Bookends. Frank Zappa's Scott Thunes and Chad Wackerman

By Freff

Musician, August 1984

What's the Role of the Rhythm Section in Frank Zappa's Music?

Both go wide-eyed, point at each other and say "you start!"

Thunes: Well, we've never played together in the studio, and live's a very different thing. The biggest thing is playing straight through for two-and-a-half hours a night. Everybody else gets to stop except for us; all the songs are segued together. And all the different styles. We have to know everything. At any given moment he might say, "Let's do this song reggae, or heavy metal, or Mr Rogers, or as a tango" ... when we've never rehearsed it that way at all.

Wackerman: You have to keep your eyes open, too, because there are a lot of visual cues. Frank holding his hand with the fingers down above his head, and then wiggling his fingers back and forth means "play like Weather Report"– like a cloud of rain, see? Pulling a clump of his hair to the left side of his head like a dreadlock means "reggae." Pulling it to both sides of his head would mean "ska."

Thunes: A number one in any other situation is listening. In Frank's situation that's paralleled with a new A-number one, which is stamina.

Wackerman: Frank does most of his albums by recording on the road, and then overdubbing in the studio later. It's kind of difficult to function as a member of a rhythm section in that context, because you have to try and capture the attitude of what was happening at the time. I'm usually more conservative when tape is rolling in the studio, and it's tough to capture the live attitude. You want it to be good. You want it to be great.

Inspiration and Influences

Thunes: Paul McCartney was always seminal; he was never very good but his sound was extremely killer. Graham Maby from Joe Jackson's band pretty much got me back into playing bass heavily. I used to listen to a lot of Jaco and Stanley, but I don't really appreciate bass as an end in itself anymore. The bass player from Midnight Oil is who I'm listening to mostly these days. You want sections? Talking Heads. Greek Theatre, September 4th, 1983. That was really it for me, an amazing show. It was a Friday night and it was sold out. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth are just amazingly tight. The fact that they're married might have something to do with that. And I'm sorry, but I've got to say Ringo and Paul.

Wackerman: Drummers: Peter Erskine, Vinnie Colaiuta, Terry Bozzio, Elvin Jones, Steve Gadd, Tony Williams ... pretty much the popular players that everybody knows. Scott sounds pretty good as a bass player (chuckles). There's also a guy named Jimmy Johnson I played with in Alan Holdsworth's band, and Jeff Berlin was fun to play with. For sections there was the old Tower of Power team, and Jaco and Peter Erskine together in Weather Report.

Thunes: I wanted to work at one point with the Gang of Four, because they are very rhythmic, and I like to get down into a rhythmic dance kind of thing. That's one thing that Frank is definitely not into, a steady, normal pace that people can try and relate to.

Best Work Together

Thunes: The Hammersmith-Odeon shows in London, on the '82 European tour. Those were really hot.

Wackerman: And the Santa Monica shows at the end of the U.S. '81 tour, because we really got a lot of tracks out of that.

Current Equipment

Thunes: I have a 1962 Fender Precision, stock, that is the love of my life. And I have a '65 Fender Jazz bass that I've had since I was thirteen. Those are what I use mostly. I've also used Carvins and liked them. My amp setup with Frank is a BGW power amp, an Audio Arts high end, a dbx limiter, an Alembic pre-amp and Meyers speakers. For strings, I've been recently switching between Maximas and GHS Boomers. For synth-bass, I play Minimoog.

Wackerman: All my drums are Drum Workshop, with a brass snare, three Remo Rototoms, and Paiste cymbals. I normally use the 2002 series. I might be using some Simmons SDS 7s on the tour, but I don't know yet.