Every guitarist strives to create a tone that is synonymous with their playing style.
My guitar sound and style of playing has evolved over a long period of time. I have used many different sonic tools to make music since I first started playing.
The earliest sounds I made were on a Fender Music Master that was given to me by my dad at age 6. I plugged it into one of his spare Pignose amps.
As I improved I got a Fender Stratocaster and a Kramer Flying V that can be seen on the cover sleeve of "My Mother Is A Space Cadet." I put little colored polka dot stickers on it as an homage to Randy Rhoads.
I started playing through Frank's Acoustic amps that he used on stage in the early 80's. That is what I used on the recording sessions for the single "My Mother Is A Space Cadet"
Next I got my green Charvel and played through Carvin X100B amps, also from what Frank was using on stage in the early 80's. I used that amp and an Ibanez UE 405 for the "Havin' A Bad Day" album. I remember that the delay in the Ibanez was main thing I used and it was mainly for the song "Electric Hoedown". I used this set up in mono.
After that I started collecting a few more guitars. I had some more Charvels and Fenders mainly. Even though I really liked them I didn't play Gibsons at all in those days.
I used those with a variety of rack effects like the Yamaha SPX 90, and TC Electronic 2290, and Eventide H3000 in a stereo set up. A little later I also used a Roland GP-8. Slightly off topic, my Dad liked the sound of many of my presets on the GP-8 so I went to Guitar Center and bought him one. I copied all of my presets into it and he used it extensively on his 1988 tour. The clean sound that you hear him soloing with is him playing his blonde Performance Guitar through the GP-8.
I had some other pedals as well at that time but it was nothing out of the ordinary, some phasers, flangers and fuzz tones. The usual suspects. Actually I did have a stereo guitar from Steve Ripley that had a dedicated two rack space brain and an 18 pin cable to operate the guitar. Only 2 were ever made. I had one and Ry Cooder had the other. Ry recently borrowed mine since his broke. I should see if he's done with it...
Anyway, that is what I used when I made the 1988 "MY Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" Album.
The stereo guitar can be heard on the intro and outro to "Your Money Or Your Life" and the solo on "Before I get Old."
The next phase of guitars and gear came around during the sessions for "Confessions..."
I was still using Mesa Boogie amps and some rack effects in stereo with a Bradshaw switching system. By this time I was using a Steinberger guitar with a trans-trem as my main guitar. It's all over that album. The Madonna signed Charvel was used a lot as well as a sea foam green Fender Strat. The mixed record is a lot brighter than my actual sounds were in the room.
Next came "Shampoohorn."
Around that time my rig changed a lot. I started using Peavey 5150s and Classic 100s. At one stage the rig consisted of three 4X12s powered by 3 different amps, creating a stereo outside, dry center array. I even had Fender Bassman as a center channel at one point. I used a lot of the same rack effects and a few pedals too including an old 60s Octavia and Fuzz Face. The main guitar I played at that time was a Purple Ernie Ball Van Halen model guitar. I also played a champagne colored Fender Strat and a turquoise Fender Strat that later went through a transmogrification and became the vintage cream colored one seen in the 2006 Zappa Plays Zappa DVD. I also played my chartreuse sparkle Baritone guitar on that album on a few tunes, most notable "Did I Mention It Was Huge?". That guitar is visible on the far right with the black strap.
Around that time I started recording the basic tracks for the majority of the project that is still in progress called "What The Hell Was I Thinking?" I also wrote and recorded the theme music for the EMMY winning FOX TV series "The Ben Stiller Show."
Subsequent touring for the "Shampoohorn" record saw me using an original mid 80's Kramer that was painted green but later was covered in faux cow hide material by Performance Guitar. That guitar had a sustainer in it. It became my main touring guitar for a while. I did use it on "Shamppohorn" and many other studio projects to follow. I also used a custom made Moser fretless guitar with a Les Paul junior body and a Fender strat style fretless neck.
The amp and effects rig went back to stereo for a while but my taste in guitars changed a bit. I started playing a cream colored 60s SG and I also played an old sunburst Fender Telecaster that has a signature from Albert Lee on the back. It was already there when I bought it. (An interesting connection to him comes later.)
Those two guitars were used the most on "Music For Pets."
I did also utilize both of my blue and orange custom designed Performance Guitar DZ models. The orange one had a 3 band parametric in it which was later removed and put into the Performance Guitar Jumbo Foot Pedal.
I've used extensively on stage and in the studio since 2010. Another guitar I used a lot at that time was my gold sparkle Ibanez Iceman. It was given to me by a friend who found it in the closet of a house he had recently moved into. Originally black, I had it painted gold sparkle by Dan Lawrence. That guitar is most notably featured on the song "Badass." Dan did a lot of the art on my guitars going back to the Charvel/Jackson days. The watermelon guitar and the Madonna guitar were a few of the earliest graphic guitars he did for me. While at Moser he painted The Dr. Seuss and Where The Wild Things Are guitars.
