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Learn To Play: Riffs In The Key Of Frank Zappa

As a musical innovator, Frank Zappa brought an otherworldly embrace of disparate genres and styles to an output that included over 70 releases and countless legendary performances. Whether he was creating a hybrid jazz-fusion cocktail, a fully arranged orchestral suite, or simply fuzzed out, doo-wop-rooted rock and roll, his ability to craft guitar riffs and tones that elevated his fusion remained at the core of his swirling musical galaxy.

Frank was such a fierce innovator and uncompromising sonic alchemist that his talents as a guitarist often go overlooked. In his own lifetime and in the years since his passing, Frank remains massively influential as a player. His influence as a guitarist extends through generations of experimentalists but also had a direct and immediate impact on the legends who played in Zappa's band. Like Coltrane coming up with Miles Davis, Zappa collaborated with such players as Adrian Belew, Steve Vai and, of course, his son Dweezil.

In the video lesson above, Joe looks at three meat-and-potatoes Zappa-esque riffs to give just a brief introduction to his varied style. Take a look at the lesson to master some Zappa basics. Then explore his discography with a new perspective of how his core guitar skill finds its way into even his most elaborate arrangements.

Frank Zappa's Gear

Frank's penchant for exploration and reinvention was as present in his approach to guitars, effects and recording techniques as it was to composition and arrangement. Long before the days of stage-dominating pedalboards and amp modeling, Frank Zappa used the tools at his disposal to craft tones that served his arrangements, albums and epic performances.

Frank's Guitars

Like so many guitarists who grew up in the '50s and '60s, Frank's earliest guitars were department store buys, including a Supro Dual Tone that can be seen in some early photos from his school days. In the '60s, Zappa upgraded to a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster for many of the early Mothers Of Invention records. He also played various Hagstrom models, such as the Les Paul-esque Swede and the 12-string Hagstrom XII solidbody.

Going into the '70s and the classic Apostrophe and Over-nite Sensation era, Frank was most commonly seen with modded Gibson SGs and Les Pauls. Perhaps the most iconic of these was the cherry SG Special featured on the cover of Roxy and Elsewhere. This guitar was reissued in a limited edition by Gibson in 2013. Into the '80s, as Frank played side-by-side with Steve Vai, he often wielded popular "Super Strat" models, like his custom build by Performance Guitar. During this period, he usually employed a Floyd Rose-style tailpiece with a locking tremolo.

Through each era, the most defining aspects of Frank's guitars were the mods and upgrades he brought to each. Frank frequently added onboard preamps, phase switches, swapped pickups, compressors and other effects to his instruments, all in an effort to find the right sound for each project and performance. He even parted out the aforementioned ES-5 Switchmaster with new pickups (including a bridge-mounted transducer) and various phase and coil-tap switches.

Frank's Amps

For most tours, Frank relied on 100-watt Marshall heads to fill various theaters and auditorium. He also employed Carvin, Acoustic and Orange models in different periods. In the studio, he was known to use all manner of amps to achieve different sounds, including a Fender Deluxe in the '60s and portable Pignose amps for that particular blend of overdrive that can only come from small format combos. In live situations, Frank was known to have rigs with three amps that each focused on a section of the frequency range.

Frank's Effects

Through his career, Frank was always ready to experiment with different tools as seen both in his modded guitars as well in his use of effects. Like many players of the psychedelic era, he employed various wah pedals, including both Vox and Cry Baby models. In this regard, it's hard not to connect a Jimi Hendrix influence. Many of the EQ mods he brought to his guitars were actually included to hone the mid-range, capitalizing on the sweep of the wah.

In the '70s, the array of innovative pedals offered by the Mu-Tron company found their way into Frank's arsenal in the form of a Bi-Phase and Octave Divider. Dan Armstrong's Green Ringer also made an appearance, an effect that he integrated into at least one touring Les Paul. Later, Frank used both a ProCo Rat and an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff at different points. Perhaps most uniquely of all was a device known as the Electro Wagnerian Emancipator, a custom-built note generator that allowed Frank to select which notes would generate based on the guitar's output. It had, according to Frank, a sound similar to Farfisa organ. It can be seen as a precursor to modern pedal synth engine and octave pedals such as the Electro-Harmonix HOG.

Beyond his guitar effects, Frank was also far ahead of his time in his use of modern recording techniques such as sampling and collage-like multi-tracking. Famously, Zappa employed a synclavier system in the studio, something of a forerunner to modern samplers and in many ways, software DAWs altogether.


Of course, what's outlined above is just the very basics when it comes to Zappa's gear. Frank was touring and recording at a breakneck pace for 30 years. In the process he racked up a virtually endless list of instruments and implements. Like so many other greats, however, it's less about the gear for Zappa and more about how it was used through so many different albums, eras, lineups and sounds. That said, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that at least on one occasion, Frank very skillfully employed a bicycle. The Gear of Frank Zappa Shop Now

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