Absolutely Frank

By James Rotondi & Jas Obrecht

Guitar Player, March 1994

The obituaries missed the point. He must have known they would. Every attempt to shoehorn Frank Zappa into easily comprehensible terms has grasped at painfully inadequate descriptive straws: "iconoclast," "rocker," "sociologist." Even his latter-day mantle of "avant-garde composer" sounds too tight, too proscribed to quantify the diverse talents, expansive output, intense persona, and fearless tenacity of Frank Zappa.

From 1966's Freak Out to 1993's The Yellow Shark, Zappa taught musicians to value musical vision and artistic independence above all, to speak, sing, play, and write freely, to misbehave, to challenge convention and fashion. But he also inspired a fierce commitment towards excellence. Players would work for years in hopes of someday being worthy to "play with Zappa," a validation and true arrival on a par with "playing for Miles." For many talented, trained musicians, Zappa audition pieces like "The Black Page" are symbolic passages in the quest for technical mastery.

But Zappa's radical individuality also inspired many of today's irreverent underground bands, odd outfits that explore the kind of disarming, primitivism aesthetic of the Zappa/Captain Beefheart collaborations. And though he was always more urbane, satirical, and difficult than either the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brother, Zappa toyed with the similarly influential see-saw between three-chord pop-craft and outside free-jam.

Zappa was generally self-deprecating about his guitar skills, particularly in recent years as he focused his energies on composing and compiling music. But with a Strat, Les Paul, or SG, he was an inspired soloist with a rough, under-your skin tone, wholly idiosyncratic phrasing, and complex rhythmic sense. Even if Frank had released nothing but the three incredible Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar albums, he would have secured a place in the instrument's pantheon of innovators. Fortunately, he contributed so much more as a bandleader, arranger, producer, singer, lyricist, and musical mentor.

It's ironic that Zappa,often singled out as eccentric, odd, and left-of-center, consistently rejected the facile notion of the musical artist as a bumbling bohemian who worked only when elusive inspiration hit. It's the same as any other field, he used to say: "You get up in the morning and you go to work. If you dont, dont expect greatness." Maybe it was just his Italian-American immigrant background, maybe just an abhorrence of bullshit, but throughout more than two-and-a-half decades of music making, Zappa retained his sober, matter-of-fact genius. Even his most caustic, bizarre pieces have at their root a man of rare common sense and purpose.

Frank was leading The Mothers of Invention when he made his Guitar Player debut in October '68. Over the next quarter-century, his ongoing relationship with the magazine produced cover stories, features, a Soundpage with his son Dweezil, and the early-'80s Absolutely Frank column. But nothing taught us more than when we co-produced 1992's Zappa!, a special "one-shot" magazine. Frank gave us reams of great material, literally edited every word, oversaw every graphic, and made numerous – make that countless – microscopic changes.

When the 52-year-old died on Saturday, December 4, 1993, from complications of prostate cancer, he left a legacy that invites grandiloquent testimony. But Zappa never needed anyone to speak on his behalf, and we've done enough already. Here are some highlights from many remarkable conversations.

Beyond Gnat Notes

Take the time to listen to the guitar solos on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Three Hours Past Midnight," Guitar Slim's "The Story of My Life," or just about any of B.B. King's solos from that period [the 50's]. For my taste, these solos are exemplary because what is being played seems 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 mean more than the ability to execute clean lines or clouds of educated gnat-notes.

