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

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When the "Zappa in New York" concerts were given, disco music had become very popular on the dance floor and this wasn't just a hype, but to last up till today under different style names and new variants. Disco is characterized by steady beats or rhythmic figures, played throughout the whole song. Because of its steadiness, the beat is often played by a drum machine or computer. Some people thought that disco was a way of making dumb pop-music, but it also depends upon what you build upon the steady figures.

The black page #2

One of the funniest things Zappa ever did is playing the rhythmically erratic melody from "The black page #1" from the Zappa in New York section again, modified by adapting the rhythm, against such a steady disco figure. Here it appears in the form of "the disco vamp" played by the bass and it is commented upon in the preamble to the piece (a vamp stands for a continuingly repeated accompanying motif). There's also a relationship between "The black page #2" and the guitar solos using vamps (see the "Shut up 'n play yer guitar" and "Guitar" sections). This disco version, "The black page #2", opens with the following bars as a variation upon bar 1 from "The black page #1" from the In New York section:

The black page #2, opening bars (midi file).

The black page #2, opening bars (transcription).

When you compare these bars with the opening bars from "The black page #1" you can see and hear that the notes values have increased, as well as that the quintuplet has been replaced by a half note and four dotted quarter notes. There are also some minor melodic changes. So this is indeed an easier version to perform than "The black page #1". On this occasion there are sometimes sustained harmony notes being played in the background: a G-chord during bars 1-4, followed by a Bbsus2 chord during bars 5-6. See the Zappa in New York section from this study for a second example.
In general the influence of disco upon Zappa's music remained marginal. Some other references to disco in his music are described or mentioned below at tracks 15 and 17 from "Sheik Yerbouti".


With no access to studio facilities during 1978, Zappa kept on touring and recorded the live tracks for "Sheik Yerbouti". In 1979 he had his means re-arranged with CBS and Phonogram as distribution companies for Zappa Records and his own recording facility. "Sheik Yerbouti" was finished by adding studio overdubs to the live tracks. It was a major leap in improving the sound quality. Even by today standards the album still impresses and it gave Zappa a reputation as a producer. The inner sleeve contains a photo by Gail with Zappa's hand at the control panel with the indispensable cup of coffee and cigarettes next to him (outtake to the right). You can also recognize his handwriting on the control panel labels. "Sheik Yerbouti" has become his best-selling album, including accessible songs as the hit single "Bobby brown", as well as some technically impressive material. On the album Zappa presented himself self-confident as ever, ridiculing our occasional problems in songs like "Broken hearts are for assholes".

1. I have been in you

The "Sheik Yerbouti" version of "I have been in you" opens with a partially overdubbed chorus, with the descant singing along I-VII-VI-II in A Mixolydian. The lower bass singer (staff 2) and the bass guitar (staff 4) are giving a counter melody. When Zappa begins singing the verse in bar 8 it becomes slow reggae with at first a I-II alternation. In bars 15-16 the chords are IV and I with C natural. At various points Zappa sings slightly off beat, letting the speech lengths of the syllables prevail.

I have been in you (Sheik Yerbouti), opening (midi file).
I have been in you (H.O.), opening bars (midi file).

I have been in you (Sheik Yerbouti), opening (transcription).
I have been in you (H.O.), opening bars (transcription).

The Hammersmith Odeon version of "I have been in you" opens as a romantic love song. See below for more about the "Hammersmith Odeon" CD, here abbreviated to H.O. The band is vamping in a relaxed tempo along a I - II 7th - V 11th progression in A Mixolydian. Zappa had made the "Is that guy kidding or what" intro from two months earlier at the Palladium a returning event. "Is that guy kidding or what" is available on "YCDTOSA Vol. VI". This intro has now become longer. Zappa keeps changing the angle to the subject he's talking about, making it impossible to determine at what point he is sincere. The song has its romantic episodes but can also be utterly banal. It's all one big joke. At one point he speaks about someone like himself as "assholes like me with the big record company contracts". Then you can consider what the status of his contract with Warner Bros. had become. Literally it's about a punk star that the female fans adore so much that they put safety pins on their face just to be like one themselves, just as "Titties and beer" isn't literally about Zappa, but about a biker. "Is that guy kidding or what" is more to the point. You can look up the album cover of Peter Frampton's "I'm in you", with him with his bare chest, and ponder upon that. Songs as the Hammersmith version of "I have been in you" or "Broken hearts are for assholes" aren't cynic about love songs, but destructive. It wouldn't stop him from singing "Love of my life" again on "Tinsel town rebellion", writing "Doreen" for "You are what you is" or covering "The closer you are" on "Them or us".

