By Tom Mulhern
Without Frank Zappa, where would popular music be? Most likely, right where it is – or very close. That is to say, his approach to music – complex, unpredictable, and often cynical – doesn't quite fit in with the pre-programmed mainstream of pop music. Elements of all types of music, including contemporary classical, jazz, heavy metal, and practically every other recognizable form are employed with equal aplomb in Zappa's work. In the last 16 years, the 42-year-old guitarist/composer/producer has completed 35 LPs – among them double albums – and there's a raft of material still awaiting mix-down and pressing. He has amused millions, and become legendary for the finely honed (some would say offensive) sense of humor in his songs. His fans are devout. Although other people simply don't like him, in many cases their opinions are formed solely upon the basis of what they've heard about him, rather than as a reaction to his music. (In a 1979 interview with Record Review Magazine, he said, "Most of 'em don't know what I do, but they know my name.") On one occasion, the criticism went beyond mere displeasure: While performing in London in 1971, he was pushed from a stage by an irate member of the audience, and suffered a compound leg fracture and many bruises.
While his reputation is worldwide (largely as a result of onstage antics, biting social commentary, and his lampooning of music, musicians, and music consumers), his work has made hardly a ripple in the pop realm – which is just fine, as far as Frank is concerned. In fact, operating outside the slick, trendy format constraints of pop music - AM radio in particular – has afforded him the freedom to write and perform exactly what he wants, without having to resort to drastically altering his direction every time the public's whims shift. Sure, he's had a few semi-hits: "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" [from Apostrophe], "Dancin' Fool" [Sheik Yerbouti], "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted" [You Are What You Is], and of course the legendary "Valley Girl" [Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch], However, airplay for the overwhelming majority of his hundreds of songs has been sporadic at best.
As a result of his low visibility in the mainstream of Top 40 pop, one might be inclined to think that he's gone nowhere and that he's had no substantial impact on music. Wrong on both counts. Zappa has been putting out records for longer than most other artists, and he has also been far more prolific than his contemporaries. A few of his LPs have even been certified for gold record status. Someone is buying his material. He has also been responsible for some unheralded ground-breaking. In 1966 he simultaneously introduced the concept album and the double album with the Mothers Of Invention's debut LP, Freak Out! In 1968 he dared to parody the mighty Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with his We're Only in It For the Money.
Early in his musical pursuits, Frank developed an avid interest in composers Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, whose non-traditional uses of harmony, rhythm, and orchestration had a profound impact on his approach to writing. In 1968, Lumpy Gravy spotlighted his incorporation of various idioms; it featured 50 musicians (among them guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Al DeMiola, Tony Rizzi, and Dennis Budimir), as well as a 16-piece string section. His orchestral pursuits have continued. As of this writing, the London Symphony is scheduled to perform several of his pieces on January 11  and record them shortly thereafter. Other symphonic works are scheduled for premieres: The Sinister Footwear, which is to be premiered by the Berkeley Symphony and the Oakland Ballet in 1984, as well as a specially written work called The Perfect Stranger, which is to be conducted by renowned composer/conductor Pierre Boulez in the same year.
Frank also incorporated elements of jazz into rock long before it was fashionable; listen, for example, to his 1968 Hot Rats LP. Throughout his career he has brought together well-known and soon-to-be-well-known high-caliber musicians such as guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Jack Bruce, keyboardist George Duke, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Frank has also made a few movies, including 200 Motels and Baby Snakes (the soundtrack of the latter is due for release sometime this year), and is currently editing miles of videotape for future presentation.
What about his guitar playing? He's done a great deal, and provides most of the band's 6-string solos while on tour. He's a stickler for the right tone, and thrives on a sound that laps against feedback. However, he doesn't view himself as a guitar hero. Almost paradoxically, then, he assembled the three-album Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, a set of instrumentals that spotlights his fingerboard excursions. Transcriptions of many of his solos have been prepared for publication under the title The Frank Zappa Guitar Book [Hal Leonard]. Zappa produced these as a result of thousands of requests from guitarists who wanted huge doses of his playing. Besides providing these for his guitar-playing followers, each month he addresses questions on his compositional and instrumental approaches in his monthly Guitar Player column, "Non-Foods."
Since he was last interviewed in Guitar Player [Jan. '77], Frank has found less and less time to devote to the guitar, and only practices before touring. His love for the instrument remains undiminished, but the job of composing, managing his Barking Pumpkin Records, recording and mixing albums, and otherwise making sure that his business is running smoothly, requires constant vigilance. Lawsuits brought by Zappa against Warner Bros. (his record distributor until 1977) over the unauthorized release of his Zappa in New York, Sleep Dirt, Studio Tan, and Orchestral Favorites, also tied up a great deal of his time. Some peripheral suits are still unresolved. Nevertheless, despite all of his other work, he still produces albums: the most recent one, The Man From Utopia, is due early this year.
In the following interview, the multifaceted Frank Zappa describes the motivation behind his zeal for composing, how he approaches the recording and record-making process, and why he feels that the video explosion may not be the boon that many guitarists think it is.
Why are you such a prolific composer?
Do you have an inherent desire to put out a lot of records?
Well, the putting out of the material is not the desired end result. I mean, I really don't care whether it comes out, I like to hear it. I write because I am personally amused by what I do, and if other people are amused by it, then it's fine. If they're not, then that's also fine. But I do it for my own amusement. The fact that it comes out is just something that has to do with the business world, rather than the artistic world. Even if I wasn't releasing records I would still do it.
How do you budget your time between audio and video recording and composing?
The composing actually takes up the smallest amount of my time. I wish I could spend more time doing it, but for everything that you write down, that engenders 20 other mechanical procedures further down the line that you have to go through in order to hear what you wrote. So I've pretty much limited the amount that I write. I've already written so much that hasn't gone through all those in-between steps before it turns into music on tape, or music in the air, or whatever, that I could sit still for five years and have tons of stuff coming out.
Do you spend much time, then, working with your guitar?
