Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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OVERNITE SENSATION: RIFFS

Frank and Gail Zappa Fed up with the lack of financial means his career had brought him so far, in 1973 Zappa took a new approach to his albums, that was much more in line with what the general public expected of a rock artist. Instead of the recent albums, most of them either instrumental or bizarre story telling pieces, Zappa adapted the normal compiling of an album: a set of songs with lyrics, limited in size, without lengthy soloing. Besides that he took more sight of the spotlights by starting to sing most of his songs himself as far as his voice allowed him to do so. Because he had a limited vocal range, the more versatile parts still had to be sung by others. This, with a lot of deviation allowed, remained the course for the coming years. Thus appeared in 1973 "Overnite sensation" (deliberately spelled wrongly) followed by "Apostrophe (')" in the next year, both selling well. Apart from being commercially successfull, Zappa personally also seemed to be fond of these albums. Most of their tracks exist in live variants as well and he kept including songs from these two albums in every tour since they premiered.

Frank and Gail Zappa in Denmark, 1974.
Photo by Jorgen Angel, used with permission.


This section and the following one include a couple of examples of riffs from these albums ("I'm the slime", "Dirty love", "Don't eat the yellow snow" and "Nanook rubs it"). For his more accessible songs Zappa often turned to riffs. Other examples of riffs in this study are for instance:
- Brown shoes don't make it, opening riff (Absolutely free section)
- Tell me you love me (Chunga's revenge section)
- Willie the pimp (Fillmore East section)
- Eat that question (Waka/Jawaka section)
- Titties 'n beer (New York section)

1. Camarillo Brillo

In the One size fits all section I'm briefly referring to "Camarillo Brillo" as an example of a two-theme pop-song. In the Ludwig study (see the references) this song also gets mentioned for its verse-chorus structure and its use of common chord progressions. Obviously Zappa wanted to appeal to a larger audience by starting an album like this. The verse-chorus structure is the most common structure in pop music, that also Zappa might use. The universe of different structures he could apply however, is fascinating. See the One size fits all section for an overview. In 2011 all of the "Overnite sensation" material got published via the Hal Leonard guitar songbook series. It's done very accurately by Paul Pappas. The following example is the opening from "Camarillo Brillo", based upon this transcription and filled in with some more details by me:

Camarillo Brillo, opening (midi file).

Camarillo Brillo, opening (transcription).

"Camarillo Brillo" begins with an instrumental riff in E. It's made up of two bars, that get played four times. The first bars turns up about the same each time, but the second bar gets varied upon. The chord progressions are:
- bars 1, 3, 5 and 7: I-VI 7th-II-I.
- bars 2 and 5: IV 9th-II.
- bar 4: V-IV.
- bar 7: II 7th.
The example continues with the verse (bars 10-13). Here the chord progression is I-V-IV-II-VI. This progression gets filled in more and more towards the end with the players improvising along this pattern. The shorter verse gets repeated a couple of times, before the second theme turns up. For this chorus the song first modulates to D. It lasts ten bars in total and doesn't get repeated before the verse returns again. "Camarillo Brillo" is also available in a live version on for instance "Hammersmith Odeon", where Zappa is using the tempo as a variation method. First it gets played much faster than on "Overnite sensation". Halfway it switches to slower.

2. I'm the slime

"I'm the slime" starts with two melodic riffs, followed by Zappa doing a meltdown (speechwise singing) about our TV set (from Beavis and Butthead: Beavis wondering "What were people doing in the old days when there wasn't a TV"? Butthead calms him down: "You dumb ass, there's always been TVs, they only had less channels").

I'm the slime, opening (midi file).

I'm the slime, opening (transcription).

This opening starts after a little intro with Zappa improvising on guitar. It's using 12/8 and 4/4 as meters. These two meters last exactly as long, so it's a change of subdivision: four times three becomes four times two. The keys change, but since some notes aren't used, they can't be identified positively. Subsequently they are:
- F# Dorian or minor (the D/D#, that makes the difference, fails).
- E Dorian or Mixolydian. The G/G# isn't used, at least I'm not hearing it. Paul Pappas indicates an E chord, thus going for the Mixolydian harmony.
- D Dorian. The instrumental opening does end positively with modulating to D Dorian, the key the verse starts with.
The song ends with a guitar solo, maintaining the ambiguity about being in F# Dorian or minor. Now both the D natural and D sharp are being used.

3. Dirty love

The main theme from "Dirty love" is following a riff with two alternating chords, being I-VII in D Mixolydian. At 0:28 a second theme starts, following a parallel movement of three major type of chords (C, D and E7).

