Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Great Guitar Solos, #2: Frank Zappa

Unbeknownst to many conventional minds, Frank Zappa was a multi-faceted national treasure.  

Zappa the mad scientist composer moved freely between rock, doo-wop, fusion, reggae, avant-garde, and orchestral music. 

Zappa the social satirist skewered everything from Flower Power to televangelism to the valley girl patois. 

Zappa the indie label founder produced highly original albums by Wildman Fischer and Captain Beefheart that otherwise never would have seen the light of day.  

Zappa the activist spoke out against record labeling before Congress and jousted with a frothing fundy on a famous episode of "Crossfire." 

Zappa the world citizen was appointed cultural emissary to Czechoslovakia in the middle of the Velvet Revolution. 

And Zappa the lead guitarist was a force to be reckoned with. 

Over the course of 25 years, Frank Zappa's hot leads graced a sprawling catalog which included the strictly instrumental "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar" series and the fretboard-heavy "Guitar."

Unlike many rock guitarists, Zappa read music, and went beyond the Pentatonic to use a wide assortment of scales, modes, and voicings. Asked what he sought in a guitarist, Zappa said he didn't want "a Mongolian string-bender."

Where some solos (e.g. the solo for "Smells Like Teen Spirit") serve as extensions of the main melody, Zappa's solos were compositions in themselves--he once called them "air sculptures"--which took songs to new and interesting places.  


First up in this embarrassment of riches is "Black Napkins." The best-known version is on the studio album "Zoot Allures." Below is one of many alternative renditions on YouTube. Notice Zappa's finger-tapping at the end. Within a couple years, Eddie Van Halen would refine and popularize the technique, thereby spawning countless faceless hair metal imitators.

The solo on "Inca Roads" which comes on at 2:01 was patched together from live jams and seamlessly woven into this long, suite-like studio piece. 

"Montana," an L.A. boy's vision of life in flyover land, features a solo at 1:55 which feels shot out of a cannon, backed by a cooking rhythm section. A nice little touch is the lead poking its head in to double the chorus about fifteen seconds before the solo proper starts, hinting at what's to come.  

"Stevie's Spanking," below, is one of the sickest cutting contests committed to video. The spot-on camerawork augments lively back-and-forth from two gunslingers with mondo chops and very different styles. Steve Vai is a young buck here, fresh on the scene. His fleet, spidery fingering was representative of the highly technical '80s style (Vai is credited with "impossible guitar parts" on the liner notes to one of Zappa's albums.) 


The ever-resourceful Zappa took a live solo (from a 1978 performance of "The Torture Never Stops") and added sparse studio instrumentation to create "Rat Tomago," my earliest introduction to Frank's commanding lead voice. All we hear is a guitar, drums, and a softly droning bass line in the background, but the sound is larger than life - wave upon wave of grand, thematic guitar lines that end suddenly with the words Oh, listen to him go

The best visual snapshot of Zappa's six-string prowess is this live version of "City of Tiny Lights." The song is not one of my favorites, but things shift into high gear when the solo comes on at 2:12. From the aerial image of Terry Bozzio's balls-out drumming to the opening shot of Zappa striding across the stage in platform boots (with a spotlight overhead and a long shadow trailing behind) to his communion with enthusiastic front-row fans, the ironic eyebrow arch at 3:10, and a fretboard's-eye view of Frank's blazing chops at 3:23, this is a feast. When it comes to electric guitar, it doesn't get much better than this.  

                              Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan"

               here for "Link Wray's 'Rumble'"          
here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock" 

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My'"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #7, Buckethead meets Bernie 
Worrell and Les Claypool

here for "An appreciation of '1984' as Eddie Van Halen turns 60"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #8" Freddie King's 'San-Ho-Zay'"

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Paris as you've never seen it

Stephen Parr, in his sanctuary
Last Friday I was introduced to Oddball Films.

Tucked away on the third floor of a warehouse, Oddball holds the biggest film archive in Northern California, according to director Stephen Parr. As you walk in and through to the screening room at the back, shelf upon shelf is stacked to the ceiling with reels.

There were a number of interesting shorts at Friday's show, but one transported me from the relaxed feeling of aesthetic appreciation I had throughout most of the evening to heart-pounding engagement, in a matter of minutes. 

"Using a Mercedes 450SEL early one August morning" in 1976, a professional driver raced through the streets of Paris with a camera on the bumper.

Here, at the bottom of the page, is the result (best viewed with volume and a full screen setting).