Hardly ever touch it. The only time I play my guitar is when I know I'm going to tour. I practice a little bit before we go into rehearsal to get the calluses built up again. Then I play during rehearsals, and when we get out on the road, I usually practice an hour a day before each show. Once the tour is over, I don't touch it. I haven't touched my guitar for about six months.
Do you miss playing guitar at all?
In a way, yes; in a way, no. I really like the instrument and I really like to play, but when the responsibility for running the business rests on my shoulders, there isn't any time to practice. There's no time for the kind of guitar player enjoyment that the readers of your magazine might imagine a person would indulge in. If you really love the guitar, then you're going to spend every waking hour stroking the thing and playing through peculiar rituals.
Is your having to devote more of your energies to other projects besides playing guitar the reason why you have other guitarists in your band?
No. What usually happens is this: If I put another guitarist on my album, I hire that person because he plays things that I can't play. And if the music requires a certain type of performance, and the composition is the real crux of the biscuit, then you don't want to be unfair to the composition and play it yourself if you're going to play it wrong. So I get people who can do it. It's not a matter of being lazy: If there's something on a given song that I think is in my department, I'm going to play it. But if it's something that will be difficult or impossible for me to do, I'd just as soon get somebody who feels comfortable with that style and have them do it.
In concert, you often put down your guitar altogether.
Right. There's a good reason for that: I'm not a very good singer and I don't have very good breath control. And the weight of the guitar on your shoulder pushes down on your lungs. I find it easier to sing in tune with the other guys onstage if I don't have that weight on my body. It's easier to take it off, and it also allows me to give it to a roadie to tune it up, rather than be standing there with a prop like the Bruce Springsteen syndrome: swinging your guitar around your back just so you look good with a guitar on. Why dirty up the arrangement, which is planned to be concise and accurate, by randomly whacking a couple of chords or a couple of extra tweezy notes just because that's what everybody else would do? The music isn't designed that way. That's not the reason why I have the thing out there. It's something to make music on. And I really don't care what I look like out there as long as I can get my work done.
Is the weight factor behind your choice of small guitars?
Yes. I have three of them, and I don't wear them: I play them. I have one Strat and two baby Les Pauls. They were made by D'Mini. (Ed. Note: These models are called the Les Paule and the Strate by their manufacturer, Phased Systems.] The D'Mini Strat that I have is unbelievable; you can't believe the noises that come out of that thing. It's ridiculous. I'm having a special one made with a little bit deeper body on it so that I can have a locking vibrato put on.
How are those guitars tuned?
The little Les Pauls are tuned up to A, and the Strat is tuned to F#. The relationship between the strings is the same as on a standard guitar.
Are special strings used on those guitars?
On the little Strat I use Gold Maxima strings. On the little Les Pauls, I use Black Maximas, which are Teflon-coated. They don't make them anymore, but I had a lot of them lying around. The upper unwound strings are platinum-plated,
What modifications have you had done to your D'Mini Strate?
The neck and body are stock, and it has Seymour Duncan pickups, and a built-in parametric equalizer with variable "Q" [resonance]; that's the one with the concentric knobs. It was custom-designed here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen [Zappa's studio/workshop]. There's a volume control and a silver plug that takes the place of another parametric that failed when I was out on the road. It has a three-way selector, and the toggle switch used to be for switching between the two parametrics. By having two parametrics, I was able to preset two different types of feedback boost. The circuit boards were worked on by Midget Sloatman and Eddie Clothier. David Robb. who was the guitar tech on the last tour, also did some work on it.
In generating your pieces, what comes first?
Every song is different. It just depends on what it's eventually going to wind up being. It could start off with just two or three words. And I always write a few songs when I'm out on the road.
Do you start with a rhythmic framework?
Songs that are basically vocal-oriented, I usually start off with a story idea or just a phrase. There's one song I made up on the last tour called "Baby Take Your Teeth Out." Just those words turned into a song. Other ways: You can start off with something from a sound check, where you're playing a few chords while warming up. You say, "Those chords sound good," and the next step is to decide what you're going to do with it. That's for the most basic type of material – the easy stuff where you can just hum it to the band and say, "Okay, I'm doing this, you do that, you play this beat, and you come in here." That's the easy way of putting rock and roll together. The compositions on paper are done a totally different way.
To put together the type of song where you can just hum the words, do you sit at the piano and arrange?
I very seldom touch a piano unless I'm writing stuff for orchestra. That's the only time I need it. I can just sit in an airport and write it down on paper, too. Some of the pieces to be performed by the London Symphony were written in airports or hotel rooms, with no appliances whatsoever.
Once you get a piece composed – especially something on a grand scale such as an orchestral work – do you make a demo tape for yourself to see if you like the final composition?
No. What I usually do is come back from a tour with a briefcase full of sketches and I'll test the parts of the harmony and the lines on the piano, refine it, and then generate a handwritten score in fairly messy condition, which I then give to the copyist I have on the payroll. He'll ink it and copy the parts, and it's done. Usually, something that complicated doesn't roll very fast, such as this orchestral stuff we've been trying to get played for about five years now.
What pieces will be included in your orchestral set? Will The Sinister Footwear be included?
No. The Sinister Footwear is going to receive its world premiere in the spring of 1984 with the Berkeley Orchestra and the Oakland Ballet Company.
Is it difficult to line up these concerts?
Part of the problem is that we've been promised performances by certain other people at certain other times who want to do premieres. This included [composer/conductor] Pierre Boulez, who commissioned one piece. That's set for January 9, 1984, in Paris; it's a piece called The Perfect Stranger. It was written for his little orchestra, a 29- or 30-piece group. I wrote three pieces to be performed with that orchestration. Right now, we don't have any guarantee that even if he conducts the premiere that it will get recorded. And I'm interested in getting it recorded so that I can hear it. It's never enough just to hear it played once live in a hall. You may be able to listen to the stuff carefully so that you can go further and advance your craftsmanship, but it's just a little bit hard to do that by hearing it only once, so I do want to get it recorded.