2. Flakes

Within its concept "Sheik Yerbouti" demonstrates an exquisite sense of humor. It's making fun of everything even when it can get at your own expense. The latter topic rises when you lay "Is that guy kidding or what?" from "YCDTOSA VI" next to "I have been you". A lot of people won't know that it started out as a reaction upon Peter Frampton's single "I'm in you". When you take sentences as "I'm going in you again" or "ram it up your poopshoot" apart however it's merely a rude way of expressing yourself. The popularity of "Sheik Yerbouti" is due to the use of chord progressions, that are easy to grasp, and catching riffs in the majority of the tracks. The song on the album with most hit potential, "Bobby brown", could have been a bigger hit if it would have had more common lyrics. "Flakes" includes a funny Bob Dylan imitation. The latter saw no harm in it, as had Punky Meadows before him found that "Punky's whips" was amusing. The set-up of "Flakes" goes as:

0:00 - 0:14: Opening riff, played 4 times.
0:14 - 0:25: Theme 1 ("They don't do no good").
0:26 - 0:35: Theme 2 ("California got the most of them").
0:35 - 0:44: Theme 3 ("Swear to god they got the most"), played 2 times.
0:45 - 0:51: Opening riff, played 4 times.
0:52 - 1:03: Theme 1 ("they can't fix your brakes").
1:03 - 1:12: Theme 2 ("they're lying and lazy"), now with low vocal harmonies.
1:13 - 1:21: Theme 3 as above.
1:22 - 2:38: 8-bars "Bob Dylan" imitation theme, played 4 times.
Ed Mann The transcription below starts with the last time this sequence is played. Adrian Belew (later on Ed Mann) is impersonating Bob Dylan in a perfect way. Not only can everybody immediately recognize Dylan's tone of voice, the details are taken care of really good. There's the harmonica notes and there's an F natural instead of F sharp, imitating Dylan's habit of sometimes singing flatly. The bass chord progression, here in D, goes as I-II-II-I-IV-V. The others are following this progression with some liberty. Bars 7-8 are specific for the 4th repetition and form a bridge to the next instrumental part. To the right a screenshot from the Torture never stops CD, featuring percussionist Ed Mann, who would take care of the Bob Dylan part during the 1981 tour.

Flakes, 2:19 till 3:05 (midi file).

Flakes, 2:19 till 3:05 (transcription).

2:38 - 2:56: Instrumental variations upon theme 3. The one bar chord progression, here in E, goes as I-IV-V. The keyboard player is improvising over this progression, taking over the I chord and the rhythm of the progression at the beginning of most of the bars, but otherwise moving freely. In all probability it's Tommy Mars. He plays in this song on "Sheik Yerbouti" as well as on the "Torture never stops" DVD. On both occasions there were two keyboard players in the band. On the DVD the camera focuses on Bobby Martin, where you see that he's busy with a harmony chord, so Tommy Mars must be improvising the lead melody at least on this occasion.
2:56 - 3:41: Sung section ("I'm a moron") over a 2 bar motif played on percussion and bass. This riff in E goes as I-V-IV-I. The transcription stops at the onset of this section.
3:41 - 4:32: Sung section continues ("Well my toilet went crazy") over a 2 bar guitar riff.

Flakes, 5:28 till 5:55 (midi file).

Flakes, 5:28 till 5:55 (transcription).

4:33 - 6:41: Outro theme repeated till the end, preceded by a chorus intro. The four-bar progression of the chorus in bars 1-8 is in E Mixolydian and goes as I-II-II-I-VII-IV-I-VII. When you consider the whole chord of all notes sounding at the beginning of bar 4 it becomes a bigger chord, namely I 11th. Apart from the VII chord of the chorus you've got the bass E pedal note and the B of both Zappa's sung lower harmony notes and the second feedback guitar. For a moment there's also a G sharp in the first guitar part. Zappa liked adding in such extra notes enlarging the harmony. When he starts singing the lyrics in bar 9 the progression gets reduced to a two bar theme with two alternating chords: I and IV. The bass plays a steady on beat E pedal note all through.

The specific "Flakes" version from the Hammersmith Odeon collection evidently wasn't used for "Sheik Yerbouti". Not only are the details different, the structure of the song is different as well. After the Bob Dylan section everything continues instrumentally. First you've got a keyboard solo over the first vamp. The keyboard sounds as an electric violin at this instance. I can't tell if it's Peter Wolf or Tommy Mars. Next Adrian Belew plays a solo with Zappa playing the chord progression. Then Zappa himself takes over the soloing over the final chord progression.

Flakes (H.O.), 3:34 till 3:45 (midi file).

Flakes (H.O.), 3:34 till 3:45 (transcription).

Presented above is a section from the keyboard solo. The vamp goes slightly different with some more notes to it. Comparing "Hammersmith Odeon" to "Sheik Yerbouti" gives you some insight in what the overdubs added. In the case of "Flakes" it's the extra vocal parts and feedback guitars. Possibly also a doubling of the instrumental parts. Zappa used methods to improve the sound quality, of which I have no knowledge. You can hear that the use of the stereo field on "Sheik Yerbouti" is better developed than on the live multitrack tapes when you play them as they are, as is probably done on "Hammersmith Odeon".

3. Broken hearts are for assholes

This song and the next piece are accessible rock-based songs. "Broken hearts are for assholes" got first recorded for inclusion in the "Läther" 4-record set. It's one of the extras on the "Läther" CD as released by the ZFT in 1997. An example can be found in the corresponding section. "Broken hearts are for assholes" didn't significantly change over time. The "Sheik Yerbouti" version became its first public release with its basic tracks recorded live. Various other live performances became available later on, like the two that can be found on the "Halloween 81" issue by the ZFT, having some additional accompanying figures.

