Frank Zappa On... The '80s Guitar Clone
As told to Dan Forte
Guitar Player, 1987 January
Who better to comment on the guitar's evolution in pop music than Frank Zappa? That's what we asked ourselves in late 1976, when we were preparing our 10th Anniversary issue of Guitar Player (Jan. '77). And when the question came up again for our 20th Anniversary, the answer was the same. Besides being one of rock's most prolific composers and recording artists – both as a soloist and head of the Mothers Of Invention – Zappa is one of the idiom's finest, albeit underrated, guitarists, a synthesizer pioneer, and an intelligent, biting satirist. In recent years he has concentrated on his first love, modern classical composition, and has been one of the country's most outspoken opponents to the PMRC's drive to give ratings to rock lyrics.
His essay of 10 years ago, "Good Guitar Stuff or Stereotypifications? The Evolution Of The Guitar's Use In Pop Music: Short Version," was so provocative, so priceless, so ... Zappa that we decided to rerun it in its entirety – at the end of which Frank reflects on what he wrote before, with comments about the state of guitar in the '80s. Also in this issue, an added bonus: a Soundpage recording of Frank's onstage debut with son Dweezil, playing "Sharleena "(see page 82).
During the '50s 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 blues 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 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 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 were 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 '60s. 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 '50s music, played by people who were younger and cuter than the original performers, to be consumed 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 '60s 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 this 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 you never heard any of that stuff because Negroes were playing it, and they did their best to protect the young audiences of the '50s and early '60s 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 '50s 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 '60s 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 '60s 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 a wooden fence provided by the Warner Bros. 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 probably 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 that 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 guitar doodads (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'70s." 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 10,000,000 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 10,000,000 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 thirty-second-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 10 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 10 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 20,000,000 copies, and somewhere out there, there's 20,000,000 other little guys with their first guitars, and they're listening to your recycled wank, and they're saying ...
Two syndromes that didn't exist when you wrote your 1977 essay are: MTV and the guitar synths of today, with MIDI guitar and sampling. In light of these, do you see the '80s guitarist being significantly different from the 70s guitarist?
Well, the one thing that seems to be more prevalent today is imitation. I think that the amount of copycat players in the marketplace today is significantly higher than it's ever been before. You see very few truly original guitarists and a whole bunch of people who wish they were Eddie Van Halen. The aesthetic norm for guitar playing viewed as an ongoing trend seems to be: If Eddie can do it, why, I can certainly do it, and maybe if I practice, I can do it faster. That seems to be the motivating aesthetic for most of the guitar players who get recorded today. There may be creative ones working out there someplace who never got to make a record, but it seems that the two criteria for getting on a record today are: What do you look like – that's first – and second, how many of Eddie's licks can you play? And if you don't exactly play his licks, you'd better be playing two-handed guitar on the neck; otherwise, you sound like an old-fashioned sort of a person. You just couldn't possibly make it today.
You've had a lot nice things to say about Van Halen himself, but when it comes to just the pretenders to the throne, do you feel they're missing the essence of what makes him great and are concentrating too much on sheer gymnastics?
I think the bottom line is the gymnastic aspect of it.
What was it about Eddie Van Halen's guitar playing that made you appreciate him more than the rest of the crowd?
Well, I didn't see anybody else doing the technique that he was doing. He just had it under control so much, it didn't sound forced. It wasn't like, "Watch me throw this thing in here now." It sounded like it belonged.
What about your experiences with guitar synths and the Synclavier, which have resulted in your not playing as much guitar?
I probably would be playing more guitar right now if I were more comfortable with the Synclavier guitar interface. I've tried it a number of times in different stages of development, and this is not just to pick on them – I've tried all other kinds of guitar interfaces to plug into that machine – and none of them feel comfortable to use. So most of the data that's entered into the machine is entered through the keyboard or it's typed in or it's played in with a Roland Octapad. If something ever comes along that will allow me to generate the kind of music that I want to generate on the Synclavier but started off from a guitar-based concept, then I might pick it up. But it just seems like a real roundabout way to enter the data for me right now. Very little of what I'm writing on the thing has anything to do with guitar styles. I'm using samples of classical guitar, but there is nothing in these compositions that sounds like guitar playing.
Because of the nature of how you input it, would the music be impossible to play on a guitar?
