Saturday, 11 December 2010

Frank Zappa Interview: March 1993

Frank Zappa would have been 70 on the 21st December 2010. In order to mark this in a very personal way, here is a transcript of the interview I did with Frank on March 23rd 1993 for Guitarist magazine. His album 'The Yellow Shark' was due for release and his ongoing health situation meant that the interview couldn't be scheduled in advance as normal; in fact I had only two hours' notice on this occasion. It was an honour to speak to a man whose music had given me so much pleasure over the years and the resulting interview was one of the most memorable of my career as a music journalist.

The interview was carried out on the telephone. At the time, Frank was working whenever he felt well enough to do so. I was aware that he was doing me an enormous favour by taking the time away from the studio. In fact, our conversation began with something of a reminder of this fact from the man himself...

“We’re right in the middle of a session here and so I’m taking time off to do this,” he said. I got the impression that he really didn’t want to be talking me at all, but I was genuinely a fan of his music and didn’t want to think that I was just another career journalist and he was just a notch on my CV.

I had heard an excerpt of the new album on BBC 2’s Late Show - a track called ‘The Be-Bop Tango’ which originally featured on Zappa’s ‘Roxy And Elsewhere’ album and told him so - adding that it wouldn’t be the same without the girl from the audience on the original track who says on mic, ‘I’ll do anything you say, Frank…’

“Heh heh - what was her name? Lana!”

After this, Frank relaxed a little. At least he knew I’d listened to at least one of his albums. I told him I was going to ask some guitar related questions…

“Well, there’s not anything guitar related [on ‘The Yellow Shark’] although there’s a guitar player and a mandolin player in the Ensemble Moderne [the classical outfit who had recorded the new album].”

What attracted you to the instrument in the first place?

“I liked the way it sounded.”

You’ve cited Johnny Guitar Watson as an influence before.

“I used to listen to him all the time,” confirms Zappa, “and I used to listen to Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown.”

So it was the latter end of the 50s blues period that first got you interested?


You’ve spoken too of an interst in 50’s do-wop records.

“Yes, I like that music.”

Mixed together with your interest in classical music as well - it’s a fairly bizarre combination.

“I just listened to it and liked what I heard. It became my musical world.”

The first piece by Edgar Varese you heard was…


You’ve always been interested in percussion?

“Yeah, in fact the piece I’m working on now is all percussion. It has some synthesiser sustaining things in it, but 99% of what’s being heard in this piece that we’re working on today is all different kinds of percussion instruments.”

I remember you saying on a radio interview once about writing ‘percussive harmony’.

“Oh sure. You can write rhythmic dissonance or you can write the equivalent of rhythmic consonance, too. What I would describe as a dissonant rhythm is 23/24, where things would rub up against each other in a dissonant way in just the same way that notes that are a half-step apart have a certain tendency to twinge your ear. Rhythms that are fractionally off from each other create another kind of linear dissonance. A consonant kind of rhythm would be like march or disco music where everything is ‘boom, boom, boom…’"

Common time like 4/4 or simple 2/4, you mean?


What did you learn from Johnny Guitar Watson records? Was it the pentatonic approach?

“Well, you know, what Watson was doing was not just pentatonic scales. One of the things I admired about him was his tone; this wiry, kind of nasty, aggressive and penetrating tone, and another was the fact that the things that he would play would often come out as rhythmic outbursts over the constant beat of the accompaniment.”

Is that something you tried to incorporate into your own playing?

“Yes. It seemed to me that was the correct way to approach it, because it was like talking or singing over a background. There was a speech influence to the rhythm.”

What was the first guitar that you had?

“It didn’t have a make on it - it had been kinda sandblasted. My brother got it for $1.50 at an auction and it was an archtop, f-hole, ugly motherf***er with the strings about a half-inch off the fingerboard.”

That’s usually a good sort of guitar to start with…

“It builds your wrist up…”

Everything you play afterwards feels like going downhill after one of those.

“Heh heh, yeah. My father had a guitar which he kept in a closet, but I never played that. I didn’t really decide to mess around with the thing until we got this god awful thing at the auction. That’s why I liked it - because it was so tinny-sounding. It was just an acoustic guitar, but for an acoustic instrument it was moving closer to the direction of that wiry tone I liked with Johnny Guitar Watson, especially if you picked it right next to the bridge.”

Did it have one of those moveable wooden bridges that wrecks the intonation?

“I had no idea what intonation was! I didn’t find out for maybe five or six years that you even had to think about things like intonation It was bad enough just tuning the damn thing up with the pegs, let alone worrying about whether you’re going to be in tune at the octave.”

