Frank Zappa's musical language
Frank Zappa's musical language
A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Ulm open air concert During the European winter tour of 1978 Zappa recorded most of the live tracks for "Sheik Yerbouti" during the five concerts he held at the Odeon Hammersmith in London. Touring continued on the continent. At least two concerts in Germany got filmed for TV, so you might here have a possibility for a DVD, for instance combined with the bands appearance at the Saturday Night Live show (see also the Live recordings section of the left menu). To the right: FZ and Arthur Barrow during the Ulm open air concert, summer 1978 (German TV registration).


More teasing is what Zappa says about the "Heidelberg" solo, namely that it's not the best of its kind, but that he liked this one because of the crowd noises responding to the solo. Another pro of this solo is the interaction with the keyboard player. "Heidelberg" premiered on the 1987 promotional cassette "The guitar world according to Frank Zappa" and got included in the "One shot deal" CD by the ZFT. It's a smaller cross through selection from the live archive, one of the by now twenty releases by the ZFT that are made up of live recordings. The ZFT succeeds rather well in filling up gaps that were left by Zappa himself. The kind of solo Zappa is referring to is a solo in E Mixolydian, starting over a sustained E pedal note without drumming. The "Mo' mama" and "Yo' mama" solos from the previous section are two other examples. "Why Johnny can't read" from February 1979 is a fourth example, recorded several months later, so there could very well exist a whole series of solos of this type in the archives. Other than "Why Johnny can't read", "Heidelberg" resembles "Yo' mama" in some of its phrases. Its set up is different however in the sense that it doesn't evolve into a chord alternation, but into strict 4/4 over a bass playing just the E on beat. First Zappa sets the meter to 4/4 himself with his guitar rhythm. Next the drummer joins in, followed by the bass. The section below from 2:13 to 3:04 includes this transition from playing without meter to everybody playing in 4/4. The solo at the end returns to the sustained E pedal note without drumming. Zappa himself started listening systematically to the tapes for guitar solos from 1979 onwards for the three guitar collections on CD. It's a tempting thought what could have been done if he would have had the time going back in time picking out the best solos by himself, or maybe by Steve Vai or Dweezil Zappa.

Heidelberg, 2:13-3:04 (midi file).

Heidelberg, 2:13-3:04 (transcription).

Hiring studios for finishing the album had become expensive and studios had to be booked months in advance. So Zappa decided that it was more economical to build a studio of his own at his house in L.A. It was completed during the fall of 1978, when he had set up his own record company Zappa Records (later Barking Pumpkin Records). He also had made a deal with the Indian born violist "L." (Lakshmirnarayna) Shankar. He produced Shankar's album "Touch me there" for his new company and co-wrote four songs with him for the album (see the next section for more about this record). Shankar made a guest appearance during the concerts around Halloween of October 1978 (See the "You can't..." section for "Thirteen"). By that time the two lead singers next to Zappa on "Sheik Yerbouti", Terry Bozzio and Adrian Belew, had left the band. Terry had now worked with Zappa for four years and needed a change, his name forever being associated with beating "The black page". Adrian accepted an offer by David Bowie, but later considered changing this fast a juvenile mistake. Zappa normally accepted band members leaving without ill feelings and didn't try to convince them to stay. Terry was replaced by Vince Colaiuta and Adrian by Denny Walley.
The Zappa Family Trust compiled an audio DVD from the concerts as "Halloween 1978", released in 2005. The touring program by now included various unreleased material under development that would appear on record over the period 1979-1982.


Via interviews with Zappa it has been known for long that the solos for "Joe's garage" (1979, next section) were recorded live. He separated the guitar parts from the tracks and added new accompaniments to them via a method that he called xenochrony. The term stands for combining two tracks, that were recorded separately, in such a manner that they respond to each other. The earliest example on record, "Friendly little finger", has already been dealt with in the "Zoot allures" section. In order to achieve this you need a velocity control regulator (VCR), a device that can change the tempo without affecting the pitch. This way you can manage that both tracks can be both on beat at several instances, so that it looks as if they were recorded at the same time. In fact, if Zappa hadn't informed us about when he applied xenochrony, we would never know. "Ya Hozna" from 1984 is one of the few exceptions, because on this occasion, you can deduce it yourself that this must have happened. See the Them or us section for the details.

