Good Guitar Stuff or Stereotypifications?

The Evolution of The Guitar's Use In Pop Music: Brief Version By Frank Zappa

Guitar Player, January 1977

Besides being one of the most advanced guitarists and composers in the rock field, Frank Zappa has consistently been one of the idiom's most outspoken satirists, both lyrically and on paper. Here Frank gives his own insightful view on the changing role of the instrument in pop music.

– GP

    During the fifties it was rare to find a guitar solo on rock or R&B singles – it was usually the honk-squeak tenor sax syndrome taking up the space between the bridge and the third verse. When a guitar was heard (usually on the blues or country items I was collecting), its function bore little resemblance to today's collection of pathetic lick-spewage and freeze-dried stereotypifications (all of you sensitive guitar fans who actually get off on our current pseudo-academic era of polished efficiency had better read another article).

    If you have access to them, take the time to listen to the guitar solos on "Three Hours Past Midnight" (Johnny Guitar Watson), "The Story Of My Life" (Guitar Slim), or just about any of B.B. King's singles from that period. For my taste, these solos are exemplary because what is being played is honest and, in a musical way, a direct extension of the personality of the men who played them. If I were a music critic, I would have to say that these values for me mean more than the ability to execute clean lines or clouds of educated gnat-notes.

    Other examples of good guitar stuff from that era might include "Lucy Mae Blues" (Frankie Lee Simms), "Happy Home" (Elmore James – even though Elmore tended to play the same famous lick on every record, I got the feeling that he meant it), and the work of Hubert Sumlin (and Buddy Guy a couple of times) on Howlin' Wolf's things. I'm sure there are other hot items, but this is a short article.

    Also, to be fair about it, there are some classic examples of sterility then too in the kind of rock solos on the Bill Haley singles and the obnoxious kleen-teen finger work on the New York-based R&B vocal quintet records (on labels like Gee, on the up-tempo numbers with the ice-cream-cone chord changes).

    Then we get to the Sixties. We get there partly because R&B was being produced to death (strings on Ray Charles and Fats Domino records, etc.) and because England was starting to ship back some recycled Fifties music, played by people who were younger and cuter than the original consumers (and who, especially in the case of Rolling Stones fans, had never heard the original recordings of their revamped Slim Harpo/Muddy Waters repertoire ... and not only that, folks, if they had heard the originals, they probably wouldn't have liked them at all, since neither of the original artists named above were as prance-worthy as Mick Jagger).

    Obviously, part of the recycling process included the imitation of Chuck Berry guitar solos, B.B. King guitar solos, and even some abstractions of John Lee Hooker guitar solos. The guitar was becoming more prevalent in backing arrangements on singles, especially as a rhythm instrument. Solos on most white-person records of that day and age tended to be rhythmic also, especially in surf music. Almost everything that survives in popular memory (the greatest hits, in other words) was designed for the purpose of dancing – but mainly just to sell. The Sixties saw the beginnings of record production as a science in the service of commerce, with heavy emphasis on the repetition of successful formulas. The best that can be said about this period is that it brought us Jeff Beck at his feedback apex, Jimi Hendrix at his overkill-volume best, and Cream, which sort of legitimized jamming a lot onstage (so long as you could prove British descent, usually by reeling off musical quotations from blues records which most Americans had never heard. [Radio programming nerds made sure that you never heard any of that stuff because Negroes were playing it, and they did their best to protect the young audiences of the Fifties and early Sixties from such a horrible culture shock, while over in England the better musicians were lusting after vintage blues records, actually obtaining them, and having these records form the basis of their playing traditions]).

    So, briefly to review, I would characterize guitarism of the Fifties as having, in its best cases, some real humor, style and personality, and, in its worst cases, mechanical sterility and lack of musical interest.

   I would characterize the Sixties, as having, at its best, exploratory qualities not possible before the advent of heavy amplification and recording studio machinery; more rhythmic interest, and, in some instances, real humor, style, and personality. At its worst, the guitarism of the Sixties brought us amateur strummery; several swift kicks at the Fender Twin Reverb springs; the archetype of folk-rock 12-string swill (the predecessor of the horrible fake-sensitivity music we have today with the laid-back sensitive-type artist/singer/songwriter suffering person, posed against the wooden fence provided by the Warner Brothers Records art department, graciously rented to all the other record companies who needed it for their version of the same crap); and the first examples of the "psychedelic guitar solo," not to mention Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida-ism.

    Obviously this is condensing and leaving out a lot, but I'm sure that all of you entirely-too-modern persons who have read this far are getting anxious for something more relevant to your lifestyle – and you're absolutely right! A perspective of musical history has absolutely no place in today's thrilling musical world. Yes, that's right, you heard right!

    How could any of this information be useful to a musical world that has reached a point of sophistication that accepts concepts like The Super-Group, The Best Guitar Player In The World, The Fastest Guitar Player In The World, The Prettiest Guitar Player In The World, The Loudest Guitar Player In The World, The Guitar Player In The World Who Has Collected The Most Oldest Guitars In The World (some of which have been played by dead guitar players who were actually musicians), and so forth?

    The history of Pop Music has a habit of telling us who we really are – 'cause if we weren't that way, we wouldn't have spent billions of dollars on those records, would we? After careful training by media and merchandising people, the entire population (even guitar players) has been transmuted into a reasonably well-groomed, odor-free, consumer-amoeba, which is kept alive only to service manufacturers and lives its life by the motto: biggest, fastest, loudest is most and best.

    So forget about the past; it means nothing to you now (unless you can find a way to play it louder/faster – which probably wouldn't be too hard since even infants today can play as fast as the earliest Mahavishnuisms). Let's face it, once you learn the 28 or 29 most commonly used rock doo-dads (a few country licks, a little Albert King, a pentatonic scale here 'n there, get yer heavy vibrato together) you are ready to live; to be what will be known in the future as "The Guitar Player of the Seventies". Yes, soon you will belong to the ages, and when you've finally got your album contract, and it finally comes out, and it sells ten million copies, and when every beginning guitar player sits at home and hears you wanking away at phenomenal speed with your perfect fuzz and your thoroughly acceptable execution, and when that little guy with his first guitar (him and the ten million other ones) says to himself: "Shit, I can do that," and proceeds to memorize every awe-inspiring note, and then plays it faster than you ... (maybe gets his 32nd notes up around a dotted whole note = 208). And not only that, after learning your solo faster, he transposes it up a minor third, steals some of his mother's clothes, gets a job in a bar, gets discovered, gets a record contract (with an advance ten times bigger than yours), makes an album (with a better budget than yours, because he's going to be the next big thing according to the executives at the record company, and they don't mind spending a little extra for real talent). And not only that, while you just figured out you can't play any faster because you haven't had any time to practice because you got coked out on the royalties of your first album (and you still have to record ten more according to your contract), and it's time to do your second album, and you've been asking recording engineers how a VSO works, meanwhile the little guy with his mother's clothes on gets his album out on the street, and it sells twenty million copies, and somewhere out there, there's twenty million other little guys with their first guitars, and they're listening to your recycled wank, and they're saying ...

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