“We’re not taking the p***, playing silly rock riffs. I work hard to honor the original players”: How prog icon Robert Fripp ended up covering – and loving – Megadeth, Metallica and Slipknot

Robert Fripp
(Image credit: Adam Gasson/Future)

Robert Fripp is certainly a man of many talents. As the founding and only consistent member of King Crimson, he was responsible for pioneering progressive rock in the late ’60s, with debut album In the Court of the Crimson King still a benchmark for experimental and transcendental noise.

That sense of searching – aggregating various elements of folk, classical and jazz through his own kaleidoscopic lens – continued through the ’70s on avant-garde masterpieces like In the Wake of Poseidon, Starless and Bible Black, Larks' Tongues in Aspic and Red

When the band reunited at the beginning of the ’80s with Adrian Belew and Tony Levin in tow, they continued to experiment in yet more surprising ways, yielding albums like Discipline and Beat. Since then, with only one album in the ’90s and two in the ’00s, they’ve been more active as a live band than in the studio, playing their final show at the time of writing on December 8 2021 at Tokyo’s Orchard Hall. 

That’s not to say the now 77-year-old guitarist has retreated into retirement, however. Far from it, in fact, given the notoriety of his Sunday Lunch video series reinterpreting famous tracks by other artists with his wife, the singer/actress Toyah Willcox. So how did the man best known for songs like 21st Century Schizoid Man, Starless and Indiscipline end up covering Slipknot, Rammstein and Megadeth, and what exactly has he learned along the way?

“It all happened over lockdown,” he says with a big smile on his face, calling via video link from his home study in the town of Pershore, located in the English West Midlands. “My wife was concerned I was going to vegetate. Here was a little 75 year-old man being very quiet. I was seizing the opportunity for reflection – reading and writing. I was not about to die of uselessness. She would see me sat there looking very still and think ‘Dear Frippy, we need to get you out doing something!’ 

“So it all began with her taking me to the edge of our garden, handing me a tutu and saying, ‘Put it on and dance!’ That was the beginning. We would try odd things to have fun. The aim and intention, which my wife was very clear about, was to lift people’s spirits. Here in Pershore, the fear was tangible. The only time we would see our neighbors would be on a Thursday night when we’d all go out onto the street to clap for the NHS and service providers. We’d look down the street and across the square to wave to the friends and neighbors we could no longer speak to in person.”

As the Crimson King himself explains, the world has indeed moved on, though for a couple of years there was a lot of uncertainty. Lockdowns would come and go as the Covid-19 death toll shrunk and grew. It was one of the bleakest times for humanity in recent memory – which is precisely why husband and wife duo felt like it was their moment to shine, sending love and laughter around the world to every house with a working internet connection…

Our kitchen performances have been described as ramshackle, which I think is very fair and generous!

“Toyah was very insistent on lifting spirits,” continues the progressive rock mastermind. “That’s what we set out to do. A good way of doing it was for me to strap on a guitar, pick a song and have fun. Our kitchen performances have been described as ramshackle, which I think is very fair and generous! It’s very clear that we don’t put too much time into, shall we say, high-definition performances. The key to it is, ‘Are we having a good time?’ And I’ve noticed in retrospect that the absurdity is rampant [laughs].”

Now the husband-and-wife duo will be taking their misadventures on the road with Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lunch Live!, which will see the pair travel the UK, performing Toyah’s own hits, alongside some of their favorite covers and Fripp’s A-list collaborations with the likes of David Bowie.

In discussing his unlikely new guitar path, Fripp is quick to heap praise upon the players who followed in his footsteps, and has more than a few solid-gold anecdotes to share along the way. Below is our full conversation with one of the guitar’s leading innovators, in a wide-ranging chat that’s quite unlike any other Robert Fripp interview you’ve ever read…

First, talk us through that kitchen rig – you seem to mainly stick with your Fernandes Goldtop.

