The Twisted, Progressive Guitar Work of Frank Zappa Live

It was a good day yesterday, at least from a musical standpoint for me, as it certainly was a sad day from a world events view what with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, (condolences to the entire nation of Pakistan and all those affected by the tragedy).

I spent most of the day listening to Frank Zappa wail away on guitar... while working, but still a good time. It was probably myth and legend that first drew me to the music of Zappa, but after a bit of a grace period, I've really started to dig it, especially his guitar work. It's been months since I first heard him play and there was an immediate impact, but I didn't realize how much until just recently. Now I own a number of his albums and find that his guitar playing has had a huge impact on my own music.

I'd best describe Zappa's guitar style as beautifully fractured and progressive, but also extremely melodic. At times he's very harmonically oriented, blending notes and creating texture, and at other times he's more visceral, just wrenching licks and riffs out of the guitar. It's a unique blend that I do hear from other guitarists and suddenly I find that when I play, I'll throw in these moments that remind me of some of Franks licks (mine aren't nearly as impressive of course though) without really thinking, adding a bit more of a progressive style to my own playing and inspiring me to explore that side further.

Really you have to listen to it to get a grip at what I'm describing, so here's a great clip of Zappa live. This one is of "Cosmic Debris", a great song, and also features a great solo, although it only barely scratches the surface of Franks guitar prowess.

I think what interests me most about Zappa's guitar work is the way he seems to create such compelling phrases and melodies without straying too close to any immediately recognizable licks or rock and roll clichés. That combined with tremendous talent and an even more tremendous understanding of music theory and composition and you have some of the most unique solos I've ever heard... up there with Jeff Beck and a few others in terms of a definitive style and technique. I can understand if some guitarists have a hard time accepting the greatness that is Frank Zappa, he's far from "traditional rock and roll guitar work" and a lot closer to jazz and fusion, but I think his sense of phrasing, use of modal shifts and just the overall sense of urgency in his playing is fantastic. Urgency is a good way to describe it. One of my guitar books has a quote from Zappa in it that reads:

"...A guitar solo is like 'Three Hours Past Midnight' by Johnny Guitar Watson or 'The Story of My Life' by Guitar Slim. That's a guitar solo, nothing freeze-dried. Something really stinkin' that's what I was looking for..."

Not only do I agree with Frank that those are some amazing guitarists and guitar work, but I think this sums up his guitar playing really well. It's very immediate, and in the moment, like spontaneous melody that is always changing and never staying in one place for too long, but constantly pushing in new directions.

He may not sound like some of the other guitar solos you've heard (although some times he does), but I think Frank Zappa is an incredible guitarist and has influenced my own playing tremendously. If you're interested in his guitar work too, then check out the "Shut Up and Play Your Guitar" series of albums. They're not for the faint of heart...none of Zappa's music is... as they're all guitar solos taking from various songs and little else. Still, some incredible albums that all guitar players and guitar enthusiasts should check out. I think there were four total, but I only have three myself. You can typically find them at Amazon and the other major music outlets, although not always as easily as you might like. Worth it if you can get them though.

Also, let's not forget Zappa's tremendous catalog of regular albums as well. I'm digging Hot Rats, and Apostrophe (and a bunch others as well) right now, but there are tons and they're all adventurous and extremely musically complex. When all was said and done, I added a bunch to my collection, but they do range in style from more psychedelic and experimental to more jazz fusion so I'd recommend reading a few reviews and commentaries on a site like before deciding the best place for you to start exploring the music of Frank Zappa.


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