Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Zappa's use of meters can either be stable, like the "Uncle Meat main title theme", that is 3/4 for the whole melody, or very versatile like in "Igor's Boogie, phase 1" from "Burnt weeny sandwich" (see "The Frank Zappa songbook vol. I", pages 36-37; the Burnt weeny sandwich section contains some bars). Given here are the subsequent bars with their meters:

bar 1-2: 4/4
bar 3: 3/8
bar 4-5: 7/8
bar 6: 5/4
bar 7: 4/4
bar 8-12: 3/4
bar 13: 4/4

His desire for odd meters and rhythms is outspoken. Examples are numerous and dealt with throughout this study and the intention of this section is not to give examples from all corners in Zappa's rhythmical universe, but only to start with briefly summarizing the subject. The remainder of this section looks at examples from "Roxy and elsewhere" and two other ZFT releases surrounding this CD.

The following table gives an overview of the meters used in all examples in this study. Also included is a column that marks if an example contains tempo changes.

Table of meters per song (Html page).
Table of meters per song (Excel sheet).

The general picture then is:
- 4/4 and others in 4: 287 examples
- 3/4 and others in 3: 86
- in 6 or 12: 70
- odd meters: 98

The odd meters vary between relatively normal ones as 5/4 and really unusual ones as 33/32 in "Punky's whips". The general idea may be clear: though 4/4 is also the most common meter in Zappa's music, his use of meters is highly diverse. It should be noted that meters and rhythms allow notational variants, so presentations as the table above offer no absolute figures.

Below at "Echidna's arf (of you)" I'm giving an overview of polyrhythms in the shape of two meters being used simultaneously.


While the number of sorts of meters for practical purposes is limited, rhythm can take thus many forms - and with Zappa actually applying them uninhibitedly - that it is virtually undoable to categorize them. A very general subdivision could be a partition into three as below, with Zappa doing all two or three in most of his works. Still you need to look at all the individual examples and their comment to get a better idea of the variety in Zappa's rhythms.

1) On beat figures. On beat is the standard for most music. It's hardly interesting to say that Zappa also does this, I'm just mentioning it for statistical completeness. Some examples in this study where on beat happens most of the time: "I ain't got no heart", "Absolutely free", "Agency man", "Willy the pimp", "Billy the mountain", "Eat that question", "City of tiny lights" 1976 version, theme from "Outside now", "Promiscuous", "Strictly genteel", "This is a test", "Jesus thinks you're a jerk" 1st example.
Steady bass beats you can find in "Dancin' fool", "Flakes" 2nd example, and "Heidelberg".
2) Syncopic figures and pauses on beats. A series of examples with various of such bars: "Holiday in Berlin", "Run home slow" main theme, "Mother people", "Bow tie daddy", "Jelly roll gum drop", "Project X", "It must be a camel", "Eric Dolphy memorial party", "What will this evening bring me this morning", "Tell me you love me", "Sharleena", "Latex solar beef", "Overture" from 200 Motels, "Kaiser rolls", "Keep it greasy", "City of tiny lights" 1979 bass lick, "The ocean is the ultimate solution", "Regyptian strut" 2nd example, "Duck duck goose", "Pick me, I'm clean", "You are what you is", "I come from nowhere", "The mammy nuns", "No not now", "Night school", "Ride my face to Chicago", "Ruth is sleeping", "Put a motor in yourself".
Three really odd ones are: "America drinks" 1st example, "Another whole melodic section" and "Down in the dew".
3) Irregular rhythmic groupings. In case an odd rhythm is achieved via irregular groupings, the last column in the table above specifies the type of this grouping (non-improvised and no triplets). The "Be-bop tango" from below is one of the first of a series of Zappa compositions where you don't see irregular groupings passing by once in a while, but systematically. Later on pieces as "The black page", "Manx needs women" and "Get whitey" would turn up. More on this topic in the Zappa in New York section.


"Road tapes, venue #2" by the ZFT presents the Roxy band at Helsinki in 1973, a few months before the Roxy concerts. At this point Ian Underwood and Jean-Luc Ponty were still in the band, and Napoleon Murphy Brock would be enrolled shortly after. The three Helsinki gigs and the Stockholm concert, from which the "Be-bop tango" example below is taken, are subsequent venues. So it's remarkable to see how many differences there are in the way the improvised sections during "Farther O'blivion" are dealt with. Apparently both Zappa and the band liked to keep things interesting by making new agreements about the outlines of such sections. The written parts remain the same on such short notice. In the long run these written parts can also change, like the opening of "Village in the sun". This song starts pretty different on "Road tapes, venue #2", "Roxy and elsewhere" and "YCDTOSA Vol. II" (see the examples below at the "Roxy and elsewhere" tracklist).

Pojama prelude

Next is a section from "Pojama prelude". It's one of three examples that show that Zappa could write lyrics independantly of the music. Apparently the idea of a song about pojama people existed before the music from "One size fitls all". The same goes for "Father O'blivion" (as part of the "Australian yellow snow" track on "One shot deal") and for "The torture never stops, original version" ("YCDTOSA Vol. IV").

Pojama prelude, section (midi file).