When did you make the move to electric?

“The guitar my father had was a round holed guitar of anonymous make and I stuck one of those DeArmond sound hole pickups in that. So it would be one of those bad-sounding magnetic pick-ups that you stick in the sound hole of a normal acoustic guitar. It would merely amplify the acoustic sound - so it wasn’t a real electric guitar. I guess it was around four or five years later that I actually got an electric guitar. There was a music store not far from my house, and I rented this Telecaster for $15 a month. Eventually I had to give it back, because I couldn’t make the payments on it any more.”

Were you ever in High School bands?

“I had a band when I was either a sophomore or a junior in High School I actually started off as a drummer, playing in a band in San Diego, but that didn’t last very long.”

A lot of guitarists started out playing drums - like Eddie Van Halen, or Extreme's Nuno Bettencourt, both of whom seem to have developed solid right hand techniques as a result.

“Well, I don’t know whether I could vouch for that because I wasn’t a very good drummer! My main drawback was that I didn’t have good hand-to-foot co-ordination. I could play a lot of stuff on the snare and the tom-toms and the cymbal and everything, but I couldn’t keep an even beat on the kick drum while I was doing all this which was one of the reasons why I was no longer employed as a drummer - nobody could dance to it.”

This is something that obviously didn’t translate onto guitar with hand-to-hand co-ordination.

“Yeah, hand-to-hand I’m fine. The only thing I had to co-ordinate with my feet was the wah-wah pedal and turning little stomp boxes on and off.”

How would you sum up your guitar style on the early Mothers recordings?

“It was okay, but back then the guitar wasn’t a featured instrument in the way it was on the later albums. As far as a precedent for it... I don’t think there was anything you could compare it to; it was the only way I knew how to do it. There was no reason to do it another way, and anyway, everybody else was doing it the other way.”

The rock guitar influences that are the most common are the ‘60s icons, players like Clapton and Hendrix...

“When ‘Freak Out’ and ‘Absolutely Free’ were done, there wasn’t any Hendrix. We met Hendrix in the summer of ‘67; he sat in with us at the Garrick Theatre, so we’d already made those albums before I even knew that he existed. But Mike Bloomfield was a popular guitar player, he was in the Butterfiled Blues Band. I saw Butterfield when they came to Los Angeles, but I don’t own any of their records.

“Actually, I think my playing is probably more derived from the folk music records that I heard; middle Eastern music, Indian music, stuff like that.”

What specifically?

“For years I had something called ‘Music On The Desert Road’, which was a recording of all kinds of different ethnic musics from different places in the Middle East. I used to listen to that all the time - I liked that kind of melodic feel. I listened to Indian music, Ravi Shankar and so forth, before we did the ‘Freak Out’ album. The idea of creating melody from scratch based on an ostinato or single chord that doesn’t change - that was the world that I felt most comfortable with.”

You prefer to improvise over a single chord vamp.

“If you listen to Indian classical music, it’s not just pentatonic. Some of the Ragas that they use are very chromatic, all sustained over a root and a fifth that doesn’t change, and by using these chromatic scales they can imply all these other kinds of harmonies. The chords don’t change; it’s just the listener’s aspect that gets to change, based on how the melody notes are driven against the ground bass.”

That sounds like a parallel with your own guitar improvisations, where the band plays a fairly straightforward rhythmic vamp, and you insert dissonance via the solo - you use a lot of chromatic tones and whole tone scales in your solos.

“Well, you stick them in where you think they belong when you think they belong. Sometimes you guess right, sometimes you guess wrong. The most dangerous thing is improvising with a band and thinking ‘Okay, now’s the time to play that diminished scale,’ and somebody in the band is thinking, ‘Now’s the time to play a major chord.’ Those kinds of accidents do happen...”

Your guitar style underwent a marked change around the time of ‘Overnite Sensation’.

“That was partly because of the rhythm section, and partly because of the equipment I was using. I imagine that anybody’s guitar playing would change if one day your keyboard player was Don Preston, and suddenly the next day it’s George Duke - know what I mean? Or the difference between (drummers) Jimmy Carl Black and Chester Thompson - that certainly made a difference. Or the difference between Roy Estrada and Ton Fowler. When you have a completely different rhythm section with a different musical perspective, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of it.”

So things became tighter?

“Much tighter and harmonically much more interesting because George is a more interesting keyboard player.”

It was you who got George Duke into playing synthesiser, wasn’t it?

