Frank Zappa: Guitar Player

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By Bill Milkowski
Down Beat, February 1983


© 1983 Down Beat

He considers himself too irascible and cynical to be interviewed, yet he remains one of the most outrageously outspoken, eminently quotable figures in popular music.

Over the past 18 years – an astounding, prolific career that has seen him produce 40-plus albums, four films, four ballets, various works for orchestras, and one musical stage play entitled Hunchentoot – he has been revered as a genius by some, scorned as a dangerous upstart by others. He has cultivated a large, loyal following from his endless outpouring of recorded music and his countless concert appearances. And he has made enemies (radio programmers, disco dancers, and the Moral Majority topping the list).

He is a social commentator, a humorist, a composer, a 41-year-old father of four, an independent businessman (having formed his own Barking Pumpkin Records in 1981), a filmmaker, a Sagittarius with Capricorn rising, and a former employee of the Nile Running Greeting Card Company.

Given that avalanche of credits, it is perhaps easier to understand how we sometimes lose sight of this very simple fact: FRANCIS VINCENT ZAPPA CAN PLAY THE GUITAR!

So to bring that point to light and clear up any questions about the matter, this multi-faceted Zappa released a stunning three-record set of strictly instrumental music last year, showcasing FZ at his fiendish best on guitar solos in various styles. This ambitious package is titled, appropriately enough, Frank Zappa: Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar "reviewed on page 29", and until recently picked up for nationwide distribution by CBS, was available to hard-core Zappa fans by mail only.

A terse comment on the back of the album box aptly states the premise of this project: "While the papers and magazines shouted the praises of every other fashionable guitar strangler and condemned Zappa for having the guts to sing lyrics they felt were disgusting, he quietly continued to play things on his instrument that were far more blasphemous than any words could convey. In the rush to be offended by what he said, the music press forgot to listen to what his guitar was talking about. Zappa's guitar solos, as captured in this album, say a lot of things that just might prove to be embarrassing to the writers who forgot to listen."

So for this down beat interview, we decided to focus on this often overlooked side of the Renaissance man ... Frank Zappa: Guitar Player.


You were actually composing classical music before you ever picked up a guitar, then at the age of 16 you got hooked on r&b music. What was the early fascination there?
Well, let's face it, there's nothing that sounds like an electric guitar. Good ol' distorted electric guitar is a universe of sound that transcends the actual noise that is coming out. I mean, you can take one fuzztone note from a guitar and look at it on a spectrum analyzer and calculate everything that's in it, but there's so much more in it than the harmonic components. It just says something that no other instrument says. It has emotional content that goes beyond other instruments. And nothing is more blasphemous than a properly played distorted guitar. It is capable of making blasphemous noises, and that's what first attracted me.

You've mentioned Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown as major influences.
I wouldn't say that Gatemouth sounded so blasphemous. Johnny "Guitar Watson" was an extremely evil-sounding guitar player at the time, but the smuttiest one I heard was Guitar Slim [Eddie Jones]... just pure smut. The thing that I liked about the two solos I heard when I was 16 that really intrigued me – the solo on Three Hours Past Midnight and the solo on The Story Of My Life – was not just the tone of the instrument but the absolute maniac way that he spewed out these notes in a phrase with little or no regard to the rest of the meter or what was going on, but still being aware of where the beat was. He was just yellin' it at you.

More like a voice, which is how you think about your own solo playing.
Yeah, I think that's the most direct way to communicate with somebody, using speech rhythms. That really makes a big difference. Because, if you listen to a guy playing nice neat scale patterns and things like that, no matter how skillful he is in making his stuff land on the beat, you always hear it as Music – capital "M" music – lines, chord changes, and stuff like that. Real studied. But if you want to get beyond music into emotional content, you have to break through that and just talk on your instrument, just make it talk. And if you're gonna make it talk, you have to be aware that there's a different rhythmic attitude you have to adopt in order to do that.

Playing off the beat, around it...
No, you don't say to yourself, "I'll now play off the beat." I don't know how to tell you how to do it. You just make it talk, and if you then go back and analyze those rhythms, you'll see that there's some really strange looking things on paper. You have to take the approach that what you're doing on your instrument is that without using your own mouth you are getting some kind of theoretical idea or an attitude that transcends the actual notes or harmony of the song. It goes beyond all that and gets right to some emotional point you want to get across. And that's what I appreciated about those early solos by Guitar Slim and Johnny "Guitar" Watson; there was no f*¢#ing around. They got right to the point.