Pojama prelude, section (transcription).

The accompaniment for "Pojama people" is a vamp, something Zappa frequently chose to do when the lyrics stand central. He sings it speech-wise as in bars 1-2 of the example. In this case the accompaniment is a modulation scheme with George Duke improvising. It's two bars long in a 12/8 meter. In bar 1 you have a basic chord progression, bar 2 is free.
- Bar 1, beats 1-2: C Mixolydian with C-Em-Bb.
- Bar 1, beats 3-4: A Mixolydian - A minor. The chord here is C#M7-augm. 5th. In harmony text books this chord gets located on step 1 of the major scale or step 3 of the minor scale, with the augmented 5th seen as an altered note: C#-E#-G double sharp-B#, notated as C#-F-A-C in the example. It's precisely the augmented note however that's used as a bass pedal, the A in this case, with the effect that the scale becomes something of starting in A Mixolydian and ending as if in A minor.
- Bar 2, beats 1-2: D Dorian or Mixolydian.
- Bar 2, beats 3-4: G Mixolydian.

All skate

"All skate" is the closing piece from show 1 of the three Helsinki concerts from 1973. Zappa introduces it as making something up, with Ian starting it off. About all in this song is improvised, but the outlines must have been rehearsed of course. These are:
- 0:00-4:39: After the introduction Ian Underwood starts a synthesizer solo, with the band joining in after a while.
- 4:39-5:28: Rock 'n roll block. Zappa begins this block with a simple lick in 4/4, alternating I and VI in C Mixolydian. Next is an excerpt from half-way this block.

All skate, section #1 (midi file).

All skate, section #1 (transcription).

After a period of improvisation by the band without a meter, Zappa uses the first bar from the example as a pick-up bar to modulate to A Mixolydian. He does this by moving chromatically downwards via three parallel triads. In bar 4 George Duke repeats the I chord in a high register, rhythmically with much rubato. Next Zappa modulates once more via the method of bar 1, now to F# Mixolydian. In this case George specifically does not follow this scale, thus creating a number of dissonances. It sounds funny this way.
- 5:28-11:31: Blues.
a) 5:28-6:39. After Zappa has started this section with a traditional blues lick, the band plays through the scheme once. This section is yet another example of Zappa and the band mingling closely related scales:
A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#: A major. The central scale, used for the blues chord progression. Bars 2-5 from the next example contain the tail of the scheme with I-V-IV-I.
A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G: A Mixolydian. Followed for the soloing as for instance in bar 2 from the example.
A-B-C-D-E-F#-G: A Dorian. Followed by George in for instance bars 1 and 5, staff 2, and bars 7-8, staff 1. The ensuing solo by George begins with A Dorian.

All skate, section #2 (midi file).

All skate, section #2 (transcription).

b) 6:39-8:04: Solo by George Duke over the blues scheme.
c) 8:04-10:45: Solo by Zappa over the scheme.
d) 10:45-11:31: Outro. The blues pattern gets twisted by using dissonants. At 11:31 the "Dun-dun-dun" motif first appears.
- 11:31-14:10: Zappa sings the "Dun-dun-dun" motif in a couple of manners with the band repeating him. Next he asks the audiance to participate by doing the same. The motif also gets used for the closing chords.


1. Penguin in bondage

Zappa playing guitar The opening of the guitar solo from "Penguin in bondage" has been transcribed by Mike Keneally for Guitar Player magazine, October 1995. Pages 88 and 89 show bars 1-12 from this solo. It's blues in D Dorian with these bars representing one cycle from the blues scheme: Dm-G-Dm-A-G-Dm or I-IV-I-V-IV-I from D Dorian.

Penguin in bondage, bars 1-5 from the guitar solo (transcription).

Mike describes it as "Structurally it's just a three times through a 12-bar blues progression, and melodically it's nowhere near as otherworldly as his solo voyages throughout the later 70s and 80s. But in retrospect, "Penguin" feels like one of his best. It's a cockily self-confident blow that combines some of his most singable, funky lines (bars 3-4 and 9-11) with some archetypically mind-blowing flurries (bars 5-8), all delivered with a stinging, shimmering underwater tone." etc.

Zappa playing guitar, mid seventies.
Photo by Jorgen Angel, used with permission.

2-3. Pygmy twylyte - Dummy up

Zappa would keep playing "Pygmy twylyte" in an extended version in 1974. I'm dealing with this version in the next YCDTOSA Vol. II section, where I've included the main theme and excerpts from two different guitar solos. "Dummy up" is an example of a story-telling routine. This subject is also coming by in the next section, with the opening of this song next to examples from "Room service". "Dummy up" contains one of the funniest absurdities in Zappa's catalogue:
- FZ: "You get nothing with your high school diploma."
- Napoleon: "But that's what I want."
- FZ: "The truth is in saying, nothing is what I want."

