mutual love of Frank Zappa, plus the fact that we both dwell in the Thames
Delta, meant Mick Ekers and I would inevitably stumble upon one another. And we
did. About ten years ago.
At the time, we were both writing books on Frank: my first one (there’s been three more since!) came out in 2010; Mick’s Zappa Gear is finally upon us now – and what a thing of beauty it is.
In the intervening years, Mick and I have attended a number of gigs together and made regular appearances on Scott Parker’s ZappaCast. We have both also stopped eating meat. And Mick has stopped drinking. I haven’t.
It seemed sensible to have a chat about his mighty tome.
you want to put together a book about “The
Unique Guitars, Amplifiers, Effects Units, Keyboards and Studio Equipment of
I can remember the precise instant that the idea was born. It was summer 2010 and I was standing with my son Chris, a serious guitar freak, outside the Book Inn bookshop in Leigh. We were astonished to see in the window a large coffee-table book devoted to just one guitar; David Gilmour’s famous Black Strat.[i] I said to Chris, “Why doesn’t someone write a book about someone who had some interesting guitars, Like Frank Zappa?”, and he replied, “Why don’t you?” I couldn’t answer. That was the light bulb moment.
Some further thought and research soon convinced me that this should be more than just a guitar book. Frank was a pioneer of so much of the revolutionary new technology that first emerged during his lifetime, and I figured I could come up with something that might interest general music-gear geeks as well as Zappa fans and guitarists.
Zappa? Might you just have easily said someone should write a book about, say,
Steve Howe’s guitars?
Steve Howe would not have been the first name to come to mind, he’s a very fine guitarist but I have to admit I’m not the world’s greatest Yes fan!
…I know! (laughs)
I’ve always been a Zappa freak; I bought the Absolutely Free LP as soon as it came out, quickly catching up with Freak Out! soon after. Not long before I started the book I had decided to fill the gaps in my Zappa collection, and had recently got hold of an original Shut Up ’N Play Yer Guitar vinyl box set. It’s likely the intriguing mentions of the various guitars used on the track listings would have been on my mind. Coincidentally, I did find out during my researches that Bart Nagel, who built Frank’s ‘Baby Snakes’ SG featured on the cover of my book, had previously made a lute for Steve Howe, and was originally going to offer the guitar to him!
He was going
to offer the SG to Steve Howe? Wow!
I recall you telling me about the book in 2010, and wanting to get the ZFT seal of approval. Why was that important to you?
From a prestige point of view it would obviously be nice to get – as Gail put it – “the little moustache on the book cover”. But I knew that for the book to be of value I needed to examine and photograph as much of Frank’s gear as possible. So getting access to Frank’s UMRK studio (and later Joe’s Garage) was of vital importance. This would have been impossible without Gail’s support and approval.
Who did you
visit first when you flew out to LA?
I brought Chris along as my technical consultant and assistant, and our first major appointment when we got to LA was with Dweezil Zappa, at his bungalow in Hollywood. Dweezil was, as always, courteous and charming, and he showed us into his small but impeccably equipped mini recording studio in what looked like a summer house in the garden. For an hour and half he gave us an incredible amount of information about Frank’s guitars and gear. If it was ever in doubt, here was a man who had studied not only his father’s technique, but also the equipment he used to obtain his tone, down to an incredible level of detail. Dweezil’s interview was to provide vital information and insights that I used throughout the book. As we were winding down, the conversation returned to the famous Hendrix Strat, which Dweezil was restoring at the time. He casually mentioned – “I’ve got it in the house, would you like to see it!” “Well yes!” was the reply, I think we had both assumed it would be locked up in a vault somewhere. He brought it out (just the body itself) into the garden and we took some close up photos of it. It was astonishing to find ourselves up close to such a piece of musical history. Chris and I looked at each other – the unspoken conversation was, “We could touch it!”, “We could, but that might be uncool.” So we didn’t. Should have done though!
definitely should have!
Tell me about your visits to the UMRK and meeting with Gail – didn’t she set you a test before work commenced?
Kind of! There had been a communication breakdown and, after my first scheduled appointment with Dweezil in LA, I was to discover that since I had informally arranged the UMRK visit with him, he and Gail had fallen out, and she was not pleased that I had not spoken to her first. So I had a couple of fairly intense phone conversations; at the end of the first she mentioned a comment I had written about Frank’s guitar solos: “Air sculptures, as some people called them,” and asked me to find out when Frank had first used that phrase. I checked back with you and Scott Parker as I recall – since my notes were all back in the UK – and between you, I got the information I wanted: Frank had said in a French magazine that for him playing solos was a bit like creating sculptures.
remember our frantic exchanges!
