I'll never forget it — an image of Frank Zappa, Gibson SG in hand, shirt off, long hair and commanding moustache, pictured in black and white in the pages of one of my guitar instructional books when I was ten years old. Who was this guy? He looked so… purposeful. I was already familiar with the Gibson SG in the hands of AC/DC's Angus Young — hey, being Australian we're all issued with Back In Black at birth — but there was something different about the way Frank held the SG compared to Angus. Angus's use of the instrument enhanced his devilish on—stage persona. It reflected his energy and showmanship. It looked alternatingly like a weapon he was wielding and a foe he was struggling with. Frank, in contrast, appeared to be interacting with his SG, working with it on a deep intellectual level. You could see the concentration in his eyes, but also this expression that registered as approval — as if Frank was telling the guitar that he was pleased with how clearly it was getting his ideas across.
It was a few years before I actually heard Frank Zappa's music, of course. My parents weren't the kind of folks to have Zappa albums sitting around. Dr. Hook and Creedence, sure, but there were no Hungry Freaks in my Daddy's record collection. Instead my actual Zappa introduction came when I was about 14 and I noticed a copy of 200 Motels on VHS (remember that?) at the video store (remember those?). "Oh," I thought. "I can finally hear this Zappa guy. This oughta be good…"
Wow. 200 Motels was everything my parents had sheltered me from until then. Hippies. Filthy language. Groupies. And loud, sarcastic, orchestrated, sophisticated and yet noisy rock. With the role of Frank played by Ringo Starr. And Frank making only fleeting appearances on camera, mostly playing his Gibson SG, just like in the photo in that guitar book. I saw the same expression of combined concentration and affirmation in this new audio—visual Frank that I'd seen a few years earlier in the pages of my instructional book. But now I could hear it: that voice-like, almost analog-synth-like guitar tone, which reminded me of Clapton's 'Woman Tone' but even more lively and harmonically rich.
Clapton achieved the 'Woman Tone' by specific manipulation of his SG's controls. I later learned that Frank arrived at his sound with the use of parametric EQs: they'd allow Frank to find the resonant frequency of the combined room, amp, guitar, speakers, stage monitors. And in a way, Frank's use of parametric EQs sums up that same relationship he had with the SG itself. He worked with the guitar's natural quirks — its biting midrange, its bold pick attack — but he also imposed his own will upon it, twisting its output through a variety of effect and amplification techniques. One of Frank's most famous guitars is his 'Roxy' SG — the instrument he used during the era that the Roxy & Elsewhere album was released. It was modified with phase and coil tap switches, and it helped Frank bring some beautiful music to the world, as well as plenty of purposely ugly or bawdy music. Just listen to the unmistakable chord work on 'Village Of The Sun' to hear Frank pushing his Roxy SG to its limits in terms of both traditional and avant garde contexts.
Frank liked to have parametric equalizers installed into his guitars to enable him to zero in on those perfect lead tones, control sustain and feedback, and ride on top of the mix. You can simulate this with outboard parametric EQ units, but there's nothing like having control of those frequencies right there at your fingertips.
Frank went on to play other guitars, including his 'Baby Snakes' SG, a Les Paul and a custom instrument largely fashioned and assembled by a small shop in LA — but the SG is still the guitar he's most closely associated with. It embodies the wit, sophistication and creativity Frank poured into every note. And every time I hear Frank play an SG, I think back to that black and white photo all those years ago, the musical promise that it hinted at, and the big payoff when I finally heard it in action.
Check out the Frank Zappa® "Roxy" SG here.