4. Village of the sun

PalmdaleToday "Village of the sun" is available in three versions. They mainly differ by their introduction. The 1973 Helsinki version has a little instrumental composition as a prelude, that's not specifically related to the main song with lyrics. The whole goes as follows:

0:00 Zappa introduces the song.
"We have sort of a rock 'n roll song for you now, but don't worry, [...]. It features Mr. George Duke again singing in a high voice". On "Roxy and elsewhere" Zappa would more specifically explain what the lyrics of "Village of the sun" are about, namely the city of Palmdale. Zappa remembered it among others for the turkey farms. During the sixties and seventies Palmdale was a village of about 10.000 inhabitants, lying in the desert area of California. Today it has become a city of 150.000 people. To the left route 138 near Palmdale (photographer unknown).
1:07 Instrumental prelude.
1:07 Theme from the prelude. It's one of many Zappa compositions that I refer to as multi-scale. Nominally it's in E Mixolydian, but in about every bar different scales get touched upon. The meters keep varying. The theme ends on a held B note, lasting for a 3/4 bar.
1:28 The theme gets repeated. The example starts at 1:34, so it doesn't represent the whole theme. It does however contain all phrases from the theme, since some bars get repeated:

Village of the sun (1973), opening (midi file).

Village of the sun (1973), opening (transcription).

- bar 1: this bar is a string in 9/8. Its first three eight ticks follow the E Phrygian scale, the next set of six ticks follow the E Lydian scale.
- bar 2: this is the opening bar of the theme. It's in 4/4, subdivided as 3+2+3. Combined with bar 7, that serves as the coda, it sets the key to E Mixolydian.
- bar 3: melodic variation upon bar 2; the rhythm remains the same. Upon A pedal the Lydian scale gets followed.
- bar 4-6: bar in 6/8, played three times. The four staffs show that's it's an alternation of a couple of elements. Staff 1 with E and B, staff two with two chords (basically C#dim and E), staff 3 with D and A and staff 4 with G and D. The sounding whole forms two larger chords, not belonging two a single scale.
- bar 7: 4/4 again with a standard coda: VII-I in E Mixolydian.
- bar 8: unisono melody in 5/4, evading to step V of E Mixolydian.
- bar 9: this time the B note gets held for 11 beats instead of 3. This is done to insert a larger pause, because the main "Village of the sun" song has no connection with the prelude. Otherwise the transition with be too much abrupt.
1:53 Main song with lyrics.
1:53 Theme block 1.
- bars 10-13: phrase 1 in F Lydian. George Duke sings it in a rubato manner, along with playing the keyboad harmonies in the background. These harmonies are mainly a series of standard triads.
- bars 14-15: beginning of phrase 2 in F Dorian. The modulation is done in a rather direct manner. Over the continuing F pedal note the G chord moves over a minor second up to a Ab chord.
- the example above ends at 2:02. Theme block 1 continues with several more phrases.
3:14 Theme block 2.
3:55 Theme block 1 returns.
5:12 The instrumental prelude returns as a postlude.
Here Zappa let's the instrumental theme follow more directly upon the sung end. This time the theme ends differently, because bar 7 from above doesn't return. It simply ends with the second chord from the 6/8 bar being held, thus sounding as a deceptive cadence.
5:39 End.

Village of the sun (1974), opening (midi file).

Village of the sun (1974), opening (transcription).

The 1974 Helsinki version from "YCDTOSA Vol. II" also has an instrumental prelude. It starts with a figure of two bars, played four times. It returns as a vamp for the sax solo during the interlude. It gets followed by four pattern breaking bars, before the main theme from "Village of the sun begins. The set-up is comparable to the pattern breaking bars from "Inca roads" as played on "One size fits all" (see the corresponding section). In the example below:
- bars 1-2: the last repetition of the opening figure. It's in a 12/8 meter, or 4/4 with triplets all the time. The key is G Mixolydian with as basic chord progression a couple of times I-IV-I, ending with one time I-VII-VI 7th. The construction of the whole is such that notes and chords get mingled.
- bar 3: improvised bar with mainly Ruth on marimba.
- bar 4-5: two melodic bars, played unisono or as parallels.
- bar 6: a figure with chords with its rhythm being accelerated.
- bar 7: a bar with an E pedal by the bass and harmonic fill-in.
- bars 8-14: beginning of theme block 1 (F Lydian modulating to F Dorian again).
As it comes to the melodic material, also here the prelude is unrelated to the sung theme. The transition in this case could go more smoothly because G Mixolydian and F Lydian use the same set of notes. Nevertheless Zappa chose for some intermediary bars before he lets the main theme start. It's played much faster as the year before. Specific for the 1974 Helsinki version is the presence of an interlude. Compared to the two Helsinki versions, the one on "Roxy and elsewhere" is the more normal pop style version. On that album the song has an introduction by Zappa as mentioned above. On the original album edition, this intro was listed seperately as a "preamble". This time there is no prelude, interlude or a postlude. It begins normally with a few introductory bars in F Lydian, the key the sung part starts with. The lead melody from the entire theme block 1 can be found in the Ludwig study, page 265. Ludwig notates it as 4/4 all through. Thus bars 13-14 in my 1973 example are notated as two times 4/4 instead of 3/4, followed by 5/4. This leads to a pretty heavy beat, including a key change, not coinciding with a downbeat. Rhythm and meter notation allows such differences. It doesn't look nice in my opinion, but it's more in line with Zappa calling this song a rock song. Wolgang presents these bars as an example of a syncope (page 118 of his study). If you notate this fragment in 4/4 it's indeed a pretty strong example of a syncope.