Occam's razor - On the bus

With the ZFT release "One shot deal" however, we get to hear the original "Occam's razor" solo, parts of which became "On the bus" from "Joe's garage" via xenochrony. I never understood why Zappa chose for this labour intensive method on "Joe's garage". He adapted the sound of the guitar to be in line with the sound of the other tracks from this album, so probably that would have been possible with the live accompaniment as well. Secondly, if he wanted a different accompaniment nevertheless, then why not overdub it (you could have someone conducting listening to the old accompaniment on a headphone and let the band do a new accompaniment, exactly in pace). Comparing "Occam's razor" with "On the bus" gives an inside the kitchen opportunity to look at the process. It explains in my opinion why Zappa chose for xenochrony: it is not so much he wanted to manipulate the accompaniment, he wanted to be able to manipulate the solo itself completely at will as shown below via two corresponding sections. "On the bus" starts with the guitar line from the "Occam's razor" solo at 0:17 on the "One shot deal" CD.

Occam's razor, 0:17 till 0:55 (midi file).
On the bus, 0:00 till 0:33 (midi file).

Occam's razor, 0:17 till 0:55 (transcription).
On the bus, 0:00 till 0:33 (transcription).

For the next section I'm taking "Occam's razor" as the basis and I'll comment upon the main differences that can be found in "On the bus".
- Most obvious to notice is the different accompaniment. "Occam's razor" belongs to the series of C Lydian solos Zappa played during the 1979 tour of which four of them landed on "Shut up 'n play yer guitar" (see the corresponding section). Here you actually get to hear the transition to one of the written themes of "Inca roads". "On the bus" has a one-bar vamp-like bass pattern with A as a pedal note, so this one is in A Dorian.
- The tempo of the accompaniment from "On the bus" is slightly slower. Just for that you'd need some speed adaptation for the solo.
- During bars 1-5 there are minor tempo differences. The figure starting with G in bar 2 starts about a 16th note later and ends earlier with the high F# in bar 3, so here Zappa accelerated "On the bus" a little. By the way, transcriptions like this or in the Guitar book aren't done with a mathematical precision that you could get by measuring the pitch lengths physically. They are good approximations of what a human ear can distinguish. There's no point in notating rhythms with more precision than you can hear.
- At beat 1 of bar 6 you get at a more serious tempo difference. "On the bus" gets almost an 8th note ahead.
- At the end of bar 6 you can see that Zappa started editing the "Occam's razor" solo. The whole block A is missing and it's not exactly one bar's length. So this is the sort of manipulating the solo at will.
- At bar 8, starting with the chord, "On the bus" is on beat, just as "Occam's razor", that is now one bar behind. So here Zappa used xenochrony to get "On the bus" parallel again.
- In bar 11 the whole block B gets skipped. Next the solos are about parallel for a bar and a half.
- In bar 13 block C is removed. "On the bus" is now up to three bars ahead. Both solos return to the opening lick, now with the A sustained for some bars.
Remains the question why Zappa picked those three blocks from "Occam's razor" to skip from "On the bus". "Occam's razor" has movements with rapid sequences, sustained notes and movements in between. The three blocks are in between. I think Zappa wanted "On the bus" to be a more articulated solo regarding changes, whereas "Occam's razor" is more relaxed. It must also have been that he enjoyed this type of work, sitting for hours in a studio editing tapes. On "Friendly little finger" and "Rubber shirt" you could call xenochrony an experiment exploring the possibilities of this technique. On "Joe's garage" it's done extensively and systematically. Any "normal" producer would have settled for "Joe's garage" as a double album instead of a three-record set.

