Session Guitarist Names One Thing Frank Zappa Was Really Good At, Reflects on Zappa’s Cynicism

Guitarist Mike Keneally looked back on his time working with Frank Zappa and the legendary musician’s approach to art.

Although Keneally didn’t spend much time with Frank back in the day, it’s one of the things he’s very well remembered for. He joined in as a live member back in 1988, but the lineup quickly fell apart. Nonetheless, he’s still featured on a few of Zappa’s live releases and has performed guitars and keyboards during the 1988 tour. Eventually, he’d end up playing with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.

Knowing that he’s worked with Frank Zappa, Devin Townsend asked Mike Keneally about this experience in his recent podcast episode. And Mike’s experience with Zappa goes way back before the two even met.

Devin Townsend Podcast #5: Mike Keneally

“He had such an impact on my on my life, even before I ever met him or played with him,” said Keneally (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs). “I was fascinated by his humor, I was fascinated by his attitude, his bloody-mindedness, his individualism and individuality, and the fact that there was nothing else like him.”

“I loved the fact that he seemed to be unimpressed by everything,” Mike added with a laugh. “That manifested in a lyrical attitude that was frequently very funny, and, for me, very entertaining.”

And it’s no wonder — Zappa was an all-around exciting artist. One particular thing that he did well, according to Mike, is how all of his works were, in a way, a concept. There’s a story to everything. As he explained:

“I also was delighted by the conceptual aspects of his work, whereby he tied everything together. Somebody asked him in an interview once about what he thought of his body of work, and he said, ‘It’s all one album.’ He could take a razor blade and cut it up and re-change the order of everything, and it would still result in a series of coherent pieces of work.”

“He tied things together conceptually from album to album with little snatches of music or little snatches of lyric or lyrical concepts that would be repeated from album to album. You could plot what he called ‘conceptual continuity’ over the course of years, and that was like being a part of a secret club where you would find these little references and be able to piece all of these works together.”

“That was fascinating to me,” Mike added. “I loved the sound of his music, and I loved trying to figure it out and trying to learn how to play it.”

On the other hand, the guitarist explains how Zappa had this overly cynical and negative side to him. And while it’s an important part of his work, Keneally felt like this was a bit too much. As he explained:

“But then, as time goes on, I realized there were aspects of it that had such a strong hold on me. There was a certain negativity to a lot of it, and there was a certain cynicism to it, and he was proudly cynical. He thought that it was insane to not be cynical.”

Frank Zappa - Barcelona 1988 (Full Show)

Mike also said that he felt the same thing while later working with Frank’s son, Dweezil Zappa, and then added:

“Frank did an album called ‘Them or Us’ — that was an ‘us against the world’ mindset that had a strong hold in that band as we traveled across the world. It did feel like we wanted to entertain audiences, but it also felt like we were almost in an ongoing argument with the world.”

Of course, Mike has absolutely nothing against this aspect. After all, it was Zappa’s special way of expressing himself. But it can get to you after a while.

Michael Keneally express interview about his memories playing with Frank Zappa

“And I think that the older I get, the less useful that has become for me,” he added. “Even though there are all sorts of reasons to be cynical, it didn’t feel like that was a useful energy for me to be propagating anymore.”

“I didn’t feel that I needed to be a part of that energy, whereas in the ’90s, I loved the anti-entertainment aspect of that.”

Photos: Hreinn Gudlaugsson (Mike-keneally DSC05001), Mark Estabrook (Zappa)

  • 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, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.