By Tony Bacon
On eventually entering Zappa's room at London's Dorchester Hotel, I noticed that the previous interviewer had just finished, and was embarking on what is often the more interesting part of an interview: when you turn the cassette player off. He was asking Frank if he enjoyed interviews, to which the reply came that he loved them, and then he said, rather more interestingly, that he always tried to slant answers to the needs of the particular publication or radio station or whatever involved. Good news, I thought.
As Mr. Zappa dived into a peach melba which had just appeared in all its magnificence for the great man to devour, my mind went back to the concert earlier in the week at Hammersmith Odeon – I'd been totally impressed by everything but the sound – and that was due to my positioning in the circle I'm sure, because some friends in the stalls had reported excellent sound. The stage set-up at the concert was very pleasing, giving the band plenty of room, a large platform to the rear of the stage taking Terry Bozzio's drums, Eddie Jobson's keyboards and Patrick O'Hearn's bass amplification, the rest of the stage given over to Frank's amplification, pedalboard and stool (centre stage), second guitarist Ray White's amp, and Eddie Jobson's plexiglass violin sitting on a stand. The band threw themselves enthusiastically into "Peaches en Regalia," the opener, followed by "The Torture Never Stops," and things got better and better. How did Frank feel about the stage sound?
"From what I could hear, it was okay. Myself, I use Marshall and Acoustic amps, and also there's a stereo feed from the guitar that goes direct to the PA. The pedalboard I have has 27 different buttons. It's a specially-built thing that_ looks a little like a small version of the G.P.O. Tower around here. It has all the normal fuzz and phasing switches taken from their little boxes and put on this thing. It was constructed at the beginning of this tour – this is the first tour where I've actually used it."
The board looked very impressive, lights being illuminated on the front every time a different setting was selected. But 27 settings? Didn't he find it a little confusing?
"Well, it's a little ungainly, and since my leg is crooked it's hard to stand up, it's hard to do pseudo punk-rock choreography and dash over sticking one leg out to hit just the right button out of 27, and hope that the levels you set during the soundcheck, say the level of fuzz versus the normal guitar, is gonna come out right. Keeps you thinking, alright! They're all useful effects for different kinds of songs and different types of settings.
"One thing that I've enjoyed using has been the Eventide harmoniser that I have included on the board. I had been using it to do some space effects and stuff like that, but one day I decided to set the pitch control at 99, instead of some lower figure, so that means that the double note is a small per cent flat from your original note, and it comes out about 30 milliseconds late. So I've got that split left and right, because I have switching on the pedalboard that allows me to cut off the Marshall and the Acoustic, so the only thing the audience hears is the direct sound from the PA. When you strum chords through that it makes them sound really full, and then when you punch in the normal guitar amps, you get all the distortion.
"There are so many different combination possibilities with the switching set-up on the pedalboard the way it is that, as I've only been using it about a month, I haven't been able to experiment with all the ones that really work in a concert situation. If you don't have enough time before a concert to set all the levels you can step on a button and get a horrible surprise. There's still some improvements that I'm going to make on the board; the guy that built it for me is Klaus Wiedermann, who's on the crew now, and used to work for Stockhausen. Unfortunately he's leaving the crew at the end of this tour to do six weeks skiing!"
In addition to Klaus, described as "Mr. Fixit," this Zappa tour has involved a pretty hefty crew, including a sound mixer, a monitor mixer, keyboard tuner and maintenance person, drum roadie, two truck drivers, lighting designer and operator plus assistant, power distribution man, security man and Larry, the road manager. Naturally enough, all these people ensure that the gigs can function properly and with the least number of problems. But, of course, no artist performs without the proper tools, and the subject turned to guitars. At the gig I saw Frank was playing an SG-shaped instrument – was it an SG?
"It's not really an SG, it's a homemade guitar. I bought it from a kid in Arizona, he brought it around after a show, about four or five years ago."
There was an SG pictured on the cover of his live "Roxy and Elsewhere" album, was it the same guitar?
"No. That is an SG, but a different one. Both of them have shaved necks, but the Roxy cover one is my favourite, but there are some problems with that; the neck's been shaved so much that it's hard to keep it in tune, it flaps around like a piece of cardboard. This SG that I was playing here has one extra fret, going up higher than a normal SG, so it means that all the rest of the fret scaling is a little bit tighter. But it's got an ebony fingerboard, which I find nicer. I bought the other SG (the Roxy cover one) second-hand, and it 's really good. The frets were all beat up on it, it was broken in just right.
"Both the guitars I'm using now have 12-volt bi-polar pre-amps, and plus or minus 20dB volume and tone controls as well as different ranges for the EQ's – like the treble control's got a switch selector which gives you one of two ranges, the bass has a similar range selector, and there's a pick-up splitter switch that'll change it from humbucking to a single-coil, along with a phasing switch on it that gives you some really whistling harmonics."