Who will be performing your pieces?
We were planning to have them done with the Syracuse Symphony, but we have since made other arrangements with the London Symphony. So we will be doing a concert at a hall called the Barbican on January 11, in London, followed by three days of digital recording. The pieces to be played, in order, are "Envelopes," "Mo 'n Herb's Vacation," "Bob in Dacron," "Sad Jane," "Pedro's Dowry," and "Bogus Pomp." Here are the instruments that are going to be in the orchestra: 12 first violins, 12 second violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, eight basses, one harp, one piano, five flutes, four oboes, five clarinets, including Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet, five bassoons, one of which stays on contrabassoon all the time and another that doubles contrabassoon, eight French horns, four trumpets, four trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba, one set of timpani, six percussion, and a drum set.
Will any members of your regular band be included?
From the United States, I'm bringing with me Ed Mann, our regular percussionist, and Chad Wackerman, our regular drummer, as well as David Ocker, who is going be playing the clarinet solo in "Mo 'n Herb's Vacation." The conductor will be Kent Nagano, who is currently the conductor of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. I'm taking Mark Pinske, the engineer who also did all the live stuff on the last tour. And the whole thing is going to cost us far less than what it would have cost us in Syracuse.
Who will take on the expense?
Well, the entire orchestral thing is on my own budget. I've had requests from orchestras all over the world asking to play music, but basically it comes down to one thing: They want me to pay for it. Because once it's recorded, they all want to get recording scale for doing it – 110 people. We're talking basically about several recording sessions for 110 people. If you were to do that in Hollywood, and say, "Okay, I'm going to do five or six sessions with 110 guys," and have them come in and sight-read it, I don't think you would get a good performance out of it. What I'm hoping to do is have them rehearse it for about a week, and it may turn into something that they will keep in their repertoire, and it will continue to be played especially after the record comes out because then it will be something that will sell tickets for them.
What kind of material will be on your new album?
The new album will have "The Man from Utopia Meets Mary Lou," a medley of two rhythm and blues songs from the '50s drastically rearranged. "Mary Lou" was written by Young Jesse, and "The Man from Utopia" is by Donald and Doris Wood. That's followed by "Stick Together," a song about union stupidity. It goes into "Sex," which is followed by "The Jazz Discharge Party Hats," and is then followed by an instrumental, "We Are Not Alone." Side two starts off with "Cocaine Decisions," followed by "The Dangerous Kitchen," then "Tink Walks Amok," an instrumental featuring Arthur Barrow playing three basses doing some strange things. Next is "The Radio Is Broken," a song about a science fiction movie, and the last song on the side is "Moggio," which is a very complicated instrumental for the full ensemble, featuring Steve Vai playing some very hard guitar stuff.
How well have the Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar records sold?
Good. Actually, they have surprised everybody because the quantity that we sold mail order went into a profit within two weeks of being out there. That is, they paid for the cost of manufacturing within two weeks. At the same time, the contract with CBS was structured like this: They had the right to put the records out outside of the United States as a commercial release, and they put them in a three-record boxed set. That did really well in Europe, and suddenly they started importing them into the United States. So all the people who purchased them mail-order were saying, "Hey, look. It's in the store in a nice boxed set and we were buying them as three individual records through the mail." I didn't have any control over it. There was no way I could stop what was happening, so the only thing I could do was put it out as a commercial release myself in the U.S.
Is it doing well as a set?
Well, they pressed 5,000 sets to begin with, and they went immediately like that [snaps fingers]. So, they ordered another 7,000. It's kind of an unusual item since it is fairly expensive, it's in a box, it's hard to rack, and you wouldn't think there'd be much demand for it because it is instrumental music by some guy who is not normally recognized as being a musician. People think of me as some kind of deranged comedian. So CBS was kind of surprised that there were that many orders coming in.
Do you plan to come out with follow-ups to the Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar series?
I could; a lot depends on the final results of the sales of these. Because, as I've said in many interviews before, I'm not funded by any foundation or grants or any money from the sky, so what comes in gets transferred again into the next product that goes out. And I can only spend the money to make the next product vs. the profit that comes in on the previous one. I have to budget my time to work on certain things that are going to perpetuate my payroll for the 30 some-odd people who are working around here. And unless the guitar album sells a lot of units, that would be a luxury in terms of the time spent on another one. It's a big project to edit that stuff together, follow it through the mastering process, and all that. It takes quite a while. And once I start working on a project, I don't do anything else. I just do that until it's done.
How do you determine which guitarist in your band does what part, and do you record several solo tracks on a song and edit them together?
It depends on whether it's a studio song or a live song.
Some of your songs are mixtures of live and studio recordings.
Okay, then that's a third category. But we're talking about the solos now. In the case of a live take, I will find a solo that I like from a live performance and edit it. I wouldn't play any extra on it, I would just shorten it to fit the time frame that it's supposed to function in. And as far as the ones in the studio go, I very seldom play studio guitar solos. On the Drowning Witch album, the solo on "I Come from Nowhere" was a studio solo, and that was like two hours worth of work to get a sound that I thought was suitable. And then about 20 minutes worth of playing: punching in or doing a take and not liking it and wiping the whole thing, or fixing part of it, or just tweezing it up.
Do you usually wait until after you've edited a part to add the effects?
Not necessarily. Sometimes I record with the effects, and sometimes they're added later. It just depends.
Steve Vai said that the "Peter Gunn-sounding" guitar in "Teenage Prostitute" [Drowning Witch] sounded much different after it was mixed than when he recorded it.
We can change the sound of just about anything because we have a lot of sound modifying tools in the studio. When you arrange something, the arrangement is always modified by what comes before it or after it on a side. If you want the side to play smoothly, you may equalize all the different parts of a tune to sound one way, but when you start mixing a whole side – that's what we do: We start on song one and work through to the end – to make the continuity work in terms of the tonal quality of the whole side, sometimes we have to change things around drastically
Then you don 't follow a brittle-sounding song with a mushy one.