He also painted the "Sheik Yer Bouti Guitar" I played on Zappa's Universe DVD.
After "Music For Pets" I designed an amp with Peavey called "Wiggy."
This became my main amp for a while. It was solid state with an interesting low mid frequency graphic eq circuit. Tonally it was very reminiscent of the Acoustic amp Frank used in the mid 70's alongside his Marshall. The Wiggy is what I used when I recorded with Lisa Loeb on "Cake And Pie." At that time my main guitar became an Ernie Ball Albert Lee model. I didn't realize the subliminal effect of his signature on my tele until the time I started playing his signature model EB! He also played a very memorable solo on "What The Hell Was I Thinking?"
I did many recordings for film and television with my "Wiggy" rig. At that time I began to take a serious interest in recording and engineering. Certain types of amps and effects were being developed as smaller alternatives to big amps. There was a system by Lexicon called MPXG2 which had a 6 watt rack mounted amp along with a multi effects processor. I used this for a lot of sessions including the Britney Spears cover song "Hit Me Baby One More Time." I liked the idea of such a compact guitar rig option. At the time it was not a complete solution for every kind of tone though.
I also used it and my Wiggy amps for the album "Automatic." The song Automatic featured a rhythmic envelope based effect in a TC electronics G-Force box.
The first time I played with the effect I started recording the song. There's also a cool wide stereo effect from a short delay made by an old ADA multi efx 4. I've added that into different versions of rigs since then specifically for that doubling effect. It was in the 2009 ZPZ rig and the 2011 ZPZ rig.
The guitar orchestration for "The Grinch" and "Hawaii 5-O" is all done with the Lexicon and some crafty eq from an Orban Parametric Equalizer.
Next I started experimenting and recording more stuff in the studio without amps. I made some strange sounding recordings for textures on "What The Hell Was I Thinking?" by running into different distortion boxes and then directly into channel strips on the console. I used Native Instruments Guitar Rig for several projects and many overdubs on my "Go with What You Know" CD. At that time I was also in development for a tube version of the Wiggy amp with Peavey. They never went to market with it but I used the prototype on "Go With What You Know." The Tube Wiggy is most notably heard on Noitpure and the solo in Fighty Bitey. I also used it when I was the musical director for the WB improv comedy series called "On The Spot." You can see the silver Wiggy head in this video here.
"Go With What You Know" featured a hint at the next project that was to come. All Roads Lead To Inca was inspired by the work I had been putting into learning my dad's music and the total technical transformation of my guitar playing. On that track I was using a combination of 2 special amps, a Blankenship 16 watt Leeds head and a Blankenship modified black face Fender Bassman head. It had some modulation effects added in the mix.
At that time I also started using 2 Cornford amps. They made a special 3 channel head for me that I used on the entire 2006 Zappa Plays Zappa tour.
That rig included 2 Cornford heads and a Blankenship Leeds head going into 2 Cornford 4X12s. The effects were TC 2290, Eventide Orville and a variety of stomp boxes. The one I used the most was a Tech 21 XXL. It provided a slightly softer Fuzz Face style sound and attack and it's most notably heard on the 2nd half of the solo in Inca Roads from the ZPZ DVD. That rig morphed throughout 2006 and 2007 and eventually included a Fender Cybertwin along with the Cornfords and the Blankenship. I was still chasing after the best recreation of my dad's classic tones. Up until that point I had not been using any of his actual gear to recreate the sounds.
By 2008 I made more radical changes to my set up. I started using the FUCHS triple overdrive supreme heads along with FUCHS 4X12 cabs and a traditional Fender Twin in the center. Pictured here, a version with the Cyber Twin in the center.
There were 2 giant racks that I called the Twin Towers. In them I housed some vintage and modern effects. The most modern were the Digitech GSP1101s. I had 3 of them. They had amp modeling and great effects in them. For an analog rig I had some ridiculous routing flexibility in the towers. I was using a Switchblade to route effects. Many different pedals including some Butler Tube overdrives, some Fuchs boost pedals and a variety of other boutique items. The available tones multiplied exponentially.
There were 3 main effects that I used that my father used to use to get some amazing signature tones. First, the MicMix Dynaflangers (Shut Up An Play Yer Guitar tone), 2nd, Oberheim VCF (for Ship Ahoy and envelope), and 3rd, the Systech Harmonic Energizer (Pojama People.) Those effects and many more pedals were available so I could blend amps and morph effects. This rig was by far the most expensive rig I ever had built and most complex of any I had ever put together. It sounded great but it was not very reliable. Over time it did not travel well and was very expensive to ship around the world.
