‘Well, how hard could it be?': Greg Lake on his switch to bass for the first King Crimson project

Blame a meddling music label for Greg Lake’s fortuitous switch to the bass. He says childhood friend Robert Fripp needed a frontman for King Crimson — but Fripp, of course, already played guitar.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Together, Fripp and Lake helped make 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King into the prototypical progressive-rock album. Oh, and Lake grew to love the new-found musical contours of his new instrument.

Fripp had originally emerged with a jokey band called Giles, Giles and Fripp, which Lake compares to Monty Python in a new talk with Howard Whitman of Technology Tell.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Greg Lake takes us inside key career moments with Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson and other projects.]

The record label, Lake tells Whitman, was all set to drop Fripp — demanding that they become more broadly appealing. Fripp asked what was required, and the answer came back.

A lead singer.

Thing is, Lake was the only vocalist Fripp knew. But he also played guitar.

Switching instruments was, of course, easier said that done: “I thought to myself, ‘Well, how hard could it be? Four strings instead of six, right? And I’m still the lead singer.’ … Of course, when I went to do it, I just thought I could knock off the bass the bass really easily, not realizing of course that playing bass is a whole art form in and of itself — it’s a whole world in and of itself. It’s a different role. It’s a different perspective.”

Over time, advances in the technology of his second instrument helped Lake to define his own style.

“When I went to the bass, at that time, all bass players used tape-wound strings, and they were very dull and they didn’t sustain, and I was very frustrated by not being able to play sustaining notes,” he tells Technology Tell. “And one day I came upon these wire-wound strings called Rotosound, and there it was. I cracked it, because there they sounded like the low end of a Steinway grand piano. And that together with my sort of half-guitar/half-bass style brought about a new way, really, of playing the bass at that time. It was more percussive, it was more guitar-orientated, and it was kind of a mix of bass playing and guitar playing in a way.”

By the time Lake left to co-found prog rock’s first supergroup in Emerson Lake and Palmer, he had crafted his own unique approach. His use of sustain and percussion would help define the trio’s work on seminal projects like Pictures at an Exhibition — all thanks to some record-company complaints.

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