Well, what I like to do is, if I have access to a machine that will do impossible things, I want to make sure that the composition that results from the use of the machine contains at least a few of the impossibilities. In the case of whether it could be played on a guitar, one of the reasons that the answer would be "no" is because you can actually have pitches coming out of the instrument that don't exist on a guitar, both higher and lower, and also intervallic jumps that would be physically impossible to do on a guitar and runs going by at speeds that would be impossible to do on a guitar.
You've also been very outspoken on the ethics of sampling a record or a recorded sound?
I don't think that it's right to do it. I mean, if you do it with permission, fine, but I've put on all my records a little notice that says "Unauthorized sampling prohibited. "I think that people who go around sampling CDs really shouldn't do it.
In numerous interviews, you've cited the same guitarists you mentioned in your essay as the players who really moved you – Johnny Guitar Watson, Elmore James, Guitar Slim, early B. B. King ...
Well, you'd have to include Wes Montgomery and Allan Holdsworth in there, too, I'm afraid.
Allan Holdsworth seems like a far cry from Guitar Slim.
When I listen to music, I listen to what the substance is, not necessarily the style of it. I've heard bluegrass players that knock me out, too.
Do you think the types of music that touch you are still "a direct extension of a personality of the men who played them."
Well, I get the same sensation listening to Wes Montgomery. You hear Wes when you hear him play, and the same thing with Holdsworth. He puts his personality, something about him as a person, into playing, and I don't 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 the guitar 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 a standpoint, but I don't 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.
Have you been influenced at all by the taste and the playing of your kids?
No, because at the point when Dweezil started playing the guitar when he was 12, his first idol before Eddie was actually Randy Rhoads, and I wasn't very familiar with Randy's playing. But if I play the guitar, I certainly do not play it in order to amuse Dweezil. And since I haven't touched it in a couple of years, I guess I don't play it to amuse anybody.
Have the recent trends in guitar served to reinforce what you've always felt about those players?
There is no substitute for that. There just isn't. You have to remember, whatever I say about contemporary music is based on the quantity that I actually get a chance to listen to. Since I don't collect records of that nature and I don't go out to concerts of that kind of stuff, my experience is whatever happens to be on the radio in the car before I tell the person driving to turn it off, or what I will see on MTV flipping through the dial. I'm not an aficionado of any of it. I have to talk in general terms; I can't give you specifics without the technique of guitar player so-and-so with such-and-such a group. With kind of minimal exposure to it, I don't think that I'm too far off the mark in talking about the redundancy and the derivitiveness of most of the guitar work that appears in the rock videos. There is another exceptional guitar player, one of the guys that Dweezil really admires, and that's Warren DiMartini from Ratt. I've seen him play, and I think that he's excellent, too. I think he's got his own thing going.
In the same way that Olympic records are always being broken, guitar playing seems to be getting faster and faster.
Not only is it getting faster, but the solos themselves are becoming gymnastic routines – basically 8- and maybe 16-bar gymnastic routines that are stuck in the middle of songs about fairly common topics. The whole concept of extended improvisations that are compositions in progress is something that is pretty much gone from the pop music scene. That's one of the major losses for the '80s, I think. That's what I was addressing in the old article, talking about the process by which the kid sitting at home listens to a tape, and although he couldn't read it off the piece of paper, learns it by rote like a parrot, and winds up playing faster and faster and faster. I think that's really what's taking place.
Do you think because of the climate that exists today, as far as mass-programming of radio and MTV goes, is it harder for an artist like yourself to exist? Would it be virtually impossible for a group to come along like the Mothers Of Invention in 1987?
I would say the odds of a group like that appearing today and surviving would be nil. As far as me doing what I'm doing, I continue to do it. The thing that becomes increasingly difficult is for the audience to have access to it because, unless you're willing to pay off a radio station, the chances are you are not going to get your record on the radio. That's not my idea of a good time. The amount of stuff that is recorded by me that will appear on the radio is pretty small. As far as appearing on MTV, that is tied mostly to the way you look and, of course, a certain amount of promotional consideration. And the fact is, the videos are so expensive to make, one video costs more than a whole album. I'm self-financed, so I can't afford to spend a lot of money doing these things.
You did do a video for "You Are What You Is (The Music Video)." Was that your last one?
That's the one. That's all there is. That's the only video I've made. The reason it was done was because it was financed by CBS International. They wanted it to show overseas. It didn't get showed a lot in the United States because I had Reagan getting the electric chair and a black guy dressed as a native spewing Pepto Bismol while saying the words "Mercedes Benz." I thought it was a good video.