How Robert Fripp Recorded the Guitar Line on David Bowie's "Heroes"

We've been thinking about Bowie a lot here lately, but there's one thing I discovered during all of the recent tributes that I still want to share: how Tony Visconti recorded Robert Fripp's famous guitar part on "Heroes."

I found this nugget of recording wisdom while listening to the Bowie tribute episode of the Sound Opinions podcast.

Around minute 32, Visconti starts talking about recording "Heroes" in Berlin with Bowie and Brian Eno. He says:

Well "Heroes" was written a couple of weeks before Fripp came down. We recorded the backing track, and it's one of the few times that David actually played piano live. Eno was in the control room with me. We really didn't know what we had. There were no lyrics yet. It was not called "Heroes." It wasn't called anything.

Finally we got something that sounded like, "this could a verse, this could be a chorus," and by that time we needed to do the guitar work. Fripp was available only one weekend. So he came to Berlin, brought his guitar, no amplifier. He recorded his guitar in the studio. We had to play the track very very loud because he was relying on the feedback from the studio monitors. So it was deafening working with him.

Whereas everyone thinks it's an ebow, this magical guitar gadget called an ebow. In fact it wasn't an ebow, it was just the feedback–Fripp playing this "dah uhhhh dahh uhhh" that beautiful motif. And Fripp recorded a second time without hearing the first one. It was a little bit more cohesive, but still quite wasn't right, and he said, "Let me do it again. Just give me another track. I'll do it again." And we silenced the first two tracks and he did a third pass, which was really great. He nailed it. And then I had the bright idea: I said, "Look let me just hear what it sounds like with the other two tracks. You never know."

We played it, all three tracks together, and you know, I must reiterate Fripp did not hear the other two tracks when he was doing the third one so he had no way of being in sync. But he was strangely in sync. And all his little out-of-tune wiggles suddenly worked with the other previously recorded guitars. It seemed to tune up. It got a quality that none of us anticipated. It was this dreamy, wailing quality, almost crying sound in the background. And we were just flabbergasted.

I have to point out, like Marc Bolan, David doesn't like to spend a lot of time in the studio either. He really does believe in the Zen moments. You know the accidents, to him, are more important than finessing something. And I totally agree with him.

So we all looked at each other. It was just Fripp, myself, and Brian Eno in the studio, and David, of course. We just looked at each other and we just couldn't believe our luck, how beautiful it sounded and how well it worked out.

Update: Tape Op magazine shared this article on their Facebook page where Nik Far added this video of Tony Visconti discussing the recording process for "Heroes." Check it out...


25 comments

  • https://www.udiscovermusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/David-Bowie-Brian-Eno-Hansa-Ton.jpg
    Fripp, Eno and Bowie during the recording of “Heroes”. Now there’s something very interesting about this photo and what Visconti said about how Fripp recorded the wailing siren part of the song.

    Because what is that standing next to Bowie? That looks to be a half stack guitar amplifier. and listening to the track it sure sounds like Fripp used that since studio monitors in general are not made to have the resonance that guitar speaker cabs can generate when the amp is turned up to “search-for-cover” volume levels.

    But then again, what do I know, I wasn’t there.

    Wouter Jaegers
  • Hendrix was asked who were the best band he had ever seen and without hesitation he said King Crimson. We all know that Fripp is the insinuating menacing guitar line of all the King Crimson iterations just as his guitar is the wailing soul of Heroes. This song is a credit to Bowie’s genius for collaboration; at the same time it is completely Bowie, very Eno and with the spirit of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground haunting both the lyrics and the rhythm section and top of that Visconti’s intuition as a producer is the sound of one hand clapping. Unrepeatable brilliance!

    Garry Gleeson
  • This is amazing. I was watching a band play live on TV today and the guitarist is playing with an ebow. I think immediately, "I wonder if they used an ebow on the recording of ‘Heroes’? " Why, I don’t know; all I know is it made me think of that distinctive sound. And here’s the story. No ebow, just Robert Fripp looping multiple tracks of distortion on studio speakers without any amp, rehearsal, key signature, or benefit of playback. Of course!

    It must be amazing to work on recordings like that, with people like Bowie and Eno and Visconti.

    Johnny
  • When David played this at The Concert for New York gave me the chills. Great great song.

    Rick
  • Saw King Crimson at the Count Basie in Red Bank,NJ last night and Heroes was the first encore song. LOVED IT! Now I know the back story.

    PKayne

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