In the early years of Phish, people often said we were like "Frank Zappa meets the Grateful Dead" — which sounds very bizarre. But Zappa was incredibly vital to me, as a composer and guitarist. I think he was the best electric-guitar player, other than Jimi Hendrix. Zappa conceptualized the instrument in a completely different way, rhythmically and sonically. Every boundary that was possible on the guitar was examined by him.
I'll never forget the first time I saw him live, in New York, when I was in high school. He would leave his guitar on a stand as he conducted the band. And he would not pick up the guitar until everything was totally together. There would be this moment — this collective breath from the audience — as he walked over, picked it up and started playing the most ripping, beautiful solo. When he played, he was in communion with the instrument.
I also saw Zappa at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, Vermont, on his last tour, in 1988. He did this guitar solo in "City of Tiny Lites" where everybody in the band dropped out except drummer Chad Wackerman. I was in the balcony near the side of the stage. When Zappa turned his back on the audience to play with Chad, I saw this huge smile on his face. But this was also the guy who did 87orchestral pieces like The Yellow Shark. It's hard to believe somebody could do so many different things.
Zappa was a huge influence on how I wrote music for Phish. Songs like "You Enjoy Myself" and "Split Open and Melt" were completely charted out because he had shown me it was possible. And when I played at Bonnaroo with my 10-piece band, we did two covers, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "Sultans of Swing." In both songs, I had the horn section play the guitar solos, note for note. I never would have thought of doing that if I hadn't seen Zappa do "Stairway to Heaven" in Burlington with the horns playing Jimmy Page's entire guitar solo, in harmony.
There is a whole generation of musicians coming up who can't play their instruments. Because of stuff like Pro Tools, they figure they can fix it all in the studio. With Frank, his musicians were pushed to the absolute brink. Phish tried hard to do that too: to take our four little instruments and do as much as we could with them. I would not have envisioned that without him.
Zappa gave me the faith that anything in music was possible. He demystified the whole thing for my generation: "Look, these are just instruments. Find out what the range is, and start writing."