Ex-Genesis Guitarist Reveals How Frank Zappa Treated His Musicians, Explains Zappa Was Really Like

Even to this day, almost three decades after his death, Frank Zappa’s reputation is widely discussed. In fact, it’s a crucial part of his legacy, along with his extremely innovative approach to composing, arranging, and performing music. There’s hardly any band leader and a musician who is as demanding as Zappa was.

Frank Zappa - Inca Roads (A Token Of His Extreme)

And it’s his contemporaries, musicians of Zappa’s times, who can share more details and inside info about how his character and the ways he worked. While talking to Classic Album Review, guitarist Steve Hackett, famous for his work in Genesis back in their prog days, reflected on Frank Zappa and what he was like. In particular, he recalled how incredibly demanding he was. Hackett explains (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):

“When I think of Zappa, these days when he’s mentioned, it’s in the sort of seminal sense of the great teacher, that he’s doing this and what have you. But you know, I have a few anecdotes from friends who are talking about the fact that he would suddenly change the key of the tune on the night and expect his musicians to be able to play it, which would have created havoc. And I think that he obviously wanted these musicians to be working to a very high standard.

Frank Zappa - Apostrophe (') - Don't Eat the Yellow Snow Suite

“But I tend to think of him as an impresario, an all-round entertainer in the best sense of the word; you had humor, you had music, you had this, you had the show, you had an extraordinary thing that he was doing live on MTV, this long-form piece, nevermind Genesis and ‘Supper’s Ready’… And it seemed to take in just about everything. And there’s streamers going off, and it’s this party atmosphere, but it’s right on the money. And it’s really, really great.”

In particular, it was former Genesis touring drummer Chester Thompson who told Hackett about working with Zappa. Thompson was a Mothers of Invention member, so he knew first-hand about Zappa’s way of work. Hackett recalls:

“I know that Chester [Thompson] used to say, he said, ‘Yeah, Frank kills himself trying to play his own guitar parts.’ And other times he would say, ‘Yeah, Frank would carry around a coffee urn, and he’d be drinking coffee literally all day, and cigarettes’ – not the greatest diet in the world. But that’s what needed to fuel him up. And do that.

Frank Zappa & The Mothers - Live at The Roxy 1973 [extras]

“And I gather all those musicians who join that band, they’d say, ‘Oh, what else would you like me to concentrate on?’ And he’d say, ‘All of it.’ So he would put his musicians through hell. So if ever I think I’m a slave driver, expecting my lot to come up with three or four albums…”

Photo: Mikemertes (Steve Hackett at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona), Helge Øverås (Zappa 16011977 01 300)