By 2009 I had decided to downsize out of fiscal necessity but I did not want to give up flexibility of tone or more importantly, authenticity. I started to use the Fractal Axe Effects and this became a revelation.
Not only did the rig get smaller and more easily transportable, it became way more flexible and easier to use and program. The core tones and FZ tones I could recreate became more reliable and more detailed. I made a rig utilizing 2 Fractal Ultras and multiple effects pedals. I included the FZ effects like the Dyna Flanger and the Oberheim VCF and Systech. This rig had a larger pedal board than previous rigs but took up far less backline stage real estate.
Back to the guitars again, the main guitar since forming Zappa Plays Zappa has been my walnut Gibson SG. I've played it at every single Zappa Plays Zappa concert I performed up until the FZ "Roxy" replica was made by Gibson in 2013. The walnut SG was a real workhorse and I absolutely love that guitar. It is the one guitar that helped me transform my playing the most and I would hate to part with it. It has been slightly modified since the 2006 tour to include push pull tone knobs. The bottom tone splits the coil of the brigde pick up and the top tone knock the neck and bridge pickups out of phase. It's very close to how Frank had his "Roxy"SG set up. It was recently set up at the Gibson custom shop in Nashville and it plays better than ever. They put it on a machine called a Plek which analyzes fret height and shaves offending frets. It made a huge difference to the playability and intonation of the instrument.
I have played a few other guitars on ZPZ tours. A Fender Strat that started it's life as a cream colored Jeff Beck model but later became a lipstick pickup sparkle factory. It was featured in some tour ads campaigns and I used it on "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and "Suzy Creamcheese" in 2009. I've played a few Eric Johnson model Fenders as well over the years. A white one, a tobacco burst one and an ice blue one. The latter guitars have 22 fret necks and Eric Johnson was kind enough to give Fender permission to add the extra frets for me since they are not part of the specs of his signature model. I have also played a custom made Fender Stratocaster that has an embossed image of my dad layered into the tobacco burst finish and a custom shaped strat pickguard inspired by Jeff Beck.
The white custom Fender Stratocaster seen in the photo below was STOLEN from me on tour in 2014. It's out there somewhere and I want it back!
I've played my 58 re-issue Gibson Les Paul and a few Hagstrom Vikings, including an original 1969 Viking that was recently given to me as a gift during the 2011 Dweezilla music bootcamp by Ago Totaro.
I also played my Dweezil Zappa signature model Paul Reed Smith guitar and will continue to do so at future shows. The one I have is beautifully made and truly inspiring to play.
As our touring continued the worldwide shipping costs increased too. The upside is that the capabilities of the Fractal rig increased as well. With each new firmware upgrade it could do more and more. Over time I was able to remove a few items that I was carrying in the rig that I could now duplicate within the Fractal itself. Knowing that it was possible to do that made me excited for the future.
I have made several iterations of guitar rigs pairing things down to one Fractal and a few pedals. This produced a fantastic sound and was more portable. As shown below this was a far easier set up.
2011 Baby Rig
It was good to know that a smaller rig could work for a wide range of material but over time when I began to dig deeper into more of the songs from my father's catalog I found that I had to revert to a dual fractal set up and an assortment of pedals in order to have the maximum flexiblility and best sonic landscape. This was mainly because I would run out of DSP inside the programs I made in the single Fractal set up. Another reason is that I wanted to be able to split my signal so that I could autonomously drive effects to individual Fractals. This way I would be able to create blended fuzz sounds with attack differentials and also utilize the envelope in the dynaflanger at the very begininng of the signal. I have access to 6 pedals per input of each Fractal. They are remotely switchable via the RJM effects gizmo.
My sound goes direct to the PA but I use QSC monitors for stage spill. If I didn't have any speakers on stage there would be a chance that people up in front of the house pa would hear my guitar from behind them. The QSCs have a very accurate full range sound and a lot of headroom. See mine here.
These days the pedals I use do change out fairly frequently so I made a modular set up on the pedal board with non specific cable lengths. It's definitely less streamlined looking but way easier and fluid in its ease of use. I even designed the pedal ledge to work as if it is hinged, allowing access underneath for other pedals and power supplies etc. The whole pedal board is built into the bottom of the case it travels in. At the end of the night the top is fastened onto it and it's wheeled away to the trailer.
I don't have a diagram for the current rig but here are some photos of all of its components.
