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Frank Zappa, Renaissance Man or Mad Man?

In the world of guitar playing there are some artists who define a certain genre of music. A sound, a style, and an approach help to define such a musician and make them synonymous with the instrument. I can think of a few examples like Joe Pass in the world of jazz guitar, Eddie Van Halen in the world of heavy metal guitar, Jerry Douglas playing his dobro resonator guitar, and of course Jimi Hendrix in the realm of psychedelic electric guitar playing, naming just a few. But, there is one man whose style, technique, and approach made him the most unique and identifiable guitar player in the last 50 years, and his name was Frank Zappa.

Zappa started playing guitar in the late 50s, playing mostly old school blues and R&B, but it was his love for two guitar players that particularly influenced Frank's playing then and throughout his career. Those two guitarists were Johnny "Guitar" Watson and "Guitar" Slim. Watson because of his prolific songwriting, unmistakable vocal sound, and his jazzy chord voicings, and Slim because of the uniquelly distorted and toned guitar sound on songs such as "Story of My Life" and "I've Got Something For Ya," both shaped Frank Zappa's guitar sound throughout his career.

Zappa was the greatest composer of the rock era evidenced by his compositions being covered by dozens of the top orchestras throughout the world since the late 1960s.

Without a benefit of a formal musical education Zappa composed in almost a mathematical way, writing complex scores many times without the benefit of being able to hear them until he gave the arrangements to his band. In lieu of this, Zappa had to have members of his band who could read his arrangements on the spot as well as be able to improvise solos with great expertise.

When you speak of guitar players whose solos defy description you are likely speaking of Mr. Zappa, his solos were so noteworthy (sorry for the cheap pun) that in his later years he released several records that were just guitar solos excerpted from his live shows. These records are called "Shut up and Play Your Guitar." Some other must-listens for those who want to hear Frank Zappa's best solos include: "Orange County Lumber Truck," "Inca Roads," "Revised Music for Guitar and Low Budget Symphony Orchestra," "PoJama People," and the "Muffin Man."

Zappa also employed and featured some of the greatest musicians of the time, diverse players such as Lowell George, Captain Beefheart, Jean Luc Ponty, George Duke, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Vince Caliuta, and Ian Underwood. Just like many bandleaders before and after him, a spot in Frank Zappa's band gave you immediate credibility and the opportunity to work with many other great musicians. Zappa payed his musicians well but demanded a very big commitment and total sobriety during their employment - the very reason many Zappa alumni didn't stay in the band very long.

Another Zappa trademark was his "comedy music" a moniker he gravely disliked. He felt humor belonged in music, and his often blue tinged humor was the reason that Zappa records like "Just Another Band From LA" became the "Redd Foxx Party" albums of a whole new generation. Some of the humor is pretty raw and a bit nitchy but still downright hilarious.

In closing, as I like to do here in the Legends column, I will give you a suggested playlist: "Over Nite Sensation," "Apostrophe," "Live in New York" and "Zoot Allures" should wet your whistle for some of Franks most accessible albums. For the more esoteric you might want to check out "Roxy and Elsewhere" (personal favorite), "Studio Tan," "Sleep Dirt" and "Weasels Ripped My Flesh." Franks early triumphs include "Uncle Meat," "Freak Out" and "We're Only in it for the Money."

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Enjoy the summer. Peace,