frank zappa, who I started listening to when I was 15, so that would have put it around early 1974, is absolutely in my top five guitarists of all time (not that I could say who those are at any given moment…). the first album I ever heard by frank was “apostrophe” which blew me away then and it blows me away now – the guitar work alone is astonishing, and yes, OK, this is maybe not the best version of the mothers (the late 60s / early 70s versions of the band were probably better than the apostrophe band, but to me, the music was no less remarkable) but when it’s your first album by an artist, it occupies a special place in your heart.
only it wasn’t actually on an album – it was actually an 8 track tape belonging to one of the guys in the guitar house…and I always found it really frustrating to listen to “st. alphonso’s pancake breakfast” because right at the most exciting moment of the solo, when the synth and the marimba are playing at lightning speed in unison…the eight track’s volume faded down to zero briefly while it “turned over” so you missed the best part of the solo! it wasn’t until many, many years later, when I finally bought the album on CD for the first time, that I heard that solo properly, although I half-expected the volume to go down at that point.
apostrophe absolutely does have a huge place in my heart, from the beautiful melodies and piano of uncle remus, to the rocking jack bruce fuzz bass and zappa guitar on the title track to the aforementioned remarkable synth-and-marimba “schizoid man style” precision solo during “st. alphonso’s pancake breakfast” there is not a dull moment on this record, and for me, zappa was the odd man out of guitarists, there was no one like him, and maybe never, ever will be again – with one possible exception: his son dweezil, who has become a force to be reckoned with playing his father’s music in his own band, “zappa plays zappa”.
the old saying “like father, like son” was never more appropriate, and watching and listening to dweezil grow as a player has been an amazing experience – frank would be so, so proud.
frank was utterly unique, and had a playing style that developed at an absolutely mind-boggling pace, even as a very young man, he already had very respectable chops, but as you listen to his lead guitar style through the mid-sixties, it is almost as if he had been given some kind of mysterious guitar/dna growth hormone – until by the late 60s, he was rivalled, in america at least, only by jimi hendrix. in britain and europe, there was some strong competition, mostly from people like robert fripp or steve howe, but in america – zappa reigned supreme.
then probably the most amazing few years of his development occurred, from 1970 – 1974, for my money, in 1974, all there really was in the world of truly intelligent, truly remarkable young lead guitarists was zappa and fripp – since jimi was by that time gone. zappa was innovating on top of the innovations of those who went before him, those amazing guitar tones, the use of the pignose amps on apostrophe…and his amazing ability as a composer and arranger and bandleader – he was unsurpassed. and then…there was the way he played lead guitar.
sure, we still had todd rundgren, and steve howe, and steve hackett emerged as a contender in the world of prog rock, and steve morse, the third steve, and so many other brilliant guitarists in the early 70s…but when frank started playing the guitar, you stopped what you were doing, and you listened.
and frank shone equally well in the studio and in live performance, one particular favourite show of mine is the live swedish television broadcast from august 21, 1973, where the band is astonishing…but frank is even better – you can catch most of this performance on youtube – and I could watch it over and over again, even just to listen to zappa and violinist jean-luc ponty trading solos – sublime!
words aren’t really the right thing to use to describe the guitar prowess of frank zappa, the only way you can really experience is to listen to the albums, watch the videos – and try to learn something in the process. listen, and prepare to realise that you know nothing about the guitar – nothing.
we’ll absolutely delve further into the music of frank zappa and talk a lot more about his guitar playing in future editions of “what we’re listening to” – but if you haven’t listened to frank properly – do yourself a favour and try a few albums for yourself – you may be surprised.