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The following interview with electric guitar great Adrian Belew was originally published on guitarplayer.com in 2005. In it, Belew tells the story of his nerve-wracking and unconventional – but ultimately successful – audition for Frank Zappa and his band.
“I was playing in a little Nashville club called Fanny’s, and I had just begun sneaking noises into the cover songs we did,” recalls the affable Adrian Belew. “All of a sudden, you’d hear the sound of a car horn, and you’d wonder where it was coming from. Ironically, the place is now a parking lot!
“Frank Zappa played a show in town one night, and he was looking to check out a local band after his gig, as he often did. Frank learned from the chauffeur that his favorite band was playing at Fanny’s, so Frank showed up with a large entourage that included Terry Bozzio. It was obvious to everyone that Frank Zappa was there.
“It was a special night and I lit up – playing and singing my best. Our band did covers by Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and other stuff like that. Forty minutes into the set, while we were playing Gimme Shelter, Frank reached up, shook my hand, and said, ‘Hey, do you want to audition for my band? I’ll get your name from the chauffeur and I’ll call you.’
“It generated a big buzz with the local musicians at the time, but then nothing happened for six months. About the point where I’d forgotten about it, he called me for the audition.
“Frank gave me a list of difficult songs from several different records, and his instructions were, ‘Figure out how to play and sing this the best you can, however you can.’ The music was pretty complicated for a guy who was just playing in a bar band. I had never played in odd time signatures, and I didn’t read music, whereas the rest of the Frank’s band did. And I was so poor at the time that I didn’t even buy the records. I borrowed them from my friends, because I didn’t know if it was going to work out anyway.
“The audition was pretty brutal, and I didn’t do very well. It was like the chaos of a movie set with people moving pianos around and so on. And there’s little me standing in the middle of a room with a Pignose amplifier and a Stratocaster trying to sing and play lots of Frank Zappa songs.
“I was so nervous. I remember doing Andy, and Wind Up Working in a Gas Station. I thought I did poorly, and I had nowhere to go. I had just flown in, and was driven to his house, so I sat there all day watching everyone else.
“I watched some really tough auditions, especially for keyboard players and percussionists. I didn’t see any other guitar players, but I was later told that he auditioned 50 guitar players.
“At the end of the day, when it all calmed down and people were finally leaving, I finally got my time to speak to Frank again. I said simply this: ‘Frank, I don’t think I did so well. I imagined this would have happened differently. I thought you and I would sit somewhere quiet, and I would play and sing the songs for you. And he said, ‘OK, then let’s do that.’
“We went upstairs to his living room, and we sat on his purple couch. I placed my Pignose amplifier face down on the couch so I could get a little bit of sustain, and I auditioned all over again. At the end of it, he reached out his hand and said, ‘You got the job.’ We shook hands, and that was an absolute turning point in my life.”