Frank Zappa honored with the Surround Pioneer Award, presented bySteve Vai

At the 2nd Annual Surround Music Awards, Frank Zappa was honored with the Surround Pioneer Award acknowledging his technological and creative advances in multichannel music. Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, a pioneer in his own right, presented the Award to Gail and Dweezil Zappa. Vai’s insightful and heartfelt tribute was, as Surround 2003 Keynote Speaker Phil Ramone put it, “worthy of an Oscar.” Here are Vai’s notes from that speech.

STEVE VAI: Thank you, Larry. Boy, if you were going to tell me that
the words “Larry Flynt” and “Steve Vai” were going to be uttered in
the same breath, I would’ve never believed you. Especially uttered
out of the breath of Larry Flynt. I’d also like to thank Larry for
helping me to discover my favorite pastime.

Well, I’m going to take more than a few minutes and I hope you don’t
mind. I had the tremendous opportunity to work with Frank for about
five years starting from 1979 on, and I’ll tell you, a day doesn’t
pass that I don’t look back at those days and think about him, what I
learned, and what he went through to make his music.

In the face of every kind of adversity, Frank always made the kind of
music that he wanted to, with no compromising. I see now how
difficult that must’ve been, but nothing ever stopped him. And I
never take for granted how fortunate I was to have had the
opportunity to work with him, so I want to talk a little about him
from that perspective, and I echo Larry’s sentiment regarding the use
of the word “genius.”

When I was a kid we used to hear, “Oh Frank Zappa, he was a genius,”
and I used to say, “Yeah, yeah, Frank Zappa, he was a genius,” but I
didn’t really understand what a genius was. Not until I actually
witnessed it.

I always felt that one of the traits of genius was the ability to
recognize your intuition and make it real in the world naturally,
effortlessly, and flawlessly, and Frank did that everyday. He
displayed this ability all the time. It was at his command any time
he wanted.

And it was amazing how he was never at a loss for words. He had the
ability to sus out any given situation with sort of a clairvoyance
that cut right through the bullshit. He always had an overview of the
reality, sincerity, or the sheer stupidity of a situation, and he
could respond with the perfect balance of truth, comedy, charm, and
stinging sarcasm, all with just a few words, sometimes even just one
word, sometimes just by moving his eyebrow up and down. I mean, who
else would have the balls to blaspheme the sacred Beatles by creating
an album cover that was a piss take on Rolling Stone’s top
record of all time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and
call the album, We’re Only In It For the Money.

Speaking of Rolling Stone, I don’t think Frank had any soft
spots in his heart for them being that they once said that the only
good stuff he every released was his first few records. I remember he
and I were sitting in the studio recording once, me with my guitar
and he at the helm of the tape machine, and his secretary excitedly
entered the room. She said Rolling Stone just called and they
want to put him on the cover. Frank responded with, “Why the fuck
should I help them sell their magazine” and then he hit the Record
button and we continued. Now, there’s one thing cooler than being
asked to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, and that’s turning
it down.

And if there was something that ever offended anybody, you can rest
assured that Frank was going to write a song about it. His sarcasm
was of the most supreme highest order. One phrase from the song “Dumb
All Over” comes to mind, he wrote, “let’s get serious, folks, God
knows what he’s doing. He wrote this book here, and it says in the
book that he made us all to be just like him, so if we’re dumb, then
God is dumb, and maybe even a little ugly on the side.”

And when talking to Frank, one of the most remarkable things was he
actually listened, he was really hearing what you were saying. It was
almost unnerving how he would listened to you. He had this uncanny ability
to see right into your psychological makeup. You could feel naked
when you were speaking to him. If you were going to have a
conversation with Frank, you better be ready to hear the truth
because he was going to give it to you with no apologies and no
compensations, no matter who you were.

There’s that great story when he was on the Joe Pine Show. I
believe it was in the late ’60s. It was a talk television program,
and the host, Joe Pine, was sort of like a Wisenheimer, like a Howard
Stern of the day. Joe Pine also sported a wooden leg, right. So Frank
walks out and he sits down and Joe says to Frank, “So Frank, ha, with
all that hair, that must make you a woman.” And without missing a
beat Frank’s responded with, “with that wooden leg, that must make
you a table.”

These were the kinds of thing that I got to experience all the time
by being next to him, it was amazing.