The following example is a contribution by Paul Strawser, dealing with theme 1 as played towards the end on "Roxy and elsewhere".

Village of the sun (Roxy and elsewhere), end (midi file).

Village of the sun (Roxy and elsewhere), end (transcription).

His analysis of it goes as: "[...] a section of the chorus of "Village of the Sun" from "Roxy and Elsewhere" which begins at 3:34 in the song. I think this section is interesting due to the numerous key areas it moves through in a short period of time; beginning in F Dorian, measure 3 seems to then suggest F Aeolian, followed by contrary motion between the bass and vocal harmonies which move the key to D major by means of a fairly common II7(#11) jazz chord. The key then abruptly shifts back to F minor in measure 9 before completing a transition back to F Lydian, the key with which the verses begin."
Other than the previous two examples, the "Roxy and elsewhere" version has no prelude. It opens with a few introductory instrumental bars, common in pop songs. This time the introduction is directly related to the main song, because it starts in the same key theme 1 starts with. The opening bars of theme 1 are already included in the two 1973 and 1974 bars from above. So Paul's example completes theme 1. The bar he calls F minor can be identified as Dorian as well (the D/Db that makes the difference is absent). In this context F Dorian fits in better, because the preceding and following bar are using D natural. Paul's transcription stops two bars before the actual end of the song on "Roxy and elsewhere", so I've added these final bars to his example. These two bars offer yet again another modulation, this time to G Dorian. Again this section could also be identified as G minor (the E/Eb is absent), but because the preceding bar is using an E natural, I've notated this part as in Dorian. In the last bar the 4/4 meter gets extended with one beat with the singers saying "Well-well", this time introducing "Echidna's arf (of you)". Thus the first example from this latter song from above directly follows upon "Village of the Sun". It's done without any pause between these two tracks, as Zappa mostly does.
Theme two from "Village of the sun" is made up of two phrases, that each get repeated a couple of times:
- "Little Mary...": G Mixolydian.
- "Where the stumblers...": E Dorian, modulating back to F Lydian at the end.

5. Echidna's arf (of you)


The outchorus of "Big swifty" from the Waka/Jawaka section was an example of polyrhythms. Another example of such polyrhythms can be found in "Echidna's arf (of you)" from "Roxy and elsewhere" live album from 1974. The timing is equal, but the accents of the melody, played over a 4/4 motif, lie at places mostly different from this accompanying motif. During the first nine bars of this example I've used 4/4 for all parts and I've indicated the accents of the melody. The accents notes are also played separately on bells. From bar 10 onwards the melody is played solo, so here the melody is notated with its own varying meters. The accents notes are here additionally beaten on the bass drum. The "What will this evening bring me this morning" example of the Weasels section is another instance of such polyrhythms. "Echidna's arf (of you)" fluctuates between Lydian and major. It begins with the chord alternation I-II in E Lydian for bars 1-3. Next the scale becomes E for bars 4-7 by changing the A# to A natural. On beat 3 of bar 7 we get back to E Lydian. The accompanying chords get different, in rock terms B7 (no 3rd) - Asus2 for bars 5-6 and next a stacked fourth on G# followed by D#m (no third) for bars 7-10. On beat 3 in bar 4 a figure begins, that lasts 11/16. Thus here you've got 11/16 played over 4/4. In bar 14 it re-appears alone, now it can only be notated as 11/16. Other examples in this study that contain bars with two meters being used simultaneously are:
- "America drinks" (second example): 3/8 plus 5/8 over 4/8.
- "King Kong" ("Lumpy Gravy" version): 3/8 over 4/4.
- "Cruising for burgers": 6/8 over 24/32.
- "The little house I used to live in": 12/8 over 11/8.
- "Transylvania boogie" (Ahead of their time): 4/4 over 3/4.
- "Sofa" (1971): 4/4 over 3/4.
- "The new brown clouds": 10/8 over 6/8.
- "Lucille has messed my mind up": combination of 12/8 and 4/4.
- "Pedro's dowry": 12/8 over 4/4.
- "Drowning witch": 6*3/16 over 9/8.
- "The crab-grass baby": 6/4 over 4/4.
- "King Kong" ("YCDTOSA III" version): 9/16 over 12/16.
- "9/8 Objects": 9/8 over 4/4.
- "What will Rumi do?": idem.

Echidna's arf (of you), opening (midi file).
Echidna's arf (of you), section (midi file).

Echidna's arf (of you), opening (transcription).
Echidna's arf (of you), section (transcription).

