Frank Vincent Zappa (Baltimore, December 21 1940 – Los Angeles, 4 December 1993) was one of the most interesting american musicians, guitarist, composer from the last century. Rock’n’roll, blues, contemporary classical, jazz, doo-Woop, vaudeville, musique concrete: the alchemist Frank Zappa distilled in bizarre alembics everything its predecessor played and all the music that was around him. Iconoclastic genius, he spit flames and vitriol on American society and on the same world of the “freak” from where he started. His is an history of continue derailments, with an unbridled creative freedom, impressed by the compositions and especially the rhythm concepts of Edgar Varèse, but also by the great Bluesmen. Zappa moves easily from rock to R & B, from popular songs to soundtracks for imaginary cartoon, until baroque experiments conducted at the synclavier, with tunes attributed to an italian cellist and composer at the end of seven hundred named Francesco Zappa, and then classical and contemporary music assigned to large orchestras (such as London Symphony Orchestra and ‘Ensemble Modern).
In this article, however I try to focus my attention on a particular aspect of Zappa’s music: his the image of an original and multifaceted guitarist. The activity of Zappa as a guitarist is often overlooked, underestimated or put into the background by his work as a composer (or organizer of musical material). In fact, Zappa was one of the most original guitarists of all creative rock scene, as demonstrated on numerous occasions until the early years, although he considered himself not a virtuoso, claiming to be able to play the guitar in solo, but not knowing how to play the parts written especially for this role, that were always played by other guitarists technically skilled. It should also be noted that Zappa played his guitars only during the tour, becuase he was always too busy composing music and editing tapes or following the publishing of his discs to reserve time to study and practice this instrument.
“My father kept his university’s guitar closed in a small room at homethe university and from time to time we turned around, without being able to understand how to make it work. To my eyes it had no sense: when I touched it I couldn’t heared it well. One day my younger brother, Bobby, took to an auction a guitar with cowboy cuts for a dollar and a half and only then I began to play. At that time I was interested in R & B. I liked the sound of blues guitar solos but the guitar was not the main instrument in most of the disks at the time, the lion part was for the saxophone (1). ”
Zappa has always cited blues guitarists as his main source of inspiration. In particular in his autobiography he mentions Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones (a guitar player in New Orleans that became famous between the years’40 and’50 for the song Things that I used to do, made for Specialty Records and arranged by a young Ray Charles) , Johnny Guitar Watson (Zappa tributed him and his music letting him playing in some of his albums: One Size Fits All (1975), Them or Us (1984) Thing-Fish (1984) and Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention ( 1985) and stating in an interview on BAM Magazine, 5 October 1979, which he was his favorite guitar player) and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (guitar player appreciated as well as by Watson, Guitar Slim, Albert Collins and J.J. Cale).
In some interviews on Guitar Magazine he has often expressed his respect for Allan Holdsworth (Soft Machine, Gong, UK, Tempest), Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top guitarist) and Jimi Hendrix, to whom in particular he has never hidden the his admiration calling him and Mitch Michell (the drummer in his Experience) to play to a concert of the Mothers, then getting off the stage and placing himselves between the audience to hear Hendrix perform with the band, showing a respect never seen before for the work of a other musician (2) and even getting through the English roadie Howard Parker the Hendrix’s Stratocaster burned at the Miami Pop Festival (Zappa repair it and used for the album Zoot Allures, before you giving it to his son Dweezil) (3. I quote that Eric Clapton has also taken part in Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money sessions (but only providing the voice).