Musicians who have had the opportunity to work for Frank will usually
get a reputation of being specially gifted, and, true, most were, but
really it was Frank that had this uncanny ability to look right into
you as a musician and see your potential even more effectively than
you could. He would pull things out of you that you never even knew
existed and then wield it into his music. That’s an element of
genius, too.

To me, first and foremost, Frank was a serious composer, and the
sheer volume and craftsmanship of his orchestra works is testament to
that. While on tour, he would always be composing, whether we were in
an airport, on a plane, or sitting backstage waiting for a show. I
remember once we were wating in an airport and he was sitting there
scribbling some stuff onto manuscript paper. I went down and I sat
next to him. I had the audacity to say, “So what are you doing?” He
looks at me and says, “Nothing.” I slinked away. A minute later he
says, “Come here, boy.” And he shows me this little dictionary of
chords that he was building. They were these tremendous, fat, robust
9- and 10-note chords without any doublings, and he says to me,
“These are densities.” I thought that was great terminology to use
for a chord voicing. He said, “When I get back to L.A. I’m going to
use these to compose a piece of music,” and he did, some of those
densities were used in the composing of Sinister Footwear.

Frank broke the mold on conventional, harmonic, and rhythmic
composition as could be heard in the intensity of some of his works.
I’ve studied scores since high school and, to this day, I have yet to
see compositions of such unbelievable complex rhythmic notation as
Frank’s, and that includes scores from Edgar Verace, Igor Stravinski,
and even John Cage. But it didn’t stop there. Frank would take this
extreme approach and apply it to the rock band as well. He would have
his bands doing these things that were completely unconventional. As
a matter of fact, there’s this one historical Zappa piece called “The
Black Page.” It’s a notorious piece of music. There’s this one bar
that is so uniquely rhythmically complex and intense that it’s on a
T-shirt. It’s for sure the most revolutionary rhythmic notation ever
conceived, and on the t-shirt, underneath this bar of music it says,
“and we don’t mess around.” And we played it onstage, and people
would have to dance to it.

It was astonishing to see Frank create his music with the band. He’d
come into the rehearsals and just start spinning and pulling on these
ideas as he was building them. He was like an enthusiastic teenager
and the ideas and creations just kept flowing and flowing and
flowing. You can’t help wondering where is this all coming from. He
would be laughing while doing it, if he was in a good mood that is. I
remember times when he wasn’t in such a good mood. He would come into
rehearsals, sit down with his little coffee thermos, and listen. We
had learned 147 songs for this one European tour and while he
listened, if he heard one mistake in one song, the entire song was
out of here. And if the same person made the mistake three or four
times, it was quite likely that soon they were outta here, too.

And as a guitar player, I always found him to be completely
distinctive. I used to transcribe his guitar solos. Am I going on too
long here? Because I’m having a great time. I hope you don’t mind, I
love speaking about Frank. (Crowd responds with a cheer.)

We were in New York City at the Palladium doing a soundcheck and
we’re playing Zoot Allures. You know, every now and then when
you’re a musician, you have a good show, you play okay, maybe you
have a bad show, and then some nights, sometimes you’re just on and
when the Gods of music are really smiling on you, you’re really on.
Unfortunately this was only a soundcheck and Frank started playing,
and I’ll tell you, man, he was on. I had never seen him play like
this. And I’ve transcribed his guitar parts. I consider myself an
authority on the way Frank plays the guitar, and I’ve been whiteness
to many of them. Well, at this particular soundcheck he was inspired.
At the time I was a 20-year-old kid watching him play and I couldn’t
believe how music was just flowing from him. Everything he went to do
on the instrument just worked. He knew he was on, the band knew he
was on, it was just one of those moments.

As I’m being showered in the sunshine of his vast 6-string
expression, there’s tears streaming down my face. When it’s over I go
up to him and mustering up all that I had in me to remain composed I
say, “Frank, when I grow up I want to be like you.” And he looks at
me and he says, “You’re too young to start going bald.”

And obviously his recording techniques were revolutionary. Two out of
three tours I did with him he recorded every show and every
soundcheck with his remote recording truck. He’d get back home and
he’d take solos from soundchecks in Palermo, Sicily and mix them with
stuff that was recorded with The Mothers years before that, and then
put new tracks on it and then fly in a backwards drum part from
Peoria from the year before…He was like a mad audio scientist.

