Frank Zappa’s achievements as a composer were so impressive that his distinctive style and dexterity as a guitarist is sometimes overlooked. Zappa himself said in an interview with Guitar Player magazine in 1977, “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.’” It’s a statement that doesn’t do justice to his ingenious use of tone, rhythmic unpredictability, and imagination as a guitarist. For those who aren’t familiar with Zappa’s guitar genius, what follows is a list of some of his best guitar solos, chosen to be a starting point for the uninitiated.
Willie The Pimp (Hot Rats, 1969)
The only song on Hot Rats to feature a vocal, the hard blues groove of “Willie The Pimp” finds Captain Beefheart in imperious form. The rasping sass of Beefheart’s vocal was matched by Zappa’s raunchy and tireless soloing. What makes it even more impressive is that Zappa overdubbed the solo while a union official was standing behind him. “I’m playing my wah-wah pedal and wailing away,” Zappa told International Musician & Recording World in 1985, “and this guy from the union comes in. He’s standing behind me, tapping his pencil on his clipboard, waiting for me to get done so he can ask me whether or not I’ve filed some kind of union paper about how many musicians I’m using. That’s the solo on the record, and the whole time there was this union poot-head standing behind me.”
My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, 1970)
This swaggering slice of generation gap-widening R&B was about as conventional a single as Zappa and the Mothers were ever likely to release. Still, Zappa couldn’t help but throw a spanner in the works – in this case, a middle section that featured a woodwind fanfare sped-up an octave followed by a rare acoustic guitar solo by Zappa himself. It’s a nimble diversion that suggests Zappa could very easily have taken the folk world by storm, had he so desired.
Montana (Over-Nite Sensation, 1973)
For nearly two minutes, “Montana” features Zappa purring a near-spoken word vocal about moving to Montana to harvest dental floss over a soulful laid-back groove. He later “explained” to Cash Box, “I got up one day, looked at a box of dental floss, and said, hmmm… I felt it was my duty as an observer of floss to express my relationship to the package. So I went downstairs and sat at my typewriter, and I wrote a song about it.” The surreal whimsy of that opening passage is in stark contrast to the fury he unleashes on the fretboard of his Gibson SG over the next minute-and-a-half. “Montana” often provided an opportunity for Zappa to cut loose on stage, particularly during shows in the latter half of 1974, where the section would be extended to accommodate wild improvisations.
Muffin Man (Bongo Fury, 1975)
“Muffin Man” came from a jam around the last three chords of Over-Nite Sensation’s “Camarillo Brillo” and was almost always preceded by that song in concert. On Bongo Fury, meanwhile, it was introduced by a witty short story written by Zappa in 1959 about an employee of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen… Frank moved in mysterious ways. Once the guitar kicks in, it’s a high-drama explosion of lusty energy, with Zappa’s guitar playing emulating the heady abandon of prime Hendrix. Zappa was an admirer of the pioneering guitarist, claiming, “Hendrix is one of the most revolutionary figures in today’s pop culture, musically and sociologically. Hendrix’s music is very interesting. The sound… is extremely symbolic: orgasmic grunts, tortured squeals, lascivious moans, electric disasters, and innumerable other audial curiosities are delivered to the sense mechanisms of the audience at an extremely high decibel level.”
Black Napkins (Zoot Allures, 1976)
The version of “Black Napkins” heard on Zoot Allures was recorded at a gig in Osaka, Japan, on February 3, 1976. The simmering instrumental was first played in the spring of 1975 and became a setlist staple. Zappa’s solo is a masterclass in dynamics, ranging from frantic shredding to long, elegant notes as the song ebbs and flows. At the 2:11 mark, he ups the ante by pushing the guitar through an Oberheim voltage-controlled filter set to sample-and-hold, which manipulates his playing into something resembling a digital squawk. A version from a February 17, 1977 London show that featured Zappa playing the solo through a harmonizer was released under the name “Pink Napkins” on the 1981 compilation of solos, Shut Up ’N Play Yer Guitar.
Zoot Allures (Zoot Allures, 1976)
Another piece of instrumental magic from Zoot Allures, the first section of the album’s title track finds Zappa playing long, heavily-whammied chords while coasting on a lush wave of drums, bass, marimba, and harp. The mood shifts with the solo, as Zappa’s playing becomes jerky, angular, and unpredictable. His free-flowing and playful solo turns the song upside down. Suddenly the melodic possibilities are endless. Zappa delighted in presenting juxtapositions and extremes. Here, the tone of his guitar during the solo is hard and nasal, resulting in him changing his picking style and using his trusty Pignose amp.
Inca Roads (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol 2, 1988)
The version of this Zappa epic that appeared on 1975’s One Size Fits All used an edit of the guitar solo from the September 1974 Helsinki performance later released on the second volume of the You Can’t Do That On Stage series. Zappa solos in C lydian while the band play a groove based on variations around a Cmajor to D major progression. Zappa revealed one of the tricks of his trade in a 1983 Guitar Player interview, referring to the frantic technique used towards the end of the solo, “With your left hand you’re fretting the notes, and with your right hand you’re also fretting the notes with a pick. Instead of plucking the string, you’re fretting the string… and you can move back and forth real fast that way… just aiming it straight down at the string.” In another interview with the magazine, he said of the technique, “It gets kind of a Bulgarian bagpipe sound.”
Watermelon In Easter Hay (Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute, 1996)
The compilation Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute showcased what were considered Zappa’s three “signature pieces,” songs that were defined by his own idiosyncratic guitar style – the aforementioned “Black Napkins” and “Zoot Allures” and the magnificent “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” This version of the Joe’s Garage track was recorded in Eppelheim, Germany, on February 24, 1978. The band establishes a slow, spacey, and hypnotic arpeggiated pattern, over which Zappa shows masterful control of feedback and tone. It’s a beautiful piece of music but, typically, Zappa couldn’t resist countering that with a joke, explaining to BBC Radio 1 in 1980, “That’s not the complete title of the song. The real title is ‘Playing A Guitar Solo With This Band Is Like Trying To Grow A Watermelon In Easter Hay.’ And that’s where it came from.”