Fred Frith
Fred Frith performing at the Moers Jazz Festival, June 1998
Fred Frith performing at the Moers Jazz Festival,
June 1998. (© Alexander Kurz)
Background information
Birth name Fred Frith
Born February 17 1949 (1949-02-17) (age 75)
Heathfield, Sussex, England
Genre(s) Avant-progressive rock,
Free improvisation,
Contemporary classical
Occupation(s) Musician, Composer,
Professor of Composition
Instrument(s) Guitar, Violin, Bass guitar,
Keyboards, Percussion
Years active 1968 – present
Label(s) Caroline, Ralph, RecRec,
Recommended, Fred,
Tzadik, Winter & Winter
Henry Cow, Art Bears,
Massacre, Skeleton Crew,
Keep the Dog, Chris Cutler,
John Zorn
Website www.fredfrith.com

Fred Frith (born February 17, 1949) is an English multi-instrumentalist, composer and improvisor.

Probably best-known for his guitar work, Frith first came to attention as one of the founding members of the English avant-garde rock group Henry Cow. Frith was also a member of Art Bears, Massacre and Skeleton Crew. He has collaborated with a number of prominent musicians, including Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, Lars Hollmer, The Residents, Lol Coxhill, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Derek Bailey, Iva Bittová and Bob Ostertag. He has also composed several long works, including Traffic Continues (1996, performed 1998 by Frith and Ensemble Modern) and Freedom in Fragments (1993, performed 1999 by Rova Saxophone Quartet).

Frith is the subject of Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel's award-winning 1990 documentary film Step Across the Border. He has contributed to a number of music publications, including New Musical Express and Trouser Press, and has conducted improvising workshops across the world. Frith's career spans over three decades and he appears on over 400 albums. He still performs actively throughout the world. [1]

Currently Frith is Professor of Composition in the Music Department at Mills College in Oakland, California. He lives in the United States with his wife, German photographer Heike Liss and their children, Finn Liss (b. August 22, 1991) and Lucia Liss (b. January 8, 1994).

Frith is the brother of Simon Frith, a well-known music critic and sociologist, and Chris Frith, a psychologist working at University College London.


Frith was born in Heathfield in Sussex, England into a family where music was considered an essential part of life. He started violin lessons at the age of five and became a member of his school orchestra. But at 13 he switched to guitar after watching a group imitating a popular instrumental band at the time, The Shadows. He decided he had learn how to play guitar and get into a band. Frith taught himself guitar from a book of guitar chords and soon found himself in a school group called The Chaperones, playing Shadows and Beatles covers. But when Frith started hearing blues music from the likes of Snooks Eaglin and Alexis Korner it changed his whole approach to the guitar, and by the time he was 15, The Chaperones had become a blues band. Frith's first public performances were in 1967 in folk clubs in the North of England, where he sung and played traditional and blues songs.

Besides the blues, Frith started listening to any music that had guitar in it, including folk, classical, ragtime and flamenco. He also listened to Indian, Japanese and Balinese music and was particularly drawn to East European music after a Yugoslav school friend taught him folk tunes from his home. Frith went to Cambridge University in 1968 where his musical horizons were expanded further by the philosophies of John Cage and Frank Zappa's manipulation of rock music. Frith graduated from Cambridge with a BA (English Literature) in 1970, and an MA (English Literature) in 1974, but the real significance of Cambridge for him was that that was where the seminal avant-garde rock group Henry Cow were formed.

Henry Cow[]

Main article: Henry Cow

Frith met Tim Hodgkinson, a fellow student, in a blues club at Cambridge University in 1968. "We’d never met before, and he had an alto sax, and I had my violin, and we just improvised this ghastly screaming noise for about half an hour." [2] But something clicked and recognizing their mutual open-minded approach to music, Frith and Hodgkinson formed a band there and then. They called it Henry Cow and they remained with the band until its demise in 1978.

Frith composed a number of the band's notable pieces, including "Nirvana for Mice" and "Ruins". While guitar was his principal instrument, he also played violin (drawing on his classical training), bass guitar, piano and xylophone. Over its ten years Henry Cow released six albums, toured Europe extensively and produced a body of music that was challenging, provocative and influential for years to come. The music also challenged the capabilities of the musicians themselves, forcing them to learn new techniques and play their instruments in ways never done before. Frith relished these opportunities to explore and experiment, and began pushing his guitar to the limit.

Guitar Solos[]

Main article: Guitar Solos (album)

After Henry Cow's first album, Frith released Guitar Solos in 1974, his first solo album and a glimpse at what he had been doing with his guitar. The album comprised eight tracks of unaccompanied and improvised music played on prepared guitars. It was recorded in four days at the Kaleidophon Studios in London without any overdubbing.

