Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix were two of the finest guitarists ever to pick up the instrument, but they were also two very different men. Although the pair became friends, Zappa’s wild ways were far more measured than the highwire lifestyle that Hendrix chose to employ. Nevertheless, Zappa never condemned the man and despite being the polar opposite of a brown nose, he had immense respect for Hendrix.
While Hendrix had a love of the Baroque composer George Frideric Handel – and even lived in his former London home – a classical approach to guitar playing was a point of contrast between him and Zappa. Zappa 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. Thereafter, his music always had a lot in common with the likes of Edgar Varese, and he both borrowed from his transcribed pieces and keenly wrote music in the classical sheet style himself. This gave him a great idea for Hendrix.
“I had written in articles at that time,” Zappa once said in an interview, “that I thought what should be done, seeing that he wasn’t musically literate and he couldn’t write it down himself, that he be put in some sort of working relationship with someone who could write his ideas and have them scored for instruments other than the electrical guitar. I think that would’ve been something worthwhile to do, but no, he was too busy doing other things to sit down and take that approach.”
Sadly, as Zappa hinted, Hendrix passed away before this idea could ever come to fruition. As Zappa bluntly put it: “I knew Jimi and I think the best thing you could say about Jimi was: there was a person who shouldn’t use drugs.”
However, Zappa’s own arrangements hint at the majesty of what his masterplan might have been like. In 1993, Zappa revisited some of his earlier rock classics on The Yellow Shark and produced a blistering reimagining of ‘Uncle Meat’ among others. Backed by his trusty band of stellar classical musicians known as the Ensemble Modern, his ensuing grand final tour was a fairground fanfare of sound.
Tom Waits toured with Zappa’s troupe on this fateful last hurrah, and he provided a testimony that defined Zappa’s fitting culmination. “The ensemble is awe-inspiring,” Waits later recalled. “It is a rich pageant of texture in colour. It’s the clarity of his perfect madness and mastery. Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right. Frank reigns and rules with the strangest tools.”
With Hendrix’s incomparable musical mind and talents, you can only imagine what some of his songs would’ve been like if he had sat down with someone to write all his whims out for an Ensemble Modern of his own.