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LESSON: How to sound like Frank Zappa

Dweezil Zappa is currently zooming around the world for another Zappa Plays Zappa tour, in which he pays tribute to his dad’s enduring legacy through the startlingly accurate reproduction of his works, as well as painstaking recreations of Frank’s greatest guitar tones. It’s pretty much impossible exactly copy Frank’s legendary tone without investing in thousands upon thousands of guitar and studio gear, and also hiring a tech like the revered Thomas Nordegg to look after it for you. So that’s what Dweezil has done, even bringing out several pieces of gear actually owned and used by Frank. (Here are the complete Zappa Plays Zappa tour dates, including the Progressive Nation tour with Dream Theater).

One of my favourite tricks for getting a Zappa-esque guitar sound is to construct a virtual amp and effects rig in a software modeller. There are plenty out there, so whichever one you prefer, try this combination simultaneously on different tracks, panned to different locations in the stereo spectrum:

* One track of a completely uneffected clean guitar, equalized to emphasise the high and low ends, so you get that sizzling string noise and a punchy low end. (If you’re into Mothers Of Invention-era Frank, try rolling off the treble and increasing the mids, and maybe throwing on some vintage-style compression to get closer to the sound of an old-school mixing desk and tape saturation.)

* A distorted guitar with a very short delay.

* A distorted guitar with a stationary wah effect or a parametric EQ feeding the amp input. Use the EQ or wah to emphasise certain midrange frequencies for that faux-feedback feel. The exact frequency will depend on other factors such as the amp model and your pickups, so you may need to experiment from guitar to guitar. Frank had complex parametric EQs built into his guitars so he could conjure up feedback and sustain at will.

* A distorted guitar with an envelope filter.

* A distorted guitar with a triggered flanger. A triggered – or dynamic – flanger doesn’t sweep to a set tempo. Instead it begins its sweep upon receiving a signal from the input. In other words, each time you pick a note, the sweep starts again. Listen for this effect on ‘Drowning Witch’ and you’ll see what I mean.

You can hear me doing something similar (minus the triggered flanger because I don’t have one!) on my Myspace, on the ‘Myspace intro’ track. I used IK Multimedia’s Amplitube for this.

By the way, many amp modelling programs feature the ability to use two virtual amp rigs at once, but if that’s just not enough, or if your program only offers one sound at a time, copy and paste the same guitar part onto multiple tracks and process each one differently.

Of course, if you want to get somewhere close to Frank’s sound using an actual amp on a real live stage, you might need to take a different approach, unless of course you want to lug half a dozen amps with you. Splitting at least between a completely clean tone and an effected one is usually preferred, but if you can’t do that then the most important elements are the trigger flanger and a wah wah so you can find those resonant frequencies easily.

LINKS: Zappa.com, IK Multimedia Amplitube.


10 Responses to LESSON: How to sound like Frank Zappa

  • sylvester says:

    kk, so. atm. im trying to build up my first board and with FZ as inspiration and i tougth of theese:

    Proco rat 2.
    Boss EQ
    now the tricky part, should i go for an auto wah or crybaby wahpedal?
    and im looking for a dynamic flanger still.

  • Peter says:

    The Line 6 Liqua Flange has two dynamic flanger modes: "Trig Up" and "Trig Down." You can buy it here: http://tinyurl.com/ljotbt – I haven't tried it myself but it's the only one I know of that's available at the moment. There could be others but they're certainly not advertised well if they're out there!

    As for auto wah/envelope filter, I like DOD/Digitech ones like this http://tinyurl.com/ldxdd9 – I found a YouTube demo here which has some FZ-like textures http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNxHtnwegOc – or for an actual wah pedal I'd probably go for the Vox: http://tinyurl.com/myqjt4 Now, whether you decide to get an auto wah or a regular wah kinda depends on what type of FZ sound you're after. I'd probably go for the Vox if you do a lot of FZ-style lead, or an auto wah for more of the Steve Vai stunt guitar stuff.