Zappa liked polyrhythms especially in the shape of irregular rhythmic groupings, where the timing gets unequal, as already mentioned above. He used it a lot in his guitar solos. Occasionally he would combine tapes that were recorded independently as in "Rubber shirt" from "Sheik Yerbouti", where the interplay becomes coincidental.
The second example above stem from the middle of this song. Like Zappa mingled Lydian and major in the first example, he is here mixing B minor (Aeolian) and B Dorian. Beats 1-2 in bars 1-4 are following minor with a G natural. For the chord during beats 3-4 Zappa switches to Dorian with a G sharp. The chords are an alternation between Bm and C#m, so a form of parallel playing he does more often. Next you've got a four times repeated melody of four bars. The meters in this example keep changing: 12/8, 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, 2/4, 12/8, 3/2 and 2/2. The C# of the bass serves as the tonic for bars 6 through 20. Bitonality occurs most often in Zappa's music in a mild form: the bass sets a pedal note as tonic, but the lead melody may very well take another note as the central one for a certain period. Here it happens more outspoken in the sense that two scales are used simultaneously. The C# of the bass sets the scale of the descant melody to C# minor (Aeolian), but the bass itself follows the chromatic scale for bars 5-12. Next the whole-tone scale is followed for bars 13-20 (as noted by Elmar Luksch, see the Sheik Yerbouti tango below for more on this scale). The bass plays six notes during the four-bar melody, thus exactly the amount to play once through the twelve notes of the chromatic scale and twice through the six notes of the whole-tone scale. Only at the end in bar 20, with a Bb instead of a B natural, it moves over to another figure in bar 21. Here the scale becomes A Mixolydian for bars 21 through 24, though the bass begins chromatically. While the bass holds its final A as pedal note, the melody forms a series of chords. These chords come into being by combining three melodic lines of single notes, played by different instruments. Some of these chords are uncommon, more modern music than rock music. So you've got combinations as F#-G-C# (VI 9th of C# Mixolydian or F#, no 3rd, add M2).

6. Don't you ever wash that thing

By this time Zappa had brought together a group of musicians, most of them technically well educated and able to read sheet music, who were willing to invest their time in his music. "Roxy and elsewhere" demonstrated this. By now he had a band that was able to perform live as good as in the studio and this would continue to be so for the rest of his career, even though the line-up of the group kept on changing. A lot of new material releases could be taken from live performances. Zappa was pleased with what was going on and considered the material the band had to play the hardest repertoire he had composed so far. Indeed "Echidna's arf", "Don't you ever wash that thing" and "The be-bop tango" are for rock band standards extremely complex pieces to play live. Let's turn to the opening theme block from "Don't you ever wash that thing". This block can be divided in three parts, the first one with unisono figures, the next one polyphonic, then followed by two more unisono figures.

Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:00 till 0:14 (midi file).

Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:00 till 0:14 (transcription).

The first part above is a set of figures of unequal meters, rhythm and length, with variations on the I chord of C. The figures have equal pauses of 5/8 between them, where the percussion plays solo (I've notated the beats without pitch). The four figures as I hear them are:
- 4/16 (2+2), I 7th of C
- 5/16 (3+2), I 5th of C
- 9/16 (4+5), I 5th of C (1st. time); I 5th and VI 7th of C (2nd. time). Descant only, the F by the bass would extend these chords halfway.
- 11/16 (3+3+5), alteration to notes from G Minor; with the last two notes we're back at the I 5th chord of C.

The next example is from the section with two- and three-part counterpoint. It gets very dense here and the band is playing it at high speed, going to the limits of what an ensemble can do. After a year of touring the tempo got even higher on "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. II". Making a transcription of it is also like walking on thin ice, but I'll give it a try nevertheless.

Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:20 till 0:29 (midi file).

Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:20 till 0:29 (transcription).

It starts with the trumpet and bass playing repeated motifs against the trombone. In the second bar we get to three-part counterpoint with short melodic lines. While the base guitar is playing eighth notes diatonically, the other instruments start playing through the chromatic scale. The vibes are playing the upward movement in a straight line. The two downwards movements are played by brass instruments. It's difficult to hear every individual note for these two lines and I'm not positive about the correctness of each single note in my transcription. Probably the following order has something to do with the sequence best fit for fast playing on these instruments. Possibly the idea is the same as with the crotches of “Approximate”. This bar is followed by bars with two-part counterpoint. Eventually the bass gives in and joins the chromatic frenzy of the other instruments.

7. Cheepnis

Cheepnis background singers On the original vinyl album version the four introductions to songs, that you can find on "Roxy and elsewhere", were listed seperately as preambles. Each side of the double album had its own pre-ambule in this manner. The one from "Cheepnis" is extremely funny, as is the song itself. During the fall tour of 1973 and the spring tour of 1974 Zappa had two drummers under contract and included them both in his live set-up. Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson are both excellent drummers. You might think they would get in each other's way or that the drum part could get too dense, but that's not the case. In the "Roxy, the movie" film you can see how they did it. The strong drums-percussion section of this band was probably a reason to let them play "Cheepnis-percussion", being the drums and percussion part of "Cheepnis" being played solo. It sounds rich.

Screenshot from a Cheepnis recording session with the background singers (overdubbed parts). Source: Roxy, the movie DVD.

