“THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING I TOOK AWAY FROM my time with Frank Zappa was fearlessness,” says Mike Keneally. “I was with him in the late ’80s, and at that time there were a lot of hard rock and metal guitarists who were composing every note they played onstage, and stringently rehearsing every gesture, so that there was nothing spontaneous happening. Something I appreciated at the time—and that I appreciate more and more as I get older—is that when Frank was improvising solos, he was always thinking like a composer. Even though his solos were totally improvised, there’s a sure handedness that came from being a brilliant composer that permeated every note. There’s the sense that the sequence of notes and events in his solos were inevitable, and it’s only because Frank was there riding the lightning at the right time that they got to be something that the rest of us could enjoy.
Mike Keneally (left) with bassist Bryan Beller.
“I try to do the same thing when I’m improvising onstage. I try to process the information that the music is giving me, the energy that the audience is giving me, and the combination of those things. What just happened? What did I just play? What’s the right thing to play now to develop what just happened? All those factors combine and somehow reveal to me which note I’m supposed to play and precisely the way to play it. And when it happens right, that’s when I feel like I’m doing my job properly. I’m receiving messages from somewhere, and being a good worker bee and doing what I’ve got to do to make things come out the way they are supposed to. It’s a happy, happy thing.