6 Frank Zappa Guitar Solos that Will Melt Your Face Off

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.  

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.

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.) 

Watermelon in Easter Hay hailed as one of Frank Zappa's best guitar solos, it first appeared on the 1979 concept album Joe's Garage. Although the piece is wordless, it is framed by speeches from the Central Scrutinizer, giving it a context: these are the last notes Joe dreams up before giving up on making imaginary music. And the piece makes the perfect swan song. This is one of the rare occasions in Joe's Garage, Acts II & III where the guitar solo actually belongs to the song. The backing riff is a slow seven-note motif derivative from the melody in "Outside Now." The guitar sketches a melody, gradually developing the simple line -- simply beautiful. The song was premiered on-stage around October 1978 and was performed only on a few occasions the next year. In 1980 it became a regular feature, often opening or closing Zappa's shows. The same thing happened during the 1988 tour. 

Willie the Pimp from the Hot Rats Album in 1969

Inca Roads live at the Apollo Theater, Manchester, England 1979

Xaviant Haze

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1 comment:

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