One time I sat and I watched him editing analog tape. I was a kid and
never even knew what editing was. He had this tape, because back then
they didn’t have digital workstations. He mixed two separate pieces
of music and then he cuts the tape and splices the two pieces of tape
together. I’m watching, what he’s doing but I don’t quite get it.
When the tape rolled over the head of the machine and I realized what
was capable of being done with editing, I had this epiphany. I
realize right then and there what editing was all about. I said,
“Jesus, that’s amazing, you can do so much.” And he smiles and says
to me, “Yeah, it’s like every day is Christmas.”

Frank would get passionately involved in the things that were
important to him. His warrior-like defending of our artistic freedoms
with the PMRC, and many of the political issues he fought are well
documented. Once I asked him, “Frank, why do you spend so much time
doing this, all this political stuff, and going to Washington when
you could just be writing music?” And he said, “Well, if all you’re
going to do is complain about things, and not do something about it,
or offer some kind of practical solution, then one should sit down
and shut the fuck up.”

I would like to tell you a real surround sound story. Frank was
always the consummate entertainer, and he loved having people up to
the house to listen to music. Once he got you in his grip, you could
be sat down listening to music for eight and nine hours. I think it
was around 1985 when he set up the basement with six suspended
speakers, three on one side, three on the other, and spent at least a
couple of weeks remixing a bunch of music within this format.

It was fascinating to hear how he would take conventional rock stereo
mixes, or whatever, and apply them to this sexophonic sound, you
might call it. Larry might be able to explain more about that.
Anyway, it was totally unconventional. These days we have the two
front speakers, the rear speaker, subwoofer, and what do you do with
that middle speaker? But Frank had mixed this stuff in this six-speaker
setup and the sounds were coming from all over the place. I have
never heard such brilliant use of audio real estate.

He then played me a piece of music that was approximately 37 minutes
long. My ears had never experienced anything quite like this. It
sounded as though it had every sound in the universe in it. And you
know, Frank, he created every sound he used. He crafted and built
every sample. I mean the idea of Frank going out and buying a sample
CD that somebody else can go and buy, it would be as unlikely as…I
don’t know, Bush getting re-elected? Sorry…

So I’m sitting there and I’m listening to this piece of music, and
it’s just him and me in the room. He put me in the listening sweet
spot. This piece of music was not like a predictable song. It was 37
minutes of pure brilliance. There was unexpected sounds coming from
any direction, thick ambiences that swirled around your body or just
embraced you with their richness, melodies being performed using
timbers that were unexpected, and other audio realities that were
intoxicating. You could expect to hear anything from celestial bell
spaces to snorks and blurps.

My ears and psyche have never experienced a listening bliss quite
like this. And there I was. When the piece was over I could hardly
speak. When I could squeeze a word out of my mouth I said “how long
did that take you to do?” He said, “25 years.” I said, “Frank, that’s
the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” And he
says to me, “Yeah, I know, I’m going to have to add some ugliness to

Most of all I’m a fan. Frank’s music contains treasures beyond
measures. I’m not unlike any of his other true fans in that his music
has had a profound affect on me and has changed the quality of my
life for my entire life. He was arguably the most prolific musician
in history. And I heard statistics that stated that most composers
create their greatest works from the age of 50 to 70. Well, we were

I remember seeing one of his very last televised interviews, and he
was asked, “How would you like to be remembered?” He said, ” I don’t.
Wanting to be remembered is for politicians and rock stars.” He was
then asked, “What message would you like to leave?” and he replied,
“Get a second opinion.” He was referring to his illness because he
was misdiagnosed at first. That statement gives credence to the prior
one. When most people would be asked the same questions, they will
usually wax on endlessly about lofty principals that themselves and
others might find impossible to manage in life. But Frank gave a
practical useful tip, disregarding 35 years of music making, a vast
catalog of matchless audio art, films, videos, and the experience of
countless world tours, he put the health awareness of the listener in
front of all these things and any other self-elating memorandum. He
really walked the walk.

Well, you know what, I’m glad that he wasn’t in control of that one,
because I believe that in the future when the music business as we
know it has metamorphasized into something that we can’t even
conceive right now, and the biggest names in the business at this
time will sound like funny names from the past, scholars will be
studying and performing Frank’s music for centuries.

Thank you so much for indulging me here. And now, in his own words,
ladies and gentlemen, Frank Zappa.


