Unexpected gear used by Frank Zappa
From heavily modified Fenders to little-known amps and pedals, Frank Zappa’s gear was as unusual as his music.
Frank Zappa. Image: Ron Case / Keystone / Getty Images
Frank Zappa was fearlessly innovative. The free-form virtuoso favoured unusual gear to sculpt his sound. From solid-state rarities to string-six string obscurities, here we explore the unorthodox, the unexpected and the outright outrageous gear that Zappa employed during his lengthy career.
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Coral Electric Sitar
The brainchild of session musician Vincent Bell, the Electric Sitar was launched by Danelectro in 1967. Bell had been running into issues transporting and recording on his traditional Indian sitar, and sought to create something more practical and portable. The resulting electric sitar had a solid body comprised of pine and Masonite, and maintained many of the standard features of traditional six-string guitars. It featured 13 short drone strings on the upper half of the body, as well as three lipstick pickups – a neck and bridge pickup beneath the standard six strings, and another beneath the drone strings. Production only lasted until 1969, when MCA closed the company down.
Zappa got his electric sitar in late 1978 or early 1979, and used it on the Joe’s Garage album. Rex Bogue, who did a lot of work on Zappa’s guitars over the years, added three battery-powered preamps to the sitar, which were controlled by mini switches.
In the mid-80s, Zappa lent the guitar to Steve Vai, who used it during his time with Alcatrazz. Elwood Francis – Vai’s tech, who who would go on to work with Billy Gibbons – claimed that Vai had all of the preamps switched off during his tenure with the instrument. Vai returned the electric sitar to the Zappa family following Frank’s passing.
California-based company Phased Systems began producing two-thirds-sized versions of popular Gibson and Fender models in the early 80s. Zappa owned a couple of Strate models, as well as a few Les Paule models. In both cases, the E was added to the model names – as well as the Flying Ve and the Explore – in a lazy attempt to avoid legal action. Zappa appeared on the cover of the February 1983 issue of Guitar Player Magazine holding a red Strate.
While the Phased guitars looked like cheaply made toys, they were designed as professional instruments. The tradition of scaled-down instruments dates back centuries. Les Paul himself owned a scaled-down model made for Mary Ford.
Like most of his instruments, Zappa’s Strate and Les Paule guitars were modified with different pickups and electronics. Zappa used them live and on his album You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore: Vol. 3, on the track King Kong. As Zappa states in the liner notes, he had major issues with tuning stability.
In 2016, the body and neck of the red Strate was sold for $4,000, and a fully assembled Les Paule sold for $15,000.
Zappa bought this guitar from Bart Nagel for $600, backstage in Phoenix in 1974. Though the headstock says Gibson, this SG had been heavily customised by Nagel, and featured many details that set it apart from traditional Gibson models. As the story goes, Nagel had first offered the guitar to Steve Howe. The neck featured 23 frets rather than Gibson’s usual 22, with the extra fret pushing the neck pickup back towards the bridge slightly. After buying the guitar, Zappa took it to luthier Rex Bogue, who decked it out with a boost switch, an out-of-phase control switch, two split-coil switches, and an EQ booster switch. One of the switches is believed to have controlled a Dan Armstrong Green Ringer ring modulator.
This 1963 Stratocaster was played by Hendrix on March 31 1967 at the London Astoria. At the end of the performance, he lit the guitar on fire. After the show, the guitar remained in the possession of Hendrix’s roadie and assistant, Howard Parker. Howard gave the guitar to Zappa in 1968, while he was living in Zappa’s guesthouse. Zappa kept the guitar on his wall until 1976, when he gave it to Rex Bogue to put back together. As usual, Bogue added a few interesting modifications to broaden the guitar’s sonic offering.
Bogue added a Barcus Berry piezo neck pickup that could be blended in via a knob on the lower horn. This is widely believed to have been the first time the Barcus Berry piezo, which was invented in 1963 and had only been used on violins, woodwinds, orchestral instruments, and some acoustic guitars, had been used on an electric. Over the years, the guitar was given additional electrical accoutrements, such as preamps, EQ boosts, and another modified Dan Armstrong Green Ringer.
The Black Widow
The Acoustic Control Corporation was best known for its PA systems and amplifiers, which were used by Zappa and The Mothers early in their career, with Zappa using the 260 and the 270 amps.
However, Acoustic Control Corporation also built guitars. Zappa used a few versions of the Black Widow model, made between 1968 and 1969, and designed by Rickenbacker alumni Paul Barth.
Zappa’s first Black Widow was fretless. Later, he got a 24-fret version equipped with two EMG pickups. The Black Widow guitars featured a semi-acoustic construction and a large padded backplate. It’s unknown how many Black Widow guitars Zappa owned but we do know that the slide guitar on the songs The Torture Never Stops, San Ber’dino, and Cant Afford No Shoes is actually the fretless Black Widow. No known photos of Zappa playing the guitar exist but his son Dweezil has confirmed them.
Designed primarily as a portable practice amp, the Pignose became a useful tool for artists such as Zappa, Joe Walsh, and Dave Mason. The Pignose had a preamp output jack in the rear, which allowed it to function as a preamp running into a larger amp. Some would simply mic it up in the studio, as the amp’s casing could also be opened, essentially allowing it to be turned into open-back cabinet. Zappa used the Pignose on Apostrophe(’) and Over-Nite Sensation. The song The Torture Never Stops features only the Pignose. Zappa’s model was modified with XLR outputs on the back.
VOX Super Reverb Beatle
Like most artists of the era, Zappa used 100-watt Marshalls. But Zappa blended the iconic Marshall tone with that of several other amps, one of which was a solid-state oddity called the Vox Super Reverb Beatle. This tube/solid-state hybrid setup was later adopted by artists such as Billy Gibbons and Tool’s Adam Jones. Zappa’s Beatle was completely stock, and featured effects such as reverb, mid-resonance boost, top boost, and a frequency generator for tuning use. The Beatle amps were only made for a short time in the mid-60s. Ironically, by the time Vox began branding them ‘Beatle’ amps, the Fab Four had stopped using Vox amps all together.
Maestro BG-2 Boomerang
Made between 1972 and 1976, of all the wah pedals ever made, this is one of the most obscure. However, you’ve probably heard it: the BG-2 Boomerang was the wah used on the iconic theme song for the 1971 film Shaft. The song, by Isaac Hayes, also appears on Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack album. However, this is a different recording, on which Skip used a Cry Baby.
Zappa was not monogamous when it came to wah pedals. He is rumoured to have inspired Jimi Hendrix to pick up a Vox Wah-Wah. He was also known to use a Morley wah.
Arbiter was most famous for their Fuzz Face effect, put to good use by Hendrix. But the brand also made the lesser-known Add-A-Sound, an early octave splitter effect. The device took the input and generated two additional signals, one an octave above and one an octave below the original. The effect was never an integral part of Zappa’s signal chain but it can be seen perched atop his Marshall stack on the inside sleeve of the Burnt Weenie Sandwich album.
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