Help Me Appreciate Frank Zappa

I know he’s a genius. I know he’s dead. I’ve watched many of his interviews and depositions before Congressional hearings, etc.

I have been exposed only to a smattering of his work, mostly stuff like “Joe’s Garage” and “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” and “Sheik Yerbouti”.

I know he can wail on guitar, so any of his “best” guitar solos would be awesome. But I’m also interested in his reputation as a composer, and his relationship with Steve Vai, whom from my limited listening to Frank, emulates him in many respects, particularly oddball instrumentals.

Point me in the direction of happiness, please. I wish to try to construct in my head what made him the genius so many describe him as.


I suggest ‘Hot Rats’ to get a taste of his talent in what is really a jazz type record, and then a live recording like ‘Zappa in New York’ for what he can be like live.

This. (Also, a nudge at my username)

Kinda an iconic Zappa guitar piece. And another. Zappa and Vai dueling.

Hot Rats is indeed a great place to start. I would then proceed to One Size Fits All – you’ll especially enjoy the masterpiece “Inca Roads,” including its gorgeous guitar solo.

From there, you could take things in any of various directions. Early '70s easy-to-digest, well-crafted songs? Try Apostrophe. Mid '60s fun satirical doo-wop-tinged pop (but with some amazingly creative musical elements)? Absolutely Free. Experimental, quasi-classical brilliance? Uncle Meat.


He was a serious music composer (or whatever term we eventually come up with as an alternative to “classical” for instrumental, orchestral music) who worked with rock bands because rock musicians were all he could afford. Eventually, he got to record with orchestras.

Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (’) are my favorite Zappa albums. Bluesy tunes with fantastic arrangements. The percussion work on ONS is incredible.

I would also recommend We’re Only in It for the Money by The Mothers of Invention. It is essentially a Zappa record. The most creative thing he ever did, IMO.

For those who are interested in delving further into Zappa’s work, there is a recent DVD with Dweezil, Frank’s son, playing back parts of the original multi-track tapes of these two with commentary. Very interesting to hear Tina Turner doing backgrounds on some tracks.

he went in phases. he was all over the place.

it is easy to like some stuff and really dislike other stuff.

early stuff with the Mothers had much social commentary and classical influences.

later was a jazz fusion. Hot Rats is god stuff. you might like some early stuff of this type and dislike the later where he stretched things out real much.

My rough overview:

Early Zappa: Freak Out, Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money, Uncle Meat, Lumpy Gravy. This is young Zappa faced with the opportunity to get his stuff out and on these albums he tries to do everything he ever wanted to do all at once. There is a kind of primitiveness about these albums, partly due to crude production and partly due to the lack of virtuosity of his band members at this time. Nevertheless they do have their charm and some favor this early stuff over the rest.

Jazz fusion Zappa: Hot Rats, Waka Jawaka, Grand Wazoo, parts of Burnt Weeny Sandwich and parts of Weasels Ripped My Flesh. This is where Zappa starts to get musicians who can actually execute his ideas and a decent studio and multitrack recording to bring his work to fruition. Hot Rats is the pivotal album where he simultaneously shows his prowess as a composer, arranger and guitar hero, with jazz and classical overtones throughout. Waka and Wazoo continue this. Burnt and Weasels are transitional albums that have one foot in the early Zappa style and another in the more sophisticated Hot Rats vein.

70s rock star Zappa: Fillmore East 1971, Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe, One Size Fits All, Roxy and Elsewhere, Sheik Yerbouti. His music becomes more 70s stadium rock on these albums. His lyrics tend (in varying degrees) towards topics of (deviant) sex and groupies and silly goofy offbeat topics. There are still many showcases of brilliant compositional and arrangement genius. As the decade goes on, his choice of musicians leans more towards technical virtuosi.

