For years Frank Zappas guitar tone has been a great mystery to me and many other guitarists. Now I try to analyze some aspects of his 1988 tour strat-sounds. Here is a Youtube-example from the concert in Barcelona May 1988. The Classic Zappa guitar solo Watermelon in Easter Hay (originally from the Joe´s Garage album) is based on A lydian and E major modes over a 4/4+5/4 -vamp (A and B/E)
Frank is playing his natural finish custom-strat. Strat has the Floyd Rose tremolosystem. Bridge and middle pick-ups seem to be Seymour Duncan Hot Stacks – these pick-ups with ceramic magnets have more output and mid-range compared to standard singlecoils. In the 1984 video Does Humor Belong in Music also blonde strats neck pickup is similar to themiddle and bridge ones. Neck pickup has changed in 1988 tour – maybe the Duncan Classic Stack?
Watermelon begins with a really clean tone with some modulation effect (chorus) and short delay. Frank seems to use the neck pick-up. The tone has an acoustic quality. And that´s the great mystery. Nowadays you can have an effect called “acoustic guitar simulation” which comes near – but sounds really colder and more un-natural than Frank´s tone. You can clearly hear the sound of Strats neck pick-up here. I remember having read that for the 1988 tour Frank and his guitar techinician worked together with Roland/Boss developing new effects. But I can remember wrong… Is this sound coming from guitar amplifiers at all? Can it be direct signal to mixing board?
Frank played many amplifiers in parallel. That can be heard clearly from this Watermelon in Easter Hay example. In the April 29th 1988 Helsinki concert he had 2-3 Marshall heads, 2-3 Carvin heads in the rack (if I remember correctly after 22 years – were there Mesa Mark II or III heads also?).
In the beginning of video (and Guitar -albums back-cover) you can see Carvin combo and Marshall cabinet. Switchblade has at least 10 knobs for sound presets.
At 1:36 he adds a crunchy Marshall tone over the clean one for B-section. A huge sound!
At 2:36 Frank adds a fuzzy tone for solo improvisation. It seems that he puts that on from his guitar. The clean sound is still there. Had he some kind of fuzz-circuit on-board in his guitar? If so, he must have stereo cable coming out from this guitar.
At 4:10 there is a great example of controlling feedback from the guitar. I remember read that Frank had parametric eq´s in his guitars for a controlled feedback. In soundchecks he spend a lot of time to “tune his equipment to the room”.
The guitar seems to have a very long radius. Frank picks mainly up-strokes with his metal-pick – and very sul tasto – over the highest frets.
The tone is very bright. I assume that Frank had a very fresh set of very light strings in this guitar (Ernie Balls or D´Addarios?). Dweezil Zappa tells in Fuzz magazine (Sept 09) he uses .008-.046 for strat in Zappa plays Zappa tour. Maybe Frank had close to that – maybe he did have some kind of heavier wound strings to get that huge sound in the B-section.