A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa (Pt. 1).

A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa
Song Overview

Let’s start with a simple question: who was Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993)? And why was there so much fuss about him? Some people thought he was this amazing genius, this sparkling god of rock. Others thought he was a greasy, anti-social, foul-mouthed guitarist who made loud, occasionally overly sexualized music: someone who supposedly took delight in “spoiling” polite society. The rest most likely think he is something in between. So what was he was he? The answer depends on what you believe about religion, politics, music, economics, gender, race, religion, anthropology, technology, and everything else one can think about or wrap a guitar note around. So if you have never thought about Frank Zappa once or ever heard a single note of his music, I highly encourage you to keep on reading for a bit. I guarantee by the time we finish, you will get to know Frank Zappa to a small degree and will like what you hear.

Frank Zappa was an American rock guitarist and composer mainly active from the mid-Sixties to the late-Eighties. What made him so interesting and so polarizing was that he created a great quantity (and quality) of material. There was almost literally not a style of music that he could not, did not, or partially include in his writing, often in humorous ways. For example, it was common for Zappa to interject comically harmonized brass arrangements of 20th century symphonic themes as interludes between his own hard rock songs during his 1988 tour, creating a mélange of sound that was both technically brilliant and often hilarious. He also recombined and reintroduced musical or lyric material from previous works, sometimes from many decades earlier (“The Torture Never Stops”, “Zoot Allures”, “(More) Trouble Every Day”, etc.) in fascinating new ways as part of his overall working concept, he called “Project/Object”, which he described as:

“… a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’ Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: a novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel. Or: Rembrandt got his ‘look’ by mixing just a little brown into every other color — he didn’t do ‘red’ unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look.

I am not obsessed by various words, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, and videos for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection’“.

So, to help guide you through Zappa’a voluminous archive, I have chosen some of the more notable songs or moments from Zappa’s music between the years 1967 – 1991 as an introductory guide to the sound of Frank Zappa.


 This interlude, taken from a live recording in London on Zappa’s 1979 tour, is an incendiary example of Zappa’s ability to write or improvise high power rock music. Driven by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta’s frenetic drumming, the song features a melody written in an overall repeating pattern of 5 eighth notes followed by 5 quarter notes: 5/8, 5/8, 5/4, an aspect of the song that intensifies its hypnotic, vertigo inducing effect. ‘Five-five-FIVE” is actually not even a “song” but an instrumental segue over which Zappa solos, as exemplified by this and other segues collected on the album Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, Guitar, and others.

Big Swifty

This (1972) instrumental piece reoccurs across several albums, both in studio and live, in many forms, beginning with the album Waka/Jawaka. As such, tracking its many structural changes gives one a good idea of how Zappa liked to re-arrange and re-structure his own material via the Project/Object concept. As Zappa was recovering from a stage fall (due to an onstage assault) at that period, and could hardly play guitar play, let alone tour, his work was an experiment in writing jazz fusion works, which were hugely popular at the time. A more rock-oriented version appears on Zappa’s (posthumous) album Road Tapes (Venue #2), recorded live in Helsinki, Finland between August 23 – 24, 1973. Though more rock n’ roll (especially with Zappa’s solo, starting at 5m:50s), the appearance of percussionist Ruth Underwood playing various mallet instruments gives the music the classic Zappa sound of this period. At this time jazz fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was a member of the band for a brief period, and such his presence too makes this a unique moment in the Zappa chronology.

A particularly nice version also exists on the long “lost” but recently fixed video footage of Zappa’a Roxy & Elsewhere performances, now available as a CD + Blu-ray set, with excellent performances by Underwood (especially her percussion break at the four minute mark), Zappa, and keyboardist George Duke, with layers of horns underneath provided by brother Bruce and Walt Fowler.

The most interesting version though appears on the album Make A Jazz Noise Here, the track from which the album’s title comes. As Zappa has a full horn section at his disposal, the horn writing is dense and often highly complex. This particular version also what you might describe as “devolves” into free-form sound play, which is both artistic and humorous at times (i.e. the sheep noises between 2m:34s and 2m:43s), but may turn the listener off. The sheep noise though does make for a particularly hilarious moment in a version of “Cosmic Debris” from Zappa’s The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life album.

