Rockstar Guitars
Frank Zappa 

Frank Zappa was one of the most accomplished composers of the rock era; his music combines an understanding of and appreciation for such contemporary classical figures as Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Varèse with an affection for late-'50s doo wop rock & roll and a facility for the guitar-heavy rock that dominated pop in the '70s. But Zappa was also a satirist whose reserves of scorn seemed bottomless and whose wicked sense of humor and absurdity have delighted his numerous fans, even when his lyrics crossed over the broadest bounds of taste. Finally, Zappa was perhaps the most prolific record-maker of his time, turning out massive amounts of music on his own Barking Pumpkin label and through distribution deals with Rykodisc and Rhino after long, unhappy associations with industry giants like Warner Brothers and the now-defunct MGM.

Zappa became interested in music early and pursued his studies in school, up through a six-month stint at Chaffey College in Alta Loma, CA. He scored a couple of low-budget films and used the money to buy a low-budget recording studio. In 1964, he joined a local band called the Soul Giants, which, over the course of the next two years, evolved into the Mothers, who played songs written by Zappa. The band was signed to the Verve division of MGM by producer Tom Wilson in 1966 and recorded its first album, a two-LP set called Freak Out!, which introduced Zappa's interests in both serious music and pop as well as his scathing wit. (Verve insisted on adding "of Invention" to the band's name.)

Subsequent albums extended the musical and lyrical themes of the debut, and they came frequently. Three albums, for example, hit the charts in 1968: We're Only in It for the Money, a Mothers album that made fun of hippies and Sgt. Pepper; Lumpy Gravy, a Zappa solo album recorded with an orchestra; and Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, on which the Mothers played neo-doo wop. Toward the end of the '60s, Zappa expanded the Mothers lineup, turning more toward instrumental jazz-rock, much of which displayed his technically accomplished guitar playing. But by the end of the decade, he had broken up the band.

In 1970, however, Zappa reassembled a new edition of the Mothers, featuring former Turtles lead singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan as frontmen. The lineup moved the group more in the direction of X-rated comedy, notably on the album Fillmore East: June 1971, but it was short-lived: during a performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London, Zappa was pushed from the stage by a demented fan and seriously injured.

While he recovered, Zappa released several albums, then he re-formed the Mothers with himself as lead singer and made pop/rock albums such as Over-nite Sensation that were among his best-selling records ever. By the end of the '70s, Zappa was recording on his own labels, distributed in some cases by the majors, and he had attracted a consistent cult following for both his humor and his complex music. (Zappa's band, in fact, became a training ground for high-quality rock musicians, much as Miles Davis' was for jazz players.)

In the '80s, Zappa gained the rights to his old albums and began to reissue them, at first on his own and then through the pioneering Rykodisc CD label. He wrote his autobiography and embarked on a world tour in 1988. That was the end of his live performing, except for such isolated appearances as one in Czechoslovakia at the invitation of its post-Communist president, Zappa fan Vaclav Havel. In late 1991, it was confirmed that Zappa was seriously ill with cancer. Nevertheless, his schedule of album releases continued to be rapid. Zappa died in December of 1993, with a number of posthumous releases to follow.




Frank's guitars were mostly custom made by luthiers from all over the place. Frank was a Hagstrom endorser and later a Gibson & Fender endorser.  So his custom guitars were made to look like the brands he was shilling for.  You can't blame him the guitar companies pay more than the record companies do.  Ya gotta bring home the bacon for Dweezil & Moon Unit.


Photo to the right, Custom made 25' scale guitar that resembles a Gibson SG.   Zappa aficionados all know that  this isn't a Gibson but a custom built this guitar for Frank.



Zappa Guitar Timeline (incomplete)

If you were to ask a musician whom they thought the most influential and technical guitarist was, you might get an answer like “Eric Clapton”, or “Eddie Van Halen”. “Jimi Hendrix” would also be a prominent name. Hell, you might even get “Yngwie Malmsteen”. Most people, however, do not recognize one of, if not the most influential guitarists of all time. Frank Zappa was as innovative as he was talented. I have compiled some info on some of his guitars. Frank was not just a guitar player. He had modifications done to his guitar that, like his music, were years ahead of their time. Even now, they are still ahead of their time. These guitars produced some of the most mind-blowing licks ever created on any guitar anywhere (although it did help that they were in the hands of an amazing composer).





The first guitar Frank had was a jazz-style acoustic. He reportedly purchased it from his brother Bobby for $1.50. He used to listen to R&B, but he felt the solos were too short. He played his longer ones instead.
When Frank went to high school, he started a group called “The Black-outs”. Wanting to use an electric, but not being able to buy one, he rented a Fender Telecaster from a shop. He didn’t use it a lot, but it was satisfactory for his purpose.
Frank also liked to write music. However, until he was in his late teens, he didn’t write anything close to R&B. He was also a fan of classical music. While in high school, he composed an orchestral score for an independent movie a teacher was making. He made some money off of the deal, and he put it to good use. He purchased his first electric: a Fender Jazzmaster. Not much is known about it, but he did use it until he got his next guitar. The money also went to renting a studio to record some tracks.


Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster

An undetermined amount of time later, Frank purchased a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster, a guitar that he used on the first few Mothers album. He played it thru a Fender Deluxe amplifier. It produced a very classic rock/jazz sound. It was not quite what he was looking for, so he traded up. The guitar also shows some of the first examples of Frank’s modifications to his guitars. He added more switches that performed various tasks, and if you know the Switchmaster, it has enough knobs and switches on it already. His son Dweezil claims that none of the switches work anymore.


The Goldtop after modifications
Frank Modified everything because just like today none of the standard guitars could cut the mustard !!

The next guitar in Frank’s arsenal was a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop equipped with P-90 pickups. He used this guitar on his first solo album, Hot Rats, as well as on the song “Willie the Pimp”. The guitar went through major modifications, including routing for a humbucker in the neck position, a unique style pickup in the bridge position, a rotary knob, the standard selector switch, as well as some other unidentified knobs. It is said that Frank owned another LP style guitar, but not much is known of that particular guitar.


The Roxy SG


Frank then started using the guitar he was famous for, or at very least, the guitar style. He began using a modified Gibson SG with a full body pick guard and a white headstock. Some of the modifications on this guitar contain: Active Filter-circuits, various onboard preamps (at different stages in life), and phase switching. This guitar was pictured on the cover of the “Roxy & Elsewhere” album, and hence has been named “The Roxy SG”.


The Babysnakes SG:


Then one day Frank acquired possibly the most famous guitar in his collection. While playing a show in Phoenix in the 70’s, “some guy” sneaked backstage and sold Frank a “Gibson” SG for $500. Though the guitar wasn’t a Gibson, it had the Gibson name on the headstock and from a distance, it looked like a normal SG. Closer inspection shows some non-standard Gibson features. The most visible and obvious would be the numerous knobs and switches put on the guitar. Other features included ornamental woodwork and special inlays. This is the guitar I know most about. The inlays consisted of smaller than usual Gibson dot inlays, including a Star inlay at the fifth fret and what appears to be eyes or something of similar design on the twelfth. The guitar also featured 23 frets, instead of 22, which the Gibson is known for. The addition of this fret pushed the neck pickup back a bit, giving it a more unique sound. The pickups were special made, but not much more is known. The guitar seems to have employed a vibrola-style tremolo at one point, but it was removed and a stop-bar tailpiece was put in its place. Some features of the electronics of the guitar include a Dan Armstrong Green Ringer circuit, phase switching, an onboard preamp for 18db boost on output, and maybe even coil-tapping switches. This guitar, along with the “inoffensive” Pignose amp (more on that below), was the rig used to record Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘)  and also makes an appearance on the film “Baby Snakes”,  hence the name “Baby Snakes SG”.


The Hendrix Strat


Also acquired during this period was a Fender Strat, burned by Jimi Hendrix. A former Hendrix roadie gave Frank the guitar, which he modified by getting a custom neck put on the guitar, new pickups, and some phase switching. The guitar was not used much live, as it tended to cause much feedback. But he did use it to record some songs, including “Zoot Allures”. It was apparently recently sold at auction.


The LP Custom

In the early 80’s, Frank used a Cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul custom. This is the guitar pictured on the cover of “Shut up and Play Yer Guitar”, the box set. The guitar was modified with Seymour Duncan Pickups (that is according to Dweezil. On “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar” it lists it as a “Les Paul Custom with DiMarzio Humbuckers”), a Dan Armstrong Green Ringer, and a rotary switch with coil tapping options, and an XLR output jack. There was a mini toggle switch to flip between series and parallel operation.         


The Custom Made Performance

Ed Roman Has Made Several of these for Zappa Fans Over The Years
Another staple in Zappa’s arsenal during the 80’s was an apparent Fender Stratocaster. It in was not a Fender, however, it was a Performance solid body, equipped with a Floyd Rose, special knobs, switching, and a preamp. This guitar also featured Seymour Duncan Stacked Strat pickups, and an apparent DiMarzio in the bridge. There was some nifty filter circuits put on this guitar that allowed him to control the amount of feedback he wanted. Very nice.
From the early 70’s, Zappa used a stock Marshall amplifier. This remained a mainstay in his live rig all through the 80’s. Another amp used by Zappa, mainly for recording, was a Pignose 7-100 portable amplifier. It was used first on “Over-nite Sensation” and “Apostrophe(‘)”. It was also modified, featuring two XLR jacks. One of the more famous performances was when Frank walked out on stage on the Mike Douglas Show in 1976. He was holding the Pignose in one hand and the Baby Snakes SG in the other.

 All of this just goes to show what kind of player Zappa was. He wanted total mastery over his instrument, and he got it. He put features on his guitar that no one else would have for a very long time. He was ahead of his time then, and now, 14 years after his death, he is still ahead    


HAIL ZAPPA    !!!!



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