Tone Poet: Mike Keneally Elevates the Concept Album

Mike Keneally was just 25 years old when he picked up the phone and made what may ultimately stand as the boldest cold call in prog-rock history.
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Mike Keneally was just 25 years old when he picked up the phone and made what may ultimately stand as the boldest cold call in prog-rock history.

“In an act of insane optimism,” says Keneally, “I called Frank Zappa’s office and left a message saying, ‘I don’t know if Frank is looking for anyone, but I play guitar and keyboards and I sing. I have all of Frank’s records, and I know all of his stuff.’”

To Keneally’s surprise, Zappa returned his call the very next day.

“You can play all of my songs? I don’t believe you. Get your ass up here and prove it.”

That conversation was nearly 30 years ago, and, after a quick audition, Zappa hired Keneally on the spot. But while Keneally’s tenure with Zappa was short lived—about a year—his solo career has flourished. Since his days as Zappa’s “stunt guitarist,” Keneally’s mind-boggling versatility on fretboards and keyboards has also gotten him high-level sideman work with Steve Vai, Dethklok (featuring Brendon Small), and, most consistently, Joe Satriani.

Yet, it only takes one listen to Keneally’s latest solo album—a genre-morphing double-disc prog opera of sorts called Scambot 2/Inkling [Exowax]—to recognize that he still carries a torch for Zappa’s unpredictable chord changes, adventurous grooves, radical melodies, quirky lyrics, and extended guitar improvisations.

I caught up with Keneally at Swinghouse Studios in Los Angeles, where the guitarist was having a ball plugging his trusty old Fender Stratocaster—a green ’88 Eric Clapton Signature model carrying serial #8, strung with Dean Markley strings, and fitted with EMG SA active single-coils—into some shiny new Pigtronix pedals.

What was it that first got you into music?

It was hearing The Beatles on the radio. It was the mid ’60s, and I was five or six years old. My 16-year-old sister was engulfed in full-on Beatlemania, so she had all the records and all the posters. I got into The Beatles through her. But with the releases of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, they got too weird for her, and she got off the train. So I inherited all of her records, and I would listen to them in the basement. I became obsessed. They really infected my brain and my soul. One Beatles guitar moment I’ve always loved is “And Your Bird Can Sing.” It’s like Bach or something—so logical, so ingenious, and so pretty. When you hear it with Beatle guitar tones, and the unbelievable sound of John Lennon’s voice, it’s crazy stuff. It has two guitar parts, but I like to combine them and play them as one. [To hear Keneally play this and other examples from this interview, stream Episode 36 of GP’s No Guitar Is Safe podcast.]

When did your musical interests finally expand beyond The Beatles?

That happened when I moved to San Diego in 1970, and discovered FM radio—which was very experimental and freeform at the time. That introduced me to some crazy sh*t. Back then, deejays would put on entire album sides while they went outside to get high. So I’d be sitting there at age eight, listening to full sides of Islands by King Crimson, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, and Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I was already playing electric organ by that point, so the 5/4 “Tarkus” riff really amazed me. I didn’t know you could do that on organ! That distorted Hammond tone made it sound almost like heavy metal. In fact, that riff sounds badass on guitar. I was obsessed with learning this stuff. For example, when I was 16—the age when you’re supposed to go out and get in trouble on the streets—I spent the summer at home learning every Gentle Giant guitar part, figuring out how those parts fit into the architecture of that crazy music.

Back when I was nine, though, a boy across the street said, “You’re a weird kid, and I think I have some music you can relate to.” He played “Help, I’m a Rock” from Freak Out! by Frank Zappa. I became obsessed with Zappa at that point.

It’s astonishing to me that guys like you, Dweezil Zappa, and Jamie Kime can memorize a full set of Zappa melodies. That’s an insane amount of notes.

It’s all how you’re wired. The thing that’s interesting to me about a Zappa tune such as “The Black Page” is that while it is very strange, once you’ve got it in your fingers and programmed into muscle memory, you can’t mistake it for anything else. Ironically, a simple blues song with a variation on the turnaround is sometimes harder for me to memorize than a Zappa tune. Every Zappa composition just feels like its own little flower. Once it’s absorbed, it never goes away.

One amazing thing about your new record is that you create a different musical world for each song. For example, the very first tune is the ten-minute rock odyssey, “In the Trees.”

Well, as you can tell from the included booklet—which is full of lyrics, elaborate artwork, and drawings of all the characters—the record has a pretty elaborate storyline, so I thought it worked really well to start with the densest, craziest, most action-packed song. But that song is the big bang that sets the album in motion. Things get more spacious from there, and the arrangements get less layered and dense. In fact, when I release Scambot 3 in a couple of years, it will probably be even less dense. It will probably sound like a Brian Eno record [laughs].

Meanwhile, your album’s other disc, Inkling, has a super-short piece, “Mystery Song.”

That song is just four seconds long! Inkling is this additional 48 minutes of music that was in consideration for Scambot 2, but I thought it stood alone as a separate album.

What was your go-to gear setup for the sessions?

It was all over the map. The Rivera Quiana was my main guitar amp, but a few plug-ins were used, as well. For instance, one of my favorite tones on the album is on the song “Roll,” which is a Gibson SG run through both the Quiana and Tech 21’s SansAmp plug-in.

How are you liking the Pigtronix pedals on your board?

Pigtronix hooked me up with some cool stuff like the Infinity Looper—which is insanely limitless in what it can accomplish. I’m also digging their Echolution 2 Ultra Pro. With just that pedal, you can get many interesting effects that go beyond the realm of mere delay. It’s basically a synthesizer and eight pedals in one. I’m really a child when it comes to this stuff. My adventurousness tends to be with the music itself, so when it comes to gear, I tend to find things that work for me, and then I use them forever until they crumble in my hands. I still have an iPhone 5.

When did you first start gigging?

Back in high school, I wasn’t into gigging as much I was into recording. My older brother Marty and I were just fascinated by the possibilities of recording. We set up a 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder in the living room, and we would try to replicate songs we loved by Jeff Beck, Santana, Neil Young, E.L.P., Yes, Genesis, Return to Forever, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. We learned to mix and bounce tracks, and we got so advanced at programming the Oberheim DMX drum machine that when a rep from Oberheim heard our drum programs, he said, “That’s the most advanced drum programming I’ve ever heard.” We were obsessed. Recording in the living room for years—that was our version of a garage band.

Where did you go from there?

I had a father who was unbelievably supportive. When I was nearing the end of high school, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do, other than make music. So I said, “Dad, I guess I’ve got to figure things out. Am I going to school, or am I getting a job?” His immediate response was, “Your job is to write songs.”