While Frank Zappa composed and recorded a great deal of music over the course a more than thirty-year career (during which he also directed several films), he is perhaps best known for his skills on the electric guitar. He stands alongside Jimi Hendrix as one of the most influential guitarists of all time, able to master standard and classical techniques while also exploring new rhythms and melodies. His eclecticism as a composer and as a guitarist is made even more profound by the fact that he was almost completely self-taught, able to grasp the instrument in a manner that allowed him to adhere to conventions while also experimenting with his own style.
Zappa was also a notable bandleader, and he had a tendency to conduct his band during concerts at which he also performed. He would achieve this by conducting the band until he was satisfied that they had their pacing and rhythm down, at which point he would leave his spot as conductor and approach his guitar stand to perform his own solo.
As both a composer and a performer, Zappa and his band (the Mothers of Invention) were collectively responsible for a number of hits. Zappa was known for his ability to compose original songs such as “Dancin’ Fool,” as well as creative arrangements of classics such as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” in which Zappa rearranged the original guitar part by Jimmy Page to be played entirely by the horn section.
Led Zeppelin was far from Frank Zappa’s only influence. As a composer, not only was he drawn to contemporary artists of his time, but also to composers of classical music during the twentieth century. He grew up listening to the music of Igor Stravinsky, as well as other classical composers. During high school, he attempted to compose music that would take into account the techniques he had learned from Stravinsky, as well as Anton Webern and Edgard Varèse. In addition, he began playing the drums for R&B groups, having been influenced by several 1950s blues musicians. He was not prejudicial in the least; if he enjoyed a style of music, he attempted to imitate it in one form or another.
Not only did his songs account for his wide variety of tastes, but also for his somewhat rebellious political and social viewpoints. He was a fan of iconoclasm, rebelling against most organizations and establishments. He did not approve of organized religion, and he felt that the state of education was in great need of reform. He also believed strongly in freedom of expression, something that he was able to achieve through his music on a fairly consistent basis.
Frank Zappa’s influence, whether social or musical, can be felt today. Many guitar players strive to achieve the same level of talent that he was able to embody, and numerous musicians look up to his gifts for innovation in the world of musical composition. Zappa passed away in 1993, but his spirit of diversity and eclecticism live on in the music industry to this day.
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