Did you own a guitar at the time you first heard them?
No, my brother Bobby did. He had bought this old guitar for $1.50 at an auction, and he never played it, so I just picked it up and started messing around with it. I actually started on drums when I was 12, but after hearing Guitar Slim and those guys, I began collecting r&b records and working out things. I didn't know any chords; I just started playing the blues... period. That's all I wanted to play. I hated jazz and didn't care about anything else then. The guitar I had wasn't electric – just an arch-top, f-hole, unknown-brand guitar with the strings way above the fingerboard. I didn't know about technique or anything, I just had to teach myself what to do with it. It was all by ear.

And during this period of learning licks off of records, did you also learn by watching other guitarists play?
There were none to watch, not where I lived, in Lancaster, California. There were no local groups, and as far as touring groups or anything, nobody at that time came to Lancaster. Before our family moved to that town, they had a rock & roll concert there at the local fairgrounds where a number of black r&b groups would perform, but some people began selling drugs to the local cowboys at these concerts, and the city council had sworn that they would never allow this evil form of entertainment back into the Antelope Valley. And there hadn't been any kind of movement in the area until I formed my band. Then they gave me a lot of trouble. My band played strictly rhythm & blues music. We didn't know any rock & roll songs. In fact, everybody in the band hated rock & roll. Rock & roll was that horrible Elvis Presley kind of hillbilly music. I liked Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed and that kind of stuff.

Were you singing then?
Naw, I'm still not singing, are you kidding? We didn't even have a microphone. It was all just instrumental boogie music.

And what guitar were you playing with this band?
I started off with a [Fender] Telecaster, which I rented from a music store. After that I bought a [Fender] Jazzmaster, which I used for about a year-and-a-half while playing lounge gigs at places like Tommy Sandy's Club Sahara in San Bernadino. That guitar got repossessed, but then I made some money by writing music for a film, so I went out and bought a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster, one of those big fat hollow-body jobs with three pickups on it. I used to really like that guitar; it had a nice neck on it, but there was a real problem with uncontrollable feedback whenever I needed more amplification for larger halls. That's common for hollow-bodies. A lot of people said, "Well, just stuff it with styrofoam and it won't feedback so much," but I didn't feel like doing that. So I switched to a solid body, a Les Paul gold-top, which I used for a couple of albums. And eventually I got Gibson SG. The hollow-body had a nice feel and I liked the tone of it, but you could never use a fuzztone with it, and there was no way to tweeze it up and make it work. Remember, in those days there were no graphic equalizers or any other scientific equipment.

What was this first film project you mentioned?
It was called Run Home Slow (The Film), a western starring Mercedes McCambridge which was written by my high school English teacher [at Antelope Valley High]. It was an independent feature that I scored with a little orchestra, and I made enough money off of that to not only buy my first guitar but also buy the recording studio that I started off in.

When did you start experimenting with fuzztones and other distortion effects?
Well, the very first fuzztone that I ever heard about was designed by a guy named Paul Buff, the same guy who invented the Keypex and the Gain Brain and a number of other studio utensils. He has a company on the West Coast now called Valley People. He was also the guy who I bought that first recording studio from ... a real electronic genius. What he did was he plugged an electric bass into a phonograph preamp and then plugged it directly into the board, like a fuzz bass. It was one of the greatest noises I ever heard. Prior to that, if you wanted to distort a guitar, you could plug your guitar into the input on the amp that was supposed to be for microphone. The old Gibson amps used to be able to do that; you'd get some really ugly distortion. But the only other way to get distortion in those days was to slash the speakers.

There's a story I've told before about taking demo tapes to various record companies during the '60s. One of them was a recording I made with Captain Beefheart before he was Captain Beefheart; we had this group called the Soots, and he had done a deranged version of the Little Richard tune Slippin And Slidin'... kind of a delta blues with fuzztone guitar. Now remember, this was 1962. So I took that tape to a guy at Dot Records, which was one of the few companies in Hollywood that was buying masters produced outside of the record company. So I took it to the guy and he said, "We can't release this! The guitar is distorted!" The guy's name is Milt Rogers.

No doubt a vacuum cleaner salesman today ...
Perhaps.

