Frank Zappa was not an easy man to impress. In his day, the classical music prodigy-come-fret-churning-perfectionist developed a reputation as one of America’s most astoundingly gifted guitarists. Feared by his rivals and admired by his collaborators, Zappa could cut even the most celebrated musicians down to size — something he made sure to do on a regular basis.
Speaking in an interview in the 1970s, Zappa was asked to give his thoughts on some of his contemporaries; this he found quite difficult. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page: all of them, in Zappa’s view, were pretty run-of-the-mill players who had taken one too many honks of the old Peruvian marching powder. “I knew Jimi,” Zappa said when asked to name his favourite guitarists, “And I think the best thing you could say about Jimi was: there was a man who shouldn’t use drugs.”
Hendrix got off fairly lightly compared to some of the other members of the rock elite. For example, when asked to express his thoughts about Rory Gallagher, Zappa said: “We worked two jobs with Rory Gallagher on his tour and, uh…[long pause]…he’s still playing the blues”. That’s not to say that there weren’t some guitarists Zappa was impressed by; he named Jeff Beck “one of his favourite guitarists on the planet,” going on to note: “From a melodic standpoint and just in terms of the conception of what he plays, he’s fabulous. I like Jeff.”
But, on the whole, Zappa just wasn’t that impressed by rock guitarists, largely because he didn’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll. He was never a pop music consumer, preferring the dulcet tones of Chopin, Purcell and Webern. Deep down, though, Zappa did have a soft spot for some of the early rock ‘n’ roll guitarists. Pushed to name the artists who helped him fall in love with the instrument, he said: “Well, my original favourite guitar player was Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, not from a technical standpoint but from listening to what his notes meant in the context they were played: and also Guitar Slim, who was the first guitar player that I ever heard that had distortion – even during the ’50s. In a strange way, I think I probably derive more of my style from his approach to the guitar than the solos I heard before then”.
In 1954, Guitar Slim was the biggest name in the blues world thanks to his smash hit single ‘The Things That I Used to Do’, which saw him bring hitherto unseen levels of intensity to electric guitar playing. After years of playing house parties on the streets of New Orleans, the single established him as one of the most successful acts in the country, outselling all but two singles from the whole of the 1950s. His exuberant style and thrilling on-stage acrobatics wowed audiences up and down America, setting a standard that the likes of Zappa would struggle to live up to for decades to come. Today, he isn’t nearly as known as he should be.
Take a listen to ‘The Things That I Used to Do’ and spread the word.