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Gorgeous Freak of Nature: Building Dweezil Zappa's Custom PRS

Apart from the visual style and materials, what other factors guided the design?

Zappa: I wanted it built a little like a 335 so I could get that natural sustain, and I had it wired so the middle position is out of phase— Jimmy Page style. The first McCarty model PRS gave me was so comfortable straightaway that I didn’t see any need to change fret size or neck shape or anything like that. I’m pretty adaptable and, again, I really like for a guitar to tell me what to do. I’ve never been a collector of really specific needs. I’ve never needed one perfect guitar and a bunch of backups that are exactly the same, and I don’t like getting psychotically attached to things, either. Guitars are meant to be played and do a job. So I guess I’m pleased that this one really does end up doing so many things well.

Miles: Dweezil went with 57/08 pickups—he really liked that sound. He also really liked the nitro sunburst on the first guitar we sent to him. That guitar also had the wider, fatter neck—which Paul [Reed Smith] checked out himself because he’s such a stickler about necks. In general, the hardware wasn’t anything too out there—a stop tailpiece—and he went with a 25" scale. He really took a lot of cues from that first guitar. The big difference in the electronics was the out-of-phase option and the Santana model-style control set—which helped us keep the wires out of view through the f hole on the lower bout.

What inspired the shape and configuration of the body—and did building it that way present any other challenges?

Zappa: Because the guitar came together around all these weird pieces of wood—all these odd ingredients that gave it such a different personality—I didn’t want it to look like a typical PRS. And when I saw the picture of the mandolin I really latched onto that shape. It appealed to me straightaway.

Miles: Dweezil looked through the PRS book and found that mandolin shape, which we were nervous about at first because no one had ever considered using it as a guitar body [laughs]. Once we got going, it proved to be not too difficult, though. We already offered our Custom model shape with a single F-hole, so we had CNC programs that could take care of hollowing out a guitar of that depth. The one unique problem was taking the lower bout in so far and having a neck joint to support the guitar. But we moved the neck down into the body further, which gave us more glue surface. Being able to reach every possible fret was really important to Dweezil. We ran a test body to make sure everything lined up and would intonate. But once we checked all that out, it was full speed ahead.

Eric Granroth checking the action (left) and adjusting pickup height (right) on Zappa’s guitar. Photos by Paul Miles

Dweezil, have you had to change your approach or tinker with your rig to accommodate this guitar?

Zappa: The whole point of this guitar was to open up new possibilities and textures. So, to tell you the truth, I’m happy about what I don’t know yet. The Fractal Audio Systems Axe-Fx Ultra amplification system that I use now allows just about any kind of classic tone. But it also allows me to do some really insane, mad-scientist stuff. The classic tones that I can get out of the PRS, as well as the out-of-phase tone, are great for recreating those classic sounds. But it’s also so playable and has so much range and sustain— especially with that hollow body—that I can go from classic to weird really easily. So it’s a pretty ideal match for the Axe-Fx Ultra, which is designed to really communicate the personality of the guitar, but also has all this sound potential that I’m still exploring.

You mentioned that Zappa Plays Zappa took you quite a ways out of your comfort zone. Does the PRS help you get back into that zone?

Zappa: I studied the music for two years before even putting the band together for this project. I realized I was going to have to do a lot of work, both physically and mentally, if I was going to do what I’d set out to do. I had to learn some really impossible guitar parts—even things that were written to be played on marimba or keyboard—and then be able to improvise in a style that was reminiscent of Frank’s. The PRS doesn’t necessarily make the difficult stuff any easier [laughs], but it’s really playable and makes you want to get in there and explore pretty crazy stuff.

Is there a future for this guitar beyond this one instrument?

Zappa: I would love to see it become a signature model!

Miles: A lot of Private Stock customers that have come through have asked about it and have been very interested. We see a lot of potential for it as a new model.

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