Frank Zappa was a musician who never seemed to be operating on anything other than his own terms. He dallied about the music industry seemingly without a care in the world. His music is equally inscrutable from a beginner’s perspective, but eventually, it proves terrifically rewarding.
The term genre-defying is perhaps overused, in part because some people get so pernickety about categorisation that avoiding it offers a safe way to navigate the genre-classified terrain, yet there’s scarcely any artists out there more befitting of the term than Zappa. His music prides itself on non-conformity as did his character; for instance, contrary to how he may look, he was actually an ardent anti-drug advocate. Similarly, his music, contrary to the instrumentation, has more in common with classical than atypical rock and roll. He started off as a high-school drummer with his early influences being percussion-heavy modern-classical, before picking up the guitar and dipping into doo-wop.
The eclectic mix of influences, however, only tell half the story or as Zappa put it ‘exactly 50%’. After a brief time working in advertising Zappa understood that modern music was half about image and with that revelation the full artistic gestalt that became his act was formed.
This strange melee of sound, motivation and influence is equally evident in his solos themselves. Any time he decided to shred his six-string, the result was a sonic kaleidoscope of inventiveness, skill and ultimately totally sui generis stylings.
Below, we’re looking at six of the best.
Frank Zappa’s best guitar solos:
‘Uncle Meat Variations’
Unlike a lot of his guitar work that followed the sound of this searing solo back in 1969 is as clean as a recently polished whistle. The outro soundscape somehow juggles classic blues scales with funky stylings. In the rich tapestry of his back catalogue, this early number offers a glimpse at the singular guitar force he would go on to be, and it’s a rhythmic headbanger to boot.
Speaking about the creation of the album that this track featured on, Zappa once explained: Zappa stated, “It’s all one album. All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order it still would make one piece of music you can listen to. Then I could take that razor blade and cut it apart and reassemble it a different way, and it still would make sense. I could do this twenty ways. The material is definitely related.”
For ‘Montana’ Zappa used his favoured Gibson SG and pushed it to its limits to summon up one of his heroes, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’, in a blistering maelstrom funk-based rock ‘n’ roll.
The energy levels are through the roof and that isn’t solely down to the adrenalised influence of Tina Turner, speaking about the harmonies added by the Ikettes, Zappa explained: “It was so difficult, that one part in the middle of the song ‘Montana’, that the three girls rehearsed it for a couple of days. Just that one section. You know the part that goes ‘I’m pluckin’ the ol’ dennil floss…’? Right in the middle there. And one of the harmony singers got it first. She came out and sang her part and the other girls had to follow her track. Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this that she went into the next studio where Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labour. He listened to the tape and he goes, ‘What is this shit?’ and walked out”.
Well, at least the guitar solo held strong.
‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’
George Harrison may have made a guitar gentle weep but it isn’t the immediate style of playing that you would associate with the iconoclastic wit of Zappa and his intricate guitar wizardry. However, on this particular outing, his guitar work is akin to a spiritual sermon.
The heavily compressed sound brings to mind the old “fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee” witticism put forward by Mohammed Ali. ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ is soaring and heavy at the same time.
‘City of Tiny Lights’
Frank Zappa’s ability on the guitar is perhaps best epitomised in his live shows, not just because he is stripped of studio techniques and the restraints of making a record, but because it becomes clear just how easy it all comes to home.
He can milk three notes for all they’re worth, giving the rest of his fretboard a chance to cool down, all while thinking of his next oddball joke.
When a typically plug-in guitarist relinquishes Thomas Eddison’s work for a hot minute it offers a fascinating insight. Of course, the differences between playing an acoustic and an electric are hardly seismic but nevertheless, there’s something captivating about it.
The wah-wah twirling of his acoustic-electric creates an atmosphere and whisks you off to meet it.
‘The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution’
You couldn’t really discuss some of Zappa’s greatest solos without mention his prodigious use of the ensemble band surrounding him. For ‘The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution’, he expertly uses Terry Bozzio’s drums as a backboard to slam down his mounting guitar work. He pushes his twelve-string towards a frantic finish of electrifying fretwork, for a solo that travels here, there, and everywhere in a rollercoaster of sound.
The measure of this work is that only Zappa would play it, and very few others could even if they tried.