Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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The omens for another guitar album from the 1988 tour were unfavourable. Since the previous 1984 tour Zappa was composing on the synclavier and he wasn't that eager to start playing again. It was also said that tensions within the band around bass player Scott Thunes prevented Zappa from playing the normal amount of solos. So when the existence of "Trance-fusion" got confirmed by the ZFT I felt surprised. The almost permanent delay of its release also suggested that there was something dubious about this collection. But this is not the case. It's once more Zappa selecting the best solos at the same level as before. Scott Thunes may have been a pain in the ass to some, but his bass part in the examples in this section is fine. Here he keeps varying the vamps, so that it doesn't become a mechanic repetition. Regarding style "Trance-fusion" offers more of the same. Normally that would be a negative qualification, except when the same means excellence. A lot has already been said about the solos in the preceding Shut up 'n play yer guitar and Guitar sections. There you find a list of all solos with their modes and types of accompaniments. Still "Trance-fusion" offers some new angles, some of them being indicated below.

1. Chunga's revenge

Nine of the sixteen solos from "Trance-fusion" stem from the 1988 tour. So the accent lies on Zappa's last live solos. Only a few times he would return to playing a guitar solo afterwards. See the Documentaries and Dance me this sections for examples. "Chunga's revenge" has a written introduction and a vamp, going back to 1970. Two versions of this introduction are included in this study. Zappa's own original version from "Chunga's revenge" and one released by the ZFT, re-named as "Chunga's basement". The song was included in a couple of setlists from 1970 onwards, allowing both Zappa and band members to solo. The "Rhythm guitar solo" from my Joe's menage section is an outtake from a 1975 performance, at that point not directly related to the vamp anymore. This 1988 version features Frank and Dweezil soloing together.

2-3. Bowling on Charen - Good Lobna

The other seven tracks cover the period 1977-1984. "Bowling on Charen" is the oldest solo, going back to the Halloween concerts from 1977 when "Baby snakes" got filmed. It's an unusual solo, made up of three blocks. It gets amply dealt with in the Baby snakes section of this study with three examples from these different scetions. "Good lobna" is a short outtake from a 1984 solo. Even after the massive amount of 1982-4 solos as released on "Guitar" there was still more material of interest from that period to be included in an official CD.

4-5. A cold dark matter - Butter or cannons

Zappa playing guitarMost guitar solos are outtakes from songs. Only when a solo had a written opening theme or an opening, Zappa would play it by itself. "Heavy duty judy", "Watermelon in Easter hay" and "Black napkins" are some examples with written themes, included in this study. What songs the solos are taken from is mostly known by circumstantial sources, namely the bootleg circuit as described in the Live recordings section from my left menu.
Though originally played as larger instrumental interludes of songs, the solos are in every aspect independant compositions by themselves. First they aren't directly related to the themetic material from the songs that they are part of, nor do they follow chord progressions from these songs. Without the information, that can be derived from the bootlegs, it would have been impossible to figure out where they stem from. In fact the solos are interchangable as it comes to their inclusion in songs. Secondly Zappa treated them as individual compositions by giving them titles of their own and compiling three CDs with guitar solos without any reference to the songs they were part of. I'm not a bootleg collector myself and I can only take the mentioned song contexts for granted. I'm having problems with listening to an inferior sound quality, but mostly I'm afraid it could get frustrating. When encountering something of interest it would be inadmissable for this study. Strictly by law bootlegs are illegal as a source, which means that any example taken from it is illegal as well. That bootlegs can contain material of importance is demonstrated by the examples from the "Beat the boots" series in this study, the bootlegs that got legalized by Zappa himself to spoil the bootleg market.
"A cold dark matter" is another Inca roads solo featuring the I-II alternation in C Lydian. This piece was included in quite a few setlists, but not released live till "The best band you never heard before in your life" from 1991. Other examples of this alternation, as included in this study, are:
- "Inca roads" (YCDTOSA vol. II).
- "Occam's razor" (One shot deal).
- "Shut up 'n play yer guitar".
- "The return of the son of Shut up 'n play yer guitar".
It can't be taken for granted, however, that a I-II alternation in C Lydian stems from an Inca roads solo. "Pick me, I'm clean" is from the same period, doing the same. Pieces preceding "Inca roads", using this type of accompaniment, are "Holiday in Berlin" and "Billy the mountain". The latter for a keyboard solo. "Butter or cannons" is one of the few exceptions where you can hear its relationship with a song during the solo itself. Here the connection with the song it stems from is direct, being "Let's move to Cleveland". One of the themes from this song returns during 1:05 through 1:16 of the solo and gets varied upon at 1:40 through 1:45.

