"My approach is quite similar to that of Guitar Slim. When I first heard him, I thought he was playing beyond the notes. It was because of the way he attacked his instrument. The result is more than just the sum total of certain notes, plus certain chords, plus certain rhythms. It is also the first known recording of an electric guitar being played with distortion. It is this heart of distortion and dissonance that links Guitar Slim, Varèse, and Stravinsky. It is one way of bringing the guitar into the postmodern age." (Frank Zappa)
Zappa is well known for his work as a composer but less for that as a guitarist, yet you can’t have one without the other. If you need convincing, just listen to some of the orchestrations of his improvisations (“Revised Music for Guitar and Low-Budget orchestra”) or to his three albums made up solely of guitar solos! But what explanation is there for this lack of recognition for Zappa the guitarist? Most likely it’s because of his unorthodox style, that has little truck with the rigid rules focused around technique. He described his own technique as ‘passable’. He wasn’t looking to have equal footing with the virtuoso instrumentalist whom he admired, such as Jeff Beck and Alan Holdsworth. For Zappa, improvisation was never about finetuning his own dexterity, rather it was about creating a special tension. His style isn’t clear but it’s always troubled, dissonant, and a bit out there (c.f. “Too Ugly For Show Business”). He was looking for a new way to play, on the border of a number of different influences:
The stickiness of blues (“Get A Little”)
Stravinsky’s melancholia (“Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich”)
A Varèse-like dissonance (“Republicans”)
The contemplative nature of ragga (“Stucco Homes”)
The folklore flavours of Eastern Europe (“Aybe Sea”)
To really grasp the Zappan style, you have to understand that the notes and the strokes aren’t what’s important, but rather the interaction with the rhythm section. Rhythm takes the fore when he improvises (“Down in De Dew”). Let’s not forget that he was a drummer before he turned to the guitar, and the dialogue between these two instruments is fundamental. It could even be argued that his playing evolved according to who he was drumming with. Though it was Zappa who pushed the interplay between band members to its limit.
In 1976 he invented a revolutionary mixing technique – xenochrony. It involved putting together a rhythm section and a guitar solo both recorded on different dates and with different rhythms and tonality. “Occam’s Razor” for example, was a live improvisation. It was then remixed with a totally different rhythm section, giving us “On the Bus”. The result is an impossible mixture of varying rhythms, coupled with the energy of live improvisation. Only Zappa could have developed this prodigious approach to decontextualising a guitar solo. He opened up completely new paths that have, hitherto, remained untrodden.
Zappa’s style never stopped developing over the years. If you need proof just compare his melodic solos of 1967 to his outrageous use of vibrato in 1982. His playing deserves to be explored just as carefully as the rest of his work, because his approach to the guitar is just as rich as his compositions.