I get the same sensation listening to Wes Montgomery. You hear Wes when you hear him play, he puts his personality, something about him as a person, into playing, and I dont detect "watch me show off now" – there is none of that syndrome. That's the thing that is most obnoxious about current guitar, because when people are attempting to play in a competitive way, in order to do somebody else's style but just do it faster, that's great from an Olympic competition kind of stand-point, but I dont think it's particularly musical. And since I like music, it would not necessarily excite me to hear someone playing something real fast, if it wasn't unique to the individual. (1/77)

Self Amusement

I write because I am personally amused by what I do. The fact that it comes out as just something that has to do with the business world, rather than the artistic world. Even if I wasn't releasing records, I would still do it. (1/83)

Playing Guitar

I hardly ever touch it. The only time I play guitar is when I know I'm going on tour. I practice a little bit before we go into rehearsal to get the calluses built up again. Then I play during rehearsals, and when we get out on the road, I usually practice an hour a day before each show. Once the tour is over, I don't touch the guitar. Lately I've gone six months without touching my guitar. Do I miss it? In a way, yes; in a way, no. I really like the instrument and I really like to play, but when the responsibility for running the business rests on my shoulders, there isn't any time to practice. There's no time for the kind of guitar player enjoyment that the readers of you magazine might imagine a person might indulge in. If you really love the guitar, then you're going to spend every waking hour stroking the thing and playing through peculiar rituals. (2/83)

Outside Influences

I'm not a consumer of pop music. I don't listen to the radio. I don't go to see groups. I don't buy albums. I've got too much other stuff to do; that world is not for me. I'm not interested. (2/83)


Every song is different. It just depends on what it's eventually going to wind up being. It could start off with two or three words. And I always write a few songs when I'm out on the road. Songs that are basically vocal-oriented. I usually start off with a story idea or just a phrase. There's one song I made up on the last tour (in '82) called "Baby Take Your Teeth Out." Just those words turned into a song. Other ways: You can start off with something from a sound check, when you're playing a few chords while warming up. You say, "Those chords sound good," and the next step is to decide what you're going to do with it. That's for the most basic type of material-the easy stuff where you can just hum it to the band and say, "Okay, I'm doing this. You do that, you play this beat, and you come in here." That's the easy way of putting rock and roll together.

The compositions on paper are done a totally different way. That's the only time I need a piano. I can just sit in an airport and write it down on paper too. Some of the pieces to be performed by the London Symphony were written in airports or hotel rooms with no appliances whatsoever. Then I'll test the parts of the harmony lines on the piano, refine it, and then generate a handwritten score in fairly messy condition, which I then give to the copyist I have on the payroll. He'll ink and copy parts, and it's done. (2/83)

The Real Crux of the Biscuit

If I put another guitarist on my album, I hire that person because he plays things I can't play. And if the music requires a certain type of performance, and the composition is the real crux of the biscuit, then you don't want to be unfair to the composite and play it yourself if you're going to play it all wrong. So you get people who can do it. It's not a matter of being lazy. (2/83)

Chord Changes

I don't like chord changes. I like to have one tonal center that stays right there, or possibly with a second chord that varies off the main tonal center. And then I play around that. I don't know if you ever listen to American Indian music-there are no chord changes in that, but you can hear implications of all kinds of other chord changes and lines that are played against each other. That's the way I like to work. There's a little four-note vamp in "Treacherous Cretins" (on Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar) that implies Dm and A chords. It creates a harmonic climate. I don't think of them as chord changes. Instead, I look at the whole as a harmonic climate or harmonic attitude that sets up a mood-the combinations of the alternation of those two chords. And so I play inside that attitude. I can play lines that include the notes of both chords. I get to play C#s and C Sharps in that way. (12/82)


Here's how the rip-off works: Even if the record company told you they were going to pick up the tab for your splendid little video masterpiece, they can give you a hose-job any time. They hold all your royalties. They will take the cost of the video out of your pocket before you can make a nickel from any records sold.And as an artist, you don't stand a chance of prevailing against them in court.