Right. You want to smooth out the whole spectrum so that when a person puts the needle down at the beginning of the record, they feel that there's a continuity through the whole side. It just makes it easier to listen to.
What's the biggest problem in creating a record from a final tape?
The biggest problem about making a record occurs when you go from the magnetic medium to the mechanical medium. Sound on tape has certain problems that you have to deal with just because of the way that tape works. Sound on a disc has other types of problems that you have to correct because of the way a record works. A record is a mechanical medium – it's based on a little thing wiggling around in a groove. And it's a miracle that a stylus can actually produce music – especially when you're talking about things that are drastically stereo-imaged. You get into situations with phase cancellation and all sorts of weird stuff that goes on when you try to put it onto a record. And there are always equalization changes between when you finish your master tape and when you send it down and get a ref [reference copy]. It never sounds the same when it comes back from the disc cutting place. And so you have to take the time and tweeze it up. Sometimes there are problems on the tape that just can't be fixed.
What are some examples?
Those problems usually involve the letter "S" in a vocal part, or a hi-hat that's half open. Those things are sometimes really obnoxious on a record. And the remedies just to fix that kind of sound – just to get it to track correctly on a disc – involve radical measures, such as using these things called acceleration limiters, which are built into the recording lathe. These are pretty drastic. Let's take a bad "S" in a word like surprise. It sounds okay on tape, but when it comes back on a record, it's all distorted because it's difficult for the needle to track it. So you either have to use an outboard de-esser [an electronic device that senses powerful highs and selectively chops them out], which finds that frequency and suppresses it for an instant, or use the acceleration limiters on the lathe.
How do they work?
They function very drastically. They start at 4k [4,000 cycles per second], and at that point when an "S" appears, they dump the whole top end. So. when it's triggered, it takes the whole top off the tape, and not just the "S." So it's very critical to tweak those things. The guy who cuts the lacquers [the earliest disc in the mastering process] for us is very careful about leaving it on when it's time to get rid of the S's, and turning it off right afterwards. It makes for a lot of manual work, and in order to do it, he works from a sheet of paper with timing numbers. So he'll, say, at one minute and 28 seconds turn on the high-frequency limiter to "4," look at the timer, and turn it on at the right time. He doesn't listen to the music, he does it by the numbers. Just turns it on and off. The easy way to do it is to turn on the high-frequency limiter and leave it on. There won't be any S's on the record, but there won't be any top end on it either. We fuss with that type of stuff. We have 30 or 40 refs for the new album [The Man from Utopia] and most people don't do that; they do one, and that's it.
Do you prefer to have your records done with half-speed mastering?
The only album that we ever did with half-speed mastering was Joe's Garage. It helps your top end, but it ruins the low end. Let's examine the frequency spectrum of what we're putting on the record. The new album has a lot of information around 30 cycles [Ed. Note: Low E on a bass guitar is 41.2 Hz], and there's a very full sounding bottom on some of these tunes. If you were to master that at half-speed, you'd need an equalizer that would have to be looking at 15 cycles. So you get a crisper, but a thinner-sounding record if you master at half-speed. On the Joe's Garage albums, we used half-speed mastering on all three of those discs, and I'm not totally delighted with the results.
Do you have any examples?
Let me give you a very graphic one. We cut it at half-speed, and the stylus can carve very careful, perfect, little high-frequency wiggles on the record. That doesn't mean when it's turned into a stamper and goes onto vinyl that those wiggles are necessarily going to be there. You may just be fooling yourself. You may hear it great coming off of a reference disc, but not off of a pressing. And that's what I think happened with Joe's Garage. It just didn't carry through all the manufacturing processes. Recently, I've cut some normal-speed refs on the Joe's Garage albums, and since the time of the original mastering, there have been some advancements in normal-speed lathe technology. You can get more level on the record, and so forth. So the new refs sound fantastic. They have plenty of top end and plenty of bottom; they sound much more like the master tape than the half-speed version did.
In terms of stereo imaging, do you have to make trade-offs when mixing guitar or other parts in order to avoid phase cancellation when the music is played back in mono?
Who listens to it in mono?
Many engineers play music through small speakers in mono occasionally to hear what it might sound like on a car radio.
But I don't have that problem, because nobody's ever going to be playing my stuff on an AM radio, so what's the difference? And besides, I believe that most of the people who buy my records have better-than-average reproduction equipment. They may not be in the audiophile class, but I don't believe they listen to them on mono cheese-o equipment. So I try to go as stereo as possible and plan it for the end result of who's going to consume it. Nobody's going to take "Heavy Duty Judy" [Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar] and play it on mainstream AM radio.
The Drowning Witch album had a suggestion on it to the effect that it should be listened to on JBL 4311 speakers. Why so specific?
That album was mixed on 4311s, and it sounds better through 4311s than just about any other kind of speaker. It was the first time I've done that. I heard a lot of people own those kinds of speakers, and I thought, "Well, maybe we can optimize it for what is actually in their homes." One of the problems when you make a record is that you don't know actually what they're going to be playing it on. You don't know what the anomalies of the person's speakers are going to be – or the cartridge, or the condition of the stylus, or whether they like to turn up the bass all the way. All these things. Everything that happens changes the sound of what you put onto the tape, and there's no way to make it perfect, unless the listener has some kind of scientifically flat reproduction system in their home. And that's just not going to happen.
What becomes of your band during a hiatus from touring?
Well, whenever we go off the road, there isn't any band. Everybody is hired for the tour; nobody is on a yearly salary. I used to do it differently years ago: Everybody was employed, and they got the same amount of money every week whether they worked or not. And some of the guys said, "I'd rather get paid more money just for the time I'm on the road." And I said, "Fine," and that's the way it is now. So when they're not on the road with me, they go out and do other work. It's going to be a while before I'm back on the road, so it's good they have other work.
Are you just trying to clear out the backlog of tapes, compositions, and other business?
Oh, it's a lot of different factors. I have a lot of things to do that can't be done while you're on the road. We've got video and movie stuff happening right now, and you can't be a touring musician and still have control over that stuff.