The Deathless Horsie/Watermelon in Easter Hay

Equally as effective emotionally is the instrumental “ballad” “The Deathless Horsie” off of the album Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More. Beginning with an ostinato what sounds like a child’s glockenspiel, this song has a melancholic quality that, when combined with Zappa’s scorching guitar, makes for a very emotionally impacting musical experience. This same effect occurs with the penultimate track (“Watermelon in Easter Hay”) on Zappa’s album Joe’s Garage. A quiet ostinato instrumental with electric guitar overtop, this piece is consider one of Zappa’ best songs, representative of both his ability to compose great melodies and improvise emotionally affective guitar solos. In fact, like jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ song “So What” is to jazz fans, “Watermelon In Easter Hay” is to Frank’s fans essentially the de facto Zappa “song of songs”, loved by young and old alike.

Night School

 No doubt Zappa fans will find my inclusion of “Night School” from the Jazz From Hell album quasi-consternating. It is nothing like his more known works and was composed and recorded by Zappa on a Synclavier. Ironically, after decades of virtuostic composing an performing, it was this album that won him a (1988) Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, though Zappa eschewed the ideals and behaviour associated with the pursuit and achievement of such awards. But as a work composed by Zappa, “Night School” demonstrates that he could easily and effectively write commercial, soundtrack worthy songs.

More Trouble Every Day

Originally titled “Trouble Every Day”, performed by Zappa’s original band the Mothers Of Invention in the Sixties, this song transformed from a mid-tempo blues rock song into the horn driven “More Trouble Every Day”, as typified on the early Seventies live recording Roxy & Elsewhere (by Zappa and “the Mothers”). This new, re-arranged version included a duel drum-break by Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson that so impressed singer Phil Collins he hired Thompson to hold the drum chair in Genesis and Phil’s solo projects for most of the following three decades. It has also been ranked the 29th best live album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Even more impressive is the 1988 live version from The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, as its tempo makes drummer Chad Wackerman’s ability to play the Humphreys/Thompson drum fill very impressive. Additionally, bassist Scott Thunes’ performance on this and two other related albums from the 1988 tour (Make A Jazz Noise Here, Broadway The Hard Way) are excellent examples of how a professional accompanist can create and support the overall feel/sound of a group.

Eat That Question

This jazz fusion piece, with a rather rock and rock main theme, is yet another example of Zappa’s jazz fusion work while recovery from an injury (see: “Big Swifty” above) that left him unable to play guitar with his usual proficiency, or tour. Though the original (from the album The Grand Wazoo) is a fine work on its own, it is the 1988 live version from Make A Jazz Noise Here that really brings the power of the song’s melody to the forefront, though this version is only 1m: 55s and is edited as a segue into the melancholy ballad “Black Napkin”.

Muffin Man

Though this piece (from the album Bongo Fury) has a humorous lyrical introduction, the music (beginning at 1m: 24s) is organized around a particularly powerful blues riff, which comes to underscore Zappa’s ensuing solo. This piece in particular also demonstrates Zappa’s usage of satirical or comical words/content while the music itself is of the highest quality in Zappa’ chosen genre at the moment, a fact that is often missed by Zappa’s detractors.

Dog Breath (In The Year of The Plague)

Probably one of the most fascinating compositions Zappa ever created were “Dog Breath (In The Year of The Plague)” with its combined or interwoven rock and classical themes, and the related (instrumental) “Dog Breath Variations”, both from the album Uncle Meat, the (1969) soundtrack to a then unfinished science fiction movie Zappa as working on in the late Sixties. Also notable about this particular album in general is its inclusion of the lead sheet music for two songs, the main theme (“Uncle Meat”) and the main theme to a series of variations known as “King Kong”. As Zappa’s music is notoriously difficult to transcribe without some sort of assistant technology, having these two examples as an overall guide to Zappa’s use of sixteenth note clusters and eighth note triplet groupings is extremely invaluable to both fans and musicians alike, and an excellent insight into how Zappa created the “stop/start” quality of his percussion writing in particular.