And when did the wah-wah come into the picture?
After the fuzztone, around 1966 or 1967. I was one of the first guys to use one, I'll tell you that. I loved the noise. The last tour, though, I didn't use any wah-wah at all. In fact, the only effect that I did use were three DDLs [digital delays] for different functions: one to give me slight delay with a little bit of pitch shift so it makes a vibrato and just thickens the sound, and the other two for passages that we'd just play over and over again, like recording loops.

What's interesting about your video, The Dub Room Special, is that we get a chance to see you in two very different settings – the 1974 band and the 1980 band. Did you use different equipment for each context?
Oh yeah. I played the Gibson SG in the 1974 segments and the Les Paul in 1980. But on the last tour, in Europe, I hardly played the Les Paul at all. I played all Strat. I've got a Floyd Rose apparatus on my Strat, and it just changed the world for me. Basically, it's a vibrato bar apparatus that doesn't go out of tune, which had been the main drawback to playing a Strat, because a couple of good yanks on the bar with that and you're out to lunch. But the Floyd Rose stays in tune. I had this thing installed so that you could not only bend way down but bend up on it; it'll take you up a whole step or drop it down below an octave, so it gives you the possibility to play glissandos and other types of sounds that you can't get any other way. I also had some special equalizer circuits put into the guitar so that I can make the thing sustain to disgusting amounts at any volume.

Of course, I didn't have the same amplification equipment in those earlier band segments that I'm using now. Science has come a long way since 1974. With that band I was using Marshalls, and in those days if you wanted Marshalls to distort, you had to turn them up all the way. But since that segment was originally intended for a tv show and was shot in a small place – like 200 people in the audience – I had to turn it way down. No sustain... a very old-fashioned kind of sound. So that's what you get from the '74 footage. The amplification that I was using on the last tour we did of Europe, I was using three different kinds of amps – Carvin, Acoustic, and Marshall in different types of speaker configurations. I had each amp set up to do a certain type of a function. The Acoustic amp was set up to be more low and mid-range, a more muddy sound. The Marshall is always gonna sound like a Marshall – really screaming. And the Carvin would be used in a kind of a bright fuzztone sound. So all that blended together.

Can you talk about the different rhythmic settings that the two bands offered and how that affected your role as a guitar player?
Well, playing in the group with George (Duke) and Ruth (Underwood) was a lot easier. I don't think I was playing that well there, but it was real easy to play with George, especially, because he's such a great musician and you can always count on him to play something musical behind you. It's not just a matter of having a keyboard player to blast his way through and be obnoxious during somebody else's solo. George would always seem to support whoever was doing a solo, whether it was Napoleon (Murphy Brock), me, or whoever. It was musical to play with him, and I don't always get that same sensation from other accompanists that I've worked with since that time.

Frequently within the last few years, I've been put in performance situations where there's been a temptation for other musicians to overplay in the background department, so I've had to create regulations within the band that will limit the amount of accompaniment that will support me. Especially when you have a large band, there's always a temptation for everybody to go into Jam Sessionland when a guy plays a solo. And it just makes a mess.

You've made some comments recently about how proud you are of your current touring group, especially in terms of their rhythmic support.. .
Some yes and some no. And that's generally the way it's been for the last eight years. There's always a few who are right in there. I had a real good ESP/musical relationship with Vinnie Colaiuta, so I thought that playing with him was real good. And by the time the European tour was over, I thought the rhythm section in this band had turned out to be real good. But there's always those occasions when – this is especially true of the keyboards and percussion – they just play extra stuff that didn't need to be in there. Because when you're on-stage with a lot of lights, and the lights are going on and off, you always have a tendency to say to yourself, "Gee, am I doing enough for the audience to notice me?" And in times of stress, that would be the guiding factor in a musician's decision as to whether to be quiet or cavort.

I would guess that Steve Vai might tend to unconsciously slip into cavorting because of his amazing facility on the guitar.
Well, Steve has many great attributes, but playing rhythm guitar is not one of them. He's really quite a virtuoso. His duties in the band are mostly to play the hard-written lines and real complicated stuff that is beyond my capability – all that whammy-bar stuff on Stratocaster. He's fantastic, but I don't really feel that comfortable with him doing rhythm because with the best intentions in the world, sometimes he will come up with stuff that might tweeze me off in the wrong direction. But he's a great player. Ray White, on the other hand, can play fantastic rhythm accompaniment, but quite often he lays back and tucks himself away when he shouldn't.

