Happy Birthday Frank Zappa: Listen To FZ’s Guitar Solos From October 29, 1977

Happy Birthday Frank Zappa: Listen To FZ’s Guitar Solos From October 29, 1977

Today marks what would have been Frank Zappa’s 81st birthday. Frank Vincent Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore. Zappa sadly died on December 4, 1993, just 17 days shy of his 53rd birthday after a battle with cancer.

FZ wore many hats throughout his career, the most prominent being that of one of the greatest composers and bandleaders of the 20th century, touching on pretty much every major genre one can think of and then some. Equally impressive, however, was his immense talent as a guitarist. While his guitar skills were historically overlooked, or, like most of his work from an outsider’s perspective, misunderstood, FZ’s hardcore cadre of fans and casual admirers alike know that he was one of the finest to ever shoulder an axe.

As one who paved the way for the guitar excursions enjoyed in the jam scene, Zappa’s explorations may not seem out of place now. But in the days of the quick riff in the 1970s, some, even Zappa’s colleagues, weren’t quite feeling The Maestro on guitar, as Mahavishnu Orchestra bandleader and guitarist John McLaughlin, who toured with FZ’s Mothers Of Invention in 1973, expressed in a 2018 interview with Hit Channel:

“Frank was crazy, first of all, but a very good musician. I have to remind you that I am a fan of The Mothers of Invention since 1966, their first album. Do you know this album, Freak Out!? The minute I heard this album, I am a fan of Frank Zappa. Of course, years later I met him but… two things: one, He was a very good musician but he was a dictator in his band, I’m sorry to say (laughs). Plus, he was not only a dictator, but he was taking very long guitar solos. Ten to 15-minute guitar solos and really he should have taken two- or three-minute guitar solos, because they were a little bit boring. Two, he was very interesting as a human being and a very interesting composer.”

McLaughlin touches on an interesting point. Zappa was infamous for being an iron-fisted bandleader. But perhaps during a “10-15 minute” guitar solo all that stricture went away for both Frank and his band. While it’s hard with a person like Zappa to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins, maybe free-form guitar soloing was FZ letting his hair down and taking a more egalitarian approach.

Zappa transcriptionist Kasper Sloots, who has an intimate knowledge of the music, echoes a similar sentiment that FZ’s solos were more about the joy of spontaneous music on his Zappa-Analysis website: “Zappa’s guitar solos aren’t meant to show off technically (Zappa hasn’t claimed to be a big virtuoso on the instrument) but for the pleasure it gives trying to build a composition right in front of an audience without knowing what the outcome will be.”

One thing for certain was that Zappa, technically, had a singular and innovative guitar style characterized by a smooth legato left hand and quick right hand buoyed by his extensive knowledge of modes and time signatures. Frank’s son Dweezil Zappa, a skilled guitarist himself, revealed in a 2016 interview that a distinctive element in his father’s playing was that he used more upstrokes than downstrokes in his picking.

But, as always, the best way to immerse yourself in the wild world of FZ the guitarist is to listen. A collection of Zappa’s solos, compiled by br1tag, from the second concert of a four-night Halloween run (Zappa did an early show and late show on the first two nights) during one of the Sheik Yerbouti tours does the trick. The concert featured Zappa — backed up by Adrian Belew, Patrick O’Hearn, Terry Bozzio, Ed Mann, Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf — soloing on “The Torture Never Stops,” “City Of Tiny Lights, “Wild Love,” “Muffin Man” and more. The compilation also contains solos from the early and late shows for comparison.

To celebrate Frank Zappa’s birthday, hear a compilation of guitar solos from a Halloween run on October 29, 1977 at the Palladium in New York City:

More Frank Zappa on JamBase