Mike Keneally

Uncommon Knowledge
Mike Keneally: Per Sviggum.

For 35 years, Mike Keneally has been a go-to sideman for icons like Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani, as well as a noted solo artist deploying monster chops on guitar, keyboards, and vocals.

Keneally has just released The Thing That Knowledge Can’t Eat, featuring guitar guests like Vai and Devin Townsend.

This feels more like a song album, rife with layered acoustic and electric guitar parts.
Yep, pretty much exactly that – some of the songs were started prior to lockdown, but others were started from scratch in quarantine. I ended up working on mixes on the road in 2021 when The Zappa Band was opening for King Crimson’s final U.S. tour, stealing time in dressing rooms and hotels. [Former XTC frontman] Andy Partridge was also very generous with his time during this period, giving me copious and excellent home-mixing advice.

The rocker “Celery” features your pal Steve Vai and offers a good comparison of your lead styles.
I recorded basic tracks and didn’t listen to it for about four years, but was pleasantly surprised when I found that thumb-drive. I did a lot of work on “Celery” in quarantine; I think it was the first recording I worked on at home once I got my recording rig together. That was when I asked Steve if he’d be willing to contribute. He responded quickly – and brilliantly – with the two solos on this song. I very much hope to play the song live with Steve someday.

There’s a lot of whammy bar work on “Ack.”
Most of the vibrato stuff is in Peter Tiehuis’ solo – he’s the guitarist for Holland’s Metropole Orchestra. I played my Charvel koa guitar on that tune, which is equipped with a Floyd, but I don’t touch the whammy that much on the track. By the way, I affected the introduction between Wayne Charvel and Guthrie Govan way back when, and think my custom koa Charvel may have had some influence on the instruments Guthrie went on to play. But maybe not!

“Lana” is a refreshing take on that drop-tuning crunch sound.
I used a Framus that Devin Townsend gave me for riff-oriented stuff, played through a Fractal Axe-FX. It’s the open-C tuning that Devin uses on the majority of his songs (C-G-C-G-C-E). I was using that guitar on some tracks and all of a sudden the “Lana” riff popped out of it. All the crazy harmonized guitar parts were done on my Strandberg Boden Prog solidbody played through Universal Audio plug-ins, all in standard tuning. It’s got four-part guitar harmony on some lines. No idea how I’m going to do it live (laughs).

What other gear did you use on the album?
Devin was insistent on our guitars being perfectly in tune with each other, so he hooked me up with Kiesel so I could get instruments equipped with Evertune bridges. The main composed guitar parts on “Celery” were played on a custom Kiesel Crescent, and my solo was played on a Delos, both through a Fractal. The beautiful green Eric Clapton Strat I’ve had since 1988 was called into service on “Big Hit Song,” running through my Rivera Quiana amp; “Spigot” was played through another Rivera. My Taylor 514-CE came out for “Big Hit Song” and “Mercury in Second Grade.” I also used an early-’90s Telecaster reissue.

Did Frank Zappa ever give you lasting advice about your guitar playing?
One day in rehearsal, Frank’s band was running through “Big Swifty,” which contained a long, improvised middle section. I hadn’t been in the band long. On this occasion, Frank pointed at me to play a solo over this jazz-inflected setting, though I didn’t possess the bebop-steeped harmonic grounding to play a convincingly authentic jazz solo. So I went entirely psycho instead and slammed out an aggressively avant-garde statement of some sort, not at all convinced that it was in any way convincing.

What did Frank think?
As soon as the tune finished, he came over and said, “Nice solo!” and actually meant it. I was surprised, and apologized for not being able to play a stylistically-appropriate jazz solo. His response was, “If you’d been able to do that, then I would have been worried.” I took that to mean he was more interested in finding out what I could contribute that was authentically me, as opposed to a rote demonstration of what might be the “normal” thing to play in that kind of circumstance.

The reverberations of that moment stayed with me over the years as I developed a voice as a guitarist. My style seems to be boiled from all kinds of genres, without living solely in any one of them. Frank’s vote of confidence helped make me peace with that fact.

This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.