(1) Frank Zappa, Autobiografia pag. 141
Technically Zappa has always defended himself from the “accuse” of being a virtuoso of his instrument: “I’m not a virtuoso guitarist, because a virtuoso can play EVERYTHING and I can not stand it. So I just play what I know so that I have developed a manual ability which enables me to understand what I play, even if with time it has deteriorated. “(4) arriving to declare also that he has no possibility of be able to overcome the selections planned to join his band. Zappa’s approach to guitar is absolutely unusual, totally rejecting the idea of licks and ready-made phrases not to mention the idea of playing the same solo, same as the version on the disk, in concert. Zappa was an investigator that chance and risked a lot to see where some ideas shall bring him: sometimes his experiments were successful, and you could almost hear the audience hold the breath by emotion, and sometimes led to dead ends, so Zappa abruptly interrupted the solo or took a U turn suddenly taking a new musical direction (and there you could hear the band hold the breath!).
His idea of solo guitarist was radically different from the one propagated by the cliches of rock and heavy metal mythology: “In the 80s the concept of solo guitar rock has been reduced virtually to this formula: na-na-na-na-na , make a face, hold the guitar as if it was your bird, point it toward the sky and show it as if you are doing SOMETHING REALLY. Then, while the smokes rise up, there will be huge ovation and electronic lights will run around you. I can not do this stuff, because even today I have to watch the keyboard of the guitar to find out where is my hand when I’m playing. One of the reasons why people want to make the guitar player is that they believe there is much more behind than what really exists. (5) ”
The aggressive, showy, phallic sound of heavy metal groups of the seventies and eighties was not for Zappa, among others he hated trying to impress his audience with his speed. (The only one in the band who was granted by him to this possibilità was Steve Vai). For Zappa playing fast does not necessarily means play good, he saw it as a trick to disguise a lack of talent, like playing high notes, as if they were difficult to play, avoiding exaggerated bending.
Listening to his music, especially live recordings, there is often a strong impression that for Zappa every solo was a composition / improvisation piece with the public as a witness of this creative moment: “I go on stage to play. I want to improvise with the guitar. I want to play on changing chords, or the harmonic atmosphere, composing immediatly something that makes sense, that takes some risks that goes in some direction where nobody wanted to go, who says things that nobody wanted to say , which represents my musical personality, which can transmit emotions to people willing to listen … ”
And again: “At every concert I can not wait to go up on stage, because I know that I will play at least eight solos, and I can have eight opportunities to decorate the canvas in that moment, and this is what I want, I want strongly. If what I play would be instantly transcribed, it would be a pleasure for me to sign those scores, equal to the pleasure that I get while I compose sitting on a table. (6)
Almost all examples of Zappa guitar art come from live recordings, though not always so obvious because of his practice to overdub the solos live on other musical bases recorded in studio. What strikes the most, however, is the variety of results achieved from the same songs (but we better not forget that Zappa has always had a huge base of recordings where he could select the best examples). Zappa said to Guitar Player magazine: “I find very difficult to play in the studio. I do not think that he has never played in a good solo in the studio. I have not the right spirit to make things like this, that’s all. And untill I didn’t have mine, I had to work in professional studies, in which one hour costs from one hundred to two hundred dollars. You can’t take the luxury to sit refining what you’re playing, but if you have a collection of tapes recorded during a period of years you can make a selection among all the material and find the songs that meet the objectives that you want to reach”(7).