A second instance, where you can check the working of xenochrony, is present in the next Joe's garage section at "Keep it greasy". On this occasion Zappa took a live solo from "Outside now", in 11/8, to superimpose it over a vamp in 19/16. Combined with things as happening during "Rubber shirt", it demonstrates the almost unlimited possibilities of xenochrony for combining unrelated seperately recorded tracks.

Zappa's most extensive comment upon xenochrony can be found in the liner notes of "The guitar world according to Frank Zappa" cassette. It's included as comment upon "Friendly little finger":
"Friendly little finger" (04:17); 1975, recorded in a dressing room at Hofstra University and over-dubbed at the Record Plant, Los Angeles, California; originally released on the Warner Brothers album "Zoot allures"; engineer: Davey Moire; original recording medium: 24-track analog tape; musicians: Frank Zappa, various guitars and bass/Ruth Underwood, percussion & ARP 2600/Roy Estrada, drone bass/Terry Bozzio, drums; guitars: Gibson acoustic-electric, Custom fretless, Hofner bass.
This is one of the earliest examples of a technique I developed called xenochrony (strange synchronizations). Other examples include "Rubber shirt" on "Sheik yerbouti" and every guitar solo on "Joe's garage" except "Watermelon in Easter hay". In this technique various tracks from unrelated sources are randomly synchronized with each other to make a final composition with rhythmic relationships unachievable by other means. In ordinary polyrhythmic terms we speak of 5 in the space of 4, or 7 in the space of 6. In xenochrony we deal with larger units of time; a complete solo at one metronomic rate in the space of a track at another ... sort of like Monday and Tuesday crammed into the space of Wednesday. The solo and drone bass was recorded on a 2-track Nagra, 15 ips, with a pair of Neumann U-87 microphones in a rather wet-sounding dressing room, warming up before a concert at Hofstra University on Long Island. This pair of tracks was later xenochronized to a drum track out-take from "The ocean is the ultimate solution". The introductory orchestration was added next, and then the Hofner bass (recorded at half-speed), rhythmically splitting the difference between the two different track tempos."


One instance of where the ZFT jumped in effectively in filling in gaps are the "Chicago '78" CD and the "Halloween" audio DVD. Zappa himself used relatively little from his 1978 fall tour for his albums. As more often with live concerts, version differences and guitar solos are making "Chicago '78" an interesting album. "Twenty-one" is a guitar solo, played as the concert opener. "Village of the sun" features Ike Willis on vocals. This version includes a guitar solo. "Yo' mama" can be heard without the studio overdubs. At some points it's more sober regarding the keyboard and vocals parts, but this doesn't affect the strength of the guitar solo. The general outlines, as sketched in the Sheik Yerbouti section, are followed again, but the solo functions very well as a composition upon its own merits. "Little house I used to live in" gives the band members room to improvise.

Paroxysmal splendor

During "Paroxysmal splendor" you can hear unreleased components, while material from other songs can be recognized as well. It's made up of the following blocks:

- 0:00 Opening bars from "Greggery Peccary". See the Orchestral favorites section for the score.
- 0:27 "FZ & pig". Ballroom music. You can hear the crowd cheering, so there must actually be some dancing taking place. Maybe a coincidence, but it fits in well with the classical decorum of the Uptown Theater from Chicago, a city known for its combination of classical and modern architecture (photos below). It's stereotype music, but I know too little of dances to comment upon the style. It's in C and in 4/4. It's begins with a repeated cadence like G-B-C movement, coming at rest upon C. The example below begins with the second theme from this dance, starting at 1:05. It's played only once. It's following a chord progression with a frequent use of altered notes. The basic pattern is F-Fm-C-Em-C-GM7-G, used with a lot of liberty, enlarging the chords by adding in extra notes. At 1:24 the opening movement recommences.

Paroxysmal splendor, 1:05-1:30 (midi file).

Paroxysmal splendor, 1:05-1:30 (transcription).

