Frank Zappa is routinely considered one of the finest guitar players to have ever lived. He ranked #22 on Rolling Stone’s 2011 list of 100 greatest guitarists. Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines have done dozens of cover features on Zappa, with the former devoting an entire issue to him after his death. Revered players like Steve Vai bow down at Zappa’s feet, and Frank’s son Dweezil had to, in his words, re-learn how to play guitar before taking his father’s music out on the road with Zappa Plays Zappa.
And yet, an argument can be made that Zappa is actually underrated as a guitarist.
Certainly that was the case in May of 1981, when Zappa’s own Barking Pumpkin Records issued three albums designed to showcase his guitar solos. They were blessed with particularly Zappa-esque names: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Each ran to about 35 minutes, and all three were only obtainable through mail order.
But what should have remained niche records, interesting only to a select few, became the ultimate expression of Zappa the guitar player. It was on these albums that the uninitiated could finally hear just how good the man was. His playing runs the gamut from fierce and dirty to sublimely beautiful, but the element of his work that is most on display here is his unpredictability. Zappa rarely played anything the way one would expect a guitarist to play it. His spontaneous guitar sculptures are continuously surprising, even for people who don’t play the instrument.
It’s a style that takes some getting used to. Zappa could hear complex polyrhythms in his head, and would often play to those, as opposed to blending in with the work of his backing musicians. This leads to accents falling on the “wrong” notes, or some notes holding longer than you would expect, and if you are used to the Eddie Van Halen school of rock guitar playing, this may sound wrong to your ears at first. But after repeated listens, it becomes clear that Zappa is effectively rewriting the rulebook for guitar solos.
These three albums are comprised almost entirely of live guitar solos, taken from extended renditions of other songs. The seven tracks on the first album, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, were mostly recorded on the 1979-1980 tour, which means the phenomenal rhythm section of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Arthur Barrow is in full effect here. Half the fun of listening to this album is hearing what these two players are doing behind Zappa’s blistering lead work – they’re following, making decisions based on the lead playing, but they’re creating their own kind of musical alchemy as well.
Shut Up begins with some of Zappa’s fiercest playing, on the complex “Five-Five-FIVE” and the downright nasty “Hog Heaven.” The title track, taken from a February 1979 performance of “Inca Roads,” is Zappa’s first chance to stretch out here – the solo runs for 5:38, and never drags, Zappa making endlessly fascinating choices and the band switching gears behind him, totally in sync. The solo is surprisingly melodic, swooping back and forth over the two-note “Inca Roads” vamp.
Zappa unveils a clean guitar tone for “While You Were Out,” one of the few studio tracks in the three-album collection. The drums were recorded in early 1979, the two guitars (Zappa and Warren Cucurullo) improvised over them in late 1979. And yet, if you didn’t know it, you’d swear you were listening to another live jam session. Zappa’s peaceful tone offers an oasis between the louder live tracks, and showcase another, more placid side to his playing.
“Treacherous Cretins” and “Heavy Duty Judy” are their own distinct songs. The former finds Zappa soloing over a slow, repeated keyboard line and some unbelievable drumming from Coliauta, the latter is an explosion of guitar notes over a slinky horn figure. (This song will be resurrected for the 1988 tour, with even more trumpets and saxophones.) The album ends with a seven-minute blues jam called “Soup ‘n Old Clothes,” taken from a December 1980 performance of “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” As has been seen previously, Zappa played the blues fluently, and at the same time, like no one else.
If guitar solos do not excite you, this should not be your first Zappa purchase. But give this first volume a listen – it’s only 35 minutes – and it could redefine your idea of rock guitar playing. Zappa was just that good.
Which version to buy: The three Shut Up albums have been packaged together on CD since 1986, when they were first issued as a 2-CD set. The 1995 edition restored the three-LPs-in-a-box feel by separating each album onto its own disc, but this made the entire endeavor more expensive. Your best and most economical bet is the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which sounds better than any other edition, and reverts to the 2-CD format.
Next week: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More.