“I’m mainly using that Fernandes, specially made for me in Japan around 2001. On odd occasions, I’m using the same 1959 Les Paul I used on albums like In the Court of the Crimson King and Red, as well as two Bowie albums, and two Fripp & Eno albums. But the main one is the Fernandes. The amp I’m using is a little 30-watt Yamaha desktop thing…”

Like a THR30II, you mean?

“That’s the one! Often, I just plug directly into that, but more recently I’ve been going via my Line 6 Helix Floor thing. I’ve become increasingly hands-on with this stuff and edit all the parameters via my computer. I inherited a whole pile of settings from Jakko [Jakszyk]. When I first began working with him in Crimson around 2013, although my stage rig was different I decided to use the same program as my guitar buddy for rehearsals… that way we’d be on the same page. I inherited all his settings and then started to fine-tune them.

“One day I hit the wrong button and they were all wiped! So I got in touch with the head of Line 6 trying to find out what happened and he had no suggestion to make. I had to rebuild all my programs and that dropped as well. So I had to begin again and learned about backing everything up! I’ve become more and more used to it. I fine-tune certain parameters every day through the computer, because you can’t get to all the options through the floor unit itself. I can tweak the delay times and what order everything is in.”

Robert Fripp

(Image credit: Adam Gasson/Future)

We heard the Sunday Lunches are filmed and recorded through an iPhone. Is that true?

“Yup! The filming is done through Toyah’s iPhone, which means when she leans forward and speaks the microphone cuts down the guitar sound… that’s what it is, really ramshackle. From time to time, we forget to take the washing down. I might look at a video after and see laundry hanging up or a tea towel drying, all manner of things! This is actually our working kitchen!”

In a handful of videos, you are joined by a masked man known as Sidney Jake. What can you tell us about this secretive character?

“What can I say?! Sidney is very private and reclusive, which we honor. He is a personal guitar student of mine – the first since 1975, in fact. He is also a guitar teacher himself. There was a time when we were doing Sunday Lunch in between King Crimson being on the road – the actual amount of work involved was difficult, as I’d need to learn a particular song and deliver it honorably. I just couldn’t do it all. So Sidney would come in and beef it up with a second guitar part. Post-King Crimson, we’re just back to Toyah and Robert…”

Ah, post-King Crimson? Does that mean it’s definitely over, or is there even the slightest bit of hope for another tour in the distant future?

“I’ve learned from having attempted to get away from King Crimson in 1974, 1984, 2003 and 2008 that it’s probably hard to say! Nowadays there are factors we have to take into account. I have to admit there are no current plans, but there were no plans when we went on hiatus back in the past either. We have to take into account that I’m committed to another band right now – Toyah and Robert. 

“Tony Levin is on tour with Peter Gabriel. All the other members of the band are working. With me and Toyah, we’ve been doing festivals like Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and others. We’re also planning things for next year. So there’s a lot going on… and I’m 77! Age is a factor. Given something as complex as King Crimson, you’d have three men who would be approaching 80 for the next tour [Fripp, Levin and Mel Collins]. Is that likely? Well, I can’t really comment on that, but my focus is on this new project with Toyah.”

Robert Fripp

(Image credit: Adam Gasson/Future)

You’ve often referred to musicians like Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker as your biggest influences. Is that where you inherited your love for more ‘outside-sounding’ scales?

“What are the main scales that are useful? You turn up and people ask what you know. Now, if you don’t know the minor pentatonic, you won’t be working [laughs]! However, it might be a little limited. The next one I find practical and immensely useful is the symmetrical scale. You can go major and minor using it, going into a Lydian or something from the minor family. If you throw in a ninth, which is the second an octave up, you can bring in all the minor pentatonics and just about everything else you could possibly want.

“As a working musician, the symmetrical scale has always been very useful. Plus it has this seething ambiguity about it. You can never quite settle. If you move, there are only three steps you can use it on, which work like substitutions. For me, it’s relatively endless in practice. As another scale, you can throw in the whole tone, which is another pot of seething ambiguity. With that scale you only need to move one semitone and everything shoots off again. So here we are, two musicians discussing practically what you take with you when you turn up to the gig [laughs]!”

