Watermelon in Easter Hay. Frank Zappa´s guitar tones Part 1.

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.

The Process of Making ”Amelia”

Hello there! This is new blog by Antti Sunell, guitarist and composer from Helsinki, Finland. This blog is about music. My mother-tongue is not english – constructive critics are welcome! I´m really working on my written english. So, to the first article…

This is the story of making piece of music. And also this this is the story about how social media can have an influence in making music.

Sometimes in spring-winter one of my Facebook friends told his love for Miguel Llobet´s guitar music. So I went straight to Spotify to listen that music.

And here that was: a beautiful piece that I´ve played as a kid over twenty-five years ago! My original paper hadn´t composers name on it – until that composer/arranger of that piece was great mystery to me!

El Testament D´Amelia is one of the catalan folksongs that Llobet har arranged.

As I found the sheet music, it was time to re-arrange that. First we (=me, percussionist/drummer Tuomo ”Vänni” Väänänen and our fusiongroup CODE 1480) did pretty straight-ahead arragement – just Llobet´s version played with classical guitar added with fretless electric bass and some percussion and improvised solo. Pretty soon we left the Llobet-thing completely out and took only melody and harmony was long drone-like synthesizer chord, we added melody from old finnish choral and so on…

I continued to work with tune alone as a part of my electroacoustic series Music för Svenska Deckare. First I reharmonised the original melody. Basic chords are very simple:

Dm – Bb – Em7b5  A7 – Dm -Gm – C7 – F and so on.

With utilisizing tritone substitution, deceptive cadenzas and substitude chords I made re-harmonisation like that:

Dm – Bb/D – Em7b5 Eb7b5 – Dm – Ebmaj7 D11 – Gb7b5 – Fmaj7#11 – Eb7#11 – D5 – Em7b5 – Bbmaj7 – Ebmaj7 D5 – Eb7b5 – Dm – Ebmaj7 Eb7

It has some phrygian flavor in it. Eb7 is a tritone substitution of A7 and it is easy chord to modulate to G# minor as I did.

I like lot finnish rockgroup Sielun Veljet song Talvi (=Winter). Guitarist Jukka Orma (and maybe Ismo Alanko and Jouko Hohko too) does incredible work! In my jobs as school music teacher I have also made The Corrs song Only when I Sleep about thousand times. I like the sound of playing melody on a B-string and keeping high E-string open. So I played Amelias melody this way. The problem was that my tempo playing melody with this style was naturally faster than original tempo. And the new key is C#-minor…

Solution was metric modulation. The 1/16 -notes are triplets in new tempo. But how to do that with computer. Again Facebook-friends were helpful: new tempo is original x 1,333333…. With Logic I used same synths but with different delays.

Here is the tune in Soundcloud. Thanks for listening!