One Thing You Weren’t Supposed to Do in Frank Zappa’s Band, as Adrian Belew Reveals

As if working in King Crimson wasn’t impressive enough, Adrian Belew worked with an abundance of great names in rock music and beyond. The list includes David Bowie, Talking Heads, his solo career, and, among others, Frank Zappa.

Now, we all are aware of how incredibly demanding Zappa was of his band members and other personnel. As Belew told during Ultimate Guitar’s recent On the Record podcast episode, Frank “was the consummate band leader.” And he really knew what he wanted in every aspect of his work, with pretty much all important creative decisions being his responsibility.

Adrian Belew speaks up on Nine Inch Nails & Talking Heads | On The Record

“He told you exactly the way he wanted things to be,” Belew recalled. “He didn’t leave a lot of room for you to create. That wasn’t the idea. The idea was to play his music consistently and correctly and to be a professional touring musician, you know?”

And speaking of which, Belew also added that Zappa’s band members were all supposed to be at their best at all times. It was far from the stereotypical “rock star” behavior setting as they were expected to be sharp and ready to go.

“You were supposed to be there,” Adrian said. “You were supposed to never do drugs or ever be drunk or anything crazy like that – so you could do the job right.”

On top of that, Belew also adds that the experience in Frank’s band was incredibly important for his development. He explained:

“I learned so much from Frank in that one year because I ended up having to go home with him every weekend for three months while we rehearsed – so he could show me the upcoming parts because I was the only one in the band who was not a reader. Everyone else would read the parts from score on Monday.”

Reflecting more on the professional and personal relationship with Zappa, Belew sees this as an incredibly valuable experience in all aspects, saying:

“So I got to know him really well, and he taught me a lot of things – many of them non-musical things. Most importantly, how to be a recording artist, how to tour, how to have your own business, how to mix a record, how to master a record, how to make a movie.”

“So much information to my green little ears at the time,” Belew offered. “And I don’t know how I would have done the things that I did after that if I hadn’t had all of that instruction and encouragement from Frank. So, I owe him a whole lot, and I love him.”

Frank Zappa : City Of Tiny Lites (Palladium, NY, Halloween 1977)

Belew is one of many great musicians to pass through Zappa’s lineups. One of them was also the great Steve Vai who could say pretty much the same thing that Belew said. Zappa was a fierce band leader and the experience with him eventually led Vai to become one of the most respected lead guitarists in the whole industry.

In an interview from 2023, Steve looked back on the experience by offering:

“Being a musician in Frank’s band required certain tools and it wasn’t the kind of band you get into to learn how to perform. You learn how to play high-information music under pressure while laughing. You had to keep your attention on Frank at all times.”

“I couldn’t really play to the audience, because Frank was conducting certain things. At any time during the entire show, he could give you a signal. He had various signals he would give you that would mean do this in a song. If he went like this, that meant whatever you were playing played reggae. Or he would go like this, and whatever you’re playing, you got to play it and five-eight.”

Frank Zappa & Steve Vai

“Or he had this one really great, where he’d walk around. He’d go like this, and that meant whatever you were doing play it heavy metal. Big balls. So you really have to keep your eye on Frank.”

“We did probably two shows a night most of the time with long soundchecks, where he would write and record. We had about 80 songs that you have to memorize. He would pick the setlist, he would write the setlist five minutes before the show. And it was different every single night.”

“It was a real challenge for someone like me because I had a fascination with playing the very complex lines on the guitar. So Frank finally had a guitar player that he could give all these very challenging, dance, melodic lines and they’re all written.”

Steve Vai about Frank Zappa

“So you wake up at 9 am and you go to the airport and you fly to the gig. Then you get from the car and you go directly to the gig. You do a long soundcheck, and then you have 45 minutes before the first show. Then there’s 45 minutes before the second show.”

“By the time we got back to the hotel, it was two o’clock, 1 am or 2 am. And I had to practice because I don’t know what songs he was going to call the next night. So I deteriorated pretty quickly.”

Photos: Mark Estabrook (Zappa), Mark Finch (Adrian Belew (2009))

Author

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.