Image above: part of the FZ photo by Bruce Hilliard, Trance-fusion CD sheet.

6. Ask dr. Stupid

Zappa never used quarter-tones when writing sheet music. Quarter-tones do occur when he's speachwise singing or during his solos. Steve Vai notates them every now and then in his transcriptions for the FZ Guitar book. In case of guitar solos quarter-tones happen as passing notes or for creating guitar effects, more or less incidentally. "Ask dr. Stupid" is an exception. During the intro Zappa is intentionally picking quarter-tones (not properly represented in the midi file below; as something exceptional, the midi format doesn't support this). This opening section has a pre-arranged theme, played four times. It's made up of a upwards going line, followed by a chord progression. The upwards going melody begins diatonically and ends chromatically, including clear quarter-tones:
- Bars 1-2: Zappa moves over from Bb on beat 4 of bar 1 to B natural on beat 2 of bar 2. In between you have the B quater-tone flat on beat 1 of bar 2.
- Bars 5-6: the theme doesn't get repeated literally, but gets varied upon. Here Zappa starts with an E instead of F#. An A quarter-tone sharp is now happening between the A and Bb from these two bars.
- Bars 9-10: again a variation, but with the same occurence of an A quarter-tone sharp.

Ask dr. Stupid, opening (midi file)

Ask dr. Stupid, opening (transcription).

The rhythm of "Ask dr. Stupid" is utter simplicity, quite uncommon for Zappa's solos. Everybody is playing strictly on beat in 4/4, also the drummer. Recorded in 1979, the vamp used is the one from the later "Easy meat" song. In the Tinsel town rebellion section I'm describing the phases this piece went through. The hammering rhythm combined with the chromatic notes and quartertones create a brutal sound. The chord progression is more regular. Here Zappa briefly switches from F# Dorian to F# Mixolydian with major harmonies taking the upper hand. This is simply done by altering the A to mostly an A#. In bars 3-4 the progression is B-F#m-F#-B-F#. During bars 7-8 it's B-F#-B-F#m-F#-A#-5. The tonality of "Ask dr. Stupid" thus isn't outspoken. Also the vamp. It starts with a repeated E-D# motif, but the lower and more loudly played E-F# motif turns it towards F# Dorian.

Examples of quarter-tones from the FZ Guitar book.

Above are some examples from the Frank Zappa Guitar book with quarter-tones happening as passing notes or guitar effects by bending a string irregularly between the frets:
- Two bars from "Variations on the Carlos Santana secret chord progression" with B quarter-tone flat, as well as D, F and G quarter-tone sharp.
- Three bars from "Stucco homes" with F three-quarter-tone sharp.
- Two bars from "He used to cut the grass" with F and G three-quarter-tone sharp, as well as G and A quarter-tone sharp.
All three examples are transcribed by Steve Vai. See the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section for more examples from the Guitar book and the keys/types of these solos. The "Mo' mama" example from my Sheik Yerbouti section is another example transcribed by Steve Vai, containing quarter-tones. An A three-quarter sharp and an A quarter-tone flat on this occasion. They are also other examples of irregular rhythmic groupings, as they happen frequently in Zappa's solos. As you can see, they can cause problems for professional printers too. Bar 157 from "Stucco homes" has a 7:4-tuplet of eight notes on beat 1. Bar 158 has a 3:2-tuplet of quarter notes with a quintuplet within it. I don't have a budget for doing this study, so all examples by me are handwritten to be on the safe side. Even when I would invest, say, two thousand dollars in an editing program, I doubt if I could get my "Budapest solo" example out of it neatly.