4. I'm so cute

"I'm so cute" ends with a heavy use of synthesizer effects. When this title re-appeared on CD, Zappa decided to shorten this section. It now lasts 3:09 as opposed to the 4:20 minutes on the vinyl album. There are re-mixes and sometimes extensions on about all CD re-issues of Zappa's albums without significantly changing the content, but here you've got something drastic. The only other example is the skipping of "Willie the pimp, part 2" on "Fillmore East". Apparently he was less fond of these sections later on and musically they might indeed be considered less relevant.

I'm so cute, 0:30 till 0:46 (midi file).

I'm so cute, 0:30 till 0:46 (transcription).

Both "Broken hearts are for assholes" and "I'm so cute" are using a guitar riff for their first theme. The latter is represented in bars 1-4 of the example above. It's standard rock in a 4/4 meter, using E minor or Dorian (the C/C# that makes the difference isn't used). Next you've got the second theme, applying a progression of parallel major triads: D-A-G-C. This is something Zappa does more often and has been spoken of in for instance the Freak out! and YCDTOSA vol. II sections from this study. The effect is that theme two isn't stable in one key. This theme ends with the figure from bars 11-12, using Bm-E-C#m as progression, still not confirming a key or tonic. After the repetition of theme two, a third theme in A Mixolydian begins at 1:01 (not included in the example from above). Next the song returns to theme one with the chords being sung as well ("a ren-nen-nen ...").

5. Jones crusher

The same basic live tracks of "Jones crusher" were used for the "Sheik Yerbouti" and "Baby snakes" CDs. The overdubs are making the difference. The "Baby snakes" version is included in the corresponding section of this study.
All tracks for "Sheik Yerbouti" have these basic tracks being recorded live with many studio overdubs added to them for the album. They mostly stem from the 1977 fall tour and the 1978 spring tour. "Baby snakes" and a couple of ZFT releases make it possible to compare these versions to the 100% live recordings. On "Chicago '78" you can for instance hear how heavily the vocals got overdubbed during "Yo' mama", as well as the keyboard bridge that precedes the guitar solo.

6. What ever happened to all the fun in the world

At the end of the seventies Zappa recorded a number of monologues and dialogues, from which he could use snippets as connection elements between songs. This is done consistently on "Shut up 'n play yer guitar". Here two of them carry their own title, track 6 being "What ever happened to all the fun in the world".

What ever happened to all the fun in the world, 0:20-0:26 (midi file).

What ever happened to all the fun in the world, 0:20-0:26 (transcription).

The example above is a fragment of six seconds from this piece. It's a collage of spoken parts and various fragments of instrumental music, with groups of different acoustic instruments playing them, alternating with a percussion section. As small as this composition is, it's orchestral in its instrumentation. It can't be transcribed with an absolute exact notation and some of the pitches from bars 4-5 are hard to discern with certainty. The fragments themselves, however, can have definitive meters because you can hear different instruments playing synchronous. The whole gets chromatic and multi-meter/rhythm. The orchestral parts from the example above must have been recorded in 1971 during the "200 Motels" recording sessions:
- bars 4-5 are related to "The pleated gazelle" as played on the "200 Motels, the suites" CD, 20:11-20:17. Sped up for "What ever happened to all the fun in the world".
- bar 2 is related to the subsequent 20:18-20:20 seconds from this piece.

7. Rat tomago

"Rat tomago" is a pedal note guitar solo in Bb Dorian. It got recorded at the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin on a four-track recorder. Zappa apologizes for the relatively lesser sound quality in the CD booklet, still being reasonably good. The reason must have been that he quite liked this solo. Since he recorded all concerts, he could easily have picked another one. The same happened on "Roxy and elsewhere", where he included two solos that are in mono.

Rat tomago opening (sample from the Guitar Book).

A transcription by Richard Emmet of "Rat tomago" is included in the Frank Zappa Guitar Book, pages 275-280. Zappa frequently changed the speed of his recordings, mostly speeding tracks up. See also the We're only in it for the money section from this study at "Lonely little girl". Here you can see that Richard transcribed the solo from the original tape. It's notated in A Dorian, while the CD has it sped up to Bb Dorian. The bass pedal is indirectly indicated by the Am11 chord. On other spots in the Guitar Book the key is mostly getting directly mentioned. Greg Russo's book contains a gigs list, so the date of the Deutschlandhalle concert can be specified as February 15th, 1978. This concert got broadcast and is also available on CD (see below at track 11), where you can hear it's an outtake from a "The torture never stops" performance. Zappa normally played this title live in A Dorian. See my The best band you never heard in your life section for an example.

8. Wait a minute (We've got to get into something real)

Track 8 is another snippet like track 6, being called "Wait a minute" on the CD backside, while in the booklet it's still carrying the original album title, "We've got to get into something real".

Wait a minute, 0:04-0:09 (transcription).

The small outtake above is made up of three layers:
- A band playing in the background. Only the drum part and guitar solo notes are discernable. At 0:03 you can hear a lower D note by another instrument. Like this it's giving insufficient information about how the meter is running.
- Spoken parts on top of this. Zappa normally didn't prescribe pitches and rhythms for spoken parts, only the bars where they where to be said. In this case probably not even that, but I've notated the words along the band's part.
- A piano line (staff 1 of the example), played in a much slower tempo. It starts at a point coinciding with a stronger drumbeat, but because of the tempo difference, it is causing an asynchrony between parts. While you might say the band is playing in D Dorian, the four piano notes aren't following that key, so the whole is chromatic.

9. Bobby Brown goes down

Zappa released several singles during his career, a few becoming marginal hits. "Bobby Brown goes down" is his only true hit, though only in some European countries. This song is available in three versions, that don't differ significantly:
- The "Sheik Yerbouti" version was recorded at the Odeon Hammersmith in 1978 with a lot of studio overdubs.
- In this study the "Does humor belong in music?" version of "Bobby Brown" is being dealt with in the corresponding section. Two examples are included. One with the transitional bars between "He's so gay" and this song, the other with the main theme. This is an entirely live recording from the The pier concert, New York, 1984. It's included in the DVD version of "Does humor belong in music?" only.
- Another 1984 live recording is included in the "YCDTOSA" series, vol. III.
Around 1979 Zappa was a well-known artist, who didn't need a hit to get people to be familiar with his name. He had a reputation for being non-conformative and the lyrics of "Bobby brown" certainly fit into this. It's about a sexual degenerate, mocking the American dream. It got in the way of the single becoming an international hit. With hindsight it better could have had mainstream lyrics, that couldn't offend anybody. Today you've got a new generation of people listening to pop music and it helps being included in playlists to get the average listener to know you. To the left an outtake from the album front cover. Like "Uncle meat" this album didn't have his name on it. His face was sufficient to identify the artist and some people might also recognize his handwriting in the album's title. He's peering at you in an intense manner. A more friendly photo from the session can be found on page 73 from the Dominique Chevalier book.

10. Rubber shirt

In the CD booklet Zappa explains how "Rubber shirt" was constructed by applying what he himself called xenochrony. The bass track and the drum track were recorded separately. They were put on top of each other by using a re-synchronization technique, creating the illusion of being played together. He also states that this was done during "Friendly little finger" and "Yo 'mama". It is known that he applied this technique intensively on "Joe's garage". In this case there's an example from "On the bus" in this study, where you can actually see on paper how xenochrony worked. Another one is "Outside now (original solo)" being superimposed upon the "Keep it greasy" vamp, also included in this study.

Rubber shirt, 0:12-0:27 (midi file).

Rubber shirt, 0:12-0:27 (transcription).

In these other instances the result was to be a band playing in a standard meter. In fact, this was done that effectively, that you can't tell xenochrony got applied by just listening to the end result. The "On the bus" and "Keep it greasy" examples are the only ones where it can be proven by comparing it to the original track. In case of "Rubber shirt" the result didn't have to have a steady meter. The original bass part by Patrick O'Hearn is in 4/4, while the drum part by Terry Bozzio is in 11/4. The manipulation of the tracks makes the rhythm of "Rubber shirt" pretty free, rather meterless as I'm hearing it. In the example above I'm using meters, that, to a degree, are my notational choice. Other notations are very well possible. The fact that xenochrony got applied is indirectly present: the bass and drums are equal fairly often. The bass part has a strong accent upon Eb as tonic, the key being Eb Mixolydian. A Gb can also be heard at several instances, so it can also be interpreted as another mingling of Mixolydian and Dorian.
As a musical achievement "Rubber shirt" is unique. There's no way you can have two people improvising like this with irregular meters and rhythms, as well as changing tempos, and still getting equal that often. In a real duet the one needs to know the basics of what the other is doing, you need some form of steadiness.

Zappa's own comment from the original "Sheik Yerbouti" album.

11. The Sheik Yerbouti tango

During his life, Zappa wrote two tangos, amply dealt with in the Roxy and elsewhere section of this study. "The be-bop tango" is a modern type of tango with irregular rhythmic figures and harmonically being somewhere between multi-scale and atonal. "The Sheik Yerbouti tango" is a more traditional tango. It's an improvised guitar solo over a tango-rhythm figure, mingling diatonic melodies with the use of the whole-tone scale. Like "Rat tomago", it got recorded at the 1978 Deutschlandhalle concert on a four-track device, without any overdubs.

The Sheik Yerbouti tango, bars 69-76.

The "Sheik Yerbouti tango" has been transcribed by Richard Emmet, published in the FZ Guitar book, pages 270-4, with a sample presented above. It shows how many shapes of irregular rhythmic figures you need for getting Zappa's soloing on paper. In these bars you can see the use of 4:5, 25:16, 23:16 and 10:3 figures next to normal triplets, as well as triplets within tuplets. The example included in the Roxy and elsewhere section features an extensive use of 7-tuplets.

Part of a ticket stub from the 2-15-1978 concert at the Deutschlandhalle as shown in the Berlin 1978 double CD, distributed by Leftfield Media. The "Sheik Yerbouti tango" was played as part of a "Little house I used to live in" performance, following upon the keyboard solos. Its opening got edited out.

12. Baby snakes

"Baby snakes" is a compact song. Though only lasting 1:50 minutes, it contains four themes. Only during the coda the first theme returns, the other themes don't return at all:
0:00 Theme 1 in E ("Baby snakes ...").
0:41 Theme 2 on step VI of E ("They live in a hole ...").
1:01 Theme 3 on step IV of E ("Maybe I think ...").

Baby snakes, end (midi file).

Baby snakes, end (transcription).

1:20 Theme 4, a little instrumental interlude. Here the music modulates to a I-VII-VI-VII progression in C Lydian. This progression gets played five times, with the example from above beginning with the last two repetitions. What used to be one beat, now gets subdivided into six, which is why I notated this section in 24/16.
1:40 The opening of theme 1 returns to form a coda. Bars 5-8 are the same as at the beginning. Bars 9-10 are a variation. The tempo is slowing down and the song ends with a deceptive cadence, namely with a D7 chord instead of going back to E.

13. Tryin' to grow a chin (1979)

Both these songs are available in earlier versions as well via ZFT releases. "Tryin' to grow a chin (1977)" is also included in "Läther", see the corresponding section for the interlude from this song. The outlines of the song remained the same for "Sheik Yerbouti", being sketched in the Ludwig study, page 226 (see the references).

Reproduced above are the characteristic bass riff of theme 1 and the melody of the chorus, that ends the song. The chords to be heard over the bass riff are D and A alternating in bars 1-2, next C and G alternating during bars 3-4. The keys thus switching between D and C major. The chorus ("I wanna be dead ...") is using E-B-F# as chord progression. At first hearing it appears to be in E Lydian, as also Ludwig has notated it, but it's actually a parallel playing of three major keys. This you can hear the best by the bass part from 2:16 onwards. The bass goes from the E to the B chord by playing E-F#-G#-A-B, thus following E major over the E chord. See also above at "I'm so cute" for another example.

14. City of tiny lites

"City of tiny lites", on the other hand, goes pretty different from the 1976 version that you can hear on "Philly '76". Both versions are being dealt with in the Philly '76 section of this study. Zappa himself released two more live versions on "YCDTOSA vol. V" and "Make a jazz noise here", briefly described in the Philly '76 section. The ZFT released two other editions. The ones on "Halloween 77" and "Hammersmith Odeon" have a solo over another bass vamp doing F-G (sustained), followed by C-B as chords on the second CD. Thus also being a G minor type of thing, G Dorian like the Santana vamp solos. See the You are what you is section for two examples taken from the 1980 concert at the Mudd Club. The basic tracks for "Sheik Yerbouti" stem from these Hammersmith Odeon concerts, so understandably these two recordings sound alike, but the solo got skipped for the album. While all other songs on "Sheik Yerbouti" are direct regarding their lyrics, this one is more poetical. As I understand it, it depicts how people, under the influence of drugs or otherwise, may start to believe how big they are compared to the tiny world around them.

15 Dancin' fool

The encounter with disco in "The black page #2" continued with other references on "Sheik Yerbouti". The main theme from "Dancin' fool" has a 4/4 metre with the bass playing C-sharp on beat. Also the drummer is playing the bass drum on beat, so it has the typical four-on-the-floor groove of disco. It's interrupted by a 6/4 bar, sudivided as three times 2/4. Here the beat goes on as a light accent on the B of the bass and low B of the melody and a heavy accent on the high B of the melody. It's reflected in the lyrics as follows (light beats indicated with italics, heavy beats with capitals): "I hear that BEAT, I jump out of my SEAT, but I can't com-PETE". So it really sounds as disco for the main theme.

Dancin' fool, chorus, album version (midi file).
Dancin' fool, chorus, score version (midi file).

Dancin' fool, chorus (transcription/score).

This example has been included in this study since 2001. In 2023 I also came across the second page of the score that got published in the Disco Power collection (see the printscreens below). It has more to the harmonies and the rhythm of the 3*2/4 bar is notated differently, so I looked into this again. The sung part is indeed less equal with the beats as I notated it first. The word "beat" is sung a 16th note before beat on the album too when you're concentrating on it. "Seat" and "-pete" sound closer to being equal with the beats to me. Because of the tempo and the fact that syllables always need a fraction of time to catch their tune, the difference evaporates when just listening to it. The relistening has led to two corrections:
- The transcribed section is in C# Mixolydian instead of C# Dorian, with Zappa singing the main theme over a C# pedal. The harmonies include an E#. The second vocal part in the upper staffs and the vibes from staff 6 sing/play a variation upon it along with Zappa. In the score this part is notated in D (major), a minor second higher, but with the C being natural it becomes modal, D Mixolydian.
- In the 6/4 bar the bass changes to a B pedal and you've got just the B/Bsus4 chord in two positions for the accompaniment (thus not an E chord). The E turns to natural because of what you might call parallel playing or maybe a brief switch to B Mixolydian.

Dancin' fool

The verse from "Dancin' fool" as included in the Disco Power collection, a songbook published by The big 3 music cooperation. Zappa's song managed to get between Donna Summer's "Last dance" and the disco version of Beethoven's 5th. Seen the footer it's authorized and the score must have been handed over by Zappa himself.

Again you can see that the score and the album go differently. Next are the opening bars from the verse:

Dancin' fool, verse, score version (midi file).
Dancin' fool, verse, album version (midi file).

Dancin' fool, verse, album version (transcription).

- The album version has been transposed down a minor second from Bb Mixolydian to A Mixolydian.
- While the score prescribes a moderate tempo, the tempo on album is fast, as fast as possible when still being able to pronounce the words. The above example with bars 1-10 from the album lasts 21 seconds. The score has no metronome tempo, so I can't get at an absolute time for that version.
- While the score alternates the Ab and Bb chords during the instrumental opening bars (for 4 bars), on the album it's just a sustained A chord (for 6 bars).
- The rhythm of the lyrics goes slightly different.
Otherwise these two versions are basically the same. Both have a bass pedal note during these bars and (apart from the transposition), they are using the same chords. The combinations of the bass pedal note and descant triads create larger chords for the whole. In the score this gets indicated as for instance Ab/Bb, here meaning Ab add Bb. These chords involve various altered notes. Only nominally the verse might be called Mixolydian.

16 Jewish princess

As Zappa might have expected, and probably aimed at, the provocative lyrics of "Sheik Yerbouti" got just as much attention as the music. In case of "Jewish princess" some people found it discriminating. Zappa defended himself by saying these women exist, in this case standing for Jewish women who are playing hard to get.

Jewish princess, end (midi file).

Jewish princess, end (transcription).

The example from above is the end of this song as to be heard between 2:31 and 3:04. During bars 16-17 the fading out has started, lasting till 3:19 with the final bars repeating, but too softly to transcribe it till the end. The song has its accent on Zappa singing the melody with most of the time only bass and drums in the foreground. Most of the harmonization is played in the background in a rather irregular manner. There are two synthesizers playing in for instance bars 2-4, staves 4-5, one of them very high. The vibrating notes are only notated by approximation. Duck quacks can be heard during bars 6-7, staff 5. The song is in D. From bar 10 onwards the coda starts, that does contain a more regular chord progression: D-C-F, parallel (incomplete) major triads. Such parallel progressions happen more often in Zappa's music, making the coda not attributable to one particular scale. Particularly awkward sounds the combination of this progression with the chromatic melody from staff 4, as if someone is trying to play against it rather than along with it.

17. Wild love (1979)

Another reference to disco is the accompaniment at the beginning of the instrumental section of "Wild love", given beneath. It reflects the love for repeated rhythmic figures in disco. First the rhythm guitar plays such a figure during bars 1-8. As the melody begins the bass guitar joins in with another figure during bars 5-11. Notable is the free use of eighth and sixteenth notes in all the parts, rather than following a strict 4/4 division (the same happens in Echidna's Arf from the Meters section). It's an example of speech-influenced rhythms, as already noted in the In New York section. The first four bars of the transcription are in B. When the main theme returns instrumentally in this song, the bass lick sets the key to A Lydian. Bars 5-8 and bars 9-11 are variations upon each other.

Wild love, opening of the instrumental section (midi file).

Wild love, opening of the instrumental section (transcription).

Something you'll accidentally notice during transcribing, unless you're heaving a perfect absolute hearing, is that it is a sped up track: the frequencies are out of tune with keyboard frequencies. Other examples of pieces with steady rhythmic figures are the title track from "You are what you is", "He's so gay" from "Thing-Fish" and, embedded in an orchestral environment, the disco section (so called in the album liner notes) from "Pedro's dowry" on The London Symphony Orchestra recordings. Disco-like are also the "How could I be such a fool" (1976 version) and "Dance contest" examples from this study, with bars with the typical four-on-the-floor drumbeats.

Wild love, themes (transcription).

The global structure of this piece can be followed in the study by Wolfgang Ludwig, who transcribed all lead melodies:
- 0:00 Instrumental intro. The lead melody begins with F#-G#-G#-A#. Next the bass joins in with a counter movement, B-A#-E-F#. At this point the tonic isn't outspoken. It could be called F# Mixolydian or B. Interrupting bars as bar 9 are happening all through this composition.
- 0:16 Theme 1 over an F# bass pedal. The key becomes F# Dorian.
- 0:31 Theme 2. The bass plays along with the sung melody. The meter has changed from 4/4 to 6/8, while the key becomes B Mixolydian.
- 0:45 Theme 3 in Bb. A pretty drastic key change.
- 0:53 Everything repeats twice from the beginning, sometimes re-arranged. The instrumental opening now begins over an E pedal, the key thus being E Lydian.
- 2:48 Interlude with irregular rhythmic groupings.
- 3:19 Disco section as described above. The themes return instrumentally. As you can see Wolfgang is indicating eighth different tempos during this piece.
- 4:08 End.

Other unedited live versions of "Wild love" indicate that this song didn't end here on stage. Instead the disco vamp returned for introducing solos. See the Läther section from this study for a description of a 1977 performance of "Wild love" and an outtake from the soloing as how it could be included. On October 28th 1977, show 1, Zappa himself played "Bowling on Charen" during a "Wild love" performance.

18. Yo' mama - Mo' mama

The "Frank Zappa Guitar book" from 1982 contains one solo that hasn't been released on album, called "Mo' mama" (the opening is presented below). It's named this way because it follows the same basic architecture as the grand "Yo' mama" solo from "Sheik Yerbouti". The structure of "Yo' mama" in total goes as:
- 0:00 Instrumental opening in A minor with first just the I chord being held. Next the vibes play along I 11th and the keyboards make a V-VI-V progression.
- 0:21 Theme I, continuing in A minor ("Maybe you should...").
- 0:49 Theme II in E Mixolydian ("You ain't really...").
- 1:02 Theme III in C Lydian ("Cause if you...").
- 1:09 Theme I.
- 1:22 Theme I with vocal overdubs, starting with the transcription below. The vocals are now made up of four to five parts. One or two parts for the lead melody plus three parts with the same notes repeating (A, D and B).
- 1:36 The band jumps overnight into an instrumental interlude in E Mixolydian, thus following the key change from theme I to theme II. A second relationship with the sung part is established retrospectively in bar 9, the point where Zappa is briefly in C Lydian with theme III being played instrumentally in staff 3.
The interlude starts with mingling chords from E Mixolydian. The bass and the upper descant staff do the E chord, over which the others play D-F#m-E-Asus2 etc. It sounds overwhelming, partly because we know what becomes of it: a monumental solo in E Mixolydian.