As well as the SG's, Frank has a stack of other guitars, including three Strats.
"Each one of the Strats is wired differently," explained Frank, "one of them, for example, has a Barcus Berry at the end of the neck, which means that if I hammer notes on the neck, it's picked up as part of the picking sound. It also has a special pick-up that was made by Rex Bogue – he was the guy that made that double-necked monstrosity for McLaughlin – he does most of the work on my guitars. I also have Martin, Guild and Gibson acoustics, I've got a bouzouki and a sitar, and two Acoustic Black Widows, made by the Acoustic Control Corporation, one of which has a special pick-up shaped like loops for the strings to go under, similar to what they use on the Condor. I've also got a Hofner bass, a Rickenbacker 12-string and a Fender 12- string, both of which are a little tweezed, and I have a Gibson Switchmaster."
Frank has also been involved with various types of guitar synthesizer, and started by trying Bob Eastern's 360 guitar synthesizer system, but eventually found that it didn't suit the way he plays. It's got a frequency follower connected to the output of each of the individual strings, and this six-channel frequency follower converts to a voltage and drives a synthesizer. So what was the problem with this system?
"Before the frequency follower identifies the pitch, it has to hear the pitch, so your picking technique has to be exactly coordinated with the time your finger lands on the fret, otherwise you get a little chunk of white noise that precedes the actual pitch, and that chunk of white noise drives the follower crazy, it can't determine which pitch it's supposed to tell the synthesizer to play. What happens is that it doesn't do anything for a split second, so when I played this thing it always sounded like the synthesizer was talking late, because my technique relies a lot on the left hand. The system really was six-channel stereo, each string was driving a separate oscillator, filter and bla, bla, bla, and if you panned it out, you had a six-channel spectrum, you strummed a chord and it would all happen in glorious technicolour.
"But there have been improvements in the guitar synthesizer line; there's one I' m getting when I return to the States that's made by Ampeg, and it's more suited to the way I play. It's a mono device; you've heard of the Vox Guitar, Organ? Where the string touching the fret made the electrical contact? Well with this new device, the length of the fingerboard is divided up into the electromathematical equivalents of all the pitch steps that you would produce from a synthesizer keyboard – press down this fret and it gives you the voltage that gives you, say, F. But you can't play chords on it. I tried it, and because I do so much stuff with my left hand, it's a lot better for what I'm playing."
Zappa's albums have nearly always included something recorded live amongst the tracks, whether it be a straight live recording or, as has happened more recently, a partly live track that has been added to in the studio. I asked him whether he liked this approach as opposed to recording straight away in the studio.
"Well, sometimes we wind up with a basic track from a concert that's not quite perfect, so I'll strip things off, and then overdub them back on until it's right. The important thing is to get the right version of it; doesn't make any difference to me whether it's live or studio, so long as everything's okay. Sometimes I think that getting a live track with all the frenzy of it as it happens in the show, and then stripping off everything but the rhythm section and putting the precise parts back on a little bit at a time gives me the best results, because it's difficult to work up that same kind of enthusiasm in a recording studio. But then it works the reverse sometimes when you go out on stage, where you may be having some ground (earth) loop problems between the lights and the PA, and you can play a great version where 100% of it is perfect, but you can't use it because of all the extra noise on the tape.
"A good example of all this is the "Be Bop Tango" (from the "Roxy and Elsewhere" live album). On that, the drums are original, the bass is original, the piano is original, the trombone is original and most of the tenor is original, but the rest of the synthesizer stuff was put on at the studio. There's also some stuff that sounds like trumpets in there that are actually Bruce Fowler playing at half speed. He can play the thing up to speed on the trombone, it just comes out an octave lower."
Reading is very important if you play in a band with Zappa. He showed me a violin part for Eddie Jobson, the track was called "The Back. Page" and apparently has been recorded live in New York, and told me that Terry Bozzio's drum part doubled it exactly – the idea started from a drum solo and then develops into this violin/drum piece.
"Just wait till you hear it," he enthused. "I don't write out 100% of what we play on stage, but if I have someone that reads, it makes my job that much easier. Some people don't respond well to being told note by note by note what they're supposed to be playing, and yet with other people that's the only way they can learn. That's a very time-consuming process – try and imagine teaching somebody two-and-a-half hours of music, so they've got it down whole, you get yourself a sore throat in a hurry. With a new piece of music like what I've shown you, I'll present the sheet to them, that's how nearly everything we do originates.
"There is a new piece we're working on in the soundchecks at the moment, it's called "Lady," although-I only have the first few words of it, it goes something like, "I've been looking for a woman I can treat like a dog / So I can call her lady, lady, lady, lady / Lift her leg." It's one of those sort of things that suits Bozzio's voice."
He never did finish the peach melba.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net