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.
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.
Yeah, that's true for the most part. But, had you always played with other guitars at the same time?
No. Not really.
That is a new thing for you?
It's a fairly recent thing I've been playing with.
Does that represent any ...
Major breakthrough .. .
Well, any working out of long-term concept?
No. I feel comfortable playing with Steve Vai, I mean, I like the way he plays. I think he's really a great guitar player. He does everything on the guitar that I don't do. He does all of the stock Stratocaster noises and he makes everything that Van Halen ever dreamed of and then some. He reads music. He plays sixteenth notes which I don't play. And he does all of this stuff that I don't do; and I think that our styles are kind of complementary. He's a good musician and I enjoy playing with him because he's not just a Mongolian string-bender. And he's a thoroughly trained musical person. And I like working with him.
Do you then change your band according to the musicians in it or do you look for the musicians to change the group?
Well, I have ideals I always shoot for but you can't always get what you want. You know, the musicians are chosen by audition. And they come in and tryout against each other to see who gets the job.
Yeah, but do you know what you're looking for in advance pretty much?
And then once you find . . . well, take Steve for instance. Did you realize you would do those kinds of things with him?
Oh, I think I knew that from the first time I heard his cassette. Because his cassette was intelligent and it sounded like he was a person who was interested in music rather than being just a rock and roll star. I like that.
Is everything absolutely written out, or are there improvisational parts there?
Well, you can tell a guitar solo from a written part, can't you?
Sure. But ...
All of the rest of the arrangements are specified, if not on paper, then they've specified by rote where I will say, "You play this at this point. And then the break goes here and this goes there." I tell them what to do. You don't just walk out on stage and let your mind run wild.
Of course, but while you are in the process of developing the arrangements do you ever . .. just give a sort of general instruction to the musician about what to play?
Only when it's appropriate for the texture of the song. Some things you want to have a loose kind of background. I mean, I don't hum 'em every note of a reggae background. No. They know what the style is and so they modify to suit. And I always try and design the arrangements around the assets and the liabilities of the guys who are playing. There are certain things that some people can't do. So you shouldn't ask them to do it. And there are other things that they are really good at and you are a fool if you don't get them to stick some of that into the song. So, I balance it out.
What direction are you heading in right now?
You don't have anything ...
Oh, I know what I want to do but I can only go where I can afford to go. Remember, I'm self-financed. I can tell you that I want to make a movie tomorrow or I want to go out and do something with a symphony orchestra or I want to do this or I want to do that. I have to wait and see how much money I have to invest in the next project. And that will determine what the project will be.
But given your current group, ... is that pretty much what we see is what we get, or do they suggest another group of songs or ... there were some things you played that I had never heard before.
There are other things that are already recorded that you haven't heard on stage, too. Because we did a bunch of recording before we left LA.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, coming later this week.