Frank Zappa did a lot of things extremely well, any one of which could have been a complete career for someone else. He was, as we know, a consummate composer, producer, arranger, lyricist, satirist and all-around musician and showman... and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.
But for some, Frank is most fondly remembered as a bitchin’ guitar player.
I’m not a guitarist, so the technical, music theory side of his guitar mastery is out of view for me. I do know that Frank approached guitar just as he did the other aspects of music – with total originality. Whether you’ve had any music training or not, you can just hear it.
I remember how at shows, Frank’s other splendid musicians – Messers Belew, Cuccurullo, Vai and others – would take a solo, and they’d be great. But then Frank would weigh in, and all bets were off. Things were suddenly on another level, or more like a different dimension entirely.
The initial notes of a Zappa solo were often a declaration of intent, and they were unmistakably Frank. A good example of this is that burst of near-obscene notes (actually the second phrase in the solo) in “Zoot Allures” on Does Humor Belong is Music? You can hear the audience responding to the volley of Frankishness.
If I had to pick, my single most favorite FZ solo would be one most people probably wouldn’t consider – the one in “Pick Me, I’m Clean” on Tinseltown Rebellion. It starts out almost like a conventional, melodic, even pretty guitar solo, but gets into some serious mischief before too long. I love the way how as the solo progresses, it kind of devolves from individual notes into diabolical chordal statements that just flow out of the speakers like molten lava. And of course, Vinnie Colaiuta matches Frank in providing the appropriate counterpoint, descending into washes along with the guitar.
Incidentally, here’s what Vinnie had to say about accompanying Frank in a 1982 interview with Modern Drummer magazine:
“He said, ‘I want you to listen to what I’m playing because I’m playing all those rhythms. When you accompany me, I don’t want you to just try to guess what they are and play some standard rhythmic fill. I want you to understand exactly where I’m at and communicate with me on that level.’ That forced me to try to improvise these polyrhythms and think in that way, which is not the norm by any stretch of the imagination.”Vinnie and Frank were a great match. There's a lot in that interview about how Vinnie got hired, and it's utterly fascinating.
For sheer architecture, the solo in “Any Kind of Pain” on Broadway the Hard Way is an absolute masterpiece. Every note is simply perfect and irreplaceably relevant to the overall structure. (I’ve heard Mike Keneally joyously replicate this solo note-for-note.)
Frank, like all great guitarists (as opposed to the mere technicians), knew that it was about the Voice. You can hear any manner of human-equivalent vocalizations in his solos, from melodic singing to full-on arguments. And there’s some pretty despairing expressions of sadness in places on Joe’s Garage. I know that for many, the solo in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is the ultimate Zappa guitar solo, and I have no argument at all to counter that conclusion.
Is anyone else as huge a fan of L. Shankar's Zappa-produced Touch Me There album as I am? There are unmistakable Frank flourishes on that album's guitar parts as well. Frank's the only guy I know of who could actually play funny guitar. Some of the little notes on "Darlene" are giggle-inducing, to say the least. No one else would have done it that way.
That graphic up top, by the way, is the back cover of the 1980 tour book. Frank really liked that sunburst Les Paul.
So, for Zappa’s Grubby Chamber 3, it’s all about Guitar Frank. What’s your favorite FZ guitar solo? Why’s that, huh? Call or write with your requests, and we’ll make a dang show of it.