In control of garlic, moment to moment

Posted: October 19, 2014 in fz related interview, interview, zappa, zappology
garlic-lalia by Ale Sordi (muddyfatty)

garlic-lalia by Ale Sordi (muddyfatty)


Frank Zappa is no “guitar hero”, a fact that more than 30 years after the release of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar should be clear and self- evident. What kind of guitar improvisation do we face then?

The following three quotes can be of great help in understanding such phenomenon. In the first one the improviser in question speaks, and gives a hint in the shape of a garlic clove. In the following, musical hero Mike Keneally states how in-control and fearless those events were. Finally, in his Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, Brett Clement shows how to listen to FZ guitar solos: moment to moment.

Guitar Player, October 1995, cover and the page with the quote below (available through

Guitar Player, October 1995, cover and the page with the quote below (available through

Putting Some Garlic In Your Playing
by Frank Zappa
Guitar Player, December 1982

If I miss a note, I’m not going to commit suicide over it. I’m sure that there are perfect guitar players out there someplace, but I’ll guarantee you they ain’t gonna play like me. I’ll go out on a musical limb; I’ll go out and try it. Why not? What have I got to lose? I’m not famous; I’m an unknown guitar player. Nobody’s going to punch my scorecard the wrong way or give me brown stars if I screw up. Big deal, I’ll take the chances. The rest of the guys that have the big reputations have to always play exactly in their style and do it right, and make sure it comes out perfect! What I do sort of sounds like the record, but usually what you get in other performances of guitar stuff is lacking in something. Vinnie Colaiuta has an expression; he says, “It has no garlic in it.” You know, there’s plenty of garlic on the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar albums. They take chances and go out there and try things that polite society would rather people ignore.

Guitar Player, December 1982, cover and the page with the quote below (available through

Guitar Player, December 1982, cover and the page with the quote below (available through

My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama: Frank Zappa’s Lethal Axe
by James Rotondi
Guitar Player, October 1995

A common criticism of Frank’s technique is that he tended to be sloppy, at least in comparison to the hyper-precision of the G.I.T. generation. Keneally deflates the argument: “That’s an irrelevant topic. Total uniformity attack, making sure every note is fretted and picked at the same time—that sound had no interest to him. If you listen to any section of a solo where it sounds somewhat chaotic, there’s still never any sense that he was out of control. Frank was one of the most awesomely in-control guitar players that ever walked the earth. He isn’t playing learned licks, but attempting to invent something, playing within the outer realms of his knowledge of the guitar, and doing that in front of thousands of people. That fearlessness is one of the more noble and ballsy things about him as a guitar player. If that encompassed slop every once in a while, that just meant he was trying something that he hadn’t tried before. That’s honorable.”

Brett Clement
A Study of the Instrumental Music of Frank Zappa
A dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of the University of Cincinnati in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Division of Composition, Musicology, and Theory of the College-Conservatory of Music
(July 2009): 22

A. Non-repeating forms
We will begin with those works involving no melodic repetition. In this category belong, almost exclusively, the guitar solos and the titles derived from the solos. Formally, these works are essentially through- composed and non-sectional, with a “non-progressive,” changeless profile. Harmonically, this lack of forward motion is the result of stasis, as discussed previously.[44] However, the lack of melodic repetition is also an important factor in the experienced absence of progression. In the solos, priority is given to melodic invention: a constant process of renewal. Non-repetition further insures that motivic development—beyond a single phrase (or at most two consecutive phrases)—is effectively ruled out. Therefore, it is rare for any particular melodic phrase in a solo to carry more rhetorical weight than the other phrases. With few exceptions, these phrases could be reordered without changing the overall effect of the music. Without an internal hierarchy among phrases, the traditionally important formal roles reserved for “beginnings” and “endings” are no longer held. Zappa’s solos seem often to begin “in the middle,” and, even more importantly, their endings are often heard as arbitrary. In sum, they demand a listening strategy that is firmly situated in the present.


Two remarks from Bernard are indicative of the challenges posed to listeners by these works:

… [I]t also seems consistent to a fault: the piece ends up so monochromatic, in terms of texture, dynamics, tempo, and overall pacing, that paradoxically it is very difficult to follow except from moment to moment.[45]

The absence of any clues as to how to organize the listening experience is quite bewildering …. The thematic-episodic materials, while definitely non-repeating, are not all that qualitatively distinct from one another. Many of Zappa’s lines in these pieces, in the general type of contour they exhibit and in their rhythmic design, are very much alike.[46]

As has been suggested by the preceding discussion, the experience described by Bernard is a natural product of the basis of the hybrids in the guitar solos. Therefore, to experience such music effectively, the listener is encouraged to be content listening “moment to moment.”


[44] Of prior theoretical concepts, the guitar solos are consistent with Jonathan Kramer’s discussion of “vertical time,” a sub-category of non- linear time in which “nonlinearity predominates over linearity.” Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies (New York, London: Schirmer, 1988): 57.

[45] Bernard, “Listening to Zappa,” In Contemporary Music Review 18/4: American Rock and the Classical Music Tradition (2000):87.

[46] Ibid., 91.


  1. I absolutely agree with Brett Clement’s and Jonathan W. Bernard’s remarks.

    And with the use of garlic, of course…

  2. […] of the Instrumental Music of Frank Zappa” analysing the guitar solos (go to “In control of garlic, moment to moment” on this blog for a longer […]

  3. […] Conehead enters in the Zappa repertoire in late ’77 as an instrumental from 6 to 9 minutes long, a number much different than the song with lyrics as has been performed from late ’78 on. In its early stage, it works as a vehicle for a Zappa guitar solo, the main theme can be also heard during the Baby Snakes movie (namely Conehead/”All You Need To Know”, as featured in AAAFNRAA – Baby Snakes – The Compleat Soundtrack), however this version has been released in Halloween 77 for the first time in its complete form. And these five Zappa solos are great guitar time (Conehead is out in the October 30th setlist). On a steady rhythmic pulse, FZ builds his improvisation as an instant composition, a musical event where there is nor before neither after (note how these solos sort of abruptly finish). As remarked by Brett Clement: “Zappa’s solos seem often to begin “in the middle,” and, even more importantly, their endings are often heard as arbitrary” (from “A Study of the Instrumental Music of Frank Zappa”, see also “In control of garlic, moment to moment“). […]

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