“I had to almost strangle him to make him do it! Up to that point, the closest he would get to a synthesiser would be to use an Oberheim ring modulator that he would plug his Fender Rhodes into and every once in a while he would jerk the handle on it and get some sort of a metallic sound out of his Rhodes. It took quite a bit or persuasion to get him to pick up an ARP Odyssey. Also, I knew he had a really nice voice, but it was hard to get him to sing and now he sings all the time.”

There have been many musicians that have gone through the various manifestations of the Mothers and you later bands who have come to prominence. There’s a parallel there perhaps to the Miles Davis bands - almost like a music college or finishing school.

“Well, if you come to it with that attitude, then it’s true - you can derive a lot of information from doing the job. However, most of the musicians look at it as just a way to earn an income. It takes an exceptional musician to work in the band and to really appreciate the type of training and information that is being delivered during rehearsals for the show. So you can either learn a lot of different things in the band, or you can just learn your part, play the gig and pick up your paycheck. I’ve had both kinds.”

You’ve had some remarkable musicians in the band; Steve Vai being a fairly obvious example. But Chester Thompson, Adrian Belew, Scott Thunes, Arthur Barrow…

“Terry Bozio - he was here yesterday for a visit…”

Now you always cite his playing on ‘Hands With A Hammer’ from Vol 3 of ‘You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore’ as a near perfect drum sound.

“That’s true and you know it was recorded with just one of those AKG Dummy Head microphones and a C24 - there’s no close miking on the set at all. It’s all just ambient miking. It’s really a fat-sounding kit.”

If we can move back to that radical change in your guitar sound…

“It also changed because I started playing an SG.”

Was this your custom built one?

“The first one I had was stock, I got it second hand. At a gig in Pheonix, Arizona this guy came up to me after the show with this hand-made SG and he said he would like to sell it to me and I played it and liked it and bought it for $500. As a matter of fact, Dweezil’s guitar roadie was just here and he’s taken it down to get it strung up with really light strings.”

So you could put the difference in your guitar sound down, at least in part, to a new instrument?

“Not just a different instrument, but also different amplification because prior to that time I’d been playing either a Gold Top Les Paul or a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster, which was a large, fat, three pick-up jazz guitar which really had uncontrollable feedback. I was playing through a Fender amp or an Acoustic amp with a fairly nondescript tone - I just didn’t have enough money to invest in new equipment. But by the early ‘70s I was playing this SG, and I switched over to Marshalls, and started playing through a device that a friend built for me, which had compression, phase shifting and some other little specialities.”

Wasn’t there a control you had fitted to one of your guitars which acted as a sort of parametric eq?

“That came later.”

In the past, you’ve quoted ‘One Size Fits All’ as being your favourite album.

“Well. I think it was probably a good example of what the band with George Duke and Ruth Underwood could do. I think it’s a good sounding album, representing that group.”

Volume 2 of ‘You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore’ features that band live in Helsinki…


…and the full version of the solo from Inca Roads shows just how dramatic your editing was on the ‘One Size Fits All’ version - where did you pick up your editing technique?

“I started around ‘62, before The Mothers, when I was working in Cucamunga.”

Those were all razor edits - literally cutting up the tape?

“That’s right.”

But everything’s right on the beat. You’d never know that you’re not hearing the complete story.

“I’m a pretty good editor...”

What about your technique of editing together a song from completely different performances - even different bands?

“They come in on the beat!”

I was thinking of the ‘Ship Arriving Too Late’, from the ‘You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore’ series.

“Oh yeah, where it goes from the 84 to the 82 band?”

How much time does an edit like that take?

“Well, it took years. I worked on it for five or six years.”

You’re also a fearsome archivist of your own material…

“I do have a large vault with material in it.”

Any idea how many hours of material it represents in total?

“Heh heh, No [laughs]. There’s mountains of stuff in every format from little five inch reels of quarter inch tape a 1 7/8 IPS all the way up to digital video and all stops in between.”

You’ve also taken live backing tracks and superimposed studio performances on top - for instance, the ‘Sheik Yerbouti’ album...

“Yes, but I’ve gone in the other direction, too. For example, ninety percent of the guitar solos on the ‘Joe’s Garage’ album were from live shows, pasted on studio tracks. In the studio, they called it the ‘Ampex Guitar’ - I had all these quarter-inch tapes of guitar solos that I liked from the ‘79 tour, and when we went into the studio to do ‘Joe’s Garage’, I would just go through my files to see what key a certain solo was in, and just experimentally hit the start button on the playback machine and lay it onto the multi-track.”