In September 2020 Fabrizio Mencarelli informed me that this episode is based upon "Cerisier rose et pommier blanc" (cherry pink and apple blossom white) with its music written in 1950 by Louis Guglielmi. The type of dance would be a "cha-cha-cha".
- 2:00 Guitar solo, using one of the riffs from the later "I'm a beautiful guy" song as a vamp.
- 3:34 Variation upon "Ship ahoy" (see the Läther section for an example from "Ship ahoy" as how it landed on "Läther").
- 4:26 "Ten years later". Straightforward rock music and soloing in A Dorian/Mixolydian. This section is included to show that Zappa could do anything. As he had looked for deliberate simplicity in doo-wop on "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets", you can also encounter bars in other styles, played in a basic stereotype manner. Bars 1-3 contain the A chord pulsing in a 24/16 meter, interrupted only once by a D chord at the end of a bar. These are bars of eighth ticks, split into three. The standard rock meter is 4/4, so one might also choose to notate this in 4/4 with four beats made up of two triplets each. The ensuing soloing fluctuates between Dorian and Mixolydian by using both C natural and C sharp, a recurrent practice in Zappa's music.

Paroxysmal splendor, 4:39-4:51 (midi file).

Paroxysmal splendor, 4:39-4:51 (transcription).

- 5:30 This soloing moves over into an early live performance of "Crew slut". This song would first be released in a studio version on "Joe's garage". Here it's a raw basic version without the characteristic accompanying figure from "Joe's garage".
- 6:02 The soloing in A Dorian/Mixolydian continues as an outro.
- 7:07 Zappa ending with saying "now that was just make belief, we were just pretending".
- 7:13 End.

Uptown Theatre downtown Chicago

Entrance hall of the Uptown Theater in the seventies, where the "Chicago '78" venue took place (photographer unknown). This hall was opened in 1925 as the biggest movie theatre in the U.S. It's located at Broadway, north of the city center (photo KS, ca. 1992). During the seventies it served as a concert hall with Zappa playing in it during his 1977-1980 tours (above an outtake from the CD's inner sleeve photo with FZ, Denny Walley and Peter Wolf). In 1981 it closed for regular use and got into decay. Plans exist to restore the hall.

Yo' mama (Chicago '78)

The Chicago '78 version of "Yo' mama" let's you hear how this song sounded live without the overdubs. It uses the same structure as the Sheik Yerbouti version of the piece (see "Yo' mama (London)" from the corresponding section from this study). Regarding the sung part there are no significant differences. The solo, on the other hand, is strong. Specifically the part over the sustained bass pedal sounds entirely new.

Yo' mama (Chicago '78), 2:33-2:51 (midi file).
Yo' mama (Chicago '78), 4:39-4:59 (midi file).

Yo' mama (Chicago '78), 2:33-2:51 (transcription).
Yo' mama (Chicago '78), 4:39-4:59 (transcription).

The first example from above is from the opening block of this solo, when there's no drum part. Zappa is playing without a meter. It contains a chord progression: E-Dsus2-E, followed by a quartal chord (A-D-G, two stacked fourths). This last chord gets accentuated and returns a couple of times. It's an altered chord, using a G natural, which makes it sound so sharp in the Mixolydian context of this solo. One might also interpret this as another example of mingling of Mixolydian and Dorian. The keyboard harmonies during the second E chord extend the harmonies to E11. This also goes for much of the second example, where the drummer has entered the picture. I've included the drum part on this occasion, otherwise the meter notation with 4/4 and one time 5/4 couldn't be followed. Zappa himself may be playing chords of two notes, but the E pedal and keyboard part make the overall harmony sound much wider.


Three titles from the Halloween concerts appeared on YCDTOSA Vol. IV and VI (see the YCDTOSA section #1 for "Thirteen"). For their "Halloween" audio DVD the Zappa Family Trust chose the part of the program that was basically the same as the year before plus two individual solos: the concert opener "Ancient armaments" with Zappa on guitar and "Zeets" featuring Vince Colaiuta. Instead of doing an early and a late show on Halloween night, this year he chose for an exceptionally long concert of four hours. He introduces this now legendary concert as "All right this is the big one, [...]. Since this is the big one, we're gonna do an extra long show. I hope you don't have to leave early".