8-9. Son of Orange County - More trouble every day

Zappa always played several guitar solos during a concert and included three of them for the "Roxy and Elsewhere" album. "Son of Orange County" and "More trouble every day" were recorded in 1974, thus contributing the "elsewhere" part to the album. Apparently the recording conditions were less, for they are in mono. Zappa's decision to release them anyway must have depended upon the fact that the guitar solos in them worked out well. Both songs are continuations upon earlier material. "Son of Orange County" begins with a theme from "Orange County" from "Weasels ripped my flesh", sung slowly by George Duke, after which this piece follows its own way. A transcription of the lead melody can be found op page 266 of the Ludwig study (see the references in the left menu). "More trouble every day" is re-using the lyrics from "Trouble every day" from "Freak out!", but has entirely newly composed music of its own. The next fragment is from the "Son of Orange County" guitar solo (pitch level notation as it sounds; accompaniment left out). The accents of the solo phrases sometimes follow the rhythm of the accompaniment, but often the accents lie at other places.

Son of Orange County, guitar solo excerpt (midi file).

Son of Orange County, guitar solo excerpt (transcription).

During his solos Zappa liked to keep playing in one key, but he took no limits as it comes to chord formation and rhythmic figures. About the chords he once remarked that the fun doesn't start until you'll get to the ones larger than the 5th and 7th, like 11th chords. The example above shows traditional and untraditional chords going hand in hand. The key is E Lydian, given by the accompanying scheme, which is I and II 5th/7th alternating every two bars in a 4/4 meter (the excerpt above starts with I in bar 1). The chords as formed by the melodic line of the guitar are:
- VI 7th (four times)
- V 5th (three times the chord of resolution; G sharp as passing through note in its tail)
- E, D sharp, B, A sharp: second plus third plus second movement, part of (for instance) IV 11th
- E, G sharp, F sharp, C sharp, D sharp, A sharp: seconds, thirds and quarts movement, part of VII 11th
- A sharp, F sharp etc. till the end of the example: string that is part of II 11th.

10. The be-bop tango - The Sheik Yerbouti tango


Zappa wrote two tangos during his lifetime, the "Sheik Yerbouti tango" and the "Be-bop tango". The next section is about this item. I've made a translation into Spanish of it because of the Latin origins of the tango. Maybe I can get Zappa added as a tango composer in general tango sites. The English version continues below as normal.

   Los tangos de Zappa (texto en Español)

Tangos have characteristic syncopic movements in a 4/4 or a 2/4 meter, as well as melody formations and instrumentations that can be associated to the tango style. The tango as a dance had some reputation for being erotic, over which Zappa dwells upon in his preambule on "Roxy and elsewhere". The "Sheik Yerbouti tango" is a guitar solo beginning in F minor over a typical tango progression all through (as indicated by the drumset pattern). This solo is included in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book on pages 270-274. On the "Sheik Yerbouti" album this track got sped up with approximately a minor second. In the Guitar book you'll encounter the solo at its original speed, thus E minor instead of F minor. The first example below presents the opening, steadily in F minor. It stays there till bar 24 at the bottom of page 270 of the guitar book. Next the solo modulates and the use of scales becomes wilder with a lot of chromaticism. The rather elementary drum pattern continues unaltered, but Zappa's handling of the chords and scales could be called brutal compared to traditional tangos.

Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (midi file).
Sheik Yerbouti tango, end (midi file).

Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (transcription).
Sheik Yerbouti tango, sections (transcription).

During this solo various instances can be noticed where Zappa is applying the whole-tone scale. It stems from Indonesian gamalan music. By western standards this scale sounds awkward. It has a tritonus and an augmented fifth, but no natural fifth. Since there's no minor second in it, it's impossible to form any form of sharper dissonants with it. The scale got applied a few times by Claude Debussy at the beginning of the 20th century (like the piano pieces "Voiles" from Preludes I and "Cloches à travers les feuilles" from Images II). Sections with the whole-tone scale in the "Sheik Yerbouti tango" are:
- bars 29-31.
- bars 35-37.
- bars 40-41.
- bars 43-44.
- bars 46-47, beats 1-2.
- bars 54-57.
Bar 87 is the last bar with a normal meter. Next the drumset disappears, on the album at 3:04 seconds. Another instance of the whole-tone scale happens at the end, as above in the second midi example. In the transcription I've pointed the start and end of the use of the scale in this section with arrows. For the chords you can see a series of parallel augmented fifths, the only form of triads that the whole-tone scale supports. This is the example Elmar Luksch points at in his site for the use of the whole-tone scale (see the links). Another example he found is the bass line in "Echidna's arf (of you)" (2nd example above; 1:28 till 1:34 on the "Roxy and Elsewhere" album). The fact that Zappa used the whole-tone scale during the "Sheik yerbouti tango" also gets commented upon in Guitar, October 1995: "Zappa's hammer-and-pull technique was highly, if distinctively, developed, and he used open strings in interesting ways. [Mike] Keneally points at a characteristic riff from "Sheik Yerbouti tango": "it uses open strings, and it's very whole-tone-ish - a classic Zappa riff." Dweezil explains that the whole-tone lick is accomplished by hammering and pulling on the fourth and sixth frets of the G and A strings in rapid succession [A-C#-D# with G-B-C#]. Even played on acoustic, the intervals screem Zappa."

