Robert Fripp’s Rules of Order

A review of The Guitar Circle book I wrote for The Wire

Few if any had “Robert Fripp becomes an internet romantic icon” on their pandemic bingo card. And yet the guitarist — as much known for his work with David Bowie and Brian Eno as for his prog-rock reign, since 1968, in the band King Crimson — spent much of the past two or more years with his wife Toyah Willcox entertaining the locked down, the self-quarantined, and the remote-working. The frisky duo’s popular YouTube videos feature humorous cover versions, barely covered nipples, and enough costumes to fill a stately British home.

Fripp apparently also spent a chunk of the unexpected break from touring by collating his voluminous past writing on the topic of guitar instruction. A new tome, the 561-page The Guitar Circle, serves to balance his recently acquired goofy public persona with a heady dose of artistic philosophy. Out with the new, in with the old?

This is a photo of the hardcover edition of The Guitar Circle, the book written by guitarist Robert Fripp
Bible Black: Robert Fripp’s 561-page tome about what he’s learned from teaching guitar

The book is neither tutorial nor autobiography. Don’t pick it up if you’re looking for sheet music or tour anecdotes. It is, instead, largely pre-existing material providing a mosaic account of Fripp’s perspective on music instruction. There are speeches, and entries from his ongoing diary, and documents once created to orient attendees of the courses, originally named Guitar Craft, that he developed. (Guitar Circle was a subsequent rebranding. That the book doesn’t take a moment, at the start, to spell out Fripp’s decades of music instruction says something about its assumed audience.) Leavening patrician prickliness with whimsical self-effacement, he even includes a chapter of letters he wrote to disgruntled students, whom he charitably leaves anonymous.

And there are lists, of which Fripp seems quite fond. He delineates “Four Qualities of Refusal,” “Six Strategies of Practicing,” and “Nine Stages of Approaching Silence.” The book’s sole illustration is a list in visual form: a “Tetrad of the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists.” His favorite number appears to be seven. There are “Seven Assumptions for Work in the Circle,” “Seven Lies of the Devil,” “Seven Views of Charisma,” and “Seven Affirmations.”

The most cited list here is so natural to Fripp that he often leaves it nameless. He simply and repeatedly — a dozen or so times — refers to “head, hand, and heart” as the three “instruments” of a musician. This is the book’s crux: musicians — and by extension all practitioners of a craft — must attend to their intellect and emotions as much as to their skills. (We know Fripp’s a romantic from his amorous videos with Willcox, but it’s still notable how prominent a role “love” plays in The Guitar Circle. The word appears almost as often as “discipline.”) The innumerable entries can be summarized as follows: practice, and if you don’t want to practice, sit with yourself for a while and then practice.

The book, a veritable mountain of aphorisms, evidences the discipline — that quintessential Fripp word — of someone who doesn’t merely record his thoughts but who scrutinizes and refines them. (Artists and bloggers alike should read him on the benefits of keeping a diary in public. “Maintaining a diary,” he writes, “is itself a process, of engagement with oneself.”) What it doesn’t evidence is editorial discipline: as in music composition, context and economy would have given his theoretical riffs meaningful structure. The Guitar Circle is best read as it was written: over an extended period of time, a bit at a time.

(My article first appeared, in ever so slightly different form, in the November 2022 issue of The Wire.)

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