The next time you visit the Sunset Strip, keep your eyes peeled for a very special Les Paul. It’s hard to miss—and not because it’s ten feet tall and painted in vivid colors. It shares those attributes with 17 other similarly gargantuan Gibsons on display in the famed West Hollywood neighborhood. The giant instruments are the work of several different artists, and they constitute Gibson GuitarTown, an ongoing street art installation that pays tribute to the great musicians who helped make the Strip the most rockin’ boulevard in the history of music.
The Les Paul in question stands out because, well, for one thing, unlike the others, it has strings—six huge metal cable segments straight out of Home Depot. It’s when you notice that these “strings” are of different gauges tapering from thick to thin, as on a real Les Paul, that you realize the artist behind this guitar clearly knows a thing or two about guitar.
“I should know something about what is involved in being a guitar player, because I lived with a guitarist and gave birth to one,” says the guitar’s creator, Gail Zappa, widow of Frank, and mother of Dweezil. “I wanted my guitar to reflect all that a person needs to know and learn in order to be a guitarist.”
Get closer to the massive 6-string and you notice its many interesting accouterments. For example…
• The guitar’s pickguard is made up of a hundred or so guitar picks.
“They’re all Fender Mediums, which is what Frank always played,” explains Zappa.
• Affixed to the guitar body is a handful of blue crayons.
“They represent the blues—a staple of self-expression for any guitarist,” she says.
• A cluster of keys—including a hotel key of Frank’s—makes an appearance.
“Not only must you have command of the different keys in music, but you also must remember that music is the key to opening the hearts and minds of the people who will become your fans,” says Zappa
• A brass eighth-note is part of the artwork.
“That was a paperweight Frank kept on his desk,” she says.
• Each faux-humbucker on the guitar has 12 simulated polepieces.
“I used coins as the pickup magnets, because there is nothing more magnetic than money,” says Zappa. “And it’s better to be able to earn a living doing something you’ve mastered than something you hate.”
In addition, between the bridge and the tailpiece is a small speaker system that constantly plays Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute—the posthumous album that features various versions of three songs Frank considered to be his signature pieces: “Zoot Allures,” “Black Napkins,” and “Watermelon in Easter Hay.” Below the tailpiece is a coffee cup for Frank, who once said coffee should be its own food group.
“A lot of coffee went into those guitar solos,” says Zappa, whose assistant, Jose Antonio Lopez, helped her construct her vision. “We even sprinkled coffee grounds into the finish of this guitar, like glitter.”
Finally, wrapped around the guitar’s body like a sash is a staff from the score to one of Frank’s most intimidating compositions, “The Black Page.” While it appears there is music on both sides of this sash, an intentional twist in its construction makes it a Möbius strip [Editor’ note: a surface with only one side and one boundary component.]
“That means it has only one continuous side,” says Zappa. “Therefore, the music printed on it loops forever. I like the idea of music being energy that goes out into the universe and never dies.”
Other Gibson GuitarTown tributes include Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (by the artist, Risk), Prince (by Foremost), David Bowie (by Gino Burman-Loffredo), Steven Tyler (by Stacey Wells), Marc Bolan (by Willard Snow), and Otis Redding (by Updendo and Raphael Saadiq). To see some of the other mammoth Les Paul sculptures, click to our links page at guitarplayer.com/december2014.