What prompted you to put out the book of solo transcriptions?
There were lots of requests for it. We've got over a thousand postcards from people interested in that type of music: It's really thick: it looks just like a little telephone book. And that's not even all the stuff that's on the guitar albums.
Do you ever listen to your older material to pull things out for use as a catalyst for new pieces?
Well, I'll be listening to those things a whole lot because we plan to re-release the entire catalog of my albums next May. We're remixing everything. As a matter of fact, the board is set up to remix The Mothers, Fillmore East - June 1971, and what we've been able to do to that album is science fiction. You can't even believe it. It doesn't even resemble the original.
Will the albums hold basically the same material?
I'm going to add to it. The whole idea of this package is. . . . I don't know whether we'll be able to pull it off in time because there's an awful lot of work to be done to meet the deadline, but I'm hoping by Mother's Day to have five boxes with seven albums in each of them, covering the entire catalog. And we'll divide them up so that the first box is like all the early Mothers stuff plus one extra disc of material from that era that's never been released before. And the same goes for the rest of the boxes: Each will have one disc of things that were done during that time that never got released.
So they're not just the same records in a new package?
All the stuff is either going to be remastered, as is the case with the things that already have a good mix, or completely remixed. This includes 4-track, early 8-track, or early 16-track – or anything done when science wasn't there to make it sound right.
Your music embraces satire and complex rhythmic and harmonic concepts. Where do you derive your ideas from? Do you watch a lot of TV or hang out in unusual settings?
I do not hang out anywhere but my own house, and the TV I get to watch is usually the late-night stuff. And I like to watch the news.
Do you have any favorite contemporary musicians?
Are there any that you severely dislike?
No. I think that if a person is making music – even if it's the most crass, commercial kind of crud – that person should be doing that because there are people who want to consume crass, commercial crud. And they're doing a necessary function for the audience that needs to be entertained. Just because I'm not the consumer of that stuff, it's no reason for me to go on some big campaign against it. I don't think it's particularly aesthetic, but then again, if it's providing enjoyment for somebody, then fine.
So for you it's easier to ignore it.
Well, I'm not a consumer of pop music. I don't listen to the radio. I don't go to see groups. I don't buy albums. I've got too much other stuff to do; that world is not for me. I'm not interested.
How important do you think the video medium is becoming for music?
It's becoming more important for the people who own the cable companies because the artists who are doing the video things are being ripped off. And here's how the rip-off works: If you're a person who has a band, and you make a video, you do this because you think if you get your video on TV, everybody will go out and buy your album and think you're fantastic. And this myth is perpetuated by cable companies who show these things, but they don't pay you. And it costs a lot of money to make these videos.
They don 't have to pay ASCAP or BMl for performance rights?
Well, when you consider what it costs to make a video vs. what they have to pay any performing rights society, you can see it's not even close. Look, a decent-looking video is going to cost you $40,000 or $50,000; some groups have spent $150,000 for just a few minutes' worth of video. So the way it usually goes, some record companies will put up the money to begin with to make the video. But that's only like going to the bank to get a loan, because the real cost of the video comes out of the artist's pocket. The record company deducts all that out of the artist's royalties, if there are any. Before the artist sees a nickel for his work, the record company makes sure they get their investment back for making the video. The artist is really the one who has to pay for that advertising, ultimately. And in most record contracts, any money that is spent promoting the product comes out of the artist's pocket – usually by some roundabout accounting method. They cover it up, but you're paying. No record company does you any favors. Then, to add insult to injury, the cable companies that show these things never give any money for this material. And what it does for them is fill up their air time with colorful pieces of videotape and they get to sell commercials; they get revenues from advertisers who want to have their spots included in the middle of all this colorful musical videotape menagerie, and the cable company gets a free ride.
And their production costs are zip.
That's right. All they do is sit there and wait for the cassettes to roll in, because all these groups want to get their things on TV. They think, "Oh, boy, we're really going to be famous now." And they're getting hosed.
So the only one benefitting, then, is the guy sitting at home watching.
Well, no. Because he doesn't make any money from it. The cable company that sells commercials for the thing is really benefitting, and the guy sitting at home may or may not get any benefit from it because the cable company is only going to show those videos which are tame – within a certain framework. You know, the weirder stuff never gets on. It's the same as the control they have on AM radio. It's all formatted to look and feel a certain way.
How do you think the video medium will affect guitarists in general?
If you have to function in a visual medium, you're going to wind up doing things that look good instead of sound good. I mean, you can be playing the most beautiful music in the world, but if you're just sitting there like a lump, that really doesn't stimulate the video viewer, nor does it stimulate the guy who programs the videotapes. And it probably won't even get on the air.
So it's time to do cartwheels.
That's right. Make faces, jump up and down. . . .
What do you think of the fire-breathing young guitar players who play in the Randy Rhoads vein?
Randy Rhoads was my son Dweezil's favorite guitar player. He really loved Randy. For the people who love that kind of music, there should be those types of guitar players doing that kind of stuff to entertain them.
Do you think young guitarists who start by learning every flashy technique are missing anything by not learning basics such as blues a la Elmore James?
Well, Elmore James is an acquired taste, and I happen to really like Elmore James, and I like all blues-type guitar players and all that sort of stuff. I happen to think that what they play really means something, as opposed to most of what happens on most rock and roll records – it's very calculated sound effects that fit the song. But to say that a person has to start with Elmore James before he graduates up to fire-breathing guitar playing status is stupid, because you really don't need to. If you don't have any feeling for that type of music, why involve yourself with it? I would rather see a guitar player totally ignore that realm of music in an honest way – saying, "That's just not my stuff" – than get a cursory glance of it and say, "Now I understand it," because they'll just do a parody of it. You've really got to love that stuff. I really hope that one of these days that sort of blues comes back. Everything else comes back. And I think that kind of music is great.
But the recording of the great bulk of original old blues material isn't that great.