It would be fair to say some of the Sunday Lunch song choices – particularly the more metallic ones – have taken people by surprise. What is the process for selection?

I’ve been working in a C pentatonic tuning since 1985. So for 35-odd years before Sunday Lunch, I was using a tuning you don’t find in rock ’n’ roll, which is typically in standard. I’ve had to get used to a basic E tuning after a long time… a lifetime for some!

“For background context, I’ve been working in a C pentatonic tuning since 1985. So for 35-odd years before Sunday Lunch, I was using a tuning you don’t find in rock ’n’ roll, which is typically in standard. I’ve had to get used to a basic E tuning after a long time… a lifetime for some! In terms of the songs we choose, I will make a suggestion or Toyah will. 

“First it has to be singable and something she’d like to sing. We also have to factor in whether it’s more keyboard-based or if there are several guitars. I usually have to think about how one guitarist can back a singer, which can present technical problems. Once we choose a piece, I will then research it.”

And how exactly do you go about doing that?

“I will download the original studio version and then go into various live versions, and finally I will see if any other artists have covered the song – preferably live so I can see the twists and turns. Then I will go even further to see the guitar lessons online because different teachers go about it different ways. Very often, if there’s an acoustic version that was stripped down to one guitar, I’ll pay attention to that. 

“If you have 90 seconds to do a five- or six-minute piece, what are the key ingredients? Maybe if there’s a 16-bar intro, can I refer to it in just two? That way people will think, ‘Fripp’s done his homework – he’s not playing all of it but he knows it’s there!’ Having done that research, I’ll then go about learning it and start thinking ‘What would I do with this, how would I engage with this?’ while being respectful to the original artist.”

Given your dedication to highly detailed arrangements and lavish productions over the years, it makes sense that you would research into things this heavily…

“There are two extreme responses to my part in Sunday Lunch. The first is, ‘This is below him: Robert is King Crimson and a serious guitarist,’ which I say is horseshit! Fundamentally, I’m a working player. When we engage with any of the music on Sunday Lunch, it is always with respect. We’re not taking the piss, playing silly rock riffs. That is a preposterous suggestion. I work hard to honor the original player or players on the famous recordings. 

“The other extreme response is ‘Fripp can’t play rock and roll!’ which is the more accurate out of the two perspectives. When we’re doing songs by players like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore, I have to think these are classic players that need attention to detail.”

So which have been your favorites – are there any artists you were less familiar with that you end up admiring as a fan?

Dave Mustaine is definitely someone I wasn’t too familiar with prior, but ended up respecting greatly

“You mentioned Megadeth earlier. Going into Holy Wars… The Punishment Due, I could tell Dave Mustaine is a serious player. He thinks musically in a different way to me. But there are similarities, too. I can tell this from researching his playing: he seems to work in patterns – developing and introducing variations within those patterns, which I do myself.

“I don’t know him personally. The closest I came to meeting him was being in the same hotel as him in Albany last November. I was told Megadeth were there as they’d been seen working out in the gym, but because I was isolating I couldn’t introduce myself and pay my respects. 

“That Megadeth song was a challenge for me. Playing it properly would have taken me three months, with roughly four to eight hours a day woodshedding, as it’s called. It would have taken a lot of focus. But if you’re doing 90 seconds, you still need to work as hard as you possibly can. He’s definitely someone I wasn’t too familiar with prior, but ended up respecting greatly.”

The Sunday Lunch take on Blind by Korn was another one that got tongues wagging for all the right reasons…

“I heard Korn for the very first time when we chose to do Blind and was really impressed by Head and Munky. They’re heavily into seven-strings and alternative tunings. When I worked with Steve Vai on G3 for the first time in 1997, I was actually the ‘G4’ – I would be doing the play-on music rather than get up as one of the three shredders. Steve was probably the first mainstream person to use a seven-string, with the Ibanez that was made for him. I didn’t have one, so Fernandes made me one.