Dirty love, opening (midi file).

Dirty love, opening (transcription).

Half-way this song you can hear a little guitar solo. During both "I'm the slime" and "Dirty love", Zappa is playing over chord progressions. For the "I'm the slime" outro the chords F#m7, E, D and B are used in varying patterns. In case of "Dirty love" he continues with the progressions from the two themes of this song. This is the most common manner of playing a solo in pop music, but in case of Zappa pretty rare. See also the Guitar section.

4. Fifty-fifty

On the two albums of this section "Fifty-fifty" is the only track where Zappa isn't singing himself. It would have asked too much of his voice. The pitch range is wide and during the song the lead singer, Ricky Lancelotti, is deliberately yelling. Zappa apparently liked him to do so and wrote the lyrics to go along with it ("I know my voice is kapoot"). Yelling is something Zappa himself never does on his albums, hardly ever even raising his voice. During the song you have a large instrumental middle block for three sequent solos. All three follow the same modulation pattern, with as its basis:
- 8 bars alternating C Mixolydian and Db Mixolydian.
- 8 bars alternating Ab Mixolydian and Cb Mixolydian. In all bars the bass is playing the tonic as pedal note and the accompanying chords are mostly larger chords (7th to 11th) with the tonic as root. Only in the final 16th bar the bass moves over to Eb.
- 8 bars again alternating C Mixolydian and Db Mixolydian.
- 8 bars again alternating Ab Mixolydian and Cb Mixolydian.
The three solo out-takes below are bars 5-10 plus the beginning of bar 11 from this scheme, that lasts 32 bars in total. Thus these corresponding blocks present the same section as played by the three solo players. The scales are followed by the soloists with a lot of freedom. The first organ solo example below begins with George Duke playing as fast as he can over a C Mixolydian accompaniment, using the chromatic scale. Notes over the Db bars can also get altered. Especially Zappa alters notes consistently during his solo. Over the C pedal bars he changes the E to Eb, thus mingling C Mixolydian with C Dorian. Over the Db pedal bars he always uses a C natural instead of a Cb and half of the time the Gb also gets altered to G natural. So here Db Mixolydian gets mixed with Db major and Db Lydian.

The structure of "Fifty-fifty" goes as:
- 0:00 Instrumentral intro in D Dorian.
- 0:15 Theme A, at first continuing in D Dorian.
The first half of theme A is a phrase of two bars over a bass pattern, playing around D-F-D-G. This phrase gets varied upon four times. The transcriptions below begins with the last three variations. The second half begins at the end of bar 6, where the varying upon the previous phrase is left and the music briefly moves over to Eb Dorian. Halfway bar 8 and during bar 9 the chords Em7 and C#m7-5 are used, not particularly staying in a specific key. The last C#m7-5 gets extended by an additional F by the bass played beneath it.

Fifty-fifty, theme A (midi file).

Fifty-fifty, theme A (transcription).

- 0:40 Theme B. See the example at the end, where this theme returns instrumentally as the coda for this song. In the repetitions of this theme below, the harmonies come out better. Here it's more melody and bass only.
- 0:56 Theme A again. The bass pattern returns in the same manner, but the melody gets harmonized differently.
- 1:22 Theme B again, now with chords.
- 1:38 Organ solo by George Duke. This solo and the next two follow the pattern as described above.
- 2:36 Violin solo by Jean-Luc Ponty.
- 3:35 Guitar solo by Zappa.

Fifty-fifty, organ solo section (midi file).
Fifty-fifty, violin solo section (midi file).
Fifty-fifty, guitar solo section (midi file).

Fifty-fifty, organ solo section (transcription).
Fifty-fifty, violin solo section (transcription).
Fifty-fifty, guitar solo section (transcription).

- 4:40 Theme A.
- 5:06 Theme B.
- 5:24 Theme A instrumentally.
- 5:49 Theme B instrumentally. Bars 1-4 are in C Phrygian. For bars 1-3 Zappa is using extended chords, I 11th for instance on beat 2 of bar 1. From bar 4 onwards the chords are all standard triads. For the closing bars the music moves over to E Lydian. Bar 6 continues for a couple of seconds with improvised notes till the song ends.

Fifty-fifty, theme B (midi file).

Fifty-fifty, theme B (transcription).

- 6:09 End

5. Zomby woof

"Zomby woof" gets represented three times in Zappa's catalogue. The 1988 live version gets dealt with amply in the Best band you never heard in your life section, where I'm describing the structure of this song. Examples from the opening and the guitar solo are included. Stylistically it's the most complicated song from "Overnite sensation".