Well, I'm not talking about re-releasing those old things. I'm talking about the idea that a person can stand up there with a guitar and just play blues on it. Not just play mash and trash, but play the fucking blues, because it's good to listen to.
Do you ever give Dweezil guitar tips?
He asked about some chords one time, and I showed him some. Other than that, he's pretty shy about asking me about stuff. He watches a lot of videotapes and he listens to a lot of heavy metal cassettes. His main interest is really heavy metal.
So he doesn't ask for guidance.
Well, I don't think there's any reason for him to want to play what I play, because it's not his world. So he should go off on his own and get his own resources.
Were your parents music fanatics?
Dweezil's situation is different in that he has a father who is a guitarist, and he aspires to be a guitarist; it seems like an entirely different ball game.
Well, every once in a while when his band's rehearsing, I'll help them with the machinery they're using. Like, if they're having a problem getting a sound that they want, I 'IL explain how equalizers work, and how to get certain sounds out of their equipment. But what he plays is his own business.
What do you think would be a good guitar and amp complement for a beginning guitarist?
Depends on what kind of music they want to play. If they want to be a fire-breathing guitar player, they go out and get a Marshall 100-watt and turn it all the way up. And a Stratocaster all the way up. What else do they need? Playing music is different, though. If you're just going to get started in that rock and roll world, that's the way it goes.
What kind of hours do you generally keep?
I work until I can't stand it, and then I go to sleep. It varies from day to day. I've been working a few 20-hour days recently, but it's settled down to a mild 12 hours in the last couple of days.
What was the full story on the Zappa in New York, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites, and Studio Tan albums? Usually your albums give full credits to the musicians and in many cases lyrics; however, on all but Zappa in New York there was nothing.
That was part of what started my lawsuit with Warner Bros. It's a really complicated legal story, and I don't want to recite it again. But the fact of the matter is that part of the lawsuit was settled out of court, and I got the rights to all of those masters back; I got all the tapes back. They're going to be part of the sets that are going to be remixed, remastered, and re-released.
Do you foresee any way that musicians can avoid being burned by a record company?
No. Not unless that musician also happens to be a combination of expert lawyer and maybe a billionaire. Because the only way you can fight a record company is to be able to afford the legal battle that they'll whip on you. A company as big as Warner Bros. has lawyers from here to Pacoima. And all they do is smother you in paperwork, and then you have to wait five years before you go to court.
Will the musicians from those albums be credited on the reissues?
Yeah. I don't know how familiar you are with the sound quality of those albums, but they're really disgusting. I've got some new refs of the same material made from the same masters, but done up to Barking Pumpkin standards, and they'll scare you to death. Because there's good music on those records; there's a lot lurking in there.
How does somebody get to play guitar or bass for you?
If somebody has the desire to play guitar or bass for me at this moment in time, I would say just forget it. I'm not hiring.
What about in the general sense?
In the general sense, anybody who has a job in the band got there through an audition.
Do you hold large, open auditions, and put ads in music trade magazines?
No, because I would wind up auditioning a bunch of people who would do it just to say they auditioned, which would be like a professional credit feather in their cap. I don't want to have to sit through hundreds and hundreds of guys who really have no chance of getting in. You know, people are recommended by other people, or tapes are sent in, and I hear that there is some talent there suitable for working in the band. That's the way it's done. I have down people in from all over the country to try out if I thought that there was some chance. They're brought in and I pay for their ticket and their hotel, and then send them back if they flunk. I don't say, "You failed"; I always thank them for trying out, but you have to be honest about it.
You change your personnel fairly often – almost with each album.
Not really. Because the band that did the tour in Europe in 1982 was exactly the same band that was out on the U.S. tour the year before. You have to understand that when a guy comes into the band, he's not in indentured servitude for life. A lot of these people come in because they want to come in and do one semester and go out and have their big career. They use it as a stepping stone for someplace else to go. I can't make a guy stay in the band. If he wants to leave, he's free to leave anytime because I've got a drawer full of other applicants who want his job. That's just the way it is.
Do you think that a lot of time is wasted by training new people?
Yes. There is a lot of time wasted, and it's a boring procedure. But then on the other hand, think what you gain. You get a chance to refine some of the things that have already been done. You might get a guy in there who's a lot more technically skillful than the one who left. And it also gives the ones who are still in the band a feeling of accomplishment because they're veterans now, and they play with a little bit more authority. So it's a refinement process.
Of the many guitarists that you hired in recent years – Adrian Belew, Warren Cucurullo, and Ray White – what did you like about each one that made you want them in your lineup?
Adrian Belew, I thought, had potential to add something to the band as it was constituted at that time , which was kind of a funny band. We blew out a lot of comedy stuff like "Punky's Whips" [only released on the first editions of Zappa in New York; otherwise unavailable]. That was the band that originated "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" [Sheik Yerbouti] and that kind of material. And Adrian just fit in with that, and so that's why he got the job. And Warren Cucurullo was and still is a talented guitar player who had a desire to play standard repertoire songs he already knew from all the other albums. And he knew a lot of tunes; probably as many, if not more, than some of the other guys who were in the band at the time. And on the tour he did with us, we were doing a lot of the complicated songs off the records that people thought they would never hear on a stage. We were doing "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" [Tinsel-Town Rebellion], "Inca Roads," and "Andy" (the latter two from One Size Fits All]. We were doing a lot of hard repertoire. And he was good for that. Ray has been in the band twice. The first time, he felt a little bit out of place because he is an extremely religious person, and our band is not. And I think that there was some religious/emotional conflict the first time that he was in the band. He was always great: He had a good attitude about working and he did a good job. But I sensed that there was a certain amount of discomfort about him being in there vs. the type of material we were playing. So I let him go. And later on I said, well, why not try him again, because I had a band that I thought his personality would fit in with. So I called him up, he came down and tried out, and it clicked right away. So he's been with me for the past two or three years.
He's got a really good blues style.
He's wonderful; he just loves that kind of music.
What attracted you to Steve Vai?