The "Be-bop tango" opens with specific tango bars, followed by the theme itself in bar 9. When this theme enters, the be-bop element starts to dominate, with untraditional harmonic progressions and irregular rhythmic groupings. Rightfully Zappa calls this piece a hard one to play in the preambule to it. The tango theme opens with the figure George Duke later on sings on the "Roxy" version with the text "This is be-bop, even though it doesn't sound like it". The "Be-bop tango" today exists in four versions. For the more complex songs for his rock band Zappa would normally write out a one or two staff lead sheet. There was no point in adding the instrumentation or further details, because the composition of the band was on a permanent change. Who specifically would play which notes would be determined during rehearsals and for each tour Zappa would add in extra bars or alter some bars. The main tango melody in all "Be-bop tango" versions is the same, the differences lie in the additions and the solos. On the first two occasions this tango was incorporated in a larger piece called "Farther O'blivion". The "r" from farther in it makes a difference with the "Apostrophe (')" song with almost the same title, to which it is unrelated. It is performed this way on "Imaginary diseases" and the "Piquantique" bootleg. On "Imaginary diseases" it's played relatively slowly by the 10-piece "petit wazoo" band. At the end of 1972 Zappa formed what would become known as the "Roxy" band. During the fall of 1973 this latter band hand been playing the tango for some months, so the tempo could be speeded up, most specifically on "Roxy and elsewhere". The "Farther O'blivion" tango had a straightforward on beat 4/4 opening. The opening on the "Roxy" album however goes as:

The be-bop tango (Roxy, 1973), opening (midi file).

The be-bop tango (Roxy, 1973), opening (transcription).

On "Imaginary diseases" and "Roxy and elsewhere" the tango is followed by a trombone solo by Bruce Fowler, a normal jazz improvisation over a vamp of its own. The solos on "Piquantique" are more extensive and different in character in the sense that the solos remain more close to the tango idea. Not only the tango vamp keeps being played, the solos are as well using phrases that stem from the written theme. The sound - distorted clarinet, electric violin and guitar - is remarkable. It's a pity this version is only available with bootleg sound quality. This Stockholm concert was filmed for TV and I was quite surprised to see a copy on YouTube with a normal sound quality. The transcription below includes the end of the guitar solo in the uncommon C Phrygian key. The "Piquantique" version is of interest as well for the return of the theme in a different shape, played on marimba by Ruth Underwood (to the right a still from the TV show). She was the only band member who wouldn't perform solos:

Farther O'blivion: the be-bop tango (Piquantique, 1973), section, 13:56 through 14:36 (midi file).

Farther O'blivion: the be-bop tango (Piquantique, 1973), section, (transcription).

This variation for marimba is made up of the same notes as the main theme, but various beats get played half speed, whereas most pauses get skipped. The "Roxy" version then continues with the be-bop tango dancing event, where people are invited to dance to the ultrafast be-bop notes sung by George Duke, instead of the ongoing pedestrian beat.
For the 1992 version for The Ensemble Modern Zappa returned to the original opening bars as on "Imaginary diseases" (photo below, ZDF tv). Now all parts got fully scored out and instrumentated:

The be-bop tango (Ensemble modern, 1993), opening (midi file).

The be-bop tango (Ensemble modern, 1993), opening (notes).

The scores of the lead sheet (published in 1984) and the 1993 version have been analysed extensively and extremely detailed in an academic dissertation by William Morris Price called "An analysis of the evolution of Frank Zappa's Be-bop Tango". William describes this piece as a multi-scale composition, rather than atonal, pointing at many melodic cells that can be related to the use of scales and larger extended "be-bop" chords as augmented 11th chords. The construction of the tango is put under a magnifying glass, showing what order exists in something what at first hearing can seem chaotic. The study can be downloaded via It includes the complete (reduced) score, spread out over the various pages. The permission by Gail Zappa to do so is included. Though the 1993 be-bop tango version is on the verge of being atonal, the idea that this tango was composed as a multiscale composition gets corroborated by the marimba variation in the "Piquantique" version. Here the accompaniment is performing a progression that more or less coerces a tonal climate upon the piece.
Ensemble Modern First a quote from William Price's analysis of the 1993 tango (pg. 142): "The first sonority in bar 9, Ab-C-D-Eb (or an Ab major triad with a raised fourth), is the most important sonority in the Be-bop Tango; it is used as the home key area [...]. The raised fourth can be analyzed as a common tone held over from the previous Bb major triad with a raised fourth, Bb-D-E-F [...]. Additionally, when the Bb major triad, Ab major triad, and their respective raised fourths, E and D, are combined they form the Ab Lydian collection [...]."
William's dissertation is specific for the 1993 version. In the transcribed "Piquantique" bars it goes on differently and far more straightforward. In bars 7-8 the accompaniment plays the C7 chord. It's possible to combine the melody with this accompanying chord as an enlarged chord of C Mixolydian. A-G-A-Bb ("This is be-bop") with the root C in the bass can be seen as I 13th. The chord and the septuplet in bar 9 form the string C-(D)-E-F-G-Ab-B, something of a mix of C and C minor. Beats 2-4 of bar 9 are a normal I 5th chord. In bars 10 through 15, the harmony is making a parallel down and upward movement, the root note going from C to Bb to Ab etc. In bar 13-14 you can also see a variation upon the earlier "This is be-bop" phrase. One can go on almost indefinitely pointing at characteristics in Zappa's compositions this way and the William Price study actually does so for over a 100 pages for the Be-bop tango. Many people will find such material unreadable. The benefit from it is that, no matter how unorthodox a composition is, when it sounds coherent it's always possible to detect why.


