Frank Zappa Talks Gear, Praises Steve Vai in His First Guitar World Interview from 1982
The late Frank Zappa made his first Guitar World cover appearance with the March 1982 issue, during the magazine's third year of publication. The cover calls him "America's Most Misunderstood Genius," and the story by John Swenson starts on page 34.
Here's part one of this Zappa interview. We'll post part two later this week.
Frank Zappa was at the Palladium in New York for his perennial Pumpkin Day concert celebration with his most loyal fans.
The maestro played five illuminating shows, running through a range of material which included an instrumental passage from 200 Motels, crowd pleasers like "Montana," "Cosmic Debris," "Bobby Brown," "The Illinois Enema Bandit," ''I'm the Slime" and "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes," virtually everything from the recent LP's You Are What You Is and Tinseltown Rebellion, and even a variation on one of the instrumentals from the Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar mail-order set.
Zappa's crack eight-piece band (himself, Steve Vai and Ray White on guitars, Tommy Mars on keyboards, Bobby Martin on keyboards and horns, Ed Mann on percussion, Scott Thunes on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums) is brilliantly arranged to showcase guitar work, with White pinning down rhythms while Zappa and whiz-kid Vai play breathtaking solo after solo.
There were a few as-yet-unreleased songs thrown in for good I measure, including one particularly interesting tune called "Returning Again," an ironic criticism of the wholesale regurgitation of late sixties/early seventies rock moves by current groups. The song could also be considered a Jimi Hendrix tribute (Zappa has a painting of Hendrix in his basement studio).
The ever unpredictable Zappa surprised the hall on several occasions by playing a full encore version of the most-requested tune in rock concert history, "Whipping Post" (That's right, the Allman Brothers tune) in absolutely deadpan sincerity.
Zappa's own soloing was at an all-time peak, a fact which he later attributed to the superb accompaniment his band offered.
During the Palladium stand he relied on his Les Paul almost exclusively, although he used a Stratocaster for an opening solo. Fortunately, the shows were recorded and some of these solos may well turn upon forthcoming private releases like the Shut Up ... set.
Zappa is such a multifaceted talent that his guitar playing is often overshadowed by his compositional ability when it's not being completely swamped in a misreading of his personality, but the fact of the matter is that he is one of the greatest guitarists we have and is sorely unappreciated as such. His guitar solo albums are only the most recent manifestation of this.
After a year-long boycott on print media interviews (He has done some television interviews during this time); Zappa agreed to talk with me following the Palladium shows. I arrived at his exclusive Upper East Side hotel just in time to see another interviewer scurry out, looking pretty goggle-eyed in a Zappa T-shirt and Smokey the Bear state trooper's hat. Turns out the guy was a state trooper with a passion for Zappa, which he attributed to Frank's antidrug stance . . .
"By the way, I really enjoyed the review that you did of the albums in Guitar World," Zappa said.
GUITAR WORLD: Oh, thanks. I really loved the records.
I am glad I did them. I mean, I have been waiting to do it for a long time. And a lot of people thought I was crazy for spending the time to do it. But right now that group of albums is selling better than You are What You Is and Tinsel Town Rebellion. We went into a profit position after two weeks on the market.
You are selling more through mail order than you are in record store distribution?
Somewhere in there is a message ...
Well, I am just saying you're talking about cost of making the album versus what it has brought in in profit after two weeks. I was in profit on the guitar albums and right now You Are What You Is is only being played on the radio in New York and Connecticut. It's not being played anyplace else and it's not selling worth a shit. And it's a great album. And right now the guitar albums are continuing to sell.
I notice that you seem to use the Les Paul almost exclusively.
Well, I had planned on using the Strat more on this tour. But I had a bunch of modifications done to it, and because I am such a nice person I don't rant and scream when work doesn't get done on my equipment. I was the last guy to have my stuff fixed up by the equipment guys prior to the start of this tour. And, as a matter of fact, they didn't send that Stratocaster out until the Las Vegas date, which was two weeks into the tour. And it's not exactly right. I had some modifications done to it and it doesn't behave exactly right on the stage and so I don't really feel comfortable playing it. I was going to play more Strat on this tour. The first time I used it on the tour at all was on "Zoot Allures" last night.