When it was released, Guitar Solos was considered a landmark album [3] because of its innovative and experimental approach to guitar playing. The January 1983 edition of Down Beat magazine remarked that Guitar Solos "... must have stunned listeners of the day. Even today that album stands up as uniquely innovative and undeniably daring." [4] It also attracted the attention of some "mainstream" musicians, including Brian Eno, resulting in Frith playing guitar on two of Eno's albums, Before and after Science (1977) and Music for Films (1978).

In the mid-1970s, Frith contributed a series of articles to British weekly music magazine, New Musical Express entitled "Great Rock Solos of our Time". In them he analysed prominent rock guitarists of the day and their contribution to the development of the rock guitar, including Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Post Henry Cow[]

While recording Henry Cow's last album, differences emerged between the group members over the album's content. Frith and Chris Cutler favoured song-oriented material, while Hodgkinson and Lindsay Cooper wanted purely instrumental compositions. As a compromise, Frith and Cutler agreed, early in 1978, to release the songs already created on their own album, Hopes and Fears, under the name Art Bears (with Dagmar Krause). The instrumental material was recorded by Henry Cow on Western Culture later that year, after which the band split. The Art Bears trio continued purely as a studio group until 1981, releasing two more albums, Winter Songs in 1979 and The World as It Is Today in 1981.

During this time Frith also released Gravity (1980), his second solo album, recorded at Norrgården Nyvla in Uppsala, Sweden with Swedish group Samla Mammas Manna, and at the Catch-a-Buzz studio in Rockville, Maryland with United States band The Muffins. It showed Frith breaking free from the highly structured and orchestrated music of Henry Cow and experimenting with folk and dance music. "Norrgården Nyvla" was also the title of one of the tracks on the album and is considered one of Frith's most recognisable tunes.

New York[]

FredFrith October2005

Fred Frith performing at Mills College, Oakland, California in October 2005.
Aram Shelton)

Towards the end of 1979 Frith relocated to New York City where he immediately hooked-up with the local avant-garde scene. The impact on him was uplifting: "... New York was a profoundly liberating experience for me; for the first time I felt that I could be myself and not try to live up to what I imagined people were thinking about me." [5] Frith met and began recording with a number of musicians and groups, including Henry Kaiser, Bob Ostertag, Tom Cora, Eugene Chadbourne, Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori, The Residents, Material, The Golden Palominos and Curlew. He spent some 14 years in New York, during which time he joined a few bands, including for John Zorn's Naked City (in which Frith played bass) and French Frith Kaiser Thompson (consisting of John French, Frith, Henry Kaiser and Richard Thompson). Frith also started three bands himself, namely Massacre, Skeleton Crew and Keep the Dog.

Massacre was formed in 1980 with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher. A high energy experimental rock band, they toured the United States and Europe in 1980 and 1981, and released one album, Killing Time (1981), recorded at Martin Bisi's later-to-be historic studio in Brooklyn. Massacre split in 1981 when Maher left, but later reformed again in 1998 when drummer Charles Hayward joined. The new Massacre released three more albums.

Skeleton Crew, a collaboration with Tom Cora from 1982 to 1986, was an experimental group noted for its live improvisations where Frith (guitar, violin, keyboards, drums) and Cora (cello, bass guitar, homemade drums and contraptions) played a number of instruments simultaneously. They performed extensively across Europe, North America and Japan and released Learn to Talk in 1984. Zeena Parkins (electric harp and keyboards) joined in 1984 and the trio released The Country of Blinds in 1986. In October 1983 Skeleton Crew joined Duck and Cover, a commission from the Berlin Jazz Festival, for a performance in West Berlin, followed by another in February 1984 in East Berlin.

Frith formed Keep the Dog in 1989, a sextet and review band for performing selections of his extensive repertoire of compositions from the previous 15 years. The lineup was Frith (guitar, violin, bass guitar), René Lussier (guitar, bass guitar), Jean Derome (winds), Zeena Parkins (piano, synthesizer, harp, accordion), Bob Ostertag (sampling keyboard) and Kevin Norton (drums, percussion). Later Charles Hayward replaced Norton on drums. The group existed until mid-1991, performing live in Europe, North America and the former Soviet Union. A double CD, That House We Lived In, from their final performances in Austria, Germany and Italy in May and June 1991, was released in 2003.