7. Scratch & sniff

This is the third solo with Zappa playing over the Carlos Santana type of vamp. See the FZ Guitar book for a transcription of the first one, "Variations on the secret Carlos Santana chord progression". It returned on "Guitar" as "That ol' G minor thing again". This one is from the 1988 tour.

8. Trance-fusion

The example below is the opening of the title track. Most solos are in 4/4, but this one has a vamp in D Dorian alternating two odd meters, 9/8 and 12/8. He had done such things before as in "Outside now" and "Watermelon in Easter hay", but this division is more complicated. The Roxy and Elsewhere section gives an overview of all metres occurring in the examples included in this study. The table from the Roxy section isn't specifically mentioning the metres from the solos, but you can filter out the 90 guitar solo examples if you would like to get an idea about the metres used in the solos only.

Trance-fusion, opening (midi file)

Trance-fusion, opening (transcription).

The subdision of the two meters is
- First bar in 9/8: 3+2+4.
- Second bar in 12/8: 3+2+3+4.
They can be seen as variations upon each other, beginning similarly and different in their endings. The main melodic notes are D-G-C and D-G-C-B-G. The 12/8 bar thus sounds as an extension of the 9/8 bar.

9-10. Gorgo - Diplodocus

While "Shut up 'n play yer guitar" and "Guitar" are neutral as it comes to the deployment of modal scales, on "Trance-fusion" the Dorian scale dominates. See the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section for an overview of all solos from these three CDs. During "Gorgo" Zappa is soloing in Dorian over a simple, very basic 4/4 bar with an A pedal. Mostly it's just the A note on beats one and three. "Diplodocus" is an outtake from "King Kong", as it was played during the 1988 tour. Apart from the Eb Dorian key, the connection with "King Kong" is completely lost when you take it apart. "Diplodocus" thus becomes an individual composition.

Diplodocus, intro (midi file)

Diplodocus, intro (transcription).

By comparing the "Diplodocus" intro with the "King Kong" fragment from the Make a jazz noise here section, you can see once again how Zappa kept applying his AAAFNRAA principle (Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all). Here the intro is in Eb Dorian instead of D Dorian and it is harmonized quite differently:
- Bars 1 and 3: three times I 9th - VII 9th, followed by one time I 9th - VII 9th - IV.
- Bars 2 and 4: IV - V - IV - III.
The intro is made up of two bars, played four times. The example above contains the last two repetitions and the first two bars of the soloing. The intro starts with a series of (incomplete) 9th chords, followed by more regular triads. When the guitar solo starts, the accompanyment continues in a standard manner: a vamp in Eb Dorian with improvised chords, mainly triads. In traditional harmony a 9th chord is seen as a non-standard chord that normally resolves to a triad. In Zappa's music all chords can appear as independant chords, chords that aren't expected to resolve. Here the 9th chords are played as such and when the last one moves over to the triad on step IV, it's not the standard resolving triad on step VII.

11. Soul polka

"Soul polka" in C sharp Dorian has a reggae type vamp in 5/8 (it's not related to the dance the polka). Reggae is normally in 4/4. Here Zappa is using a different meter for playing reggae, as he also did in the "Let's move to Cleveland" example. The latter is in 3/4.

Soul polka, section (midi file)

Soul polka, section (transcription).

The melodic pattern of the vamp is three times a C#, followed by two times an F#. Again Scott Tunes keeps playing around this pattern with little variations. The example also shows some held notes in between the faster notes. Most guitar players tend to accentuate such notes and make faces as if they are in great emotional distress enforcing these tones from the strings. Zappa wouldn't do that.

