Frank Zappa would have celebrated his 70th birthday today. Though the guitar and compositional legend passed away on December 4, 1993 his legacy lives on both through his deep well of recordings and his direct influence on some of the jamband scene’s more famous players. In celebration of Zappa’s 70th birthday, Relix and Jambands.com are proud to offer reflections from a wide range of musicians—from Weird Al to Les Claypool.
These quotes are taken from a series of interviews conducted by Relix Executive Editor Mike Greenhaus shortly before Frank Zappa received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Jammys. Please click here for a full list of artist reflections.
I really appreciate anybody who has any type of signature, whether it’s a guitar player or somebody who makes pancakes. It’s so rare to have your thumbprint really stand out from the rest of the bunch. He was a fellow who challenged himself and did what he needed to remain interested in making music and creating. I think that’s very bold because when most people find their comfort zone, they stick with it. He’s a shining example for guys like myself to take chances, and not be afraid to take those chances. His humor was amazing—-“Dumb All Over” is still incredibly timely. It’s almost scary. He knew how to hit the nail on the head and still have it tickle your funny bone or bring forth this odd imagery that would border on silly. But, he would never get ridiculous to the point of where it would undermine his stature.
Jon Gutwillig (Disco Biscuits)
He is the first wildman of rock. His use of small orchestras for dynamic rock rather than big band jazz is the main connection between four piece rock-and-roll and the symphonic composers of the early 20th century: Prokofiev, Copeland, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Plus, Edgard Varese’s inspiration will always be remembered through Frank Zappa. I feel like he single handedly upheld American musicianship during the early 60’s when the Beatles and Stones were dominant and Dylan was a folky. In my own music, I mostly focused on his compositional and orchestrating prowess as opposed to his guitar playing. “Echidna’s Arf (of You)” is the high bar for composition style rock music. “Regyptian Strut” is my favorite Zappa composition, but “Cheepnis,” “Who Needs the Peace Corps?,” and “It Must Be A Camel” are also all mind expanding.
Jake Cinninger (Umphrey’s McGee)
As a guitarist, Zappa played very linear, kind of like Ravi Shankar, almost like modal blues sitar riffs, a lot of open strings. It’s like a hammer tapping idea, very legato. His speed and accuracy were amazing—-just how twisted his mind would go in places where you really wouldn’t tread on the guitar. As far for my own compositions, he’s the guy that showed me how to fit any random number of beats inside a bar of music. That’s sort of where math and science and music all come together. He’s also the guy that kind of opened up rock n’ roll, making something so “out” actually groove. I feel people are finally starting to scratch the surface and understand what Zappa was all about.
We come from more or less the same background, the classical avant-garde, though in our work we expressed ourselves quite differently. As a composer, I felt a close comradeship to him amongst more rock orientated singer/songwriters. He is one of the geniuses of our time and will always have a place there. He will go on and on and on!
Chuck Garvey (moe.)
Zappa was the rock guy who plastered classical, highbrow, blues, lowbrow, reggae and god knows what else into a style that was uniquely his own. Not only because of the juxtaposition of many diverse, seemingly unrelated styles, but also because of his strongly developed personal “signature” in compositions – rhythms and melodies that are heretofore unheard. And, they were typically performed at knuckle busting, blowtorch-to-the-head speed. His guitar tone and style are also immediately recognizable – honking, stinking, too-loud, delicate and flourishing, ornate, melodic, knuckle-dragging inspiration in every note. I believe his appeal ranges from the Academic highs, to the beer swillin’ lowbrows and everything in between. He also stood up to the PMRC, Tipper Gore and Right Wing Bullshit at large and was drug and alcohol free. Made everyone outside “Zappaworld” seem like an anachronistic afterthought with humor and talent out the wazoo.
Weird Al Yankovic
While Frank is unquestionably a guitar virtuoso, I’ve never been a big fan of long solos. I’ve always been more of an admirer of his compositional acumen, which I had to study religiously when I did my Zappa homage, “Genius In France.” I call songs like that “style parodies” where I dissect the style of one of my favorite artists and try to step in their shoes, hopefully creating a composition not unlike something they may have put out themselves. I felt extra pressure doing that with Frank Zappa, since he’s one of my all-time heroes, and frankly, I didn’t want to screw it up. That’s one of the reasons why “Genius In France” is 9 minutes long – there are so many components to Frank’s style that I felt I would be doing him a disservice if I tried to emulate it in 3 or 4 minutes. People may remember Frank as a guitar god or a defender of free speech, but of course, he’ll always have a warm place in my heart for categorically proving to the unwashed masses once and for all that humor really does belong in music.