Other projects[]

During the 1980s, Frith began writing music for dance, film and theatre, and a number of his solo albums from this time reflect this genre, including The Technology of Tears (And Other Music for Dance and Theatre) (1988), Middle of the Moment (1995), Allies (Music for Dance volume 2) (1996) and Rivers and Tides (2003). Exploring new forms of composition, Frith also experimented with chance or accidental compositions, often created by building music around "found sounds" and field recordings, examples of which can be found on Accidental (Music for Dance volume 3) (2002) and Prints: Snapshots, Postcards, Messages and Miniatures, 1987-2001 (2002).

As a composer, Frith began composing works for other musicians and groups in the late 1980s, including the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Ensemble Modern and Arditti Quartet. In the late 1990s, Frith established his own Fred Frith Guitar Quartet consisting of Frith, René Lussier, Nick Didkovsky and Mark Stewart. Their guitar music, varying from "tuneful and pretty, to noisy, aggressive and quite challenging" [6], appears on two albums, Ayaya Moses (1997) and Upbeat (1999), both on Lussier's own Ambiances Magnétiques label.

Fred Frith and Chris Cutler (ReR 2001 Catalogue)

Fred Frith and Chris Cutler, partners in time for over three decades.

The ex-Henry Cow members have always maintained close contact with each other and Frith still collaborates with many of them, including Chris Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson and Lindsay Cooper. Cutler and Frith have been touring Europe, Asia and the Americas since 1978 and have given dozens of duo performances. Three albums from some of these concerts have been released by Recommended Records. In December 2006, Cutler, Frith and Hodgkinson performed together at The Stone in New York City, their first concert performance since Henry Cow's demise in 1978. [7] [8]

In 1995 Frith moved to Stuttgart in Germany to live with his wife, German photographer Heike Liss and their children Finn and Lucia. Between 1994 and 1996, Frith was Composer-in-Residence at L’Ecole Nationale de Musique in Villeurbanne, France.

In 1997 Frith relocated to the United States to become Composer-in-Residence at Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1999 he was appointed the Luther B. Marchant Professor of Composition in the Music Department at Mills where he currently teaches composition, contemporary performance and improvisation. [9] While he had never studied music in college, Frith's credentials of over forty years of continuous practice and self-discovery got him the position. He has, however, maintained that "most of my students are better qualified to teach composition than I am," and that he learns as much from them as they learn from him. [10]


Fred Frith has used a number of different guitars, including homemades, over the years, depending on the type of music he is playing. For the more structured and refined music he has often used a Gibson 345, for example on his solo album, Gravity. For the heavier "rock" sound, as in Massacre, he has used an old 1961 solid body Burns guitar, created by the British craftsman Jim Burns. On his landmark Guitar Solos album, Frith used a modified 1936 Gibson K-11 guitar (q.v. for details).

FredFrith August2006

Fred Frith performing in Lisbon in August 2006. (© Antonio Jose Silva)

For Frith's early unstructured music, as with Henry Kaiser on With Friends Like These, and his early table-top guitar solo performances, he used a homemade six- and eight-string double-neck guitar, created by a friend Charles Fletcher. Frith told Down Beat magazine in 1983: "It was the one and only guitar that he ever built ... he constructed it mainly out of old pieces from other guitars that I had, and for the body I think he used an old door." [4] The possibilities offered by homemade instruments prompted Frith to start creating his own guitars, basically slabs of wood on which he mounted a pickup, a bridge, and strings stretched over metal screws. "The basic design of the instrument is supposed to be as rudimentary and flexible as possible," Frith said, "so I can use an electric drill to bore holes into the body of it to achieve certain sounds ... ." [4]

Frith has used a variety of picks with his guitars, from traditional guitar picks to violin bows, drum sticks, egg beaters, paint brushes, lengths of metal chain and other found objects. Frith remarked: "It's more to do with my interest in found objects and the use of certain kinds of textures which have an effect on the string ... the difference between the touch of stone, the touch of glass, the touch of wood, the touch of paper — those kinds of basic elements that you're using against the surface of the strings which produce different sounds." [4]

In a typical solo improvising concert, Frith would lay a couple of his homemade guitars flat on a table and play them with a collection of found objects (varying from concert to concert). He would drop objects, like ball bearings, dried beans and rice, on the strings while stroking, scraping and hitting them with whatever was on hand. [11] Later he added a live sampler to his on-stage equipment, which he controlled with pedals. The sampler enabled him to dynamically capture and loop guitar sounds, over which he would capture and loop new sounds, and so on, until he had a bed of repeated patterns on top of which he would then begin his solo performance.


  • Pro Co RAT Distortion Pedal
  • Boss FV-50L Volume Foot Controller
  • Boss RC20-XL Delay
  • Line 6 DL Delay
  • Whammy4
  • Ebow

Step Across the Border[]

Main article: Step Across the Border

Step Across the Border is an award winning 1990 documentary film on Fred Frith, written and directed by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel, and released in Germany and Switzerland. It was filmed in Japan, Europe and the United States, and also features musicians René Lussier, Iva Bittová, Tom Cora, Tim Hodgkinson, Bob Ostertag and John Zorn.