Didn’t you have trouble with tuning variation?

“Well, we did that with a VSO. We did have to wiggle the pitch around to make sure it sounded like it was in the right key.”

At one time, the live band used to tune to the vibes as a source of fairly constant pitch, didn’t they?

“Yeah, when we had vibes in the band. Remember, we were on the road long before there were Peterson strobe tuners. If you tuned up to a piano that happened to be somewhere on the stage, there wasn’t any guarantee that the piano itself was in tune. So, for the first five or six years of touring, it was really a crap shoot as to whether you’d be in tune with anything.”

You overdubbed the guitar solo on ‘The Purple Lagoon’ from ‘Live In New York’, because you recorded it on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and had to fill the gap where John Belushi did an act as a Samurai bebop musician.

“Yes, that’s right, although he didn’t do that act in the regular live show. I overdubbed it with a home-made SG through a Pignose amp and an Eventide Harmoniser set at 99.”

Can you remember which guitar you used?

“Yeah, it was the hand made SG.”

How did you come to own the fire-damaged ex-Jimi Hendrix Strat?

“Well, there was this guy named Howard Parker - they called him ‘H’ - who was Hendrix’s roadie, gofer and general assistant. He stayed at our house for a couple of months in the late ‘60s, and he had this guitar which Hendrix had given to him - I thought it was from the Miami concert. He gave it to me and we had it hanging on the wall as a decoration for years and years, and then I met some guys who were capable of putting guitars back together, so I had it done.”

When I spoke to Dweezil he said that you still have the original neck.

“Yeah, somewhere around here…”

Does it have an individual sound?

“Yes, it did have a sound all its own, especially after it was reconstructed, but that sound was not what you would expect from the Hendrix guitar. It didn’t sound like all the Hendrix guitar solos you’ve ever heard. It was a different kind of sound.”

It’s gone through various pick-up transformations as well, hasn’t it?

“Yeah, it used to have a chrome scratchplate and it had, I think, at that time a Barcus Berry in the neck and also a preamp…”

Didn’t you use that guitar on a couple of tracks from the ‘Shut Up And Play Your Guitar’ set?

“If it’s in the liner notes, it’s true, but I can’t remember off hand. I didn’t play it that often because one of the characteristics of that guitar was it liked to feed back unless you were in exactly the right environment where you could stand in exactly the right relationship to the amplifier.”

What was the story behind the 1988 band?

“Actually, it didn’t start off large and get smaller - it started medium, and got large. It was a 12-piece band, and an argument broke out between Scott Thunes and just about everyone else in the band apart from me and Mike Keneally. The others all decided that they hated Scott’s guts; it was very weird.

“We were almost at the end of the European portion of the tour in the early summer of ‘88, and we had other dates booked in the United States - big, outdoor, high-paying gigs, but because most of them refused to go onstage with this guy, I had to cancel them all. There was no time to replace anybody at all, no breaks in the tour to rehearse anybody new, so I just had to break it up.”

Was that one of the formats of the band that you were most happy with?

“WelI I was very happy with it and also the audiences really liked it too, and the reviewers thought it was a great band. It was unique because it combined a very strong five-piece horn section with all kinds of electronic stuff, with effects on the percussion section, on the drums, multiple keyboards - a very interesting blend of this horn harmony and very strange sound-effects.”

I missed seeing the band on that tour. I was on the way to Scotland the day you played Wembley…

“Wembley was the only concert on the tour that got a bad review! Someone wrote that we were all too old to play rock’n’roll. But all the rest of the reviews, even Rolling Stone writing about our performance in New York City, surprisingly gave a good review.”

The resulting live CD of that tour - ‘The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life’ - is testimony to that.

“Think about it, there are no overdubs on that, either. All those little effects and things coming in, that’s just the way it was on the live show.”

You’ve got sampled dog barks and stuff on that - was that the Synclavier?


Were you generating that from a keyboard?

“There were three stations generating samples: there was Ed Mann, who had this whole vocabulary of dog barks and bubbles and weird shit, then there was Chad Wackerman who had all these strange percussion things hooked up to a big rig, and then there was the Synclavier which I could play when I wasn’t playing the guitar. There was a MIDI link between the other two stations and the Synclavier so that thay could trigger Synclavier samples while something else was going on.”

So you played your parts on keyboard?

“Yes, I sat down and played the keyboard.”

Did you ever try using a MIDI guitar to control the Synclavier?

“Yes, but I couldn’t make it work…”

Was that to do with your playing style?