Steve Vai got the job because he sent a cassette and a transcription of "The Black Page" [Zappa in New York], and from hearing that, I could tell that he had a superior musical intelligence and very great guitar chops. And this showed me that there was a possibility to write things that were even harder for that instrument than what had already been used in the band. That's why he got the job.
What do you look for in a guitar?
If you pick up a guitar and it says, "Take me, I'm yours," then that's the one for you. You don't go into a guitar store and say, "Hey, what a great paint job." You have to put it in your hand, because a real guitar that's going to be something you make music on – as opposed to a piece of machinery that makes you look good onstage – is going to have some relationship to your hand and body. It feels right when you pick it up. And that's the way I felt when I got the first SG that I had. It felt right in my hand, so I got it. Same thing with the Gibson Les Paul.
Will you overlook such things as lousy pickups?
Well, you can always change the pickups.
Do you collect guitars?
I don't go out and buy guitars all over the place. I'm not one of those kinds of guys. I do have a lot of guitars, but I don't know how I accumulated them. I've got about 25 guitars. They just keep piling up.
Do you have a top five favorites?
I've got the Les Paul that I use. It was a brand-new guitar when I bought it. It's not a vintage thing. It was a very well made production-line Gibson Les Paul right off the rack
You didn't go to the Gibson factory and have them build one to your specifications?
You know, considering how long I've been playing Gibson guitars, I've never spoken to or heard from anyone connected with that company. There's no factory connection with Gibson whatsoever. I also have a Stratocaster with a Floyd Rose Tremolo System l installed on it. It was the guitar that I used the most on the last European tour. And the Hendrix Strat [a burned Stratocaster formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix], which has a special neck on it. It's an SG-size neck. It does certain things that other guitars won't do. The width and depth of the neck is different from that of a Strat, so you can do all kinds of things that just don't feel right on another guitar.
What distinguishes one instrument from another?
Each guitar has its own character and its own sounds that it likes to make that come naturally to that instrument. So I'm going to choose an instrument that matches the character of the song. I also have a Telecaster – one of the copies of the originals that Fender put out about a year ago. It's a real good blues guitar. The fifth guitar would be the SG copy that I got from this guy in Phoenix, Arizona. It says "Gibson" on it, but it's handmade, and it's got an ebony fretboard with 23 frets on it; it goes one fret higher than a normal SG. I play that a lot.
Do you use the 23rd fret often?
Since the cutaways on that guitar are so deep, it's very easy to get up all the way to the top. So I can play higher on that one than on any of the other ones that I have.
How many guitars do you usually take out on the road?
On the last tour, I took out a Fender XII 12-string, the Telecaster, the Les Paul, the Hendrix Strat, my old mirror-pickguard SG, and the Stratocaster with the Floyd Rose on it. Plus the mini Strat and the mini Les Paul. Right now the only thing I miss on my D'Minis is the vibrato arm.
Do you use the vibrato that much?
On the last tour I used it to excess because the Floyd makes it possible to come back in tune after you go down to the subsonic regions. You can dump all the string slack and come back up and be in tune. And the way my Floyd is set up, you can go down two octaves practically, then back up to normal position, and then bend up a whole-step and sometimes even a third. It's balanced so well that I can just wiggle it a little bit and get a real nice vibrato.
What kind of effects did you take out on the road with you on the last tour?
I took three MXR Digital Delays – two with minimum memory storage, and one with tons of it. I also used two MicMix Dynaflangers. I didn't have any fuzztones or octave dividers. I used three different amps: a Marshall 100-watt, a Carvin, and an Acoustic – and each was interfaced with a different digital delay. So I could store three different signals and get some weird sounds. For instance, you take your whammy bar and get some terrible tweezed noise, and store that. Then it would come out of the right, and another one would come out of the middie, and a third one would come out of the left one, and you could play over the top of it all. I've got a lot of recordings of that from the tour, and it's really an ungodly sound.
Did you take a pedalboard on the last tour?
My setup was pretty basic for that particular tour. You see, things don't always go according to plan here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. A very elaborate digital setup that had been in preparation for about six months prior to the tour turned up a semi-fatal design flaw, which was allowing some digital grit to get into the audio path, just at the last minute as we were getting ready to pack up. And a lot of the work on it had to be redone – and it still isn't as perfect as I would like to have it before I take it anywhere. That particular rack had some unbelievable features, because it allowed you to do presets of any combination of effects that you might want with preset levels to each effect and preset control to all the parameters. So during the sound check, you could set one sound with a hanger and a fuzz and an octave divider and a [Mutron] Bi-Phase, and set all those parameters in a memory storage. And when you'd hit your switch, it would go exactly to that sound. With the use of a pedal you'd be able to crossfade to any other preset using any other combination of devices that you had in the rack. It was a really great idea, but so far we haven't gotten it perfected.
You really put yourself at the mercy of that digital equipment on the road.
Well, I'm perfectly comfortable going out and doing a tour with nothing but an on/off switch on the amplifier. For much of the tour I wasn't using the effects at all. The only time I would turn them on at all was when it seemed appropriate for some event during a solo. The guitar I played the most was my Strat with the Floyd Rose on it, and it was capable of such ungodly noises with the parametric EQ and the pickups that were in it. It made plenty of noises without any fuzztones or other crap.
Did you use a Strat on the song "You Are What You Is" from You Are What You Is?
No. That's the Les Paul. I also used a Mu-tron Octave Divider.
On "No Not Now" [Drowning Witch] there's an extremely distinctive bass line. Did you write it?
I just made it up. The bass part was done like this: Arthur Barrow came in to play bass and, bar by bar, I would hum it to him. We'd play it, and he'd go as far as he could, and then he'd make a mistake, and then I'd show him the next part, and then we'd punch him in. And that's how it was done: like eight bars at a time. It's a wonderful bass line.
The entire album's bass lines are played up quite a bit. Did you purposely spotlight the bass on the album?
I think that's a result of mixing on the 4311s – it just gets accentuated. It's up in the mix, but not to a radical extreme for a comfortable listening level. I like bass lines. They're good, because for people who don't understand what's going on in the rest of the song, there's always the bass line.