6. Dinah-Moe Humm

"Dinah-Moe Humm" has become more famous for its lyrics than for its music. The original side two of the vinyl album corresponds with tracks 5-7 on the CD. It's all surreal fiction, humoristic, and it can be seen as a form of literature.

Dinah-Moe Humm

Sample from the Overnite sensation Guitar book, page 81, with Zappa speech-wise singing and vocal harmonies by the Ikettes.
The meter is 4/4 and the accompanying riff (page 79) is pulsing an Em chord. The bass, playing along the Em chord, is mostly giving an E pedal, the key at this point thus being E Dorian. It's a convention in the Hal Leonard guitar book series to always notate songs as if in major or minor. Because Zappa actually composes modally, you have to be aware of this manner of notation.


Zappa kept performing "Dinah-Moe Humm" live as well, but the studio version works out better for its finesses, lying in the background vocals and comments by the Ikettes. He has has sometimes been accused of being women-unfriendly. In case of "Dinah-Moe Humm" this gets compensated by its wit, but the subject of songs like "Dirty love" and "Bamboozled by love" can be called ugly or insensitive. Zappa standard defense would be that he had a right to write about anything happening in society and that his songs could be unfriendly towards males as well.

7. Montana

One can also encounter riffs in far more complex environments as the bass movement in bar 7 of "Montana", the closing song for "Overnite sensation" with amusing absurd lyrics about growing dental floss. The set-up of this song goes as:

0:00 Instrumental intro in A Mixolydian of 4 bars.
0:10 Two bars of drum soloing.

Montana, opening (midi file).

Montana, sections (transcription).

0:15 Verse:
- phrase 1: 4 bars in B Mixolydian with the chord progression basically being two times VII-I. These chords are mostly not played as triads, but get extended with additional notes and passing-through notes. At the beginning these chords a played softly in the background, but they come out more accentuated in the third Montana example below.
- phrase 2: 4 bars in A Mixolydian with the chord progression I-V-I-V or VII-II.
- phrase 1: 2 bars, transposed up a minor second, thus in C Mixolydian.
- phrase 3: chord progression, being Em-A-Dm-G.
0:48 Smaller interlude.
1:00 Verse restarts.
1:33 Chorus of four bars, played twice (B Mixolydian).
1:55 Guitar solo in F# Dorian.
3:23 Larger interlude.

Montana, 3:23-3:56 (midi file).

Montana, 3:23-3:56 (transcription).

Tina TurnerAt the time Zappa was recording this album, Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes were recording in the same studio. Zappa was looking for back-up vocalists and was surprised that Tina and the Ikettes were willing to do the job. It is often said that Zappa brings out the best in musicians and that's what's happening here. Tina and the Ikettes felt challenged by the vocal part in the middle of the song, partly transcribed above.
Zappa: "It was so difficult, that one part in the middle of the song "Montana", that the three girls rehearsed it for a couple of days. Just that one section. You know the part that goes "I'm pluckin' the ol' dennil floss..."? Right in the middle there. And one of the harmony singers got it first. She came out and sang her part and the other girls had to follow her track. Tina was so pleased that she was able to sing this that she went into the next studio were Ike was working and dragged him into the studio to hear the result of her labour. He listened to the tape and he goes, "What is this shit?" and walked out" (quote taken over from Barry Miles' biography). Ike refused the name of the Ikettes being used for credits. On this occasion they were Tina Turner, Linda Sims and Debbie Wilson (see the "Overnite Sensation/Apostrophe (')" DVD at 20:12 minutes for the bill). Zappa is in much of Montana again singing a meltdown, opposed to the highly flexible lyrics by Tina and the Ikettes. The transcription shows on paper how difficult indeed their part is. It has constantly changing rhythms, strings of fast notes and unorthodox harmonic progressions, using all intervals. It's played in the form of a two-part counterpoint by the discant and the bass. It's diatonic material, but with the bass moving all the time and a couple of notes switching between natural and sharp, it's impossible to assign bars to keys. There are hardly chords in this part.

Montana, 3:56-4:25 (midi file).

Montana, 3:56-4:25 (transcription).

4:07 Verse again.
4:41 Smaller interlude.
4:52 Verse restarts.
5:26 Chorus variant as outro.
6:34 End.

Right: Tina Turner with Oprah Winfrey at the height of her career.
Photo downloaded, source unknown.

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