  • sylvester says:

    well first of all i want you to show two amazing links (maybe you have allrdy seen them):
    http://home.online.no/~corneliu/gp77interview.htm
    http://acapella.harmony-central.com/showthread.php?t=2063325 (see #18).
    according to theese, its said that FZ uses envelope filter.
    (quote: I have a Mu-tron and the Oberheim VCF (voltage control filter)).
    but tbh, generally i would prefer a wah-pedal also. Thanks for the Flanger tip.
    And how about the EQ? i found smth http://www.aage.dk/shoppingsystem/vare.asp?varenr=2702 for 150 dollars ish.

  • Peter says:

    I like that Boss graphic EQ but you'd get more control from a parametric EQ. Or maybe try the Dunlop Q Zone, which is bascally a Dunlop 535Q wah (I think that's the model name, hard to check here on my iPhone) without the rocker pedal, and you can really zero in on specific frequencies with more control than most wah pedals. I'd choose the Vox for 70s Zappa tones and the Dunlop Q Zone or 535 for 1988-era Zappa sounds.

    Y'know what? I think I'll revisit this article with more detail and sound examples. It was originally written as a short piece for a magazine but now it's online I can go a lot deeper into the details and brand suggestions, which I wasn't allowed to do in the magazine.

  • Peter says:

    Just to clarify, those Dunlop pedals weren't around in 88 but they're a way of getting closer to FZ's tone without his very complex and unique rig.

  • sylvester says:

    ok :) well problem is, i don't know how a parametric EQ works, or how expensive it is.

    btw, kk so far i planned this:

    Pro Co Rat 2
    EHX envelope filter Q-tron
    somekind of Parametric EQ
    somekind of dynamic/triggered flanger

    btw you offer me a great deal of help, thanks for that!

  • sylvester says:

    and btw, i found a parametric EQ:
    http://www.thomann.de/dk/artec_parametric_eq.htm

  • Dominic says:

    I highly recommend the following pedals to help dial in an approximation of Franks tone.
    1: Keeley Nova Wah – No treadle but you can set up two seperate Wah notches and switch between them.
    2: Zvex OOOhh Wah – Ship Ahoy anyone!!
    3: Fredric Effects ‘Do the weasel Stomp’ – this is a magnificent systech harmonic energiser clone with an added Fuzz you can toggle.
    4: Eventide Pitchfactor – Not had it long and i’m just getting to grips with it but there is a host of Zappa possibilities there.
    5: Boss dynamic Wah – I need to investigate more of these type of effects but for the time being the Boss does a god job.

    I haven’t tried a trigger / dynamic Flanger yet but have been using the T.C Vortex Flanger which is good for some of those late 70’s / early 80’s tones. And i totally agree with the use of dual amps, one always clean.
    A classic Pignose amp with a boosted input is authentic, cheap and great fun too.

    Great Blog : )

  • It would be easiest to just get a Frank Zappa Guitar, eh?

  • Peter Hodgson says:

    Hehe. Nice linkage. I’ll allow it. :P

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Peter Hodgson Hi! I'm Peter Hodgson. I write for Gibson.com, Australian Guitar, Australian Musician, Mixdown Magazine (including my instructional column, 'Unleash Your Inner Rock God,' which has been running since 2007), BluntBeat (including their weekly hard rock/metal column Crunch) and The Brag. And I'm Assistant Social Coordinator with Seymour Duncan. I've been playing guitar since I was 8 years old, and I've been writing for magazines since I was 18. I've also worked as a guitar teacher (up to 50 students a week), a setup tech, a newspaper editor, and I've also dabbled in radio a little bit. I live in Melbourne, Australia, and my hobbies include drinking way too much coffee, and eating way too much Mexican food. You can check out my guitar playing at Bandcamp or on YouTube, and feel free to email me at iheartguitarblog@gmail.com If you'd like to support the site, feel free to kick in a couple o'bucks using this donation button.

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