Fred Records[]

Main article: Fred Records

In 2002, Fred Frith created his own record label, Fred Records to re-release his back catalogue of recordings and previously unreleased material. Frith also appears on several releases by Tzadik Records and Winter & Winter.


Since the late 1980s, Fred Frith has composed a number of longer works. Here is a selection, the year indicating when they were composed. For a complete list, see Compositions by Fred Frith.

  • 1989 The As Usual Dance Towards the Other Flight to What is Not – for four electric guitars
  • 1990 Helter Skelter – for two sopranos, contralto and a large electric ensemble
  • 1990 Stick Figures – for six guitars and two players
  • 1991 Lelekovice – (for Iva Bittová) string quartet no. 1
  • 1992 Stone, Brick, Glass, Wood, Wire – graphic scores for any number of players
  • 1993 Freedom in Fragments – a suite of 23 pieces for saxophone quartet
  • 1993 The Previous Evening – a tribute to John Cage for four clarinets, tapes, bass, footsteps, electric guitars, whirled objects and voice
  • 1993 Elegy for Elias – for piano, violin and marimba
  • 1994 Pacifica – a meditation for 21 musicians with texts by Pablo Neruda
  • 1995 Seven Circles – for piano
  • 1996 Impur – for 100 musicians, large building and mobile audience
  • 1996 Shortened Suite – for trumpet, oboe, cello and marimba
  • 1997 Back to Life – for trumpet, oboe, cello and marimba
  • 1998 Traffic Continues: Gusto – for large ensemble with improvising soloists
  • 2001 Landing for Choir – for Flamenco singer, cello, saxophone and samples
  • 2002 Allegory – for string quartet and electric guitar
  • 2002 Fell – for string quartet & electric guitar
  • 2003 The Happy End Problem – for flute, bassoon, gu zheng, percussion, violin and electronics
  • 2003 The Right Angel – for orchestra and electric guitar
  • 2005 Save As – for cello and percussion
  • 2006 Snakes and Ladders – for clarinet, electric guitar, piano, percussion, cello and double bass


Main article: Fred Frith discography

Fred Frith appears on over 400 recordings: with bands, in collaboration with other musicians, solo, albums he produced for other bands and musicians, and albums featuring his composed work performed by others.


  • 1990 Step Across the Border – 90 minute documentary on Fred Frith by Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel.
  • 1991 Streetwise – documentary by Charles Castella about Frith's work in Marseille with "unemployed rock musicians".
  • 2000 Le Voyage Immobile – documentary about Frith's trio with Louis Sclavis and Jean-Pierre Drouet for France 3 national TV.
  • 2004 Touch the Sound – documentary by Thomas Riedelsheimer about Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie and her collaboration with Frith.
  • 2007 Attwenger Adventure – a documentary on Austrian folk-punk duo Attwenger by Markus Kaiser-Mühlecker with special appearances by Frith rehearsing and performing live with Attwenger and Wolfgang "I-Wolf" Schlögl at Music Unlimited XX. in Wels, Austria.[12] [13]


  1. Current concert schedule. FredFrith.com. Retrieved on 2006-11-22.
  2. Fred Frith interview. BBC Music. Retrieved on 2006-11-21.
  3. Westergaard, Sean. Guitar Solos. AllMusic.com. Retrieved on 2006-11-20.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "The Frith Factor: Exploration in Sound", Down Beat magazine, January 1983.
  5. Warburton, Dan. Fred Frith interview, March 1998. Paris Transatlantic Magazine. Retrieved on 2006-11-22.
  6. Fred Frith Guitar Quartet. everthing2.com. Retrieved on 2007-10-31.
  7. The Stone calendar. The Stone, New York City. Retrieved on 2006-12-18.
  8. Fred Frith - Tim Hodgkinson - Chris Cutler, The Stone NYC, Dec 16 2006. Punkcast. Retrieved on 2007-04-10.
  9. Fred Frith. Mills College Faculty & Staff. Retrieved on 2006-11-22.
  10. Roberts, Michael. "Class Act - Professor Fred Frith is as much pupil as teacher", April 2006. Denver Westword. Retrieved on 2006-11-22.
  11. Richardson, Derk. "Ground Zero", May 2002. San Francisco Bay Guardian. Retrieved on 2006-11-22.
  12. Attwenger Adventure. The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2008-01-15.
  13. Attwenger Adventure. International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Retrieved on 2008-01-15.

External links[]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: