Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar - The Six-String Wizardry of Frank Zappa, Part II

Last year, around the time a push button confection was taking the pop world by stormon its way to knocking the mighty Justin Bieber out of the top spot in YouTube viewsI was struck by an urge to write about the flesh-and-blood guitar stylings of Frank Zappa

Zappa's best work was decades in the rearview mirror, but I forged on with the assumption that my ode to Zappa would be a low-traffic niche post, an act of public service on behalf of timeless art. 

To my surprise, the post was a hit. It drew a steady stream of readers and became the most read post in the great guitar solos series by a factor of four. 

Today, on the 20th anniversary of Zappa's passing, I will re-visit the vaults to once again celebrate a musician who mattered.


We open with "Stinkfoot" off of the 1974 classic, "Apostrophe." This performance arguably features Zappa's strongest lineup, the band which included Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ian and Ruth Underwood, and George Duke that recorded both "Apostrophe" and its predecessor, "Overnite Sensation." Here Zappa plays his signature Gibson SG, with a wah-wah pedal for spice. A helpful Zappa fanatic cut out the beginning and end of the song so we can treasure Frank's wailing guitar in isolation.   

"Muffin Man" has one of Zappa's most recognizable riffs, the kind of big, lumbering riff that roamed the land during the dinosaur rock era. This recording from 1977 includes a twofer:  a tasty blues bends-and-flash lead from the estimable Adrian Belew at 1:00 followed by Zappa's epic solo. Highlights include Frank's nifty use of hammer-on pull-offs with his fretting hand so he can slap skin with members of the audience at 2:17, the impossibly rapid flurry of notes at 2:49, the fretboard close-up at 3:28, and the dry ice vapors rising from the stage, a sign that some truly heavy rock was in the air.

"Chunga's Revenge" is a fusion instrumental that Zappa performed live. Using a sunburst Les Paul which wasn't a regular part of his rotation, Zappa starts out quietly to get the crowd warmed up. The distorted vibrato at 2:43 signals that Frank is about to let rip with anarchic fury and attendant gyrations. (*Added bonus:  the YouTube discussion thread for this video has a debate for the ages about technique for technique's sake v. the power of jagged, authentic expression).

The live version of "Watermelon in Easter Hay" below features Zappa with a Stratocaster and a huge (yet well-rehearsed) backing band. As with "Black Napkins," the guitar moves seamlessly between a main melody, serrated fills, and improvised solos. No less an authority than Dweezil Zappa called the studio version of "Easter Hay" "the best solo" his father had ever played. That's a big claim, but if by "best"one means most lyrical and most beautiful, I'm inclined to agree.

     In memory of Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940-December 4, 1993)


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More Zappa on "Truth and Beauty"

Frank Zappa's public debut

Other "Truth and Beauty" guitar hero essays:

          Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan," a first-hand                                                                                account of Vaughan's final concert

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

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa"

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'"


  1. waow... magnifique photo !

  2. We all miss you Frank, wish you were still around. Zappa was the real thing.

  3. I´ll never get tired of listening to this man. Thank you for your work, from Argentina.

  4. Seen him TWICE live in holland , in one he " just " conducted untill , he let it RIP !!!!Nothin since , EVER , came , even close . I count myself very , very lucky .

  5. Siso Jaile January 25, 2014 at 5:49 AM

    I was in the video 1988's concert in Barcelona. I will never forget it!

  6. I'm happy I found this article. Thanks for writing it and sharing your thoughts and that wonderful image. I have been listening to his music for 45 years and never have tired of it. He has been on my mind on this anniversary of his death

  7. Great article. I dig Zappa's guitar style very much too. My favourite solo piece is Rat Tomago from Sheik Yerbouti. A burning, intense solo.

    Regarding Gangnam Style - yes it maybe pop confection, but the lyrics do in fact satirize a certain type of cretin with can be seen in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The satire is rather mild, because South-Korea apparently does not allow very harsh public criticism. So even though it is musically inane, it is in its own South-Korean way pushing the limits of what is allowed there.

    Just for contrast: I live in Finland, and it has happened to me a few times that supermarkets play Bobby Brown!! A very riveting experience. That's what you get when you don't listen to the lyrics carefully :D

  8. Hey... the Les Paul he used on Chunga's Revenge was the only guitar he used on the '80 and '81 tour. Once his strat was finished in '82, he didn't play the Les Paul as much, but he did bring it with him for all of his remaining tours.