“Well, I think in order to make it work, the detector only wants to hear the vibrations of a single string, and if you’re not constantly damping and muting and doing all sorts of gyrations, then the detector can’t really read accurate pitch. So if you’re playing on the top E string and you’ve got an A string ringing or something like that, it tends to f*ck things up. So you have to worry about damping the other strings while you’re playing and it’s just a technique that I’m not very good at.”

You pick with a lot of upstrokes…

“It’s just the way I learned.”

A lot of people will pick ‘downstrokes heavy’, but using a lot of upstrokes is fairly unique.

“It’s just the way I learned…”

What’s your attitude towards the guitar now?

“I seldom touch it. I was doing a little overdubbing here in the studio, but I don’t have calluses anymore. In a way, I think I used to be a guitarist, but not any more.”

How do you feel guitar-playing is going at the moment?

“I don’t think there’s much on the street that interests me. I mean, there are certain guys that I admire because they play well and they play musically - I like Jeff Beck and I like Allan Holdsworth and Michael Hedges. These people are all real geniuses at what they do. And I can’t remember the guy’s name - one of the heavy metal groups - I heard him play a solo that was just wonderful - really interesting stuff. But I can never remember the name of the group or the name of the guitar player! I just saw it whizzing past the channels on MTV.”

What interested you about it?

“Well, it was the whole approach to the solo. The tone was great, the intervals were great and it wasn’t the usual thing where a guy will just weedle away on any kind of scale that he thinks he can get away with in the middle of some fast, fuzztone background. This really had some thought to it.”

The Steve Vai-transcribed ‘Frank Zappa Guitar Book’ is amazingly complex-looking stuff...

“It’s even more amazing when you get him to tell you how he did it!”

He said he didn’t slow it down.

“He couldn’t slow it down. He was taking it off a cassette machine.”

He must have an incredible ear…

“Yup. [laughs]”

There’s a song you did called ‘The Jazz Discharge Party Hats’; I heard that when Vai was playing with you, he wrote out your skat-singing vocal part, and then overdubbed it on acoustic guitar.

“That’s right.”

That’s frightening!

“That’s right!”

And was it 100% accurate?

“It’s not 100% accurate, as a matter of fact, because if you play the pitches of his transcription without the vocal, there are certain things that just sound a little bit weird. I’d give it 99%, though. I don’t think there is anybody wandering around that knew they could do something like ‘The Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ unless some other lunatic said, ‘Do it’.

“When you’re transcribing something to publish in a magazine, that’s one thing. But when you’re transcribing it and you know that within a day or so you’re going to be overdubbing on the track, and you’re going to be sight-reading your own transcription, and it’s got to sync up exactly with what’s on the track - that’s when you’ll really know whether you’re a good transcriber or not. But that’s how he did it; he wrote it out, he came in, we turned on the tape, he read it and he did it in two or three takes. He even put in a string-scratch for when I laughed! I went ‘Huh, huh, huh’ and he’s got that little ‘scrape, scrape, scrape’ in there. He nailed everything.”

He got a lot of criticism for doing the big rock thing with Dave Lee Roth and Whitesnake.

“He should be able to do whatever he wants. If he wanted to go country and western he should do that, y’know?”

It’s interesting that not all the members of your bands have been able to read music...

“That’s right; maybe 10% have been readers, but the rest of them all had to learn it like a parrot.”

There seems to be a free exchange between your ‘orchestral’ pieces and your ‘rock band’ pieces. The transfer of ‘The Be-Bop Tango’ on ‘The Yellow Shark’ from band to orchestra is one example...

“Well, look at it this way; they’re pieces. Pieces of music that have harmony, melody and rhythm and some sort of an idea that makes them go, and the rest is just a matter of orchestration.”

How did you acquire your skills as an arranger?

“Trial and error.”

Did you have any formal training in harmony?

“Uh, I had a couple of classes early on. When I was a senior in high school I was an incorrigible student and one of the people in the office decided that maybe I would be socially better adjusted if I was given the opportunity to study something that I was actually interested in. So they arranged for me to go to the junior college to take a harmony course, one hour a week; that lasted for two or three months. I was studying out of the Walter Piston harmony book and I found it really boring. I probably finished up with a D grade, or something like that. There wasn’t anything there that I thought was going to be useful for what I wanted to do. I didn’t like the sound of the musical examples, I didn’t like all this f****ing Roman numeral horseshit that you have to deal with. Still, I guess it was better than putting up with the stupid classes they had at the high school.”

