1974 – 2021: 47 years after Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos on #neuguitars #blog
AAJ: In common with a great many musicians it’s apparent that you haven’t just arrived at a musical reference point and stuck with it. As a multi-instrumentalist, that maxim might be said to be more pronounced but how did you arrive at your vocabulary on the guitar?
FF: I don’t think I’ve arrived anywhere yet. I’m still traveling. I use whatever vocabulary is most suited to the conversation I’m having, and I’m certainly not interested in having the same conversation over and over again. Which means that the resources at my disposal are always (hopefully) continuing to develop and evolve, as the need arises. When you learn a language you can only become fluent by discovering who you are in that language. Music is the same for me. I have to learn who I am in whatever context I’m working.
Intervista All About Jazz Fred Frith: Mapping the Further Reaches by Published: May 3, 2010
Here we are in front of one of the tutelary deities of the contemporary guitar and one of the most important records regarding the improvised guitar. Professor Fred Frith, guitarist, composer, songwriter and great improviser, endowed with a unique guitar technique, can, after 47 years, be satisfied with his work which has contributed greatly to redefine the possible uses and abuses of the guitar. What I’m listening to, and you see in the photos, is one of the reissues (Fred Records 2002) on cd of the vinyl originally released by Caroline Records in October 1974. It’s been a long time and I think it’s good to do some history and clarity on the subject. Guitar Solos is Frith’s debut solo album. It was recorded while Frith was still a member of the British experimental rock group Henry Cow and includes eight tracks of unaccompanied and improvised music played on Frith-prepared guitars, without overdubs. At the time the album had received good feedback from music critics:
– In a review on NME in November 1974, Charles Shaar Murray described it as “a totally revolutionary album” and “an undeniable landmark in the history of rock guitar” [Murray, Charles Shaar (30 November 1974). “Review: Guitar Solos”. New Musical Express. ISSN 0028-6362. ]
– AllMusic’s Sean Westergaard defined Guitar Solos as a reference album for his innovative and experimental approach to guitar, writing“Don’t expect any kind of Yngwie Malmsteen-style wankage; Frith instead uses a volume pedal, tapping, and other extended techniques to produce everything from chiming, bell-like notes to unearthly howls. It almost never sounds like standard guitar-with-plectrum playing, but the pieces have a logic (and beauty, in some cases) all their own. This is free improvised, challenging, avant-garde music, but that doesn’t mean it’s unapproachable. Guitar Solos’ lasting legacy is that it radically redefined the way some people think about the guitar.” Guitar Solos – Fred Frith | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic
– In the January 1983 issue of DownBeat magazine, Bill Milkowski wrote that, on Guitar Solo, Frith unveiled a disturbing collection of improvised music on prepared guitar that must have stunned listeners of the day. Milkowski, Bill (1983). “The Frith Factor: Exploration in Sound”. DownBeat. Vol. 50 no. 1. Chicago: Maher Publications. pp. 22–25, 61. ISSN 0012-5768.
Guitar Solos is still considered a point of reference due to its absolutely innovative and experimental approach. He followed up with two more albums: Guitar Solos 2 (1976) and Guitar Solos 3 (1979) and also attracted the attention of Brian Eno, “He’d heard my record Guitar Solos and was excited by the timbral possibilities that I’d been discovering, so that was the focus more or less “, who asked Frith to record and play his guitar on two of Eno’s albums, Before and After Science (1977) and Music for Films (1978). The table guitar setup used by Frith in Guitar Solos also became a standard for many of his subsequent live performances, including those recorded on his 1982 live double album “Live in Japan”. He later extended his he technique to include “found objects”, which he used on his guitars to extract new sounds.