What kind of effects did you use on the guitar throughout the album?
I used a MicMix Dynaflanger and Aphex compressors. The signal is compressed after the hanging. And the hanger is set to follow the envelope of the high-frequency decay, rather than the amplitude envelope.
What kind of difference would that make?
It gives a totally different sound. It makes a more pillowy effect from that particular device.
Why would you compress the signal after the flanger?
Well, for one thing, you would compress it if you didn't want more hanger cycle. And hangers boost certain frequencies in the midrange that go hog-wild if you don't control them. So we started off just to control those frequencies, and then by cranking that Aphex compressor to some ridiculous extent we got this other kluge sound.
On "Valley Girl" there's some red-hot guitar way back in the mix. Why didn't you mix it up higher so that it could be more easily discerned
Because it conflicted with the vocal part. And that red-hot-sounding guitar was just me and the drummer jamming at three o'clock in the morning. That track was the basis for the song. It was a riff that started off at a soundcheck about a year before, and I had been piddling with it for a long time. One night, we finally did it, saved the tape, and little by little we added all of this other stuff to it, and we got "Valley Girl."
The bass line was written later?
The bass line was never written. It was the last thing that was added to the track. The track didn't even have a bass part; it was just guitar and drums. And when Scott Thunes came in to do it, it was at a point where I thought if we left the guitar up high enough in the mix it would probably be thick enough where we wouldn't even need a bass. But the engineer, Bob Stone, said, "Aw, go ahead and put on a bass line." We were just about ready to go out and do a tour, and I brought Scott up to the studio one night after rehearsal. It took about an hour and a half, the same way as with Arthur Barrow on "No Not Now" – I said, "Play this: Boop, boop, boop," and he did it. He was playing the bass through a Vox amp, and that's what gives it that particular sound.
After returning from your European tour, how did you feel when you found out that "Valley Girl" had become a big hit?
There are a couple of things about "Valley Girl" being a hit: First, it's not my fault – they didn't buy that record because it had my name on it. They bought it because they liked Moon's voice. It's got nothing to do with the song or the performance. It has everything to do with the American public wanting to have some new syndrome to identify with. And they got it. There it is. That's what made it a hit. Hits are not necessarily musical phenomena. But as far as my feeling about it goes, I think that if that amuses Americans, well, hey! I'm an all-American boy, and I'm here to perform that function for you. Since that time, we've hired a guy to make merchandising deals on that song. And you wouldn't believe what kinds of things will be coming out with the words "Valley Girl" on them. You name it, everything from lunch boxes to cosmetics, including a talking Valley Girl doll in February.
On "I Come From Nowhere" there's a strong dissonance, like a minor second clashing in the first few bars. Is that guitar?
That is a bunch of bass harmonics a half step apart. He's playing what I think is a little three-part harmonic chord.
What kind of guitar and enhancements did you employ for the solo about two-thirds of the way through that song?
It was the Les Paul played through a Carvin amp. I think it's straight, no effects. That was just what it needed, I thought.
Did you record the rhythm track live and then mix in the solo and overdub parts?
Oh, no. Here's how that song started off: The original track was a rhythm box, and then the vocals were added. Then some guitar parts were added – not the solo, just the orchestrational parts. Then the guitar solo was added on top of the rhythm box track, and the drums were added to play along with the guitar solo. The bass track was added last.
What guitar did you use on "Drowning Witch"?
I think both solos are with the Hendrix Strat.
How did you get the feedback that pervades throughout?
It's live. Those were live tracks that were overdubbed. There are some equalizers in my guitar– a parametric EQ with a little, narrow peak. And once you find the feedback range in the room, you can turn it up, and the guitar doesn't have to be loud to just feed back at that frequency.
Do you usually twiddle with it during a solo?
Yeah. First I set it during the sound check, and then if the acoustics of the room change due to the audience, I can just reach over and tweeze it while I'm playing.
How do you synchronize parts from different performances for final mixing into one song?
First of all, you start off with a band that is highly rehearsed, that maintains their tempo. They learn it at a certain tempo, then they'll play it the same way night after night. Do you know how many edits there are in "Drowning Witch"? Fifteen! That song is a basic track from 15 different cities. And some of the edits are like two bars long. And they're written parts – all that fast stuff. It was very difficult for all the guys to play that correctly. Every once in a while somebody would hit the jackpot, but it's a very hard song to play. So there was no one perfect performance from any city. What I did was go through a whole tour's worth of tape and listen to every version of it and grab every section that was reasonably correct, put together a basic track, and then added the rest of the orchestration to it in the studio.
Besides switching up the rhythm, how did you deal with variations in pitch?
Do you hear any? There were no VSO [variable-speed oscillator, which controls the speed of the tape recorder] changes of the sections at all, because when we go out on the road, everything is tuned to a tune-up box every day. We have a standard: Everybody tunes to the vibes, because their tuning doesn't drift. We calibrate all our Peterson Strobe Tuners to them. That gives you consistency.
Last year you were doing the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" [At Fillmore East, Capricorn]. Why?
It started about ten or twelve years ago when some guy in the audience at a concert in Helsinki, Finland, requested it,
Yes. He just yelled out "Whipping Post" in broken English. I have it on tape. And I said, "Excuse me?" I could just barely make it out. We didn't know it, and I felt kind of bad that we couldn't just play it and blow the guy's socks off. So when [pianist/vocalist/saxophonist] Bobby Martin joined the band, and I found out that he knew how to sing that song, I said, "We are definitely going to be prepared for the next time somebody wants 'Whipping Post' – in fact we're going to play it before somebody even asks for it." I've got probably 30 different versions of it on tape from concerts all around the world, and one of them is going to be the "Whipping Post" – the apex "Whipping Post" of the century.
Maybe they mistook you for Duane Allman.
Oh sure they did. People do all the time.
This interview was reprinted in Best of Guitar Player as "Not Exactly Duane Allman".
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