"Once I get on stage and turn my guitar on, it's a special thing to me - I love doing it. But I approach it more as a composer who happens to be able to operate an instrument called a
guitar, rather than 'Frank Zappa, Rock and Roll Guitar Hero'." (1)
On hearing a typical Zappa guitar improvisation, it becomes obvious that the approach he has to soloing is very different to almost any other guitar player.
"My solos are speech-influenced rhythmically; and harmonically, they're either pentatonic, or poly-scale oriented. And there's the mixolydian mode that I also use a lot...But I'm more interested in melodic things. I think the biggest challenge when you go to play a solo is trying to invent a melody on the spot." (1)
The Frank Zappa Guitar Book contains over 200 pages of trancriptions of Zappa's guitar solos. The attention to accurately recording Zappa's wiry polyrhythms and unusual rhythmical phrasings creates a score that looks like it is from the New Complexity movement. (2) The speech-influenced rhythm in Zappa's guitar solos is obvious, and his more extended lines do take on a conversational quality. As a result, Zappa is not the kind of guitar player to fall back on favourite licks.
Infact, he hardly has any signature phrases; a solo will inevitably consist of extrapolated variations on his decided theme, tirelessly inventive and rarely repetitive, striving to cover newground through melody, harmony, and rhythm.
The obvious attention to rhythmical exploration in Zappa's leadlines draws immediate comparison to the same concerns in his composed pieces. Musical example sixteen is a painstakingly accurate transcription of a Zappa solo written by Steve Vai around 1980.
The way Zappa was planning then executing these events was more likely to have been following this overall compositional concept than truly attempting to accurately achieve what Vai has transcribed. Over the whole example, which is nearly forty seconds long on the recording, Zappa is playing with the concept of building his 'statistical tension'.
Example sixteen is a more typical guitar excursion. The 'attitude' behind the notes is the key to why the phrasings are so frenetic.The piece explores the themes of any cliched rock guitar solo; big swinging drums and bass coupled to punchy brass synthesis, setting up a nice 'guitaristic' E-blues tonality. Zappa's approach is so 'out' that the solo sounds anything but familiar; it is angry and buzzing, and the tonality is mostly there, but the rhythmic approach again sets him apart from other players.
Moving back to example fifteen, the production of the finished studio track involved musicians learning the transcription and doubling Zappa's original guitar line improvisation, then mixing those overdubs into a fully-fledged narrative composition.True to fashion, Zappa took his idea of blurring the lines between improvisation and composition to its logical extreme; he turned a piece of complicated music into both things at once.
"...The disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar: now that's my idea of a good time." (4)
(1) Frank Zappa quotes taken from The Frank Zappa Companion, compiled by Richard Kostelanetz (Omnibus Press, ISBN, 0.7119.6523.4). The interview originally appeared in Guitar Player Magazine, held with Steve Rosen in 1977.
(2) Refer back to example four, the extract from 'The Sheik Yerbouti Tango'. Taken from The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, it is typical of most of the transcriptions.
(3) Quote taken from The Real Frank Zappa Book (see bibliography) chapter eight 'All About Music'.
(4) This quote had to be included, and was taken from The Guitar Handbook (see bibliography), 'The Guitar Innovators', p.20.