FF: There was a record called “Guitar Solos,” which I made in 1974. At that point, Henry Cow had recently signed to Virgin Records, and as is typical of a major record company, they had decided that they wanted to have the guitarist make a solo record. They thought that rock guitar players should make solo records, because it’s “cool.” But they had no idea what they were getting into in my case. I gave this to myself as a kind of challenge. I gave myself two weeks in which I would try to completely redefine for myself what I thought a guitar could do, and then I would go into a studio and record it. One of the things that came out of that period is that I started to experiment with laying guitars on the floor. What I started to discover, when I no longer had the guitar in the “playing” position, is that there were things you could do which no longer were concerned with gesture. Gesture, to me, seemed to be very important. Your playing gesture, the way in which you produce sound is tied to a whole bunch of assumptions about technique, and once you lose those assumptions, interesting things start to happen. One of the things I did for that record, was I laid two guitars flat on the ground, with their necks coming from opposite directions. So I had these two necks, which were basically like keyboards, and I started preparing them. I’d seen David Toop, who opened for Henry Cow at a concert in 1971, using alligator clips on his guitar. That led me into a whole thing about, if the alligator clip could produce a sound out of an electric guitar which sounds like a gong, then there must be all kinds of things you can do to a guitar, which are going to do comparably interesting things. So I started to try out everything. I used sticks, bits of glass, metal, springs, chains, and all the things which have become a part of my vocabulary ever since. Dropping things on the guitars came later. I don’t think anymore, when I’m playing a guitar with a paintbrush, or pouring rice on it, that there’s anything unusual about it. It’s just like using a pick for me. For somebody who’s not used to this, seeing someone play a guitar with a paintbrush is kind of funny. And I have no desire for them not to find it funny. I mean, I don’t want to impose any restrictions on how people react to what they perceive. But something I observed when I started performing solo concerts is the palpable relief that people feel when they understand that this is not going to be difficult. That they don’t have to be genius to understand it. Because there is a lot of preconception about “new music” being cerebral, but once you come into a room and find that it’s ok to laugh, that can be a very big relief, and I like that. The only problem is that once people start laughing, it’s very difficult to get them to stop. You have to learn to project a certain kind of intensity, which creates a tension between the thing which they are finding funny, and make it also perhaps feel a little bit dangerous.
The album was recorded at David Vorhaus’s Kaleidophon Studios in London on July 11-13 and July 15, 1974, with a modified 1936 Gibson K-11 with the addition of an extra pickup directly resting on the neck strings nearby of the headstock, which allowed him to amplify both sides of the strings, dividing the neck in two with a movable nut, thus obtaining two amplified guitars on which to play simultaneously. The addition of metal clips on the strings made it possible to further “customize” the sounds that were then channeled from the guitar into a mixer and from there distributed through a multi-channel surround system. The album was recorded in four days without any overdubs. All the pieces were improvised, some completely, others on a roughly preconceived idea, and they sound as they were played, except “No Birds”, which was recorded in two parts, and “Not Forgotten”, from which they were played. removed two notes. The only sounds not produced ‘naturally’ by the guitar are those of a fuzzbox used in “Out of Their Heads (On Locoweed)”, “Heat c / w Moment” and “No Birds”, an echo delay used in “No Birds” and the ambient sound of Frith’s breath and feet in “Heat c / w Moment”.Frith took the title of “No Birds” from the last line of a poem, “One Nest Rolls After Another” by Captain Beefheart, printed on the back cover of the LP of his 1971 album, Mirror Man. Frith also used the phrase “No Birds” in the Frith / Cutler song, “Beautiful as the Moon – Terrible as an Army with Banners”.
KB We have to mention, that in 1974 you also released your first solo album called Guitar Solos, which was really experimental. What was the concept behind it?
FF I gave a copy of that record to Beefheart, and years later John French told me that Don had handed it on to him and said: “check this out – he’s ripping me off!” Which was certainly true of the title of No Birds! Anyway, the concept was to try and reinvent the guitar the same way that John Cage had reinvented the piano or Barre Phillips had reinvented the bass – to transform and expand its expressive potential. That’s it really. And of course I was coming from a primarily rock and folk background, so, while it may be experimental, it still stays pretty close to its roots. I wasn’t part of the London improvised music scene at that time, my only connection to it came through Lol Coxhill, who I’d started playing and hanging out with in the early 70s.
It’s Psychedelic BabyMagazine: Fred Frith interview about HenryCow & beyond Friday, January 6, 2012 Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2012
Almost fifty years later, these music and the ideas they carry have not yet exhausted their innovative power and represent a wealth of experiences and possibilities that are indispensable for any guitarist. Frith then continued his career in a more than honorable way with collaborations ranging from Ensemble Modern to John Zorn, demonstrating that he knows how to cross any musical genre with ease and British sense of humor. Long live the Professor!