Ancient armanents

The ZFT DVD represents 70 minutes taken from this gig. The concert opener was a guitar solo in A Dorian in 3/4, called "Ancient armaments". It's an example of Zappa playing a solo independently, instead of forming part of a song. The concert ended with another big solo, played separately, namely a mix of "Black napkins" and "The deathless horsie" with Shankar on violin. The other two solos on "Halloween" are played during "Easy meat" and "Stinkfoot".

Ancient armanents, opening (midi file).

Ancient armanents, opening (transcription).

"Ancient armaments" has been released before as the b-side of the 1980 "I don't wanna get drafted" single. The crowd is much enthusiastic and Zappa waits for about three minutes to let things settle down and accelerate his soloing. The accompaniment first plays solo for a couple of bars, next Zappa joins in with some sustained notes.

Stinkfoot (1974-78)

"Stinkfoot" exists in three variants. One is the original studio recording for "Apostrophe (')", the second is a live variant, today available in four versions. The live variant follows the thematic architecture of the studio version, but has a much different main vamp. Both bass lines of the vamp are in 12/8 and follow the C Mixolydian scale. As for their notes and chords, they have about nothing in common. The live version has a C and B chord alternating. For the studio variant you have various people playing freely through the C Dorian scale (that has an Eb compared to the E natural of the bass). All versions contain a solo, making each one of them worthwhile. There can be stage happenings as well. The 1988 track has an intro about Jimmy Swaggart being caught with a prostitute. During the 1978 performance Zappa recognizes an old acquaintance in the audience from the Garrick theatre concerts a decade before, a guy who then came on stage every night. The live variant of the vamp also got used for accompanying Zappa's "Poodle lecture", as you can find it on "YCDTOSA Vol. VI", as well as in the "Baby snakes" movie. A third variant of "Stinkfoot" turned up with the ZFT release "Zappa '75 Zagreb/Ljubljana" from 2022. An example from that specific 1975 performance is included in the FZ:OZ section of this study.

Stinkfoot (1978 live), opening bars (midi file).
Stinkfoot (1974 studio version), opening bars (midi file).

Stinkfoot (1978 live), opening bars (transcription).
Stinkfoot (1974 studio version), opening bars (transcription).

The Andy Aledort transcription in the Apostrophe (') songbook at this point offers a more practicable solution for a band covering the 1974 version of "Stinkfoot". The second example above is a rather literal rendition of the specific Apostrophe (') execution, that I needed to visualize the differences between the 1974 en 1978 versions. See the Apostrophe section of this study for more about "Stinkfoot", with a couple of bars from the 1974 "Stinkfoot solo."

Lobster girl

"Lobster girl" is a track from the 1978 Halloween concerts, that is included on "YCDTOSA Vol. VI". It's a duet with Patrick O'Hearn on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, with the example below being four bars taken from it. I've roughly transcribed the drum part, the actual variation in types of drums and cymbals is richer. Only Patrick O'Hearn are Vinnie Colaiuta credited as musicians, though the other band members are sometimes audible too.

Lobster girl, 1:34-1:48 (midi file).

Lobster girl, 1:34-1:48 (transcription).

Much of "Lobster girl" is improvised, but I'm having the impression that part of it is rehearsed. Though the bars from above show odd subdivisions, the parts follow each other very well, not just by ticking 16th notes. It has something of a theme, because bar 1 is getting varied upon in bar 3 and two more times during the continuation of the track. As far as you can relate this section to a key, it would be E Dorian, with many chromatic elements. Zappa co-credits himself as composer, next to Patrick O'Hearn and Vinnie Colaiuta. The track by itself offers no possibility to discern what his contribution might have been. There are words to this track too, spoken by Patrick O'Hearn.

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