, singular, recognizably Frippian, and most importantly, it sings. You hear similar melodies emerge again later in the performance, at 3:57 and 6:05, each time cutting the same kind of understated shape against the long loops.

“Music for Quiet Moments 28” isn’t especially easy listening, either timbrally or structurally—it asks something of you—but you’re rewarded with an unusual sonic world whose function doesn’t easily align with ambient music’s conventional purposes. (Fripp calls the music an “ambient instrumental soundscape.”) Whatever the music is for, it’s the tone of its three brief guitar solos that have me thinking about how it is that musicians come by their sound and how they chose to express it. 

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