Yo' mama, 1:22-2:52 (midi file).

Yo' mama, 1:22-2:52 (transcription).

- 1:57 Solo in E Mixolydian with just the E for the bass as a sustained note, buzzing in the background. The keyboards do a harmony fill in, sometimes vague and hard to distinguish, at other points better recognizable.
- 4:02 The drummer joins in. The bass becomes a normal improvised bass, still E pedal.
- 5:25 The bass plays a little slow melody: B-C#-D-A-B-C#-D-E.
- 5:42 E pedal again, improvised.
- 6:03 Sustained E again.
- 6:41 Section moving towards the chord alternation part. The bass begins with a downwards melodic line: B-A-F#-C#-D. The second transcription below begins at 6:47 over a B pedal note with the band settling for a plain 4/4 meter.

Yo' mama, 6:47-7:09 (midi file).

Yo' mama, 6:47-7:09 (transcription).

- 6:54 The solo evolves into a V 7th and I 5th/7th (B and E) chord alternation of E Mixolydian.
- 10:05 Pre-arranged ending of the solo.
- 10:23 The guitar plays theme III, neatly moving back to the sung part.
- 10:30 Theme I.
- 10:57 Theme II.
- 11:10 Theme III.
- 11:16 Theme I sung without lyrics.
- 11:40 Closing progression in D Mixolydian. The bass plays E-F#-D a couple of times with the keyboards playing the progression D-Em-C over it. Combined and seen from the tonic it thus ends with I 11th.
- 12:04 After Zappa has given the band members their credits, they seem to resolve the I 11th chord by letting the bass move from D to C. Yet a second keyboard plays a D chord over it, so it still remains mixed.
- 12:35 End

Opening from Mo' mama (midi file).

Opening from Mo' mama (notes).

The "Mo' mama" is an example of a solo that sets off with a lick followed by immediate improvisation, whereas solos as "The deathless horsie" or "Watermelon in eastern hay" have a larger preset theme. Not everything that's in the transcription is properly reproduced in the midi file; the two quarter-tones are for instance approached by a minor second chord for lack of better (my midi editor can't represent quartertones).
The "Mo' mama" example is the opening of the solo including all of the pedal note part (a lot shorter here than in "Yo' mama") and the beginning of the chord alternation. The second "Yo' mama" example from above, that I've tried to transcribe myself, also includes this transition. It commences with a sequence moving towards the chord alternation part.
In the file beneath I've indicated a bit of the ongoing process of improvisation in "Mo' mama". You can go on indefinitely indicating characteristics this way (see also the YCDTOSA II section with bars from the "Pygmy twylyte" solo).

Opening from Mo' mama (notes with encirclements).

- A: Opening lick.
- B: Variation upon the opening lick (rhythmically and melodically).
- C: Addition of a quarter-tone, guitar effects and altered notes to make it extra spicy.
- D and E: New motifs are introduced that get varied upon.

The "Chicago '78" release by the ZFT contains a live version of "Yo' mama (Chicago)", recorded a few months after the "Sheik Yerbouti" version, this time without the overdubs. It follows the same set-up as above. The guitar solo in it makes this version specifically worthwhile. I've included two examples in the following Halloween section of this study.


In February and March 1978 Zappa played a couple of shows at The Hammersmith Odeon in London. This stage became his main source for live recordings from 1978 through 1980. Most of the live tracks from "Sheik Yerbouti" stem from The Hammersmith Odeon. Other than the N.Y. Palladium this hall still exists, today as the Hammersmith Apollo (photo to the right downloaded, photographer unknown). With the 2010 3-CD "Hammersmith Odeon" release by the ZFT we get a chance to hear a lot of these songs without the studio overdubs (abbreviated to H.O. below). Above examples from "I have been in you" and "Flakes" already came by.

Dong work for Yuda (1978)

"Dong work for Yuda" is blues in D (major/Mixolydian). The transcription below is from the end, containing various speech influenced bars. In bars 3-4, 7-8 and 11-12 the melody becomes chromatic, though the lyrics still follow the 4/4 meter. In bar 15 it's the other way round: the rhythm and the 23/16 meter are entirely dictated by the rhythm of the spoken words. The melody remains in D at this point.

Dong work for Yuda (H.O.), end (midi file).

Dong work for Yuda (H.O.), end (transcription).

