Frank Zappa Talks Gear, Praises Steve Vai in His First Guitar World Interview from 1982
Frank Zappa talks gear and praises Steve Vai, the inventive young guitarist in his band.
Do you prefer any of the guitars that you use? Is there one sound that you really feel the most comfortable with?
Well, my ideal would be a combination of a bunch of different kinds of guitars. I like the vibrato bar if it's on a Strat. But I don't like a normal Strat neck because the curve is wrong for my hand. I like the neck I used to have on the SG because it was a 23-fret neck. And the fret spacing was more comfortable for my hand. But I like the tone quality and sustain that I get out of the Les Paul, which is due to the bulk of the guitar.
And so, if I could get all of that together in one instrument that didn't weigh a million pounds I would be a happy guy. But, as it stands now, for recording I switch around to whatever guitar makes exactly the right noise that I want and use that. And for the stage I use the Les Paul because it's the most generally suitable guitar for solo-type stuff the way I play. Although the neck isn't as fast as the SG. It really slows me down, it's more cumbersome.
Are your guitars basically standard models with modifications?
They are not custom?
No. Not custom.
Why don't you use custom guitars?
Well, I had one custom guitar built for me one time. And I didn't like it. So I'll never do it again.
What kind of modifications did you build into the Les Paul?
The Les Paul has a pre-amp and it has two different kinds of pickups, and it has a Dan Armstrong pickup in the neck position and it has a carbon pickup in the bridge position. It has a Dan Armstrong gizmo called The Green Ringer built into it, which I can dial in. It also has a EQ circuit which in one position gives you about an 8db boost at 8-K and the other position gives you an 8db boost at 500 cycles, so you can either go from a bright sound to a more mid-rangey wah-wah kind of sound, all built into the guitar.
And then it has a pickup selector switch that has nine positions. It changes the wiring between the pickups in a lot of different ways, so it's got a lot of tonal variation. I can make it sound just like a Telecaster if I want. Unfortunately, in that position it's not humbucking and under the lights it makes a lot of noise but in a studio it's usually okay. And then there's a little toggle switch on it that goes from series to parallel on the pickups and depending on where the pickup selector switch is set that gives you yet another whole series of variations. And so, I have 18 times three different tone selections on that guitar.
Does it maintain a unique character, though, that is strikingly different from other guitars that you use?
It's the sustain more than anything else. You get a very warm sound and it also depends on how I have my amp set. But, you can make notes ring for weeks on end on that thing. And there is no compression on it. It just sustains until you want to go home. I'm playing through three different amplifiers now. I'm using a small acoustic studio amp, a carbon and a Marshall and they are all for different EQ's, and they're miked individually. And that's blended together out in the house.
I may be wrong about this, but it seems in the past that the relationship of your guitar to the band was that the band would play and then you would do a solo often with accompaniment. But this time I noticed you did a lot of work with the other guitars, while the other guitarist was playing, at the time, dual solos.
That's an illusion. There is only one point in the show where we play at the same time in linear fashion, and that's in "Stevie's Spanking," and the reason that I drop out for the first part of that is I stay out completely while he's actually playing his solo because it would distract from him. And then when he's done playing his 32 bars or whatever, then we play together for a little while. I tend to minimize what I'm playing so he can do all of his Stratocaster extravaganza, bend notes together and stuff like that. That's basically his song. But, the only other place where we do it in the show is in a song called "Teen Age Prostitute" where we have some triple guitar lines. And in "Your Moquna" where there are some triple guitar lines. But, all ofthe rest of the stuff, if I am playing the solo it's with the minimum accompaniment to make it work.
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