Inca roads (1973)

The 2014 ZFT release "Roxy by proxy" offers more from the three concerts at the Roxy theatre. It includes a version of "Inca roads", that's in between the "Lost episodes" version and the one on "One size fits all". On the "Lost episodes" "Inca roads" is all instrumental. The whole block with lyrics, that forms the opening of this song on "One size fits all", is absent. Apparently Zappa wrote these lyrics in 1973. On "Roxy by proxy" the music to it is still far away from the way we came to know it via its first release on "One size fits all". Here it begins in 12/16, loosely in C with as chord progression C-F#-F-E. Only the C and F chord belong to the C major scale.

Inca roads (1973), opening bars (midi file).
Inca roads (1973), section (midi file).

Inca roads (1973), opening bars (transcription).
Inca roads (1973), section (transcription).

The degree of improvisation in this opening block is high, sort of a lounge version by jazz musicians. This specifically goes for melody George Duke is singing for the words. Only roughly it resembles the final "One size fits all" melody. At this point the meter has changed from 12/16 to 4/4 (a bar still lasting the same time, thus only the subdivision of a bar has changed). Bass and drum are in standard 4/4 while George is at several points singing and playing over it in a rubato form, which makes a transcription of it complicated. See the One size fits all section for more from "Inca roads" and the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section for guitar solos taken from it.

The Roxy concerts were filmed and fans have been pressing the ZFT for years to release the Roxy footage. Apparently there were some problems with the synchronicity and the ZFT has been seeking means to raise funds. At the end of 2012 they gave fans an opportunity to buy a copy of the mastertapes with a right to distribute it, under condition that the ZFT would receive a royalty per sold copy. In 2015 the "Roxy, the movie" CD and DVD got finally released. All sources combined, the so-called Roxy band, playing during 1973-4, is now very well covered. More from this band in the next section.

Dickie's such an asshole

Zappa himself only used some samples from the Roxy footage for his later videos. Three more tracks from the Roxy gigs were included in the "YCDTOSA" series. "Dickie's such an asshole" is a song from the Watergate era, but only premiered in the political context of "Broadway the hard way" from 1989. Next are two examples from this song from the Roxy version, that you can find on "YCDTOSA Vol. III". The larger part of "Dickie's such an asshole" is based upon blues schemes. The first example below is blues in B Dorian, on some steps of the scheme also using B major, a common practice in minor type blues. The standard scheme gets extended with a number of additional chords.

Dickie's such an asshole, section #1 (midi file).

Dickie's such an asshole, section #1 (transcription).

The blues scheme appears in the following manner:
- Pick-up bar: I. The song begins with the band singing over the I chord. Only its tail is included in the example above.
- Bars 1-2: IV. In bar 2 you can see that Napoleon is singing this song in a rubato manner, leading to figures that can look odd on paper, as in bars 4-5.
- Bars 3-4: I. On beat 2 a lick enters the picture, that keeps returning during this song.
- Bar 5: The standard V from the blues scheme becomes II-III-V. This is the bar where the scale used has become B major instead of B Dorian.
- Bar 6: The standard IV from the blues scheme becomes I-II-IV. We're back at B Dorian. Step IV is only briefly present and the harmonies get extended via combining the bass E with Bm7. When this 7th chord resolves to E, the bass is already chromatically moving over to B.
- Bars 7-8: I. These bars contain repeated notes in an irregular rhythm, like a radio or TV news jingle.

Dickie's such an asshole, section #2 (midi file).

Dickie's such an asshole, section #2 (transcription).

The second example above appears half way this song. Here the blues scheme is left and F# becomes the tonic for a longer period. Many examples in this study include details, whether improvised or not. For analytical purposes it's sometimes necessary that at least you listen to them, or else you might identify the scales and chords wrongly. Zappa's music is highly flexible in this aspect, leading to many version differences. For the composed rhythms this is different. He seldom changed the rhythm of his songs and he would not allow any deviation from what he prescribed. Via the details in the section below you can see that this part is simultaneously using F# minor and F# Dorian. The difference lies in the D from the minor scale and the D# from the Dorian variant. The repeated bass patterns goes as I-II-III-II in 12/8. It gets interrupted by bars 5-6 with just the Dm7 chord (the instruments together), add F# (Napoleon).
- Staff 1, Napoleon: F# minor.
- Staff 2, FZ: F# minor (bars 1-6), F# Dorian (bar 7).
- Staff 3, George: F# Dorian.
- Staff 4, Ruth: F# Dorian.
- Staff 5, Bruce: F# minor.
- Staff 6, Tom: indeterminate (the D/D# isn't used).

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