The blues scheme at this point:
- Bars 1-2: step I from the blues scheme, following D major.
- Bars 3-4: step I chromatically.
- Bars 5-6: step IV from the blues scheme, switching to D Mixolydian.
- Bars 7-8: step IV chromatically.
- Bars 9-10: return to step I from the blues scheme, continuing in D Mixolydian.
- Bars 11-12: step I chromatically.
- Bar 13: step V following D major.
- Bar 14: step IV.
- Bars 15-23: outro, eventually landing on I.
Compared to the "Joe's garage" version of this song, this rendition has more drive to it. It goes faster, has specific bass licks and a keyboard playing the chords via eighth notes. John Smothers, who was Zappa's bodyguard for years, delivered the lyrics. There's little about him to be found in the Zappa biographies. He did make an appearance in the "Baby snakes" movie. He gave Zappa the textual material for the homo sex in prisons part of "Joe's garage". "Keep it greasy" and "Outside now" by themselves have nothing to do with it (apart from the word "plooking" in "Outside now"), but were now placed in this context.

Watermelon in Easter hay (prequel)

The peaceful opening of "I have been in you" gets a sequel in "Watermelon in Easter hay (prequel)", where Zappa shows himself as a romantic all through. The word prequel sounds quite correct, because it's a shorter version of this solo. Here the vamp is played about three times as fast as on its first release by Zappa himself on "Joe's garage" (see "Watermelon in Easter hay", two sections ahead). The metronome tempos of a quarter note in the transcriptions are approximately:
- Odeon Hammersmith: 85.
- Joe's garage: 60.
Since I've notated the Hammersmith Odeon version via eighth notes and the one on Joe's garage via quarter notes the comparison becomes 170:60 if I had chosen quarter notes for both.

Watermelon in Easter hay (prequel), section (midi file).

Watermelon in Easter hay (prequel), section (transcription).

The other version released by the ZFT on "FZ plays the music by FZ" is roughly dated as January or February 1978, thus from the same two months as the Hammersmith Odeon concerts. That one is a slow version, so it looks as if Zappa tried out two tempos during the same period. The phrasing of the main theme in all four versions of the solo, that today are available, is different. Dweezil states that "it's amazing how the slightest change in phrasing effects your emotional response. When Frank played the "Joe's garage" version suddenly there was no other way for that melody to be played". Indeed the "Joe's garage" version has the main theme played in its most compelling form. As it comes to the soloing, that follows upon it, the Hammersmith Odeon version can be called a little jewel, that can compete with the "Joe's garage" version. Instead of seeking rhythmic variety as he usually does, Zappa here basically follows the rhythm of the vamp, letting the emotions of the harmonies prevail. More on "Watermelon in Easter hay" follows in the Joe's garage section.

King Kong (1978)

After Zappa had given "King Kong" its definitive form at the end of the "Uncle Meat" album, the main theme hardly changed no more. The live version on "Hammersmith Odeon" starts identical to "Uncle Meat", except for that the bass plays along the I and IV chords of the Eb Dorian scale and that the keyboard makes a chord progression. First a standard chord progression of 5th chords, next some enlarged chords.

King Kong (H.O.), section (midi file).

King Kong (H.O.), section (transcription).

In the "Uncle Meat" booklet Zappa prescribes Eb pedal for the bass and just the Absus4 chord, the chord that appears in bars 15-16 and bars 21-22 in the transcription. The descant in bars 15-22 is played via parallel thirds. The soloing that follows upon the theme is played over two alternating bass notes, Eb and D, each being played for eight bars in a fast 6/8 meter. The change of scales, that in this case comes along with it, is exceptional in Zappa's output. If he did change keys, then they would be closely related. Here however you have the unrelated Eb Dorian and D Lydian scale. The guitar solos on disc III are strong ones. The two from above are followed by another successful "Black napkins" version.

In 2017 the frontman of the metal band Ghost, hitherto only appearing on stage masked, revealed himself as Tobias Forge. In an interview with Pablo Cabenda, he mentioned the five albums that inspired him most, confirming the status "Sheik Yerbouti" has in Zappa's oeuvre. This album became number two in his list, behind Metallica's "Master of puppets", commenting: "The Frank Zappa entrance model. If you like this one, you can dig deeper into his huge repertoire. On this one he combined a heavy dose of humor with catchy songs. Sometimes weird, sometimes very eclectic, but always very musical. I'm a fan of his well-crafted popsongs, like "Bobby Brown", with a head and a tail. Those famous lengthy guitar solos of his are a different matter. They can be so excessive and introverted that it looks like he's masturbating over a song."
Zappa is normally seen as a popstar and getting judged upon as such. The amount of guitar solos and their length are by pop standards indeed excessive. By jazz standards it's not abnormal. The quantity of for instance piano solos by Keith Jarrett or guitar solos by Pat Metheney is bigger. In this study I'm spreading out examples evenly over Zappa's output, leading to 110 excerpts from guitar solos. That has become excessive for a study, when you come to think of it. (Physically Zappa's appearance as a guitar player on the "Guitar" CD photos express a desire for nicotine rather than introverted sex. But when you're looking at Pat Metheney's face when soloing, what's the matter with that guy?).
When you like something, I'm an adherent of Liberace's line "too much of a good thing is wonderful". Of all composers I appreciate Bach, Beethoven and Zappa the most. Not only because of the high level they reach, also because there's so much to pick from. Too much to really know all of it. I have to admit that the exact opposite can also work. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa has become so famous not only because it's a masterpiece but also because he painted only one portrait in that manner.

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