“But with all my work in King Crimson and Guitar Craft, I didn’t get around to using it. Then it went into Crimson storage in Seattle and it didn’t get shipped back here until a few months ago, then Sidney borrowed it for a while.”

You ended up using a black Fernandes six-string for that performance. Did you ever get round to trying out the seven-string?

Blind is such an amazing riff. It’s truly astonishing how the two guitars interact with each other

“I found some time to get more hands-on with it and wondered what tuning I’d use. I figured it would be best to go with C pentatonic with a top A. I don’t like a B on the bass. I don’t like B as a note… it’s unsound

“If I tune low, it has to be A, which is probably closer to what Slipknot might use. But let’s stick with Korn for a second. Blind is such an amazing riff. It’s truly astonishing how the two guitars interact with each other. Doing it as a single guitar tuned to E, I hope they forgive me, but I gave it the best shot I could possibly give it from a place of respect.”

Speaking of Slipknot, it was great to see you masked up for that one!

“What I like about Psychosocial and Slipknot is that the ethos of the band is closer to the ethos of bands in general. Which is essentially, the music comes first and the band comes first before the members themselves. Not everyone I’ve worked with in King Crimson has been as committed to the band as they have been to their own solo career, which probably helps explain some of the personal difficulties people have had with Robert… that ‘terrible man’ who was unkind to them.

“With respect to Jim Root and Mick Thomson, I didn’t tune down exactly like they did. But I did keep it in A. Again, there’s something more sound in terms of pitch and resonance for me using A instead of B. Why? I can’t quite tell you, other than – within my nature – A essentially has greater resonance for me than B.”

We can’t go through these more metallic offerings without mentioning Enter Sandman, of course…

“Toyah and myself have been aware of Metallica for quite a while, but I’d never learned a Metallica song before Sunday Lunch. We’re actually playing that song on the road because we love it so much. I look at Kirk and James as one player – they’re joined at the hip for me! Again, I went into different versions from across their career. Nowadays it seems like they play it a couple of semitones down, which is entirely legitimate. Boy, can they really stomp this one live.

“I read somewhere a few years ago that Kirk had just discovered mine and Adrian Belew’s interchanging parts from Discipline in 1981 and enjoyed them. That I don’t know, but what I do know is that Kirk is a stunning player. The solo on Enter Sandman is a real hummer! I’ve been learning it and would say it’s quite challenging but lots of fun. It requires work to get it down properly. So yes, Metallica and Enter Sandman… I just love it!”

Are there any other covers that stick out for you?

King Crimson were supporting ZZ Top at a stadium in Denver back in 1974. We came on and roughly 20 minutes in, the sound completely died. We didn’t know why, but we left the stage. 20 years later, I learned that it was ZZ Top who pulled the power

“I wasn’t very aware of Korn, Megadeth or Slipknot before Sunday Lunch. I did, however, have some familiarity with Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top. King Crimson were supporting ZZ Top at a stadium in Denver back in 1974. We came on and roughly 20 minutes in, the sound completely died. We didn’t know why, but we left the stage. 20 years later, I learned that it was ZZ Top who pulled the power – but there were various versions of it. Some people said it was the tour manager, but others have suggested it was Billy Gibbons who didn’t like us and made him do that. Another version is that the tour manager didn’t like us. I don’t know! The tour didn’t last long. 

“As for Sharp Dressed Man, the best version I know is Billy Gibbons Live at Daryl’s House. I would recommend anyone reading this to look that up. It’s a gentle revelation in that bluesy area. First of all, the click on the ZZ Top version is around 126. On this version, it’s around 115, which means it slides straight into the pocket. There are three soloists and Billy is first. He doesn’t use a lot of notes… Billy doesn’t have to.”

Robert Fripp

(Image credit: Adam Gasson/Future)

He really is in a class of his own when it comes to improvised, storytelling blues.

“Yeah! He just slides in and takes you away with him. It’s so slinky, smooth and seductive. It’s as real as guitar playing can get, in the same way you can’t understand Tex-Mex unless you’re in a bar in Houston or San Antonio with Doug Sahm playing in front of you. The next soloist is Shane Theriot, a New Orleans player who has worked with Daryl for years. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this yet because it hasn’t been announced but I did a Live at Daryl’s House last November where I sat in with the house band and they are phenomenal.