12-13. For Giuseppe Franco - After dinner smoker

Because of its relationship with "Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel" from "Does humor belong in music?", "For Giuseppe Franco" is getting dealt with in the section with the latter CD. "After dinner smoker" is yet another solo in Dorian, this time over an A pedal note by the bass.

14-15. Light is all that matters - Finding Higgs' Boson

Most solos follow one diatonic scale or a few related diatonic scales. "Light is all that matters" belongs to the few solos, that are chromatic. Other examples, coming by in this study:
- Canarsie. The Zappa solo that is most outspokenly atonal. See the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section for the details.
- Republicans. At the beginning an E pedal by the bass plus an ongoing D# chord, with Zappa completing it to something you might call a self-created scale. See the Guitar section for an example.
- Canadian customs. Similar to Republicans and also present in the Guitar section. Both solos tend towards using sets of notes over longer periods, while many chromatic notes are occurring as well. They definitely aren't diatonic, but also not utterly atonal in the sense that there are no scales discernable at all or that melodic patterns are absent.

Light is all that matters, opening (midi file)

Light is all that matters, opening (transcription).

In "Light is all that matters" you can hear the following:
- An ongoing on beat chord by the rhythm guitar plus keyboard, being B-E-G-A#.
- A bass vamp with E-B-D-A during the little intro, followed by C-G-Bb-F when Zappa starts soloing. In every bar it's a downward fourth.
- Zappa using another self-created scale: F#-G-A#-B-C#-D#.
So there are some patterns and you might call the first C from the bass vamp a ground-tone or tonic, but it only functions as a tonic for the bass part itself. It's the combination of these three parts that makes the whole atonal. The more than average presence of minor seconds causes dissonants to occur pretty often. "Finding Higgs' Boson" is quite different. This solo is Zappa playing at his most lyrical, here in A Mixolydian. "Light is all that matters" begins with a little intro with irregular synthesizer sounds (bars 1-4 of the above example are the second half). Next Zappa starts soloing over the vamp, transposed a third down. In bar 12 the bass pattern briefly gets interrupted before returning to its standard appearance again in bar 13. At 2:22 this solo moves over to a second smaller section in G Lydian, thus the more regular diatonic way of playing a solo. It's as good as unrelated to the first block with another guitar chord turning up overnight and the bass moving over from the vamp to a G pedal. It's something Zappa hardly ever does. He now follows this scale rather loosely. Chromatic notes keep returning, like a Bb at 3:10.

16. Bavarian sunset

Dweezil Zappa "Trance-fusion" ends with a joint solo by Frank Zappa and his son Dweezil. It's in E and stems from the 1988 concert at Munich, a city in the German province Bavaria. Hence its title "Bavarian sunset". Dweezil opens the solo playing alone. Next the band and Frank Zappa join in. At first the accent lies on either Frank or Dweezil soloing, alternating each other. Hereafter they become a true unity as in the section from below. To the left: Dweezil, Moon and Frank at the David Brenner show, 1986 (Associated press).

Bavarian sunset, section (midi file)

Bavarian sunset, section (transcription).

When Dweezil was still in his teens he took part of both the 1984 and 1988 tour, as a guest player, as well as playing on some of the "Them or us" recordings. The total of his solos on Zappa's CDs became five. Dweezil started learning playing guitar at the age of twelve with Steve Vai as an instructor. Two years later he had made enough progression for Frank Zappa to have him collaborate with him on his own records. Correctly so. He's not there just because he was Frank's son, but for his own skills as well. In Guitar Player, August 2006, Dweezil talks about his Zappa plays Zappa tour and comments about Frank's music: "But Frank blended so many styles together - and there was so much going on musically - that once you're exposed to it, you're so disappointed that no one else is even trying to do something like that. Who is writing music this hard? And it's not hard for the sake of being hard. It's very musical and memorable and cleverly arranged." Talented parents are inclined to test if their children have inherited these gifts, whether they like it or not. Apparently this didn't happen in the Zappa family. Only Dweezil chose to learn to play an instrument and read scores.

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