Is there a way to teach music in a constructive and ‘student friendly’ way?

“I think that it’s kinda useless to teach it, because what are you going to do? A person gets out of school, how’s he going to earn a living? In order to make money doing something that you call music, what you wind up doing to earn a living is not music - it’s shit! So why bother to teach them anything? It just seems so redundant to teach composition or harmony, when the people who will make the most money will come out of a metal shop or something like that, do something sub-mongoloid and make a fortune out of it.”

So you still stand by your quote of a few years back when you said that the average American wouldn’t know good music if it came up and bit them on the ass?

“That’s right. But I mean, it’s not their fault because they haven’t been exposed to anything other than the commercial stuff that is the non-stop stream of shit that comes out of the media.”

No ready solution, then?

“Well, how can you draw a conclusion about music unless you’ve heard a wide range of it? I think that the most useful thing that could be done in school is to put more emphasis on music appreciation and make sure that people, whether they’re going to become musicians or not, get to hear music from different cultures, music from different eras, different periods of classical music - something so that thay have some kind of a home base of knowledge from which they can make personal decisions.

“The cost of the music education course is so small compared to what it costs to buy new uniforms for the football team and the rest of the shit - and yet most schools in the United States don’t even teach it any more.”


“That’s right. I mean, I was lucky that I was in school at a time in American history where they not only had music appreciation courses, but had record libraries at the school. Even in the little towns where I lived you could go in and have access to a large portion of the Folkways library. If you wanted to listen to music from Tibet, or wherever, just go in there and find out what it is... Not any more.”

There was a story about you finding something in a harmony book that conventional wisdom said should never be done and you tried it and liked what you heard…

“It wasn’t a harmony text book, it was a counterpoint book. It was on the first page and what it said was, ‘You may not write the following intervals.’ The intervals were F and A, a major third, expanding to E and B, a fifth. It also said you could not write G and B, a major third, expanding to F and C, a fifth. So I played these things on the piano and said ‘Why? Why can’t we do this? This sounds great!'”

And so you closed the book?

“Yeah - I mean, I figured that if on the first page they were telling me that I would have to be going against something my ear immediately liked, then why should I learn the rest of that stuff?”

Tell us about the projects you’re working on at the moment.

“Well, there’s ‘Civilisation: Phaze III’ and the idea for that is to put it on stage as an ‘Opera Pantomime’. All the music and the sound effects will be included in the compact disc, so what you’d see on stage would be a dance pantomime manifestation of the action and the music.

“It’s due to be performed in Vienna in May of ‘94, but I’m still waiting to find out whether it’s actually going to happen. We got a fax from them yesterday - there’s been a meeting between the organiser and three of his partners who are talking about financing the thing, but I don’t have a contract with them yet. The CD is already done and finished, but I don’t know about a release date yet. If the performance in Vienna comes off on time, then I’ll hold the CD up until February of ‘94. But if they’re not going to stage it, then I’ll probably put it out in September.

“Another project I’m doing is called ‘The Lost Episodes’, which is a collection of unreleased studio cuts - quite early ones. Some of them come even from before Cucamunga. And that includes film soundtrack, ‘Run Home Slow’.

“And what I’m working on right at the moment is a Synclavier album called ‘Dance Me This’, which is designed to be used by modern dance groups. It’s probably not going to come out until next year.”

Happy birthday, FZ.

© 1993 David Mead

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Art Of Arboretum

While I was recording 'Arboretum' ideas for a cover image kept running around inside my head. I wanted something that represented the music and acted as a suitable illustration for the title. We did quite a few mock-ups along the way and, seeing as these are unlikely to surface elsewhere, I thought I'd share some of the design concepts that didn't make it through to the final cut.

My first idea was a sort of 'secret garden' where a gate in a wall was open, revealing a woodland beyond. A bit like this...


The album title would have been on the wall to the gateway's right hand side. The back cover would have been a similar picture but taken at night with the gate closed. I abandoned this idea after a visit to a bookshop where I found similar pictures on quite a few book covers. The cliché alarms went off and I went back to the drawing board!

Next, a visit to an actual arboretum yielded a picture of a really lovely tree with the sun glowing behind it. We decided to digitally enhance the picture and tried out this format...


I liked it, but it didn't quite 'make it' if you see what I mean. The final blow was struck when we found out that the arboretum didn't permit the use of images of their trees for commercial purposes without charge. What can I tell you? The budget was tight...

