Frank Zappa, 88-9
Hey Frank, Where You Goin' With That Guitar in Your Hand?
By Alan di Perna
Musician, 1988 September
What's the shortest book in the world? How about The Directory of Hot Guitarists with Good Musical Taste? Think about it. The title may be longer than the book. But one thing's certain: Frank Zappa's name would have to figure prominently in it. How many other acrobatic axemen have consistently sidestepped both metal overkill and fusion flatulence in their pursuit of the perfect extended solo? How many technically dazzling guitarists can you name who can even write all their own goddamn material – good material, mind you – much less produce it? Okay, okay; maybe there's a few besides Zappa. But not many.
Which is why it was such a pity when Frank put down his custom Strat in 1984 to dwell among the highly-programmable perfections of the Synclavier. But fans of the all-toohuman guitar got a treat this year, when Zappa returned to his main instrument and embarked on his Broadway the Hardway tour. Don't salivate too much, though. Zappa – relaxing after the tour in the cluttered, comfortable video lounge at his home studio – has mixed feelings about his triumphant return to the six-stringed realm.
"At first, I was enjoying playing the guitar again. Then, at the end of the tour, this war broke out between the bass player and the drummer. They hated each other's guts. And so I just spent the last six weeks of the tour trying to wend my way through this garbage that was going on onstage. On a good night, the ideas I had for guitar solos came out. On a bad night, it was me versus the band. The audience didn't really know, but it was another example of the kind of thing that made me want to put the guitar down in the first place. I haven't touched the guitar since we came off the road. If I'm sitting around the house, I don't play it. I don't even think about it."
That's the bad news for fans of Zappa's guitar work. The good news is that the '88 tour has been immortalized on tape by Frank's mobile recording truck. Highlights should be released later this year as an installment of his projected six-volume live double-CD series, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. Meanwhile, you can content yourselves with Guitar, an album of guitar solos culled from Zappa's 1979-1984 live work and the latest in his seemingly interminable parade of Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar records.
The solos on Guitar were selected from several hundred hours' worth of concert tapes. Whenever Zappa found a concert with a number of good performances, he would mix the entire show. The best overall songs from these mix sessions generally ended up as part of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. The bitchinest solos were pulled out and edited together to make Guitar.
You know what they say: waste not, want not. But you have to wonder whether there isn't something a little ... well ... prurient about yanking a bunch of guitar solos out of their original contexts like that. Isn't it sort of like taking all the sex scenes out of a good novel or film and editing them all together just for pure slobber value?
"Well, in a way, yeah," Zappa acknowledges. "But I think that's what the marketplace wanted. That's what a guy who really likes guitar solos wants. And there have been enough customers for these albums over the years to prove that they exist out there. They don't want to wait around ... They don't need an excuse to have a guitar solo. And the solos themselves are constructed in such a way that they're like little set pieces. They have melodies of their own, development sections, recapitulations... just like compositions. I think that, for the most part, they do stand as tunes. So I don't find it especially objectionable to present them like that. In a way, it's niche marketing. For people who want that, I've constructed it and there it is."
Zappa himself is someone who has never needed an excuse to hear a guitar solo. Among his personal six-string epiphanies he lists "the first time I heard the guitar solo in Three Hours Past Midnight by Johnny "Guitar" Watson. That's probably one of the most important musical statements I ever heard in my life. And also the guitar solos on I Got Something for You and The Story of My Blues by Guitar Slim. And Lover Man by Wes Montgomery."
Other inspirations came from more immediate sources: "There was this guy named Jim Gordon who used to be a drummer in one of my bands. He's in jail for murder right now. But he showed me how to do that thing [hammering] on the neck of the guitar with a guitar pick. And I certainly put that to good use for a number of years.
"At the time, I wasn't playing guitar with a whammy bar. So another important thing would be when I changed over and started using Strats instead of Gibsons. Before the Floyd Rose tailpiece came along, the old Strats were just so out of tune that I could never stand to listen to them. While the current piece of machinery is not perfect, the Floyd is certainly much better than the original Strat tailpiece, in terms of bringing your strings back into tune once you slack them off."
The Floyd Rose, in turn, helped foster another key Zappa technique: picking way up near – or directly over – the guitar neck. "If you rest your palm on the Floyd Rose," he explains, "it puts the strings out of tune. I like to have some support for my right hand, and the easiest way to get it is to move farther up toward the neck and rest it there. You get better intonation that way too. Picking closer to the bridge gives you the kind of tone that I don't like to use very often. It's like ... twinkie. The tone's a little bit rounder the more you go toward the fingerboard."