Another important thing complementary to Zappa guitar is his interest about drums: musically Zappa was not born as a guitarist but as a drummer and throughout his life he made a constant obsession research about rhythms. In this field Zappa has collected a wealth of primates. He was the first rock musician to measure his music with unequal rhythms including in the band two drummers or percussionists who played also marimba, xylophone and vibraphone. (8)
When I started I was excited by the possibilities of improvisation that the instrument allows but with time i got it slow because, to play the improvisations that seem natural to me, I have to be accompanied by a skilled rhythm section. A soloist who chooses to work with this strange style ends up becoming a hostage: he shall only go up to a certain point of the experimental areas, namely up to where his rhythm section will permit this. The problem lies in polyrhythms. The chances of finding a drummer, a bassist and a keyboardist who can even conceive of these polyrhythms not to mention the ability to identify them quickly enough to play IMMEDIATLY a complementary figure, are not many (the first prize goes to Vinnie Colaiuta, the drummer of the group in 1978 and’79). It is difficult to explain during rehearsals to a rhythm section what to do if you’re playing seventeen in the space of fourteen (or Monday and Tuesday in the area of Wednesday). It is impossible to explain in advance any thing that should happen in accompanying when the shit hits the fan in the solo. A drummer shall play or a linear time, so my solo will move insiede his time, or he will FEEL the polyrhythms and we will play INSIDE them, maintaining implied what for most rock drummers is the basic pulse, accustomed as they are to live in petrified forest of boom-boom-BAP. Even the jazz drummers can do it, because they tend to play a flexible time. The polyrhythms are interesting only if referring to a linear rhythm and metronome (real or implicit), otherwise you are only splashing yourself in the rubato. (9)
Given these assumptions Zappa had in mind as a critical choice when he was selecting musicians for a new tour the importance of finding the right drummer. There are legends and mad anecdotes about Zappa’s requests during the selections: the chosen drummer not only had to be able to play perfectly all the extensive Zappa’s production but he had to accompany and support his inspiration in his unpredictable solos without forcing and binding him in rhythmic patterns. Zappa believed that “the style of the drummer is intended to determine the style of the band, and his personality pervades everything that happens. If it is a wild and crazy person, you will have a wild and crazy group ” (10)
(3) Barry Miles, Frank Zappa pag. 298
(4) Frank Zappa, Autobiografia pag. 142
(5) Frank Zappa, Autobiografia pag. 142
(6) Barry Miles, Frank Zappa pag. 348
(7) Barry Miles, Frank Zappa pag. 347
(8) Gianfranco Salvatore in Frank Zappa Domani pag. 111
(9) Frank Zappa, Autobiografia pag. 142
(10) Gianfranco Salvatore in Frank Zappa Domani pag. 112
Getting inside Zappa discography is not an easy thing becouse the monumental size, the variety of genres and the many live performances, here’s what I may suggest to those who want to approach the guitar music by uncle Frank.
The first guitar piece appears in 1967 on Absolutely Free, “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”, and it’s emblematic of his unique approach: the guitarist plays for nearly seven minutes over a steady and ripetitive rhythm. The guitar has also an important role in the complex orchestral structures of Uncle Meat, obtained through many overdubs. You can note the extensive use of acoustic instrument as a simple accompaniment or as a musical base for some purely instrumental compositions (“Dog Breath Variations”, “Project X”). Special mention also for “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution,” a solo guitar completely free from a predefined time, freely floating on a carpet of percussion. In this disk there are also two themes that will be widely played live as a basis for improvisation by all Zappa’s groups: “King Kong” and “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus.”
The first disc entirely devoted to guitar comes with Hot Rats, where the guitar has a dominant role in the long instrumental jam of “Willie the Pimp”, “Son of Mr. Green Genes” and “The Gumbo Variations.” The disc moves closer to jazz-rock, even if Zappa has always bring his distance from both genders, just using some elements, cooking all the different elements in his own way. All the records of the period, however, contain several examples of his style about improvisation, with a frequent use of wah-wah pedal of which he was a precursor ( “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich”, “Transylvania Boogie”, “Chunga’s Revenge”).
Another interesting thing is that, even when Zappa passed to a mostly songs repertoire he continued to include his solos, keeping them is almost always independent from the song that host them, as they had their own life. This caractheristic has made possible the realization of the two monuments to Zappa’s guitar art, Shut Up ‘N Play Your Guitar, and Guitar, both made of extracts from his solo performances in concert, with some very few exceptions recorded in a studio.
The first in particular shows all the best Zappa has delivered on his instrument, providing numerous examples of his creative imagination, the variety of effects that he was able to use drawing to an instrumental-technical vocabulary of all respect. His guitar can be soft and aggressive, biting and gentle, aggressive and persuasive, able to switch tones from ballad to heavy distortion, but always revealing the unique personality of the musician that is challenging. A wonderful example is the final track Canard Du Jour, a real trip of improvisation played with violin and bouzuki by Zappa and Jean Luc Ponty.
