Albums by Frank Zappa [1940-1993] have always been found in the rock bins in record stores, but pigeonholing Zappa as a rock artist is a bit like labeling Johann Sebastian Bach a church organist—it only tells a small part of the story. With his daredevil approaches to meter, harmony, and composition, and his ambitious orchestral pieces, the electric-guitar iconoclast arguably had more in common with classical innovator Igor Stravinsky than he did Eric Clapton. And the only thing more cutting than Zappa’s tone was his razor-like wit and keen sense of satire.
Zappa was also known for challenging the conventions of improvisation. To help wrap our brains around some of his ap-proaches to soloing and full-band improv, we enlisted the help of one of his former guitarists, the virtuosic and similarly genre-defying Mike Keneally.
“Frank often used the improvised sections of a show to go into solo guitar excursions, where nobody—not even Frank himself—knew where things would end up,” says Keneally. “In those sections, he’d often explore ideas that were based more on harmony than on melody, so it often felt like he was working out compositional strategies on the spot. Something cool that people discover when they get into Frank’s music is the unique way he used various triads over different bass notes.”
One harmonic sequence Zappa enjoyed was moving a series of open-sounding chords down the neck, with the top voice in the progression descending in half-steps while the bass notes jump around [Ex. 1, below]. If you like, you can continue this pattern all the way down the neck.
“The step-wise melodic motion in this progression allows you to play outside the chord changes, without sounding completely ‘wrong,’” says Keneally. Speaking of ‘wrong’ notes, when it came to single-note playing, Zappa might throw in a super-ambiguous whole-tone lick—all whole- steps—whenever he felt like completely exploding the harmonic content of the solo [Ex. 2, below].”