 More raucous versions of “Dog Breath” also appear on (a). Road Tapes (Venue #2) with Jean-Luc Ponty and the band playing a shifting time arrangement bridge section before segueing into a mid-tempo version of “Dog Breath Variations”, and (b). the soundtrack from Roxy The Movie, the posthumous released (limited) film footage of the Roxy & Elsewhere shows. It is interesting to hear Ruth Underwood, Ralph Humphrey, and Chester Thompson playing unison phraseology at almost supernatural levels, from memory. This, of course, was common, as Zappa as known for his grueling rehearsals and demand for session players of extraordinary skill to join his groups. If you were a Zappa band member or an alumni from the early 70s onward, you were hands down the best around. 



6 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa (Pt. 1).

  1. Where ya been Master Schnee? i’ve missed your musical posts & what a return, Zappa is one of my favorites; for someone at my level of musical ability (not great) he stands on a pinnacle of impossible heights, to be marvelled at as some sort of demi-god, an Orphean blend. The band he had for those early to mid 70s albums, perhaps even starting with the sea change Hot Rats in ’69, when he’d ditched the mothers (claiming they owed him money rather than him owing them—as if for the priviledge) with Waka Jawaka, Overnight Sensation, Apostrophe etc following, that stuff was other worldly. My favourite is Absolutely Free though, i always listened to it as a sort of psychedelic opera, the dark underbelly of american life. i used to perform alongside it for my friends in our flat, i’d mimic the voices, i could follow the whole thing verbatim, making daft onomatopoeic noises & acting it out, used to make people howl. Dunno if i could still do it now.
    One of my favorite pieces of music is from Uncle Meat Nine Types of Industrial Pollution. What guitar does he use in that piece & what is the time signature? As he somehow makes the drums sound as if they are being played as the drummer & his kit tumble down a long flight of stairs, their is this sense of a perpetual cascade that never quite reaches the floor. It blows my mind, as much of his music does, delightfully.
    Great post Daniel, got me thinking about Zappa, which is always a pleasure. Wish i understood his music the way you do, that angle of perception must be thrilling.

    1. I was sick for a few days and needed to take some time off to heal up so I didn’t get sicker. Thanks for your concerns… I appreciate it.

      Singing/vocalizing along with Uncle Meat must have been fantastic! I wish I could have been there in the old days to see it. Now THAT is a rare skill…I’ll bet Zappa himself would have hired you to do it at a show or on a tour.

      As for Nine Types…it is in 4/4 (surrounded by free form percussion which makes it sound free) and the guitar is sped up to be in key. Zappa was heavily influenced by Edgar Varese’s percussion piece “Ionisation” and started his career as a drummer before switching to guitar and forming the Mothers of Invention. So any psychedelic percussion is naturally going to be a part of Zappa’s composing tool kit.

      For me, “five-five-FIVE” is the magnus opus of Zappa’s instrumental music, though Uncle Meat has some world class moments on it…

      1. Thanks for the explanation of Nine Types, always threw me with its free form playing. i can sometimes pick stuff out with my lazy ear, but i am never sure of myself enough to just say “that’s it.” Not like i am with poetry, too confident sometimes.
        i knew he was influenced by Varese. i have some great Varese vinyls in England, Arcades is one of them (if memory serves). Very intense. Along with Stravinsky the intensity is unmatched. Like Mahler if he were more progressive; does that seem even logical considering Mahler’s immense genius.
        Glad you’re back on your feet. Next up, the article on Sun Ra’s Angles & Demon’s at Play/The Nubians of Plutonia, which you promised me— i’m still eager my friend, haven’t forgot.

    1. Hot Rats is not in my top ten, but I totally agree with you that that 67 – 74 was a great period for Zappa. The versions of “The Torture Never Stops” and “(More) Trouble Every Day” on TBBYNHIYL are epic. Thanks for reading my blog!

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