Successful is also the second collection, Guitar, even if the 32 tracks compared to 20 of the first one shall cause a feeling of satiety made by an excessive uninterrupted listening, I think is better to enjoy these little guitar gems litte by little, in small doses, savoring the deliciousness of these happy moments. Among other Zappa discs where the guitar has a predominant role, I also quote Sleep Dirt, which contains, besides “Filthy Habits” (a composition for multiple overdubbed guitars) even a long instrumental jam, “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution”, and the delicious duet of acoustic guitars which gives the title to the disc in the company of his bass player, James Youmans, a rarity in Zappa discography; Joe’s Garage has some great solos. Discs recorded during the tour of 1988 are also full of excellent guitar performances, the last one recorded by Zappa before you finally put aside the guitar. Other records to be considered for those who want to learn more about Zappa’s guitar: Them Or Us, 1984, oriented on heavy metal, where Zappa plays with Steve Vai, deadly Ya Hozna!(a pressing electric boogie dialogues with hallucinated voices distorted), Sharleena and Truck Driver Divorce with long guitar solos (Steve Vai and Zappa himself). Steve Vai (reported in the notes of the disc as a stunt guitar) dominates in the two suites: Marquenson’s Chicken and Sinister Footwear.
Also essential is Zoot Allures (1976) with Terry Bozio on drums for the solos of Black Napkins (recorded live), Friendly Little Finger and Zott Allures. Zappa at the end of 80 years edited a series of six double-CD entitled You Can not Do that on stage anymore. Buy it all! If you haven’t enough you should get at least the second one entirely occupied by the concert of Helsinki, 22 September 1974, with Cester Thompson (drums) and Ruth Underwood (percussion), with the wonderful solos of Stinkfoot, Inca Roads and RDNZL. I point out the exceptional version of Sharleena in the third volume in the series where Zappa plays with his son Dweezel. Sheik Yerbouti, with Adrian Belew on guitar and still Bozzio and O’Hearn is a disc with funny tricks like Bobby Brown (the old 50’s), City Of Tiny Lites (urban funk) Flakes (the pathetic Bob Dylan) and another gallery of ridiculos songs(Jewish Princess), I’m So Cute, Dancing Fool). Always long the solo in Yo Mama, where you slash inside as much you like.
Announced several times, and never appeared, almost lost in the mythology of Zappa lost albums, I had almost forgotten what in the mind of uncle Frank was on the third volume of his guitar solos : Trance-Fusion.
There were very few news about this record, only that Zappa had prepared the records extracted from the 1988 tour a new dictionary containing recordings of his solos in his concise and dry style, like Guitars and Shut Up … named Trancefusion. The few seconds of music that you could be heard on Cduniverse say everything and nothing and the cover with a flock of dolphins in a very new age style … what would you expect? Amazing things? Not any. New revelations? Are you jocking? Every single note of that tour was recorded by the fans, everything!
So what? Nothing but the beautiful, powerful, sarcastic, ironic sounds of the pick up of modified Zappa’s Stratocaster! It is him, again! Histrionic, creative and original, tons of polyrhythms …. always and only Zappa!
“I am a composer, just use a pen instead of a guitar” (11)
(11) Barry Miles, Frank Zappa pag. 348
Bibliografy (in italian)
– Frank Zappa La vita e la musica di un uomo Absolutely Free di Barry Miles, Kowalsky, 2006
– Frank Zappa Domani, Sussidiario per le scuole (meno) elementari a cura di Gianfranco Salvatore, Catelvecchi 2000
– Zappa L’Autobiografia di Frank Zappa e Peter Occhiogrosso, Arcana, 1989
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones
Johnny Guitar Watson
Zappa Chitarrista by Mario Calvitti