Next, I went through loads of pics of trees that we'd been taking for months and decided that I'd mess around with a few. This heralded in the 'reflection series' where I took an image of trees reflected in water and messed around it. At this point I knew I wanted a sunrise and moonrise theme...





And variations...


I decided that, although we were going along the right lines, the resulting images were too sinister. I was going for 'mystical' or even 'magical' and so I had to look again. I came across an image, taken ages ago on Solsbury Hill (as in the Peter Gabriel song) and began to mess with it.


After a lot of trial and error with Photoshop, I came up with twin images for sun and moonrise...


These images seemed to fit with the music and so it was just a question of finding a suitable canvas and font. I tried to make the lettering on the front of the album look like twisted wire – a sort of 'wood and wire' concept – and ended up with this for the front...


And this for the back cover...


So there you have it – a DIY album cover! All the original pics were taken by Carol Farnworth.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Simply Beautiful

I once had the pleasure of attending a recital given by the classical guitar maestro John Williams. Around half way through, JW began to play a student piece – something I had myself studied during a brief flirtation with the classical guitar back in the 1980s. At first I couldn't work out why a world-renowned virtuoso would be playing something from the Grade 4 repertoire. It seemed a bit odd somehow...

Afterwards, having had time to think a bit, it all made perfect sense: there's nothing wrong with anyone playing simple music beautifully, irrespective of their perceived 'ranking' in the world's hierarchy. For one thing, there would have been students present in the audience who were studying the piece and who would have benefited greatly by watching an acknowledged master interpret it.

But to many, 'simple' means 'demeaning'.

It's probably something that many of us forget. In many ways, we want to take on some complex, difficult music to mark out our territory – 'Look at me, I can play this...'. And it's quite probable that the real reason behind it all is that our own insecurity demands it. An opportunity to psychologically rise above the rank and file and take up residence in the exclusive and hallowed domain of technical brilliance.

John Williams' performance that night made me realise that the real trick is to be at peace with your own level of musical accomplishment at which point you are truly, spiritually free to play music without any consideration given to its technical demands.

And in so many ways, that state of mind is more difficult to reach than any advanced technique...

Monday, 25 October 2010

Digital Downloads – The Future Or A Musical Limbo?

Debate is rife in the record industry at present as to how people are going to buy the music they want to listen to in future. Opinions differ, but the only certainty is that no-one actually knows...

The Pink Floyd's Nick Mason went on record the other day saying that when his band was formed it was a much more cut and dried affair; if you wanted to hear The Floyd play 'The Dark Side Of The Moon', for instance, you either bought a concert ticket and went along hoping they'd play it or you purchased the vinyl. You might be lucky enough to hear it on radio if you were happy with the somewhat Russian Roulette nature of that medium, but that was about it.

Now, of course, the options are seemingly endless; digital music is everywhere and a perfect fit for the fast food generation. But whether people will ever be at peace with owning something that has no actual physical presence in their lives is another question.

I attended an interesting talk with bookshop mogul Tim Waterstone the other evening and he said that people have been predicting the death of books and magazines for almost as long as he has been in the business and yet, despite dedicated digital readers like Amazon's Kindle, books are still selling well and giving no sign of becoming an endangered species any time soon.

I'll hazard a guess that it's going to be the same for music; despite the convenience and instant gratification of digital downloads, there is a generation out there who still prefer their music in physical form. After all, something that you can't hold in your hands might just be perceived as being of little real value; we always had the option to copy LPs to cassette and yet the question of piracy has only really become a serious concern in this digital age.

So is it possible for the recording music industry to move forward without its silver spinning discs? Evolution without revolutions? I somehow doubt whether change – when it comes and whatever guise it takes – will be as radical as some pundits believe.

Monday, 20 September 2010

It's Alive!

Today sees the official release of my new album 'Arboretum'. It's been a long slog and much has happened since I last mentioned its recording in this blog.

So basically, in order to give you a brief summary; the last session was held on May 14th and this was to lay down the strings on a track called 'Almost Lost At Sea' (see the video in the last blog). We recorded a passable string section, but also captured the MIDI so that when the album was sent for mastering at Adam Crute's studio he had optimum control. In fact Adam was a real star and ended up replacing the string sample I'd recorded with a far more realistic one and the result is amazing. Thank you Mr C!

After mastering, the album was sent up to The Guitar Label HQ in Perthshire and the download site was organised.

At present, it's possible to download high quality WAV files from my website order page at – some MP3 files are included in the download too so you can pop them straight into the iPod of your choice and begin listening.