STEVE VAI: Okay, I was listening to the beginning piece there, and it
was actually one of my audition pieces, so I gotta tell you about my
audition, I’m sorry to go on but, you’re going to get a kick out of

Here I am, 20 years old and Frank tells me to learn something like 40
songs to try out with the band at rehearsals. I get there and
obviously he doesn’t choose to perform any of the songs that he told
me to learn. He picks up the guitar and awkwardly and slowly plays a
very unorthodox fingered melody line. “Play this,” he says to me. So
I’m like, okay, and I play it. He says, “Faster.” I said, “Okay” and
played it faster. He goes, “Okay, now play it in 7/8.” I think for a
second and say, “OK,” and I play it in 7/8. He says, “Now add this
note.” Okay, I add the note and play it in 7. And he goes, “Now
reggae, 7/8 reggae.” This is a true story. I thought for a minute and
said, “Okay, I got it.” and I played it in 7/8 reggae. He goes,
“Okay, now add this note.” And he played a note on his guitar. I
thought for a minute and then I looked up and said, “Um…that’s
impossible,” because it was impossible to do on the guitar. It was
just physically impossible for anyone to do on the instrument. And
Frank says, “Well, I hear Linda Rondstadt is looking for a guitar

Let’s talk about another guitar player. I remember when Dweezil
started playing the guitar. The minute he picked up the instrument I
was sitting with him and, I’m sorry Dweezil, but I gotta tell them
this story, he couldn’t even play one note. He would go to hit a note
and he would hit three other strings, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God,
what am I going to tell Frank?” So, Dweezil and I got together a few
times. I was just helping him to try and keep from getting into some
bad technique habits. The extraordinary thing was the frightening
speed at which he progressed. Every week I would go back to the house
and he’d be jammin’ on chords, and I’m thinking, “Whoa, what happened
here.” Go back another week he’s got all the scales down. And then I
go back like a month or two months after he couldn’t even play this
one note and he’s shredding, I mean big time shredding, and by the
time he was 14, he was getting on stage with us and jamming, kicking
everybody’s ass, by the way. Absolutely.

Like Frank, Dweezil has remained very prolific through the years
doing various things from sitcoms, music production, amplifier
designing, “The Wiggy,” and, most recently, a cooking show that airs
in January 2004. I recently got a sneak preview of his new CD that
he’s working on. When I listen to guitar players, I listen with the
same ears that listens to Hendrix and Page and Beck, all the greats.
And the fascinating thing about Dweezil through the years that I’ve
noticed is that as accomplished as he is, he is still evolving and
developing as a player, and a brilliant player I might add. As they
say, the fruit doesn’t fall very far from the tree.

And Gail, I actually believe I owe more of a debt of gratitude to
Gail than even Frank. I remember I was 15 years old when I called the
house for the first time and she actually answered the phone. She
spoke to me and was friendly and kind. She didn’t need to do that.
She told me Frank wasn’t home and that he was on tour. She said he
would be back in a few months and that I can call back.” I thought,
“I can call back, oh geez.” I called back once every six months for
four years. He was never there. Finally I got him, but all those
times I called, Gail was always so sweet and so kind, I actually
think that if it wasn’t for these simple acts of kindness there would
be no Steve Vai the musician today and for that, I deeply thank you
my dear.

And one other thing I’ll add, and I know I’m going on, but I can’t
help it, I love this family so much. Whenever you were up at the
house, there was always a lot of love, I mean a real lot of love. I
was so young and impressionable and being in that environment made
you feel at home and comfortable. There was always laughter and a
good feeling in the air. It was a special family environment, and
with the Zappas, when you were up there you could be embraced by that
love. It was rejuvenating and joyful to be a part of. Gail was always
at the center of this love. She was the rock and you could always
feel this.

Seeing the bond between Frank and Gail was very inspirational and
probably had a big effect on me. Maybe it’s part of the reason I have
been with my wife for the past 24 years. I saw the importance of
having a meaningful relationship. So, as they say, behind every good
man is even a better woman. So, ladies and gentlemen, Gail and
Dweezil Zappa.

Upon passing the intense audition,Vai toured the world with Zappa
and played on more than 20 of his albums from 1980 to 1992. Over the
years Vai has released several solo albums, guested on countless
albums by other artists, formed his own label (Favored Nation), is
the inspiration for the first Ibanez signature acoustic guitar (which
debuted at NAMM), The Ibanez Steve Vai EP7 Euphoria, and recently
received his 7th Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental
Performance (for the track “Essence”)

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