80s rock star Zappa: Joe’s Garage, You Are What You Is, Ship Arriving Too Late, Them Or Us. His lyrics go over the top, trying hard for laughs and obsessed with deviant sex and occasional jibes at mass culture or politics. This is where Steve Vai is in Zappa’s circle and likewise the other musicians are of a very high calibre.

Zappa, the serious composer: Jazz From Hell, Perfect Stranger, Civilization Phase III, Yellow Shark. Self-explanatory…Zappa makes music meant to rub shoulders with Edgar Varese and Stravinsky. Some of it is created by programming a digital sampler called the Synclavier, the first device that had the technical capacity to accurately execute his compositional ideas without the need of other musicians. Some dislike the antiseptic sound of the Synclavier. Yellow Shark features his compositions as performed by the Ensemble Modern. The Perfect Stranger is a collaboration with conductor (and composer) Pierre Boulez and Ensemble InterContemporain.

The categories above are rough guides…there are plenty of albums that straddle multiple tendencies throughout his career. Also I obviously didn’t list every album. It might be worthwhile to sample albums in many different eras and see what sticks.

Just Another Band From LA deserves a mention here; Billy The Mountain has to be one of the best live story-songs ever recorded.

I don’t know the other albums you mention here, but I sure wouldn’t call Freak Out! primitive, either in the musical concepts or in instrumental ability. Some of the chord progressions and bridges are not all that easy, especially compared to the simple pop-rock that was typical for 1966. I’d say those harpsichord breaks in “You Didn’t Try To Call Me” are quite sophisticated for the era.

I won’t claim that “It Can’t Happen Here” and “Help! I’m A Rock” succeed on any musical level, though as comedy they work fairly well in my opinion.

(If you can, get an actual CD of Freak Out! or even the LP–even if you bought the actual music as a download. The liner notes alone are worth the money.)

Not harpsichord; that’s a 12-string guitar, played by Carol Kaye.

I hear you but my comment had nothing to do with the pop music of the day. I’m talking internally within Zappa’s career - the technical virtuosity greatly expanded from Hot Rats onwards. But there’s much to admire and enjoy in those early albums and his ambition had a sophistication unheard of at the time. I also like his social commentary lyrical slant in these albums much more than the frat boy crap he churned out later.

I remember that side of his work, too, including songs about actual crap in the scatalogical sense, or canine urination in wintry climes–cringeworthy lyrics framing transcendental guitar solos.

Before I outgrew comic books, sometime around 1967, I remember they sometimes ran ads for The Mothers, with a picture of FZ calculated and drawn to freak out Mom and Pop and then cause their lawn to whither and die. I don’t remember if they hawked actual records or something else like stickers and other memorabilia. Throughout his career it did often seem that he tried far too hard but then you can say that about many other musical legends too.

FZ’s compositions can be characterized as being very, well… complex, and he expertly interweaved different styles (e.g. blues and jazz). They stood in stark contrast to the relatively simple, pop-rock ditties that were put out by everyone else at the time. His compositions were not bubblegummy (unless for satirical reasons), and were difficult to digest upon first listening. Hence the reason for virtually no airplay.

Unlike many other artists, Zappa was more interested in technical proficiency than producing hum-along pop tunes. Thus once the Mothers was disbanded, he sought only to hire highly-skilled, serious musicians who could actually read music. Many possessed university degrees in music. In other words, he wanted more people like Ian Underwood in his band.

Excellent summation, alphamatix. Very good recommendations and comments from everyone else as well.

Many? I know about Ian Underwood (“the amazing Ian Underwood” in my opinion), and Ruth; who else?

On quick check at least Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf, Jean-Luc Ponty, Art Tripp, George Duke, Arthur Barrow, Ed Mann, Patrick O’ Hearn, Vinnie Colaiuta, Terry Bozzio and Steve Vai either have actual degrees or at least put in a year or three of formal college-level training.

At the very least Zappa tended towards using more formally trained musicians than was typical of “rock” icons, though it never appears to have been a requirement per se.