This week we delve into one of the most brilliant creative minds the 20th century has ever seen; a guy so above the average he had to take everything around him with a little humour to be able to cope. It may even be that he was so great that he ended up being excessive, but both things can coexist, in fact they did in good old Frank Zappa. Go ask the directors of the label when they went to his dressing room after a gig to complain about the bizarre show he had just given onstage, with songs that did not resemble the originals, with bits they considered excessively long, and a series of invited guests who didn’t know whether they were part of the show or a show in itself... so, according to the story, these executives in their suits, went in and told Frank, “Frank, you can’t do that on stage anymore”, to which he responded, “Fuck!, what a great title for a record”, and put out 6 volumes with that same title, You can’t do that on stage anymore I-VI. That was Frank Zappa, kind, and excessive.
But we have to tell you what was really in his hands and let’s start with his Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster, with which he recorded the first albums of his career in Mothers of Invention and you can be assured it is the least modified guitar in his career, but from here on, all his models had always come with a good number of changes that would take them away from their original sound.
Perhaps the guitar model most linked to Zappa is the Gibson SG; the first in black to which he would add all kinds of power buttons and switches to give free rein on tone modifications which he added later, making it look like a red Gibson SG that was really a custom guitar he bought from a guy who sneaked in the backstage to show him, and unlike the normal SG it had a 23 fret and some star-shaped inlays.
Most of the 70s and 80s he spent using guitars like this but also the Fenders, or something like them, which formed a part of his career. The first one we must call out is the same Fender Stratocaster that Hendrix used and destroyed in ‘68 at the Miami festival, and found its way into Zappa’s hands through a friend in Seattle. Frank at first just hung it in his studio for years, but finally decided to resuscitate it thanks to his trusted luthier replacing the electronics and neck among other things.
The second guitar of this type was what he used up to the end of his career. With more or less the same shape as a Fender Stratocaster, the Performance brand made a guitar the genius from Maryland liked, with which he could change emission frequencies almost to the hertz, thus being able to adjust the type of acoustic of each venue.
Apart from his guitars, we also know some of the amps to which they were connected (some quite modified as well). In his beginnings his ES-5 used to be plugged into a Fender Deluxe while in the 70s the Marshall JMPs were his first choice in countless shows. Brands like Carvin and even Pignose are others chosen by Zappa throughout his career as much on the road as in the studio.
As you can see, his creative excesses and his top thoroughness in interpretation turned more into specific modifications of a few guitars that he felt comfortable with, all of them with very low action and 008, 009 strings, than into playing hundreds of different instruments. We’re talking about a guy who recorded all his live shows with maximum technical pressure on his musicians because he used many of these recordings for later studio records. He set the level and was feared by the whole music world because of his almost dictatorial tendencies with his band but, that said, everyone knew that if you could play in Frank Zappa’s band you were one of the best musicians on the planet. A genius like that, as the directors of his label learned, does what he wants when he wants, and is always surrounded by the best... and the best in this world don’t wear a suit and tie.