Zappa's unmistakable gander-with-sinusitis tone and Svengali control of feedback are in ample evidence all over Guitar. His lifelong fascination with blues riffs anchors his explorations of Middle-Eastern, jazz and twentieth-century "serious music" intervals. And he's one of the few gonzo guitarists who has really exploited the harmonic potential of the low strings on the electric guitar.
"I think most guitarists have a tendency to play like they talk in some way. And since I'm not much of a squealer – I happen to be a baritone kind of guy – to play on the low strings is a little more in phase with my reality."
Not that Frank has total contempt for the "squealers" of the world. His current guitar faves include metal dive-bombers like Yngwie Malmsteen ("In spite of the negative things that are said about him, I happen to think he really can play"), Eddie Van Halen and Ratt's Warren DeMartini. Zappa's own bands have long included a position called "stunt guitarist," which typically gets filled by metal-plated players like Steve Vai. The stunt guitarist's role, says Frank, is twofold: 1) "to enable me to write guitar parts that I could never play myself," and 2) "to reproduce guitar parts I've done on old records, because I can't sing and play lead guitar at the same time onstage. This year's stunt guitar player," Zappa adds, "is also a very excellent guy named Michael Keneally."
Indeed, it's the players and arrangements behind the solos that also help render Guitar enjoyable by people other than slavering guitar fanatics. In particular, Zappa's contrapuntal use of drums often sauces the thematic meat of his guitar riffs.
"My whole concept of what percussion should be is more melodic than the way most people think of rock drums," he observes. "I'm always looking for a drummer who can imagine time subdivided into other sizes and shapes. Someone who approaches the different instruments that make up a drum set as melody instruments, and plays things along with the guitar that make musical sense. You can force a drummer to play that way, but Colaiuta was the first guy I ever ran into who could think that way instinctively. I also like the idea of drums playing exactly what the guitar line is. Some people would think of that as fusion. However, if you listen to mud fusion stuff, you'll notice that the rhythm is pretty much straight up and down. It's all straight sixteenth and thirty-second notes and everybody just rattling away. But what I'm looking for are more odd phrasings. It's very easy for me to get this stuff with the Synclavier."
Which brings us to the crux of the matter. These days, Frank Zappa is much more inclined to get his rocks off on the Synclavier than on the electric guitar. There's always been a curious myopia in his outlook on his own work: a near-sightedness which stresses the intentional over the fortuitous, the notes on the page over the endearing accidents that sometimes happen as the notes get played by human musicians. The Synclavier – with its ability to play back compositions without those accidents – is a dream-come-true for someone with this kind of orientation.
It must be tough being a composer trapped inside a guitarist's body. But it's the composer within that makes Zappa worthy of inclusion in that ultra-slim volume, The Directory of Hot Guitarists with Good Musical Taste.
"When I'm playing a guitar solo I'm doing exactly the same thing that I do as a composer," he insists. "A solo is an instant composition. It's basically the same intellectual process that I would go through writing music on a piece of paper. Only I don't have to write it on a piece of paper. It gets done right away. With the Synclavier, on the other hand, it's a slow process. 'Cause I'm not a keyboard player and I don't type that fast."
The ideal situation, then, might be one that combines Zappa's guitar with the best aspects of his Synclavier work.
"You mean playing the guitar along with a Synclavier sequence? One of these days I'm going to try that. Because bands have become too incredibly expensive. And, especially after experiencing the War of the Rhythm Section on this last tour, I'm not all that enthusiastic about sticking another band together. So I may just try playing guitar along with some sequences before my calluses melt away."
Shut Up 'n' List Yer Guitars
Frank Zappa played two custom Strats on the Broadway the Hardway tour. One was the blonde-finished instrument that also appears on much of the Guitar LP. It consists of a heavy Fender Stratocaster body, a custom neck made by Performance Guitar, a Floyd Rose tailpiece and Seymour Duncan pickups wound for an 8-k boost. Strings are Ernie Ball Stainless Steels.
Except for its lighter-weight body and dark brown finish, the other Strat is virtually the same. Both axes include a custom active electronics circuit developed right at Zappa's Utility Muffin Research Kitchen.
"It's got a gain stage and two parametric EQ circuits built into it," Frank explains. "The pots give you variable frequency selection and variable boost/cut at different frequencies. And then there's a screwdriver adjustment for the Q of the filter. That allows you to tune right into the feedback point of any room so you can really control what you're doing with feedback."
On tour, the guitars went through a pair of Carvin heads and a Roland GP-8 effects processor for Zappa's clean sound. His dirty sound was provided by four Marshall heads: 200 and 250W. Most of the speaker cabinets for these heads were placed and miked beneath the stage for better isolation. In addition, Zappa used a single 50W Marshall head and cabinet for onstage monitoring of his distorto sound.