What is the ideal attitude for an accompanist in your band to have?
You have to be sympathetic to what's going on. You can't be concerned about your relative position in the musical universe. If you're out there playing a piece of music, you have to go for the music and not for yourself. And I could see situations where if the lead player was holding one note and the rhythm player knew what he was doing, that a passage of various chords against that would be fantastic to listen to, so long as when the rhythmic and melodic activity stepped up on the lead instrument that there wasn't a bunch of extra chords to go along with it to make it muddy. Remember, most of the places where we're working are large environments where the chords and notes hang in the air longer than they should, so they just tend to obliterate each other. It's difficult to do amplified music arrangements in an environment like that because you don't really know what's going to happen to the music until you stick it into the air mass that it's going to function in.

So you're looking for a clean juxtaposition of the two . . .
I'm looking for music; musical ideas that will get the point across without worrying about certain types of industrial correctness. I don't think the audience gives a f*¢# about industrial correctness. They want to get some kind of message out of what you're playing. They want who you are and what you do and anything that gets in the way of that is, to me, not aesthetic.

This idea of air mass is something that most bands don't consider.
Well, you've gotta consider it. If you're playing a room with very little reverberance, you can play a million notes and you'll hear all of them. But the decay time varies with the size of the room and the material of the walls and things like that. . . hockey rinks being the worst, which is where we usually tend to play.

St. John's Cathedral in Manhattan ... three-second delay.
International Amphitheatre in Chicago ... 10-second delay. The Palle De Sporte in Leon ... gotta be at least a 20-second delay because it's a circular building and the notes just go around and around and around, and after they go around, they hang. It's really horrible to play in places like that. You just can't enjoy it because you know the audience just doesn't get any sense out of what you're doing. They just gotta be watching you like some kind of tv show or something because they sure can't hear you. In extremely resonant places like that, you simply cannot play fast. It all just turns into a cluster. So you have to compensate for it consciously in the band. The band has to want to do a good job in that kind of environment, and you have to be playing arrangements that permit that to happen. That's why I'm fussy about trying to arrange things and getting people to stick to their parts because I do give some thought as to what's gonna happen when you play it; there's gotta be enough space in there so that the sound will work in an air space. That's what makes the music work. It doesn't work on paper and it doesn't work in a vacuum. It works in air. You hear it because air molecules are doing something that happens to your eardrums. That's how you hear it, whether it's coming out of a record player or a p.a. system or acoustically in a concert hall. So without those little molecules you don't have nuthin'.

What we're talking about when you perform music is you're talking about sculptured air. Patterns are formed in the airwaves; all the different frequencies of all the instruments playing are making patterns, and your ear is detecting those patterns. And beyond the music, purely on a scientific level, these frequencies are also touching off certain psychological and physiological reactions in the listener. One certain frequency will stop your heart; something else will make you take a shit; another will give you a headache; something else will give you a nosebleed; another will spur sympathetic emotions in you. So my theory is that you don't just perceive music or sound just through your ears, you get it through your entire body. I mean, I hear things in my throat, in my stomach, in my arms, in my feet ... you just get it all over. And when you're talking about the kind of amplification that you're using in a big concert hall, you are doing something to people besides entertaining them. You are affecting their bodies, and you should be aware of that while you're playing loud.

Getting back to equipment, which of the three guitars you carry on tour – the Strat, the SG, and the Les Paul – do you prefer?
Each one has its assets and its liabilities. The Les Paul, even though it has a thicker neck, for some reason you can play certain passages on it three or four times faster than you can on the Strat. But then again, you can't get the same type of sustain or vibrato, and you can't play those weird glissandos on the Les Paul. So, it just depends on what you want to say on the instrument. The Les Paul has more 200 cycles [bottom end] to it, so it's got a meatier sound. The SG tends to have a brighter sound with the tone somewhere between 500 cycles to 1000 cycles. The Strat that I'm using now seems to have a little more bite at 2K [2000 cycles], but it has the option of a lower frequency distortion because you can turn the parametric equalizer and pick up a lower range and boost the snot out of that to reinforce that oinky high end that you normally get out of a Strat at high volume. It gives the appearance on tape of being as fat as the Les Paul but with the bite of a Strat, so you get the best of both worlds out of it. And that Floyd Rose apparatus on the Strat is interesting to me because you can really go out to lunch with it, then let it come back – especially with chords. It's an amazing sound to hear the complete deterioration and then hear it come back. It's right there.