Indeed! This turned out to be the correct answer, and in our call the next day Gail told me the story of how she originated the actual term ‘air sculptures’! Gail then announced, “Well, I can’t let just anyone turn up and handle Frank’s guitars you know,” which was test number two! I asked if it would be acceptable if Thomas Nordegg accompanied us (we had visited him a few days before). Fortunately he was free on the proposed date and, with his characteristic generosity, agreed to help. And finally, the visit was formally confirmed!
We arrived at the Zappa house in Woodrow Wilson Drive to find Thomas already waiting for us (as reliable as the sun, as Steve Vai describes him). We rang the bell at the gate and were shown in by Kurt Morgan, still the ScoreMeister for the ZFT at the time. Kurt took us into the kitchen and told us we had to wait for Gail, we could hear her talking animatedly into the phone somewhere in the house.
After 20 minutes of apprehensive waiting, Gail suddenly appeared beaming all over her face. “I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting, but I’ve been on the phone persuading Ruth Underwood to come over so you can interview her. Todd Yvega is coming round too.” She gave me a big smile and a nudge, “Don’t say I never do anything for you!”
Gail led us down the stairs to the studio, told us we could photograph anything expect personal items on the studio walls, handed us over to Kurt and left with a final, “Fire at will!”
We’d finally made it into the UMRK! Joe Travers dropped in to say hello and Kurt showed us a pile of guitar cases that apparently they had been getting ready for the past couple of days. We started setting up lighting and backdrops and then Diva waltzed in just radiating charm and loveliness, to tell us she was getting some pizzas in for lunch. At that moment, for a second, I genuinely thought it must be a dream.
The day continued in a dream like way! We set up our lights and camera and the team started bringing me guitars one at a time. Thomas called over, “You’ll like this one!”, and next thing I knew there was the Baby Snakes SG in front of me. “You’ll like this one even more!” and Chris brought over the Gibson Switchmaster. So it went on. When it came to the turn of the Coral Electric Sitar, Kurt Morgan picked it out of its case and idly started playing the introduction to Outside Now. Even unamplified, the sound was so distinctive and evocative of the original recording that everyone just froze. It was a genuine goose bumps moment.
After the promised pizzas arrived, attention turned to Frank’s amazing collection of Marshall Amps. Chris and Thomas were in their element, and I left them to it because the wonderful Ruth Underwood had arrived and Gail suggested we do the interview in the control room.
This was another unforgettable experience. I found myself sitting on the same sofa that Frank must have spent many hours on listening back to recordings, with Ruth on one side and Gail on the other, listening with delight as they rattled on about the old days, mostly irrelevant and unrepeatable – whether a particular one of Frank’s engineers was ‘hot’ and that sort of thing. Eventually, after Gail left us, Ruth was incredibly helpful with information, and completely warm and charming. An absolutely lovely lady.
We went down to the live room again to look at some of Frank’s percussion toys, Joe Travers was helping. At one point I suddenly heard Ruth shrieking with delight at the back of the storage area. Joe had found Frank’s old piccolo snare drum, which Ruth had talked about on The Drummers Of Frank Zappa DVD. Frank had asked Ruth if she knew where it was when he was nearing the end of his life, and it was assumed that it had been lost. Ruth and Joe’s smiles were a real picture.
Next up, Todd Yvega showed up for an interview that Gail had also arranged. Todd was a fount of knowledge about Frank’s Synclavier, and during the interview he spotted Frank’s Roland Octapad, an electronic drum device that could be used to control synthesizers, tucked away on its side on a shelf: “Holy cow! That’s the Octapad! We used this all the time.” This triggered a whole load of memories, and we went back down to the studio for a last look at some of Frank’s synthesizer gear.
Finally the Boesendorfer Imperial Grand piano was unveiled – it has an extended range over a normal piano and I couldn’t resist just playing one note on the Low ‘C’ key. It sounded marvellous.
The day just flew by and eventually it was time to go. Gail dropped down and I thanked her profusely for everything she’d done. Another one of her dazzling smiles: “I don’t let just anybody into my home you know! Don’t let me down now.” I just said, “Gail, I wouldn’t dare!”
the Zappa family, and those mentioned above, were there any other notable
informants on Frank’s gear?
Yes indeed. While in LA, we visited various local music shops who had dealings with Frank and some of his guitar makers.
Dave Weidermann of Guitar Centre told the story behind Frank’s handprints for the Rock Walk outside their main store in Hollywood. Frank was very ill at that time, so he and his team took a tray of cement up to the house in the Hollywood hills and took the impressions in October 1993 – just a few months before he passed away. When it was time to place them, they told Frank of the various positions that were free and he asked to be put in the one just below Leo Fender’s hands.
And did you also talk to any of FZ’s former musicians?
I spoke by phone to several of Frank’s musicians; the two who particularly stand out were Tommy Mars[ii] and George Duke.[iii]
Arthur Barrow set up the interview with Tommy, who is a notoriously difficult person to track down, and he was incredibly enthusiastic about the project, saying how important it was for posterity. He provided an incredible amount of information and detail about Frank’s keyboards, and remembered with great affection how they would sometimes have a private jam session when touring back at the hotel – with Tommy on a piano and Frank playing his acoustic Ovation guitar.