(A new updated version of the rig exists... I'll upload photos soon... DZ September 2014)
Main Pedal Board
Eventide H9 Expression Pedal Board
RJM Loop Switcher Board
Eventide H9s and ATTY's
Midi Splitter for Eventide H9's
ATTY (Passive mute for QSC Speakers)
Hinged Pedal board view
QSC Speakers and Main Guitars
Tom Quayle Signature Pedal
TWA Systech Harmonic Energizer Protype
Tarkin (Custom Made 2 channel Fuzz)
SolidGoldFX ZETA Drive
SolidGoldFX Rosie Overdrive
SolidGoldFX Envelope Filter
SolidGoldFX - Delay
Paul Trombetta (Custom Made) 4 Fuzz Cey-Zo
Paul Trombetta Robotone 1
Paul Trombetta Robotone 2
Heavy Acoustics FUZZ pedal
Jam Pedal Feddback Tremelo
Tone Concepts Distillery Boost
Catalina Breat - Echoplex pedal
Wampler Clean Buffer
Steve Firlotte Guitar Splitter
As you can see from the photo above there used to be separate modular units that allowed access to the individual pedals. They were sitting on top of the speakers. While on tour it started to become a wiring fiasco between modular units.
In 2015 I decided to place everything into a single self contained tower of a rack. The switch from modular format to shock mounted tower has improved the efficiency and consistency of setup without adding an inordinate amount of extra weight. It is now even better protected and there is less hassle with cable looms between cases. It is also big enough to allow for any future expansion. Never say never!
2 Fractal Axe -FX II units and 3 Eventide H9s. (2 routed to Axe FX A loop and one to Axe FX B loop)
I have been working for a long time to create a template that will allow me to create patches for both Fractals and build a consistent library of sounds. I have finally accomplished this. My plan now is to one day dial in all of the classic FZ tones from all of the different eras and then have instant access to all of them in one library.
All of the pedals are now easily interchangeable on an as needed basis as well. The wiring may not look super pretty but it's flexible and allows for the rig to expand or morph as the music dictates. I use tape on the knobs of many pedals so that the settings aren't disturbed during travel and daily set up... an "ugly" time saver. The photos below were taken on the "One Size Fits All" tour 2015.
The pedal board is built into a road case with removeable lid.
It has 11 pedals that live on the top shelf which features a piano hinge to allow it to open up for easy access to the power supplies below. There is a Wampler buffer pedal living down there as well. (Pedals from left to right: Lone Wolf Outsider, TC Electronic Vortex Flanger, Strymon Mobius, Chandler limited Little Devil Boost, Chandler Limited Germanium Boost, Solidgoldfx Electroman Delay, Jam Retro Vibe, Soundblox2 Orbital, Soundblox2 Stingray, Gooch Effects "Too Much Fuzz" custom DZ pedal)
The wah pedal, tuner and four expression pedals (that control many Axe Effects parameters) live on the pedal board as well. It also has magnetic labels from and excellent manufacturer in Germany called Stomp Label.
Above the tuner is one of my all time favorite Fuzz pedals. It's a Paul Trombetta fuzz that he custom made for me with input impedance and bias adjustment. I have 2 in the rig set differently and they are named after my daughters. This pedal is called Zola and it's routed across the whole combined signal path. The other one is called Ceylon and it is routed so that it goes a across the entire signal path but further down the chain so that the fuzz can interact with modulation devices like phasers etc.
Below you can see 2 Dynaflangers and an RJM midi loop switcher plus a few pedals!
The RJM switcher in the photo above routes 6 pedals to the top Fractal and 6 pedals to the bottom Fractal allowing me to very unque stereo fuzz tones. I like this option because I can utilize the slow attack character of a fuzz pedal with a starved battery sound on one side and a quick mid range distortion on the other side or any variation in between. It's an elaborate way to split my signal but I'm following the same path my dad took. He used to run 4 amps plus a di and have different effects routed to each signal path.
The signal begins here at the Little Labs box and splits out to the autonomous Fractal Audio Axe Effects units.
I use the ATTYs to attenuate the level from the Fractals to the 4 QSC KW12 Powered Monitors. This is very helpful for programming because it allows me to quickly and easily mute one machine against the other when scrutinizing for level matching and patch details. (When you can have 5 mono signals or 2 stereo plus 1 mono going at once things can get confusing pretty quickly) It's also good for trouble shooting and overall level and mute related necessities on tour.
(Back To Front) Greer Fish Press, Greer Tarpit, Cog Custom DZ TARKIN, Maxon Ether, Greer Lightspeed, Custom Dynamo Flanger, JHS Pollinator, Gooch FX Captain Kirk
(Back To Front) Black Arts Pharoah, Greer Fish Press, Greer Peacemaker, Greer Analog Delay, JHS Superbold, RJM effects Gizmo
(Back To Front) Voodoolab Pedal Power, JHS Twin 12, JHS Charlie Brown, Maxon Water, Paul Trombetta custom Ceylon, BK Butler Tube Driver, RJM Effects Gizmo.
A messy view from the back! With each tour there comes an inevitible change. Sometimes it's purely motivated by the material from the tour and sometimes it's because someone has invented a bitchen new pedal that helps puts me in "The Zone" musically. It's only a matter of time before this version experiences a little modification. I'll update it when I get a chance!