I also wrote out three of the tracks in TAB and these are available as a download, too. The tracks are 'Almost Lost At Sea', 'Come Find Me' and 'Waterfalling'. There will also be three short tutorial videos available soon which will show me taking you through the more difficult sections in glorious hi-def video.

So there it is, then: after nearly two years in the making 'Arboretum' is now available. I'm hopeful that I will soon be putting together some live dates so that I can get out on the road and play the material in concert. You can hear four of the tracks now in the player below and download a free track by visiting my website...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Almost Lost At Sea...

I can't remember when it was that I first began to document the development of my new album 'Arboretum'. I think it might even be around two years ago – time flies, dunnit?

In any case, the album is now finished and available as a digital download via my website at You can download a free track and listen to four sample songs, too.

I thought I'd celebrate the launch by posting a video of a piece on the new album called 'Almost Lost At Sea'. Rather than showing me sitting there playing the track, the music acts as a soundtrack for the story that inspired me to write the song – in the manner of many Hollywood teaser-trailers.

In any case, I hope you like it...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Having An 'Off Day'...

Let's face it; we can't expect to be on form 100% of the time when we're involved in something as complex as making music. Especially when it comes down to recording an album – after all, posterity has a long and rather unforgiving memory...

I had a studio session for my new album recently where I was down to record one of the most demanding pieces I've written so far. Why demanding? Well, it involves playing over virtually the whole fretboard so there are a lot of position changes, it's quite fast (138 BPM, if you're interested), it changes key in the middle and loads of other yippy-eye-oh-fol-de-diddle-all-the-day type of fingerstyle skulduggery. I'd deliberately booked a whole day in the studio because I knew I wanted to get it right and if that meant doing 25 takes to get a good one, then fair enough.

As it turned out, I discovered quite early on in the session that I wasn't having a good day. Having practised the track beforehand until my fretboard screamed for mercy, I was sure I was ready to record it... Trouble is, I just wasn't 'in the zone' mentally. My mistake was to plough on with grim determination; by the end of the afternoon I was literally playing takes with gritted teeth and, as I've said in most of my books, if there is any tension in your body, you're like a machine beginning to seize up and you're definitely not going to be capable of putting in a good performance.

If you want the full list of excuses (and if you don't, please skip this paragraph) then I could say that my car had exhibited a worrying tendency not to start earlier in the week; my computer – which I obviously rely on for a great deal of my work – was beginning to behave rather strangely and I was sufficiently distracted to the point where I couldn't get that sublime head-to-heart-to-hands connection necessary for putting in a good reading of the piece concerned.

I could have saved myself a great deal of soul-searching angst if I had remembered some very good advice given to me once by a very well-known musician: 'Everyone has bad days,' he told me. 'The trick is to save yourself a lot of grief by recognising that you're not on form early on in the day, forgetting about it and going down the pub instead.' He was right. There's always another day – it never does you any good to beat yourself up over circumstances that you haven't much control over.

Battle will recommence at the end of this week... and this time, I know I'll nail it!

Monday, 25 January 2010

Nailed It...

Now I'd be the first to admit that I take girlie care of my fingernails, particularly on my right hand (the left hand nails are cut back very short). The reason for this obviously has a lot to do with playing fingerstyle acoustic guitar, but it also has a lot to do with hand position...

Let me explain: my right hand tends to adopt the 'classical position' when I play. This means that my fingers are virtually perpendicular to the strings, whereas a lot of fingerstylists tend to angle their right hands towards the bridge. This means that my fingernails have to be quite long on that hand – I'm not absolutely sure why this is, but you can be sure that I've experimented with all lengths and settled on one. Trouble is, it happens to be the one that leaves the nails most vulnerable to accidental breakage!

Around a week ago, I had another session for my album and spent the day making sure my right hand didn't do anything heavy duty enough to break a nail. About an hour before the session, I noticed that – inexplicably – I'd managed to tear the nail on my middle finger. I still don't know how I managed it because my nails are actually very strong, but whatever... I was in trouble.

Sure, I can play with my fingertips, but if you're in the middle of making an album and want an even consistency of sound over all the tracks, altering your right hand technique temporarily causes more problems than it solves. So I was stuck. In fact, I had to resort to the oldest remedy in the book: glue. A healthy dollop of glue on the nail, hastily dried underneath a lightbulb, got me through the session without further damage (or sonic irregularity) but I have since had to cut the offender down to size.

I'm investigating acrylics as a solution to nail damage as players I know who use them tell me that the nails retain and almost Wolverine level of strength with only a bi- or tri-weekly application. It looks like things are about to get even girlier!