Frank Zappa is probably the most ingenious and complete musician of the twentieth century. Not only has he innovated profoundly the music of his time with his eclectic style, taking influences from blues, rock, jazz and classical music and experimenting with them in every possible direction: also his lyrics, ironic and provocative, deeply affected the degenerate, consumerist western culture always looking for the American Dream.
Zappa was also an incredible musician: always moved by a great curiosity, he was able to play every possible instrument he had in front of him. But his guitar remains the most precious heritage the master has left us (besides his music, of course). His guitar style was easily recognizable, exactly in the years when the use of guitar started to approach (especially in the 80s) his own hypertechnicism age. Two masterpieces are enough to give you an idea: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981) and Guitar (1989).
Here are some examples of the best guitar works by Frank Zappa.
Instrumental song from the album Zoot Allures (1976), an excellent introduction “for dummies” to Zappa’s playing guitar style.
The song was performed initially live by Zappa and his “Mothers of Invention” and recorded in 1975 in the album Bongo Fury. It refers (with provocative sexual references) to a famous song of the English kindergartens. If you listen closely to his solo, you’ll hear the influence of Jimi Hendrix.
One of the pearls made by Zappa. The solo features an incredible rhythmic and stylistic variety. Every other word would be simply unnecessary.
Nanook Rubs It
The tale of a dream opens the album Apostrophe: Zappa is an eskimo dealing with a hunter who’s trying to steal his baby seal.
Watermelon in Easter Hay
His son Dweezil will define this as the best solo ever made by his father. Behind this track there is a critique of the modern world and a dystopian vision of the future that still represents one of the most interesting stories around the figure of Zappa (here everything you need to know).
I’m The Slime
The scornful criticism of Zappa against television entertainment and its social influence.
Before becoming an undisputed idol of the solo guitar, in Zappa’s band and this experience Steve Vai was fundamental to the artist’s personal growth. This video shows a confrontation between the two in Rome, on the notes of Stevie’s Spanking.
The Gumbo Variations
This long jam from Hot Rats, in pure progressive rock style (but with blues and jazz influences) shows the guitar solo of Zappa alternated with Underwood’s tenor sax and Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ violin.
The Stink Foot
Another song from Apostrophe, proposed in 1974’s live version in Hollywood (taken from Frank Zappa. A Token Of His Extreme).
Sung by an unleashed Terry Bozzio, the lyrics of Punky’s Whips were a reference to the guitarist Punky Meadows, known in the musical scene of the 70s for his glam look during his militancy in Angel, making irony on the androgyny of the group. Angel’s guitarist didn’t get offended, anyway. He even decided to take part in a live execution of the song, interpreting himself. Zappa’s record company, which didn’t accept the song, wasn’t of the same opinion and produced some delays for its publication.
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We close this overview with another effective way to (re)discover Frank Zappa’s guitar playing style: the series of concerts Zappa plays Zappa, with some famous musicians who accompanied him during his career, including Steve Vai and the Frank’s son, Dweezil, all challenging each other in this high-level jam.