I'd like to ask you about a specific technique that seems to be a Zappa motif on several of your recordings – the Bulgarian bagpipe technique.
You mean with the pick on the strings? With your left hand you're fretting the notes and with your right hand you're also fretting the notes with a pick. Instead of plucking the string you're fretting the string, you hit the string and then that presses it against the fret so it actuates the string and also determines the pitch, and you can move back and forth real fast that way... just aiming it straight down at the string. On the guitar album you can hear it on Gee I Like Your Pants and Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression. Actually, I learned it from Jim Gordon, who is a drummer, and he picked it up from some other guitar player. He showed it to me in 1972. That's when I first saw anybody do it, and the first time I ever used it in concert was in Vienna in 72 or 73. I decided I would try it, and I've done it ever since.

Do you play any of this Eddie Van Halen harmonic stuff on the other side of the nut?
Oh, I can. But everybody now is specializing in that. It's the new hip thing to do ... including my son Dweezil. He's very good at it. Steve Vai taught him a few of those tricks. It's a nice sound, but it sounds so much like a gimmick. It's so freeze-dried because it's such a customary modern-day fuzztone syndrome, which is not part of my musical language. It's something that I can appreciate if somebody else does it, but it's not me.

Do you still play your SG at all?
Well, right now I'm not playing at all. I just kinda stopped playing after the last date on the European tour. I haven't touched a guitar since. I just haven't been too enthusiastic about playing.

What is your opinion of your own playing lately?
I think it's a case of too little too late. I mean, I really have just about lost interest in playing guitar. I tried. I did everything that I could, but I don't feel like doing it anymore. I'm interested in other things now. I mean, I did it. Now I'm thinking of selling my guitars.

But wouldn't you say that your playing has improved over the years?
In some ways, yeah, in some ways no. In some ways it's a lot worse. I used to play more parts in the band, but I was never really accurate at it. I was a very unreliable parts player because I've always been sloppy. I wouldn't sit there and practice for months on end. I mean, there are guys who practice for life. I ain't got time for it. I got a few other things I have to take care of. I have to run the business of what I do. I can't sit there and devote myself to just playing really fast scales. Besides that, it would be boring for me to do it. I like the instrument, I like the way it sounds, I like the fun of playing concerts, but I tried for years and nobody gave a f*¢#. So that's it. I got enough tapes of me playing to release 'em for another 15 years. So it's senseless for me to keep doing it.

But from what I've seen lately of you in concert, I would've guessed that you'd be more enthusiastic these days. I mean, you were playing your butt off on the last tour – Whipping Post, no less!
Well, I love to play the blues ... but you gotta look at it from my point of view. Every time I play a solo with a band, it makes me feel like I'm wasting their time, you know what I mean? Like they have more important things that they should be playing. Also, the audience's tolerance for instrumental music in the United States is not that great. They want to hear some songs. If you have some records out, especially if there's a new release that you're touring with, the audience expects to hear some songs they are familiar with. Otherwise, they don't feel that they got their value for their ticket. You could be ready, willing, and able to do something that is above the call of duty, but unless you perform those basic functions of playing things that they know and like for a certain part of the show, it's not only not fair to them because that's probably why they came there, but I think it's actually rude to defeat the audience's desires. So I try to mix and match. I try to play enough things that they want to hear, along with things that are brand new which are being rehearsed on the tour for recording, along with stuff that might even be made up on the tour, and some improvisations. On the European tour I was averaging eight to 10 solos a night in a two-hour show. But see, today people are very much oriented to the two-minute song. They want little quick songs that go bye-bye real fast. And the least fashionable thing that you can do on a stage is to play a real long guitar solo. I mean, everybody goes, "Ooooo, yuk! That's like the '60s! What is this, The Grateful Dead?" And journalists are also inclined to say in reviews that this is a bad thing to do.

So f*¢# 'em if they can't take a joke.
Well, yeah, but by the same token, in certain countries the power of a journalist to destroy a group within a matter of moments is there. If you're getting bad reviews or somebody says your show is boring, then in times of economic stress, why would anybody buy a f*¢#in' ticket to go see your show when they could see this band that plays a mass of two-minute songs? It's disgusting to me, because if a society lets itself be led around by arbiters of taste like that, when you have to go by somebody else's word of what is good and what is bad, and you don't get to decide for yourself, and you're willing to give up your freedom of choice, then you're a fool. It's a sad state, but that's the way it is, and you have to deal with things as they are, not the way you wish they were.