As a musician in America, your value as a human being is (to put it mildly) small. If you are a rock and roll guitarist – less than small. If you go to court with them, the judge will look at them and their well-tailored lawyers and say, "These are honest, worthwhile, productive members of an important American industry." Then he'll look at you and say, "Scum of the earth! How dare you complain about your treatment by these fine men? Do you think you even have a right to be alive in our great land? Go away, and be thankful I have not given you the death penalty for questioning the behavior of this spotless company!" make no mistake: You will pay! (4/84)

The Record Company Hose-Job

It is within the realm of possibilities that professional musicians who already have record contracts read this magazine. This message is specifically addressed to them. Eventually, in the course of your contract with a record company, you will ask yourself, "Am I getting the hose-job? Are these guys paying me what they really owe me?" The answer is often, "No." Why? Because they think you are a clown with a studded dog collar on.

Record companies like to hold onto your royalties until the very last moment because they collect interest on your and everybody else's money as long as they can. Unless you area clown, or your manager is a clown (or worse), it always pays to audit. Few, if any, audits of record company books have shown that their version of what they owe you is correct. There always seems to be some "mere oversight" that "might necessitate rectification." When you catch them with their pants down, they talk funny. if your auditor discovers aromatic fiscal behavior at the digital level, the response from the company is likely to be hostile. Tell them to go die someplace! Do not bend over. (5/84)

Ritual De Lo Habitual

I work until I can't stand it, and then I go to sleep. It varies from day to day. I work a few 20-hour days, and then it settles down to a mild 12 for a couple of days. (2/83)

Choosing Axes

If you pick up a guitar and it says, "Take me, I'm yours," then that's the one for you. You dont go into a guitar store and say, "Hey, what a great paint job." You have to put it in your hand, because a real guitar that's going to be something you make music on-as opposed to a piece of machinery that makes you look good onstage-is going to have a relationship to your hand and body. It feels right when you pick it up. And that's the way I felt when I got the first SG that I had. Same thing with the Gibson Les Paul. (2/83)

Man on Bass

I like a bass player that tells you a story by playing the roots every once in a while. A lot of those modernistic-type personages don't want to do that. They think it's beneath their dignity to play the bottom note of the chord. And that's not for me. I like somebody who tells me the key I'm in. (5/83)


My idea of a good time is a really simple-minded song followed by something that is out to lunch, and then back to simplicity again, and then out to lunch again. That's the way the world really is: It's not totally complex, and it's not totally simple. It's a combination of both. I also like to have a bonk, bonk, bonk track with complicated things going on above it, and vice versa: a complicated track with really simple, long-tone melodies going on above it. It makes for the variety that keeps the interest going. And whether the bonk, bonk, bonk is provided by the drummer doesn't make any difference. I mean, you can have a bonk, bonk, bonk sensation just by having a tack piano playing quarter-notes on a II chord-just playing a choppy rhythm like that, a real simple part, and everybody else is going wild. As long as there's something that the audience can hear and say, "Okay, here's what we're relating to, and because we can understand this bonking over here, the rest of the stuff must mean that, because it's related to the bonk." You need to have a clue for the audience to start from before they can understand how fantastic the other stuff is. If there's no basic time, if there's no basic pulse where the audience can sense a foundation of some sort, then I don't think the piece works as well. It sounds like "modern jazz," you know, where there's a bunch of guys ego-tripping their brains out and just playing a bunch of poot, which, when combined, cancels itself out in to this kind of little, brown cloud of nothingness that doesn't make any difference. (5/83)

More Garlic, Please

If I miss a note, I'm not going to commit suicide over it. I'm sure that there are perfect guitar players out there someplace, but I'll guarantee you they ain't gonna play like me. I'll go out on a musical limb; I'll go out and try it. Why not? What have I got to lose? I'm not famous; I'm an unknown guitar player. Nobody's going to punch my scorecard the wrong way or give me brown stars if I screw up. Big deal, I'll take the chances. The rest of the guys that have the big reputations have to always play exactly in their style and do it right, and make sure it comes out perfect! What I do sort of sounds like the record, but usually what you get in other performances of guitar stuff is lacking in something. Vinnie Colaiuta has an expression; he says, "It has no garlic in it." You know, there's plenty of garlic on the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar albums. They take chances and go out there and try things that polite society would rather people ignore. (12/82)

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net