George Duke was perhaps the nicest person I’ve ever interviewed, his warmth and relaxed friendly manner made it a complete delight, and he also had a wonderful set of stories to tell. He credits Frank for convincing him he could sing, which he had never done before joining the band, and also persuading him to try one of the new synthesizers that were just coming on to the market. I had a moving meeting with George at the Zappanale festival where he was playing with Jean-Luc Ponty, his wife had very recently died suddenly, and although heartbroken he came to Europe to do the gig. He was sitting on his own in the eating area and I went over and said hello and asked how he was doing and said how sorry I was to hear about his wife. He just hugged me and said, “Thanks, man.” A lovely chap.
Yeah, I saw
him there and wanted to give him a hug.
While we were in LA, we also took the opportunity to visit a couple of Frank’s guitar builder/techs. First up was Kunio Sagai at Performance Guitar in Hollywood, perhaps best known for building Frank’s ‘Yellow Strat’ which was his last main guitar. Kunio took us through a door at the back of his tiny shop front into a Tardis like factory full of drilling, cutting and sanding machines, which would put most custom guitar shops to shame. Kunio talked about his early days learning the trade working for Leo Fender, and laughed as he described his first telephone conversation with Frank. Frank called him to ask him to come and collect some guitars for repair and Kunio asked if he could drop them into the shop as he was busy at the time. Frank replied, “Well I’m busy too!” So Kunio went and collected them and this started a long relationship with the family, including making and customising guitars and pedals for Dweezil.
Next we visited the workshop of the venerable John Carruthers, who among other things put the custom electronics in Frank’s rare Gibson Switchmaster semi-acoustic. John wanted to carefully replace the electronics via the ‘f’ holes in the guitar body – like building a ship in a bottle, as he described it – but Frank said, “Nah, whack a big hole in it, put a plate on it – it’ll be easy to get at and fix!”. Frank had absolutely no concept of the historical value of guitars: like everything else, they were just tools to him – to be hacked about as needed.
Yes! In the
book’s Foreword, Dweezil talks about how Frank wasn’t at all precious about
this equipment. The same applies to his tapes, which he would cut up and put to
Wasn’t there a second visit to LA?
Yes! I had only been home a few weeks when I got an excited call from Gail: she had found a whole lot of gear, including the pickups for Ruth Underwood’s electrified vibraphone, in Joe’s Garage. She suggested I might like to visit again, and promised me more time at the UMRK to look at things we missed – such as Frank’s microphone collection. It would have been rude to say no, of course, but naturally I was really excited at the thought of visiting Joe’s Garage; Thomas Nordegg had told me of some of the treasures to be found there.
So in March that year, I found myself flying out to LA again, on my own this time. This was a short but intense visit, with no delays or problems. At Joe’s Garage, I was delighted to find all manner of wonderful things: a lot of Frank’s keyboards, the legendary Harrison mixing console that was the original desk at the UMRK, the Mothers’ first PA system (as featured in the Video From Hell). I never found Ruth’s pickups though, although Gail insisted she had put them on a shelf where I would find them.
At the UMRK, this time the focus was very much on studio gear, looking at Frank’s wonderful collection of microphones, venturing into a tiny workshop in the basement where his Acoustic Control Black Widow was found in a very sorry state, and also having explained the advanced way in which Frank had wired up the UMRK – so that each musician could connect up their own mini mixer to balance the sound in their headphones. At the time it was built, this was incredibly advanced stuff.
So finally it was time to return home, and start the long task of sorting through my notes and photos and turning the whole thing into a book. Of course I did not realise that it would be such a long wait until the final article was produced. I largely finished writing it in a couple of years, but of course Gail’s illness and untimely death resulted in major delays. I’m glad that I was able to catch up with Gail near the end of her life when 200 Motels – The Suites played at the Festival Hall in London. She seemed as happy as Frank would have been to hear his music played so well by a large orchestra. I can’t say how pleased I am that the book has finally been published, and am delighted with the end result. As Thomas Nordegg said to me, the project certainly turned out to be a long and winding road.
It did that!
Okay – final question: from the get-go, the book was to be called Zappa’s Gear. Why the last minute name tweak?
This was Ahmet’s suggestion and, although I’d had Zappa’s Gear in my head as a working title for years, Backbeat and I immediately agreed that it was much stronger. As always, the apostrophe is the crux of the biscuit!
Photo of Mick taken by Gaz de Vere, and used with kind permission.
[i] Pink Floyd – The Black Strat: A History of David Gilmour’s Black Fender Stratocaster by Phil Taylor (Hal Leonard, 2008).
[iii] A transcript of Mick’s interview with George can be read here: http://www.zappasgear.com/GeorgeDukeInterview.html