“They’re all working players at the very top level. Shane is breathtaking. He is what every working player should aspire to. He has his own world but also the capacity to deliver on anything he’s asked to do. When he solos on this recording, it’s an authentic blues lead that’s very different to Billy’s – but very real and convincing. The third solo was by a player I don’t know but who is also a stunning musician.”

A lot of the guitar players you’ve emulated in the series could be described like that, to be fair…

“I’d also like to mention Cult of Personality by Living Colour. I’ve known Vernon [Reid] for years, and King Crimson have toured with his band. I look to him as a personal friend. In 1991, when I was having a very difficult time in legal dispute with former managers, record companies and publishers, I would put on Living Colour in the morning to give me the energy to go into legal battle for the day! Cult of Personality is a stunning track. Vernon can play anything he puts his mind to, and also has his own personality. He’s a monster player!”

As is Steve Stevens, who posted a picture of you together when Toyah and Billy Idol toured the UK last year, telling fans he “literally had King Crimson photos taped to my bedroom wall”…

I remember working with Andy Summers in 1982, and asking him if there were any players I should be listening to. He said Eddie Van Halen and I’m glad he did!

“I would go along to a few shows and cheer Toyah along. I got to meet Steve Stevens and I bowed before the master. He is a lovely character. As you mentioned, he even took that photo of us together. He’s another monster player. Because he goes back before heavy metal, I don’t know how he’s considered within the pantheon of rock guitarists, but for me he’s definitely there along with Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. I remember working with Andy Summers in 1982, and asking him if there were any players I should be listening to. He said Eddie Van Halen and I’m glad he did!

“But back to Steve Stevens, he’s a working player who performs with Billy Idol but he can go so much wider. A lot of great players might not show you everything they’re capable of. For example, people go to see Joe Satriani to see Joe doing Joe. But they might not know the whole history of the electric guitar is in his hands. Joe is phenomenal and can do anything he wants! Sadly, as he’s mainly instrumental, we’re not likely to cover him in Sunday Lunch.”

It’s not all hard rock and metal, of course. There are some mainstream choices in the mix, too…

“There are! I love Are You Gonna Go My Way by Lenny Kravitz. Him and Craig Ross sound amazing on that track. The solo is a defining classic! King Crimson toured with Lenny a long time ago – I think it was back in 1995 on some package. Toyah would join us on tour and we’d watch Lenny together, with Cindy Blackman on drums going ‘Bop, bop, bop!’ with total commitment. It was incredible seeing Lenny with that band 28 years ago. But the version I ended up referencing was Lenny live in Hyde Park back in 2015 with Craig on guitar but a different drummer.”

You also covered arguably the most iconic guitar riff of them all when you and Toyah tackled Smoke on the Water

Ritchie Blackmore had all the moves, all the swinging and all the chops

“That was another fun one. I saw Ritchie Blackmore live when he was 18 at a dance hall in Poole, Dorset. I was around 17 myself, so this must have been around 1963 or 1964. Ritchie was playing with The Outlaws. There might be some footage of him with them on YouTube.

“My feeling is when he got to 18, he realized that he’d gone as far as he was going to in that band. He was superb. It would be unfair to say Ritchie didn’t get better, because he continued to grow. But what I will say is that at 18, he absolutely nailed it.

“He worked with [Screaming Lord] Sutch along with another mythical guitarist called Strawberry, who was somebody everyone had heard of in the reports but no-one at the time seemed to actually know his identity. He would play with his back to the audience and was a legendary player to those of us watching in the early ’60s. 

“I never got to see Strawberry, but I did see Ritchie. He had all the moves, all the swinging and all the chops. We met very briefly in passing and we nodded. My nod to him was one of great respect.”

  • Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lunch Live! tours the UK from September 30 – for full dates and tickets, head to See Tickets.

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).