Frank Zappa would have sounded like Frank Zappa, no matter what guitar he played. But in a unique career that saw him pushing the boundaries of guitar, then giving up the instrument altogether, he had quite a few notable Gibsons that he loved. He even had a non-Gibson “Gibson” that became notorious.
Heads down, for a quick guide to Frank Zappa’s Gibson fetish.
Frank Zappa’s Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster
Zappa acquired his first Gibson, an ES-5 Switchmaster, in the mid-’60s. A large-bodied jazz guitar may have seemed an unusual choice for Zappa, but his formative influences were more blues/jazz and R&B than was later evident.
“I used to like Johnny Guitar Watson, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Guitar Slim (a.k.a. Eddie Jones), Matt Murphy,” he told Guitar Player magazine in 1977. Zappa was a self-taught musician, but he did learn much of his harmony and compositional skills with the aid of the renowned 1950s book, Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar.
Zappa’s Gibson Switchmaster was the mainstay of his early recordings – he earned the money to buy it from writing soundtracks for the low-budget movies The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962) and Run Home Slow (1965) – and “I used it for about five years. I recorded the first three [Mothers of Invention] albums with that guitar.”
Despite Zappa’s fondness for his Switchmaster, he struggled with it when he wanted to play with increasing distortion. “I used to really like that guitar,” Zappa told Downbeat. “It had a nice neck on it, but there was a real problem with uncontrollable feedback whenever I needed more amplification for larger halls. That’s common for hollow-bodies. A lot of people said, ‘Well, just stuff it with styrofoam and it won’t feedback so much,’ but I didn’t feel like doing that.”
Zappa tried modifying the Switchmaster to meet his demands: extra switches were installed to fully-utilize its 3-pickup potential, but he still wanted something different. The mods were a bit ramshackle anyhow: after his father’s death, Dweezil Zappa conceded that none of the switches even worked anymore.
Go to 13:50 on this video to see Frank’s son Dweezil give an overview of Frank’s original ES-5 Switchmaster.
“The [ES-5] hollow-body had a nice feel and I liked the tone of it,” Frank told Guitar Player in the ’70s, “but you could never use a fuzztone with it, and there was no way to tweeze it up and make it work. Remember, in those days there were no graphic equalizers or any other scientific equipment.” To make fuzz easier, Zappa retired the Switchmaster and replaced it with a Les Paul Goldtop in 1967.
Zappa’s Les Paul Goldtop
Zappa’s adoption of his P-90-loaded Goldtop coincided with the release of breakthrough solo album Hot Rats. Although a valuable 1952/’53 original, the iconclastic Zappa went on to heavily modify the guitar: he replaced the neck P-90 with a humbucker, added a single-coil (right next to the bridge P-90), a Bigsby and an expanded tonal pallette via six rotary controls. Even some Zappa forum fans say he “messed up” a rare Goldtop: the heavily modded LP nevertheless sold at auction for a six-figure sum in 2007.
The Les Paul Goldtop – probably more original back then – is best heard on Hot Rats’ “Willie the Pimp,” with vocals from Captain Beefheart.
Frank Zappa’s Gibson SG and Fake “SG”
The Gibson SG famously pictured on the cover of the Zappa/Mothers Roxy and Elsewhere album is a genuine Gibson, but that one got damaged.
Zappa told Guitar Player in 1977: “The one that’s on the Roxy cover has since been thoroughly injured by an airline company, they beat the hell out of it. They cracked the neck, and the most recent time it came back from Europe the binding was off the fretboard. I had the neck repaired, but it’s never been the same; it flexes so much that it’s hard to keep in tune, so I hardly use it anymore.”
Enter a replacement – Zappa’s most infamous “SG” was not actually a Gibson at all. What has become known as the Baby Snakes SG was actually a copy.
Zappa remembered: “We were working down in Phoenix, and this guy came to the dressing room after the show with this guitar he’d built and wanted to sell. He had copied a Gibson SG except he’d added one more fret so it went up to an E, and it had an ebony fingerboard, humbucking pickups, and some inlay, and some real nice woodwork on it. He wanted $500 for it, and I thought it was a real nice guitar, so I bought it.”
Frank’s faux-SG is easy to spot as it has 23 frets (instead of 22) with the fingerboard set deeper into the body, plus it has a star inlay at the 5th fret and a double-seahorse design inlaid at the 12th fret. It’s finish is a lighter walnut-ish hue than Gibson ever made, and Zappa – by then a persistent modifier – had his friend and luthier Rex Bogue add a preamp, a Dan Armstrong Green Ringer octave/fuzz circuit, a coil-tap (for a sound reminiscent of Queen’s Brian May, one of Frank’s favorite players) and various custom EQ switches.
Go to 10:09 on this video to see Frank’s son Dweezil give an overview of Frank’s faux SG at his father’s Utility Muffin Research Kitchen studio.
Frank Zappa’s Les Paul Sunburst
By the late 1970s, Zappa had bought another Gibson Les Paul, a late ’70s sunburst. Even LP aficiandos might concede it didn’t have the smoothest of ’burst finishes, but it was a major guitar in Frank’s career. Frank’s sunburst LP was famously featured on the cover of Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar, a three-album set of Zappa’s guitar solos released in 1981. The album is Zappa at is most guitar-esque and baffling. Ask the guy who had to transcribe 1982’s The Frank Zappa Guitar Book – his name is Steve Vai.
“Frank gave me these two cassettes filled with wild guitar playing, some of which was released on the Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar records, and some of which has never been released. And the more I transcribed, the more he piled the stuff on. At the time, I was getting paid $10 a page, and it would take me three days to do one page!”
Frank’s late ’70s sunburst Les Paul is still in the possession of Zappa’s son, Dweezil. It was modified as well, of course. The original pickups were replaced with Seymour Duncans (according to Dweezil) or DiMarzios (on the Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar sleevenotes), plus another in-built Dan Armstrong Green Ringer, and a rotary switch with coil tapping options, and an XLR output jack. The Les Paul was also fitted with a mini-toggle switch to flip between series and parallel operation.
Basically, Frank Zappa didn’t play standard guitars, even though he had a thing about Gibsons. Then again, Zappa’s guitar playing itself was not “standard” itself.
More Frank Zappa:
How Gibson SG Legend Frank Zappa Set the Standard For Brute Force Tone and Sonic Control
15 Iconic SG Players
Top 50 Guitarists of All Time